My Cheese Plate and a Short Dissertation on the Subject

Cheeses in France

This month’s Barefoot Bloggers bonus recipe was more of a fun free-for-all.  Suggested by Rebecca of Ezra Pound Cake, participating bloggers each put together a cheese plate for mass digital/visual consumption.  I kept mine very simple, and only included 3 time-tested and well-proven crowd pleasers on the plate — St. Agur (a blue cow’s milk cheese from France), Boucheron (a wonderful goat cheese from France), and Pecorino (a sheep’s milk cheese from Italy that comes in many delectable variations – my favorite is Pecorino Nero):

cheese plate

I thought I would include in this post not only some of my favorite cheeses, but also some standard rules for cheese plate construction that I have picked up from books, restauranteurs, and the occasional honest-to-goodness French person!  And they know what they are talking about.  All of them.  Actually, I spent a year working in a cheese store before I began full-time at an art gallery.  And this is what I learned:

1. It is fun to have a theme to your cheese plate, especially if it is served as an hors d’oeuvres course.  The theme can be as general as “Cheese from France” or as acute as “Manchego” (featuring the cheese at different stages of aging).  Obviously the theme you choose should take into account the type of people you have invited – the uninitiated guest may not appreciate the subtle differences in flavor between Loire valley goat cheese and Corsican goat cheese, but the aficionado may enjoy the challenge – and the type of gathering you are hosting – if you are serving a huge multi-course meal, don’t go too crazy or elaborate with the pre-dinner cheese, but having friends for cocktails can be the perfect time to feature the cheeses you love.

cheese-on-bread with fig jam2. When serving cheese as a course during dinner, it is best to limit yourself to one to three cheeses, as more can overwhelm the palate.  In this setting, it is particularly nice to offer a variety – different milks (cow, sheep, and goat), different textures (soft, semi-hard, hard), maybe one blue cheese – and possibly a selection of accompaniments (baguette and walnut bread or crackers; a fig jam or chutney; some honey and walnuts; or a side plate with olives, cured meats, and fresh fruit).  

3. Always serve cheeses at room temperature for optimal flavor.  I usually take my cheese out of the refrigerator 45 minutes to an hour before serving, and leave it in its wrapper until guests arrive.

4. When tasting multiple types of cheese, start with the most mild-flavored (usually the younger cheeses), and move up the scale to the stinkiest or sharpest (blues, washed rind cheeses, etc.) so that you don’t lose your discerning palate before you even begin!  For this reason, it is always a good idea to know a little bit about the cheeses you’re serving before the party – ask your cheesemonger for a taste, or at least his/her opinion.

5. As a very general rule, when pairing wines with cheese, it is always a good bet to pick a wine from the same region as the cheese – Epoisses with a red Burgundy, Chaource with a Champagne, a chevre with a Sancerre.  Some fun exceptions are the blue cheeses which almost always LOVE a sweeter wine, such as ruby Port or a Sauternes.

So, those are some basic guidelines.  The most important one, however, is: 

6. KEEP EXPERIMENTING!  There are so many wonderful cheeses out in the world, and U.S. farms are now producing some absolutely fantastic examples.  Here are a couple of my favorite cheeses:

cheese-zoomSt. Agur: pictured on my cheese plate, this is a cow’s milk double-cream blue from the Auvergne region of France.  It is less salty and less piquant than other blues, and has a fabulously creamy texture.  I sometimes drizzle a little honey over a spread of this for a great contrast of flavors.  If it weren’t so gosh darned expensive (about $23/lb.), I’d brush my teeth with it. 🙂

RobiolaRochetta:  These mixed-milk cheeses are über-creamy (read: runny) and rich, with a flavor that gathers in strength as it ages.  I could eat these both (but especially the rochetta) in their entirety with just a baguette and a glass of Bordeaux to wash it down.   In fact, please note my last supper request!

Beaufort: This was one of the first cheeses that I truly appreciated.  I was introduced to it in Paris by a French woman who insisted that her daily cheese consumption was the reason for her physical fitness.  Quite a philosophy!  Beaufort tastes similar to gruyere, but has a fruity overtone and a more complex, layered flavor delivered in a subtle progression.

Abbaye de Belloc: This is the most gentle of the cheeses listed here – semi-firm in texture with a creamy, mouth-coating finish and an understated flavor profile.  It is pleasing to nearly every palate and, personally, transports me back to the side of a mountain in the Pyrenees.  That is one of the wonderful things about food – not only does it taste good, it has the ability to conjure up lovely memories.

