Chef Mike saves the party (again) with these easy, cheesy tips
It’s 6:13 a.m. on Dec. 23 and a combination of terror, regret and anxiety just jolted you out of your much-needed holiday slumber. Like the fever of an approaching flu, the realization washes over you that you agreed to bring food to a holiday party that starts in just a few hours—and your refrigerator is a wasteland of leftovers and half-empty boxes of Franzia.
Take a couple of deep, cleansing breaths and just relax. You’re not going to have to show up with a supermarket deli platter or bag of chips scattered around a jar of Newman’s salsa like some mouth-breathing barbarian. It’s almost 2016 and you’re an adult with an adult palate.
You can solve this little lapse of planning and walk in the door with your head held high, thanks to the sublime caseinic poetry of cheese. I’m not suggesting you run to the deli section and throw down your hard-earned dollars for a plastic platter of rubbery, cheese-flavored oil cubes.
I’m talking about a real, #foodporn worthy cheese platter that won’t cause you to hyperventilate in front of the Whole Foods cheese section or make an emergency phone call to your high school French teacher to create.
How much to buy
Unless you’re feeding a pack of Moreau’s ravenous rat-human hybrids, one ounce per person should be enough. If you spent your entire college career in the humanities building and suck at math, that means a quarter-pound of cheese for every four people.
A good cheese plate will have a selection that varies by texture, age, milk type and manufacturer, but too much variety is overkill. I like to offer five cheeses at the most, or for a small group, a minimum of three.
Start with a good cheddar. If you’ve got a few dollars to spend, grab a well-made clothbound cheddar, but if you’re working on a tight budget, it’s hard to go wrong with any of the Cabot sharp cheddars. They’ll warm the cockles of everyone’s heart, which is important. Everyone needs warm cockles.
Next, pick up something creamy. People expect to see brie on a cheese platter but you’re a rebel and you have the Doc Martens 1460s to prove it. Give a middle finger to the conformists with a smooth, buttery Camembert or pick up some Fromage d’Affinois. It’s a cow’s milk cheese similar to brie, but with a fancier-sounding French name. (Don’t worry, we won’t tell Vyvyan.)
Now you need a high-quality goat. I’m not talking about one of those billy goats clinging to the side of Missionary Ridge, I mean a well-made goat cheese. If you see Humboldt Fog in the cheese case, get it. The center is fresh and light with a thin thread of edible ash and the outer layer is more mature and a bit runny, so you get the best of both delicious, delicious worlds. If Humboldt Fog isn’t available, look for Drunken Goat. It’s an aged goat cheese with a smooth yet dense texture, fruity flavor and a cool “party in the pasture” name.
A great option for the “smelly” cheese lovers that won’t make everyone in the room wonder who forgot to change their socks is a thick, creamy buttermilk blue cheese or Rogue’s Smokey Blue. Don’t make the mistake of getting that crumbly salad topping in a plastic tub. You’re better than that.
Finally, showcase your cheese cred by including a washed rind cheese. The smell of this cheese may make some party guests think you’ve lost your mind, but its bark is much, much worse than its bite. The slightly meaty and strong fruity flavors of Italian Taleggio is a great introduction to washed rind cheese that should convert any doubters over to the wondrous world of the stank.
Arrange your cheeses in a clockwise direction from mildest to strongest on an inexpensive wooden cutting board. Cold temperature is the enemy of flavor, so let the platter sit at room temperature for two to three hours to allow the cheeses to come to room temperature, and cover with a damp tea towel to keep them from drying out.
Add some thin rice crackers to the platter (I don’t care what Ben Matlock says, not everything tastes better sittin’ on a Ritz) and one small knife per cheese. Label them if you want, or you can stand around and play the expert when the esurient crowds gather ‘round your fermented curd and inquire as to what cheesy comestibles you have brought round the manusquire.
Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and Season’s Cheeses to you all.
Longtime food writer and professional chef Mike McJunkin is a native Chattanoogan who has trained chefs, owned and operated restaurants. Join him on Facebook at facebook.com/SushiAndBiscuits