I love good cheese. Trying new varieties from the "$3 or Less" sample bins at the co-op is a treat. When there's a really nice selection cheeses at a dinner party, I am deeply impressed. But if you asked me to put together a cheese plate on my own, I wouldn't know where to start. So this reporter tapped into specialized knowledge of the Bloomingfoods cheese cognoscenti to learn more.
Mike Clarke, cheese buyer at the Near West Side, recommends taking the flavors of your entree into account when selecting cheese. Since holiday meals tend to be robustly flavored, pick cheeses that won't get lost in the fray. "Choose cheeses that will stand up to the rich and varied flavors of the dishes and beverages you will be serving," he said.
If you're having a cheese course, well-chosen accompaniments add a nice touch. "I recommend fresh fruit, particularly ones that are in season and aren't too exotic. "People like different varieties of apple," Clarke explained. "What I like are dried fruits; figs, dates, dried cranberries, dried peaches, apricots, things like that. They're a bit sweeter and the flavor is more concentrated," so they can stand up to robust cheeses.
A classic holiday cheese ball is always appreciated. The Near West Side will be selling the popular Maytag Blue cheese ball, as well as a sharp cheddar and pecan variety and a walnut goat cheese log. Bloomingfoods member and personal chef David Gower has enjoyed a friend's simple recipe in the past; cheddar cheese blended with cream cheese, rolled in walnuts. "It's not cheesy or anything... I mean, it's not tacky," he said.
Gower also has fond memories of baked brie. "You take puff pastry and get a small wheel of brie and put it inside. You get some jam or onion relish and wrap the top part of the puff pastry over it, make a pretty design, and bake it. It's really, really good," he said.
Bloomingfoods member Amy Roche seconds the baked brie suggestion. She likes a nice baked brie with slivered almond and dried cranberries. "Look for a well-ripened brie that's starting to get soft, but doesn't smell of ammonia yet," she said. Ask a cheese buyer when in doubt.
A lovely Belletoile Triple Cream Brie is available at Bloomingfoods Downtown. Store Manager Amber Connor also recommends the Montchevre Mini Cabrie, which is a small goat's milk brie. All the Kerry Gold cheeses, including Dubliner, Swiss, and aged cheddar, are suitable for cheese plates, and Wisconsin transplants will find their beloved cheese curds available at the downtown store as well.
Speaking of regional cheese traditions, Clarke is a fan of raclette cheese, the main ingredient in a Swiss tradition not unlike fondue. "Instead of making a sauce, you melt this cheese and pour it over a variety of small dishes," including charcuterie, boiled potatoes, and breads, Clarke said. While Swiss peasants drank warm beverages like tea with their raclette to keep warm, modern hosts generally serve chilled white wine. "Don't be frightened off by raclette's scent, Roche cautions."It's one of those cheeses that has a strong odor that can be off-putting, but it's important to taste it. Then the odor makes sense," she said.
Traditionally, raclette wheels were melted by a fire, and the soft parts scraped off for eating. Today, one can order a special raclette grill for melting the cheese, but if you don't have one, you can scrape off the rind and bake slices in the oven 'til it's nearly melted. "I sold half a wheel to a couple from Switzerland who had moved to a small town in Indiana," Clarke recalled. The couple was thrilled to introduce their friends to their delicious tradition.
Doesn't that sound nice? Wouldn't you like to spread melted cheese on everything in sight? Well, what are you waiting for? Do it yourself! Get fancy! I believe in you...