Humboldt Fog:  When I worked at the cheese shop, this was one of my weaknesses.  From the outside, it looks like a brie – it has a bloomy rind and tends to soften (liquefy, really) from the outside in.  Through the middle of the cheese is a line of vegetable ash, similar to what you would see in a Morbier.  The goat cheese from this west coast producer is almost fluffy in texture, and embodies all that is wonderful in the taste of a good chevre, with a distinctive American look and feel.

Taleggio:  I had to wrap up with the stinkiest of my list.  This northern Italian cheese has a washed rind, meaning that during the affinage period it is ‘washed’ with a rinse of sea water (some cheeses are washed with wine or brandy too) – this promotes molds that prefer the moist surface, and aids the maturing process.  While I have a taste for VERY stinky cheeses too (like Epoisses which is washed with a strong local brandy), taleggio is nice in that the rind has a strong, complex aroma while the interior is more mild and oozy – not nearly as threatening as it seems.

Well, that list of favorite cheeses was longer than I thought!  Thanks for reading, and please leave your comments as to your favorite cheeses – I’m always looking for new ones to try!  If you can’t get enough cheese, check out the other Barefoot Bloggers’ boards.

Lemon-Ginger Marmalade – I made it myself!

Lemon Ginger Marmalade

 Clearly I like to cook.  Spending time in the kitchen is one of my favorite things to do, and also serves as a distraction from my other source of constant pleasure – eating!  When I’m cooking, I’m being industrious and I’m concentrating on technique rather than my usual pasttime of contemplating the food that I want to eat but probably shouldn’t.  I’m not as disfunctional as I sound.  I don’t think….

Despite my love for food preparation, and its end result, there are some types of cooking that don’t really occur to me.  I don’t ever have the urge to bake bread, or to make homemade candy.  I don’t love making fancy, complicated composed salads, and I have only once made my own pie dough.  I guess that there are some things that I feel more than okay about purchasing.  Jam has always been in that category. 

I should tell you that I really, truly adore jam.  It started when I moved to France in the fall of 2000.  I hated the milk (which was ultrapasteurized unrefrigerated Parmalat — nasty!) and did not discover “Lait Frais” until years later.  As you can imagine, however, the bread was out of this world.  I quickly adopted the French version of the “petit dejeuner” and ate a bit of bread with jam for breakfast each morning, occasionally treating myself to a croissant with the same fruit topping.  Though the bread choices were myriad, the “confiture” selection was even more impressive.  Stores like La Grande Epicerie and Fauchon offered hundreds of different brands and flavors – from the standards of American breakfast tables to the preserves of non-translatable fruits like arbusses.  All of these were topped, however, when I went to the 2004 Salon d’Agriculture, a French phenomenon I will not soon forget.  In 144,000 square meters of exhibition space, over seven gigantic warehouses, exhibitors from all over France and the world gather to demonstrate and sell their agricultural products – everything from wine to cheese to sausage to rice to tractors to livestock to prize dog breeds.  I could have spent weeks wandering through all the stalls, and still not have seen the whole thing.  I sampled apples from Limousin, cheeses from Haute Savoie, ham from Bayonne, and even saw a fountain of Confiture du Lait from Normandy (basically the most awesome caramel you can imagine).  I was in heaven!  The jams at this expo were extraordinary – lush and vibrant, bursting with flavor, and not overly sweetened or hardened by preservatives and pectin.  These were freshly-picked berries and fruits, conserved at their peak ripeness for year-round enjoyment.  I was sold!

You can probably guess where this post is headed.  Though there are certain food products that I leave to the experts, having this blog has definitely encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone.  In the coming year, I intend to challenge myself and bake a loaf of bread, experiment with salads, and maybe even try my hand at candy-making!  To kick it all off, this past weekend I made my first marmalade. 

What makes a truly delicious jam or preserve is the fruit itself – it must be in season, ripe, and full of natural sweetness.  It being winter right now, choices are limited!  However, citrus is at its peak right now, and a recipe in Fine Cooking magazine looked more than enticing. 

Though the preparation involved about an hour of devoted time for a half recipe, it was cathartic kitchen time, and as soon as the ginger and lemon started cooking, the house smelled wonderful!  If you have the time, let me tell you that this is not a difficult recipe to follow, and the results are unquestionably worth the effort.  I cannot wait to attempt some new combinations – grapefruit and orange, perhaps, or lime and cilantro.  Happy canning!

