Cheese is a magical, mystical thing. It can improve lackluster dishes, revive a downtrodden party, cure broken hearts, hide culinary disasters, mend fences, produce instantaneous smiles, and ward off evil spirits like osteoporosis via its double secret dairyful antibodies. The mere mention of cheese--solid or sliced, cubed, melted, or grated--makes our knees go weak and our moods heighten. If cheese were a bird, it'd be a peacock: beautiful and multifaceted with a surprising grace. If cheese were a person, we'd marry it.
These days, people put cheese on just about anything--sandwiches and burgers, chips and veggies, hot dogs, popcorn, and desserts--but we like it best au natural, when you can truly pinpoint the creamy array of textures and flavors. This is the drug in its purest form. Some people, though, consider cheese plates a "cop-out" appetizer. After all, those who can't, teach--and those who can't cook, stick hunks of cheese on a plate for grazing. But creating a fabulously intriguing cheese plate is actually a skill, and one you can master with just a bit of guidance. Here are a few simple steps to get started:
First thing's first: Do not be intimidated at a specialty cheese store. There are, quite literally, eleventy jabillion cheeses out there. No one can know them all, though we're giving it a whirl. Seek the help of an expert staffer, who can get close.
- Choose 3-5 types of cheese to offer. This insures an interesting selection that will neither overwhelm nor overstuff your guests.
- Include a variety of flavors and textures. For example, include a soft goat cheese, a hard sheep's milk cheese, a semi-soft washed-rind cheese, and a creamy blue.
- Don't slice your cheeses. They will quickly lose moisture, flavor, and aroma.
- Serve your cheeses at room temperature--always. Remove them from the refrigerator three to four hours before serving.
- Set out a separate knife for each cheese, especially the soft varieties. Soft cheese spreads well with a butter knife; firm cheese might require a paring knife; and aged cheese often requires a cheese slicer.
- Label each cheese so you won't need to recite the names all evening.
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Finding the right accompaniments is easy, too--once you know a few basics. Honey, for example, pairs well with blues; cow's milk cheeses taste lovely with pears; and figs bring out the nuttiness in sheep's milk cheeses.
Central Market offers one of the most comprehensive cheese selections in town, plus several expert staffers who can help you out with spot-on recommendations. One recent visit to Central Market found us poring through the rare offerings--like the $40/pound Razza Bianca, an Italian cheese. Only two wheels of this lover are produced daily, with very little allocated to the United States. Also on hand are the delicious Epoisses (a stinky cow's-milk cheese from Burgundy), Brillat-Savarin (a soft cow's-milk cheese that local Frenchies flock to), and the Blue Basajo (a raw-sheep's-milk Italian blue that's aged in wine and then packed with raisins). In case there's any doubt, all are tres exceptional.
Don't have a favorite cheese? We understand. With so many to sample and choose from, it's nearly impossible to choose. It's okay: We've got enough favorites to share:
- Vacherin Fribourgeois - A soft and creamy Swiss cow's milk fondue cheese
- La Tur - A harmonious mix of cow's, goat's, and sheep's milk with a whipped, fluffy texture.
- Pantaleo - A Sardinian goat's milk cheese that goes well with quince paste
- Beemster XO - A firm cow's milk cheese with grainy crystals and a rich taste
- Red Hawk - A triple-cream, washed-rind organic cow's milk cheese from California
- Rogue River Blue - A mildly stinky blue from the Pacific Northwest.