Cheese plates are one of my favorite things. I know you’re shocked about that, especially after the confession in my most recent Waste Not! post, but it’s true. I love to search out seasonal and regional cheeses and enjoy them as a snack or simple lunch. But beyond that, I also love to put together more elaborate cheese plates for both holidays and quiet nights at home in front of the fire! In fact, one of my children’s favorite things to do during winter is to enjoy a cheese plate (which they call a snackie supper) in the living room while watching a family movie—it’s the ONLY time that we don’t eat at the table, so it’s a really special treat for them. And it’s totally hygga and an escape from the winter blahs!
I think for many people, there’s a real apprehension about serving a cheese plate, especially for a holiday party, because they believe there are so many elaborate “rules” about how to prepare one. I’m assuming that’s because cheese plates are rooted firmly in French culinary tradition and man alive, do French culinary folks love their rules! That fork here, this wine there, this course, that sauce, pinky up, elbows down, don’t slurp. Frankly, it’s exhausting and I have no desire for their rules. But here’s the thing: all cultures going back hundreds and hundreds of years or more have their own version of the French cheese plate. If you deconstruct the idea, a cheese plate is nothing more than an offering of small amounts of seasonal, regional foods. A few ounces of cheese is combined with fresh fruits, a regional condiment and perhaps a bit of bread or meat and turned into something nutritious and filling. It’s a great way to turn humble homemade, homegrown or foraged foods into something amazing and I think that’s the direction we need to take when we’re putting together a cheese plate. Forget the French rules, mon petit ami, and concentrate on the nutrition, flavors and experience!
So I’ll not give you any rules. I’ll not tell you how to pair cheese, fruit and wine together because who needs that stress?! But I’ll tell you there are only 3 steps to putting together a primo cheese plate that would be suitable for any humble supper OR holiday party and they are: 1) choosing the cheeses, 2)picking out complimentary foods and 3)presentation. This is what works for me, but you change it up however will work for you!
Choosing The Cheeses
When assembling a cheese plate, I try to pick out 3-4 good quality cheeses and for my home, I only have 1 hard, fast rule: No Velveeta or American singles. Those barely qualify as food; in fact, the package indicates it’s not even a cheese, but a pasteurized cheese food product. (What the heck IS that anyway?!) I typically go for a fresh cheese (such as a marinated mozzarella), an aged cheese (sharp white Irish/English cheddar), a cheese in the Swiss family (Gruyere or Emmental) and a hard or blue cheese depending on what’s available. There’s no magic combination when you’re picking out cheese; just go for a range of flavors and textures that you think everyone will enjoy. If possible, shop local cheese shops (Young’s Jersey Dairy, y’all!) but when that’s not possible, just look for the best quality you can afford. My general rule of thumb is to plan for 4-6 ounces of cheese per person, give or take. But that’s not a rule. More of a guideline.
After I’ve chosen the cheeses, I try to add at least one each of the following foods: a sweet, a sour/spicy and a salty/savory. That sounds complicated, but it’s really not. The goal is to provide a variety of flavors as well as nutrition and what you use is entirely up to you. For me, it’s an opportunity to raid my pantry and showcase homemade goodies, but I’ll also use whatever happens to be available in the fridge at the time. Don’t get hung up on this: serve what you enjoy. That’s the bottom line. For my family, our normal cheese plate includes:
For the sweets: apple slices, dried fruit, honey or even good quality fruit preserves or chutney
For the sour/spicy: pickles, pickled peppers, marinated olives, mustard, jalapeno jelly
For the salty/savory: brined olives, toasted nuts, dipping oil, roasted red peppers, cured meats, caramelized onions
Whenever possible, I try to offer seasonal items too. In summertime, we love a handful of ripe cherry tomatoes and fresh raspberries; in fall, ripe pears and apples; in winter, cranberries, black walnuts and orange marmalade; in spring, strawberries and fresh herbs.
If the cheese plate is a side to a simple meal like a salad or quiche, I’ll stop here. If however the cheese plate IS the meal, I generally bulk it up with some thinly sliced ham, cocktail shrimp or smoked turkey and a crusty loaf of bread or crackers. That will provide enough fat and protein to satisfy any appetite!
Again, don’t get hung up on the rules. We don’t need no stinking rules! I encourage you to make it look beautiful and easy to pick from, but beyond that, it’s your call. I generally use a large wooden cutting board lined with parchment paper or a heavy platter for serving and I go for an orderly-disorderly look. Wedges, crumbles or rounds of cheese are placed between piles of sliced meats, small bowls of preserves, chutneys and pickles with a scattering of nuts and dried fruits here and there. Really. That’s it. The only caveat I would offer would be to keep plenty of space between the cheeses so your mozzarella doesn’t end up tasting like your blue cheese. Ick!
Listen to my heart, friends…I know that many of you, like my family, live on modest budgets. At the end of the week, when the bills are paid, the kids are fed and our obligations are met, there’s not a lot of time or money left over for hosting holiday parties. BUT I also know, based on the response to my Practicing Hospitality post, that many of us want to be people who welcome others into our homes. So let me challenge you to step outside of your comfort zone. Use these 3 simple steps to create a holiday cheese plate and then open your doors to your friends and neighbors. Simple fare, a silly game and a bit of holiday music will make for a night of fun and fellowship! My best—-A
Posted to the SimpleLifeMom Homestead Blog Hop