 Lemon-Ginger Marmalade, from Fine Cooking Issue 97 
This golden-hued marmalade is right at home on toast, but it’s also divine stirred into plain yogurt or dolloped on coconut ice cream. Find pectin where canning supplies are sold—try supermarkets or hardware stores.

Makes 6-8 cups

lemons-carnage1-1/2 to 2 lb. lemons (6 to 8 medium)
1/2 c. finely chopped fresh ginger
One 1-3/4 -oz. package powdered pectin
6-1/2 c. granulated sugar

Peel the zest from the lemons with a vegetable peeler, avoiding as much of the white pith as possible. Slice the zest strips crosswise very thinly at an angle to make strips about 1/16 inch wide by 1 inch long—you’ll need 1 cup of zest strips. Put the zest in a 4-quart (or larger) saucepan.

Trim the ends from the zested lemons to expose the flesh. With one cut side down on the cutting board, trim the pith off the lemon all the way around and discard the pith. Quarter the lemons lengthwise and remove any visible membranes and seeds. Slice the wedges crosswise 1/4 inch thick—you’ll need about 1-1/2 cups.

Add the sliced lemons, ginger, and 2 cups water to the lemon zest. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, adjust the heat to maintain a simmer, and cook until the zest is soft and the membranes start to break down, 6 to 8 minutes.

lemons and pectinWhisk the pectin into the mixture. Increase  the heat to high, add the sugar, and bring to a boil, whisking constantly to smooth lumps. Boil vigorously for 1 minute, whisking constantly (move the pan off the burner momentarily if it threatens to boil over). Remove the pan from the heat and let sit undisturbed for 5 minutes.

Skim any foam and seeds off the surface of the marmalade. Stir gently to redistribute the solids. Transfer the marmalade to heatproof storage containers, let cool to room temperature, and then refrigerate for up to 1 month. For longer storage at room temperature, can the marmalade. See the canning directions below.
lemons cannedTo can the marmalade:
Transfer the hot marmalade to clean, hot canning jars, leaving 1/2 inch of headspace in each jar, and wipe the edges clean with a paper towel. Screw the lids on tightly.

Put the jars in a large pot of water fitted with a rack insert. The water should completely cover the jars by at least 2 inches. Return the jars to the pot of water and make sure the water covers them by at least 2 inches. Boil, covered, for 10 minutes. Use tongs to remove the jars; let them cool undisturbed on the counter. You should hear a popping sound as the jars cool, indicating that the vacuum seals have worked.

lemon ginger marmalade on muffin

Prosciutto-Wrapped Pork Tenderloin

Prosciutto-Wrapped Pork Tenderloin

So, I was watching the “The Next Food Network Star” marathon a couple of weekends ago, and… stop.  Yes, I watch all sorts of stupid reality TV shows, even ones as insipid as this.  I wish I could use my obsession with food and cooking as an excuse, but I really can’t.  The ‘chefs’ on this show are terrible!  They overcook eggs, and over-salt their food.  They burn the pine nuts and undercook their pork.  I am no professional chef, but I swear I could do better than these goons.

Which brings me to this dinner.  On one episode, a 19 year-old crybaby just out of culinary school made his ‘signature’ roast pork tenderloin, which was a super-simple preparation that looked pretty good.  Pork + more pork = goodness.  However, the challenge required the ‘chefs’ to put together a beauty shot for the camera, which would showcase their presentation skills.  The pork he put up was dark red — raw as all get-out.  Now, I am no proponent of cooking your pork until it is white and feels like sawdust in your mouth, but you just can’t serve it raw — sorry to tell you, boy.

However, the idea stuck with me.  Pork + pork.  Yessss…. it could work….  (insert rubbing of the hands and shifty eyeball look).  So I went to the store, grabbed some pork and more pork, and cooked it up.  Mine was really, really good.  Therefore, I dub myself “The Next Food Network Star.”  I already have a show title: “From My Table to Yours” and an angle – I make the same dishes as other chefs, just better.  Enh… maybe I’d rather spend my time on the couch and criticizing from a distance, without the hot lights, time limits, and high-definition cameras zooming in on my pores.

