Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Mighty Cheese Plate: My Go-To Holiday Starter

The Neurotic Kitchen becomes all the more frenetic when the season calls for entertaining. Throwing cocktail parties is something I have come to love, and because I come from a long line of cooks great entertainers,  the pressure is all the more acute. My hostess muse has always been my late grandmother, Violet, or Dolly as she was more often called. She just knew how to to cook food that was delicious, well loved, and set a beautifully decorated table as the focal point for what always was a great meal. The problem was, she was too busy cooking "a la minute" to ever enjoy the party herself, and when she did finally sit down, she'd barely eat because she was more interested in keeping the conversation going. While I often borrow from her recipes and principals of decor, I've tried to modernize my entertaining style so I don't miss out on the food or the conversation. 

For this more modern approach, Ina Garten, or The Barefoot Contessa, is my favorite resource. She's a master proponent of making entertaining easy and enjoyable for both host and guest, and because of this, she offers enumerable recipes for cocktail parties, starters, and hors d'oeuvres that can be quickly yet elegantly prepared and served a room temperature - no fuss, no muss. Whenever I am faced with throwing together a party or bringing an elegant plate to someone else's affair (something I often find much more stressful), I start with the tried and true cheese (and sometimes meat) plate.  I've shared some of Ina's composition principals below.

But first, here are some of my own:

  • I like my cheese to be themed, French, American/Rustic, Spanish (One of my recent Spanish Plates below)
  • Add elements that incorporate height and color - including a voluptuous bunch of grapes or a brightly colored pear or apple are great ways to do this. Don't forget something leafy or herbal. I like the look of Italian Parsley. I have a pet peeve about blank spaces on the plate. I prefer it to be completely filled unless of course you are going for a minimalist look.
  • If you choose to slice, try to make each individual cheese should look uniform. Slicing cheese while still cold is a good way to achieve this look. Cubes are great as well. Soft cheeses like brie are best left whole, but I will usually start of the round by slicing off a few pieces.  
  • Cheese can be pricey. I always choose at least one very "special" cheese, and if I am on a budget, mix it with more affordable yet still delicious options. As Ina will tell you, having a nice assortment of firm, and softer cheeses is optimal.

Spanish Cheese and Meat Plate: Ibores, Roncal, Queso de Murcia (Drunken Goat), Serrano Ham, Grapes, Apple, Italian Parsley Garnish, Crusty Bread. Photo: Neurotic Kitchen
And here are some of Ina's (Courtesy of Food Network):

"Assembling a stunning fruit and cheese platter requires no cooking. I follow a few key principles to be sure it looks festive and is easy for guests to help themselves. First, I choose an interesting assortment of cheeses—hard sharp cheeses, soft creamy ones, and pungent blue cheeses. I look for an interesting mix of flavors, textures, and colors." - Ina Garten


  • For example: French Camembert, Le Chevrot (a sharp goat cheese), Rondin with herbs (a creamy goat cheese), and Montagnolo (a creamy blue cheese).


Go to the best cheese shop in town and ask the person at the counter which cheeses are ready to serve. Taste everything; they expect you to. We all know that the Brie may look terrific, but it can be underripe and tough or overripe and ammoniated. You want only the freshest cheeses that are perfectly ripened. Take them home, refrigerate them, and then bring them to room temperature a few hours before serving.
Second, be sure to have a platter or wooden board that is flat and large enough to hold the cheeses without crowding them. Arrange the cheeses with the cut sides facing out, and with several small cheese knives, maybe one for each type of cheese.
Third, to finish the platter, add sliced breads or crackers, and green leaves. I use either lemon or galax leaves, which you can get from your florist. If you have a garden, any large flat leaf like hydrangea looks beautiful, but be sure they aren't poisonous and are pesticide-free!
Overall, the simpler the design, the better the platter looks. Group each kind of cheese together and add one large bunch of green or red grapes in the center to create a visual focal point. Fill in the spaces with lots of crackers or small slices of bread.

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