STIR IT UP! by Marialisa Calta
When the presents are unwrapped, the visitors are gone, and the energy that infuses the winter holidays is waning, the peace and quiet you thought you were craving can be a bit of a letdown. At the same time, the thought of cooking one more meal could send you around the bend.
It’s a conundrum: You still want to see your friends, but at the same time you don’t want to cook for them. So don’t cook; assemble your meal. As in: Put together a cheese plate.
Cheese plates, long a tradition in Europe, are appearing in restaurants around the country, usually on the dessert menu. But there is no reason that a well-thought-out cheese plate couldn’t substitute for a casual dinner. They are appealing, delicious and slightly sophisticated. And easy — no cooking required.
Thumbing through a stunning new cookbook, “Wintersweet” by Tammy Donroe Inman, my eye was caught by gorgeous photos of delicious-looking desserts: a pillowy Chocolate Pomegranate Pavlova, a bright white Coconut Cake With Citrus Curd, a luxurious Eggnog Creme Brulee. But after a sugary holiday season, I found myself returning to the photo of a simple cheese plate.
The idea behind a well-conceived cheese plate, says Inman, is to pick three or four favorite cheeses of different types and textures. For example, select a soft goat cheese, along with a hard Parmigiano-Reggiano or smoked cheddar, plus a soft-ripened cheese like Brie, and an assertive cheese like blue cheese or Gorgonzola. Alternatively, you could limit the platter to, say, only goat’s-milk cheeses or only blue cheeses. (You could also ask your guests to bring their favorites.)
Serve the cheeses with slices of baguette or crackers, fruit (sliced apples, pears, persimmons or citrus) and toasted nuts. To turn this simple plate into a more substantial dinner, add some cured meats such as prosciutto, speck or coppa. Cornichons or other pickles, grape tomatoes or jarred dilly beans can count as vegetables. And a bar of really high-quality chocolate, shared among friends, is all you need for dessert. Think about pairing the cheeses with wine, beer and/or hard cider. You can find simple pairing tips at Wine Enthusiast Magazine (www.winemag.com) or BeerAdvocate.com.
You might find yourself getting hungry just thinking about it; you, who just recently swore you’d “never eat again!”
For those of you who like to go the extra mile, here are some recipes from “Wintersweet” that make excellent accompaniments. The Balsamic Fig Paste goes especially well with hard aged cheeses; the Cranberry Compote with soft goat cheese. You can also spoon the compote on fresh ricotta for a simple dessert.
Note: Remember to remove the cheeses from the fridge an hour before serving so that they are at the peak of flavor.
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BALSAMIC FIG PASTE
Yield: 1 1/2 cups
7 ounces dried figs (preferably Mission figs), stemmed and chopped small
1 1/2 cups water
3 tablespoons honey
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
Add the figs, water, honey and salt to a small saucepan and bring the liquid to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. Reduce the heat to keep the mixture at a simmer, and cook, uncovered, until the fruit is tender and most of the liquid has evaporated, about 20 minutes.
Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the balsamic vinegar and lemon juice. While still warm, puree the mixture in a food processor for 1 minute or so, or until it become a thick smooth paste. Store tightly covered in the refrigerator for up to three weeks.
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PORT AND CRANBERRY COMPOTE
Yield: About 3 cups
12 ounces fresh cranberries
1 1/4 cups firmly packed light brown sugar
1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1/4 cup ruby port wine
Preheat the oven to 250 degrees.
Add the cranberries to a 13-by-9-inch baking pan. Sprinkle the sugar over the berries and pour the orange juice and port on top. Stir the berries gently, then cover the pan with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove pan from the oven and gently stir the berries. Replace the foil and cook for another 15 minutes, or until most of the berries have split their skins. Remove the pan from the oven and let cool. Store the cranberries in their juices, covered and refrigerated. They will keep at least two weeks.
(Recipes from “Wintersweet: Seasonal Desserts to Warm the Home” by Tammy Donroe Inman; Running Press, 2013.)\