Prosciutto-Wrapped Pork Tenderloin
(serves 4)

One pork tenderloin
1/4 lb. thinly sliced prosciutto
olive oil
1/2 c. white wine or vermouth
1/2 c. chicken stock
2 tsp. chopped fresh sage (or to taste)
2 tsp. butter

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Farenheit.  Dry the surface of the pork tenderloin with paper towels. If your butcher has not already done so, take your slices of prosciutto and lay them on a long piece of plastic wrap or wax paper, overlapping the slices along the long edge. Space the slices of prosciutto so that when they are all laid out, they form a rectangle that is the same length as the pork tenderloin.  Place the pork tenderloin at one end, perpendicular to the direction of the prosciutto slices, like so:

ProsciuttoUse the plastic wrap to press the slices of prosciutto into the tenderloin, and to tightly wrap the pork up fully, like so:

pork-wrappedIf you have the time, refrigerate the pork like this, in the plastic wrap, with the ends of proscuitto underneath the weight of the pork, for 30 minutes or more.

Heat the oil in a large oven-proof skillet or saute pan over medium-high heat.  Place the pork in the hot pan, preferably placing the side where the ends of the prosciutto slices meet down first.  Let cook on this side approximately 5-7 minutes or until a nutty brown color.  Turn to cook the other side for another 5-7 minutes. 

Pork in the pan

With the first cooked side facing down again, place the whole pan with the pork in the oven again.  Roast until the internal temperature of the pork is 140 degrees, approximately 25 minutes.  Let the pork rest on a cutting board, under foil, for 10 minutes before slicing.  This will allow the pork to finish cooking, and the juices to redistribute. 

Meanwhile, take the pan with the pork drippings to the stove and place over medium heat.  Add the wine and stir with a whisk or wooden spoon to scrape up any browned bits.  Let the wine reduce to a syrupy consistency, then add the chicken stock.  Stir and reduce for approximately 3 minutes.  Add the chopped sage and the butter, stirring until melted.  Salt and pepper to taste. Slice the pork and serve with the pan sauce.


Easy Sticky Buns

Easy Sticky Buns

I am a bad Barefoot Blogger – bad!  I neglected my duties for the past two installments, partly because it was the holidays and partly because the selected recipes didn’t totally appeal to me.  However, when Melissa chose these “Easy Sticky Buns”, I was motivated and reenergized!  For one thing, my mom recently purchased the Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics cookbook and I have been itching to steal it for a week now.  The recipes are very straightforward and simple, but with Ina’s classic flavor profiles and subtle elegance.  Second, I am always looking for new, fun additions to my Sunday Breakfast repertoire.  

These came out wonderfully – gooey and rich in the center, and crunchy and caramelized on the outside.  I left out the raisins, because RJ doesn’t like them, but I think you could really mix and match with the filling – some dried currants, chopped walnuts, or maple sugar could all add to this recipe.  I wonder, too, if a (somewhat) savory version might be possible – with cooked bacon and sage in the center, and some maple sugar and mustard on the top…

Easy Sticky Buns, from Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics
(Makes 12)

Creamed butter and sugar12 Tbs. (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/3 c. light brown sugar, lightly packed [I used dark brown sugar, hence the almost black syrup on the top of my buns!]
1/2 c. pecans, chopped in very large pieces (optional)
1 package (17.3 ounces/2 sheets) frozen puff pastry, defrosted
2 Tbs. unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2/3 c. light brown sugar, lightly packed
3 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 c. raisins (optional)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place a 12-cup standard muffin tin on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper.

Butter and Pecans

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the 12 tablespoons butter and 1/3 cup brown sugar. Place 1 rounded tablespoon of the mixture in each of the 12 muffin cups. Distribute the pecans evenly among the 12 muffin cups on top of the butter and sugar mixture.

Lightly flour a wooden board or stone surface. Unfold one sheet of puff pastry with the folds going left to right. Brush the whole sheet with half of the melted butter. Leaving a 1-inch border on the puff pastry, sprinkle each sheet with 1/3 cup of the brown sugar, 1 1/2 teaspoons of the cinnamon, and 1/2 cup of the raisins. Starting with the end nearest you, roll the pastry up snugly like a jelly roll around the filling, finishing the roll with the seam side down.

Cut bunsTrim the ends of the roll about 1/2 inch and discard. Slice the roll in 6 equal pieces, each about 1 1/2 inches wide. Place each piece, spiral side up, in 6 of the muffin cups. Repeat with the second sheet of puff pastry to make 12 sticky buns.

Bake for 30 minutes, until the sticky buns are golden to dark brown on top and firm to the touch. Allow to cool for 5 minutes only, invert the buns onto the parchment paper (ease the filling and pecans out onto the buns with a spoon), and cool completely.

Easy Sticky Buns