David has asked me to come up with some dishes and menus especially appropriate for entertaining. I’ve got several full-menu columns planned for the fall: a brunch, a casual dinner, and a Thanksgiving dinner (with both turkey and non-turkey options).
As far as ideas for entertaining in general, I highly recommend Entertaining for a Veggie Planet by Didi Emmons. It includes tips on entertaining applicable to any meal or event, not just vegetarian ones. She is a very funny writer, a fantastic cook, and a deeply committed activist. I had the pleasure of doing a little bit of work on the book with Didi, and I can attest that it is fun as well as useful.
For now, let’s talk about the kind of gathering that isn’t a full-on dinner party but where you want to offer your guests something delicious to eat — like, say, a board-game party! In such instances, I like to serve fruit and cheese platters. (These platters are good at meetings, too, as there’s nothing spilly or sticky and it doesn’t require lots of elaborate plates and utensils. I belong to a writers group and at our monthly meetings we serve just enough snacks to be hospitable and welcoming without it becoming the center of attention or detracting from the work at hand. For convenience and taste, fruit and cheese platters are a great choice.)
Cheese platter basics
Steve Jenkins, author of Cheese Primer, feels that each guest should be served his or her own plate, with several pieces of cheese on each. (He calls offering a cheese platter with several large pieces of cheese guests have to cut themselves “the height of informality. Everyone hacks away at the cheese with whatever implements have been provided.”) But I find that as long as you don’t make people reach too far or ask to have the platter passed too often (easily rectified by having two or three platters on the table), people prefer to take what they want and avoid cheeses they don’t like.
Each guest should have their own small appetizer-sized plate and a napkin, and if you are also offering fruit, it’s fun to offer fruit knives. (If you think you will be serving fruit platters often or want to give someone a really nice and unusual gift, look for fruit knives in antique shops or on Ebay. Many of them are beautiful and very affordable. Even knives with mother-of-pearl handles aren’t necessarily expensive. I’ve seen sets for under $15. Fruit knives are completely unnecessary, but they make life a little bit sweeter and more festive and take up very little storage space.)
Of course you’ll want to offer your guests wine, hard cider, regular cider, beer, or water to go with the cheeses. That is a topic for another day, one I hope to address soon. I’ll just say here that hard ciders are fantastic and if you haven’t tried them before, it’s well worth making an effort to seek them out. I like West County Cider’s Organic McIntosh Cider and Woodchuck‘s Granny Smith and Pear hard ciders (I have yet to try their new raspberry cider).
One of the nicest things about fall is that you can often find locally grown apples at your closest farmers market. Some farmers markets offer locally made cheeses as well, some from cow milk, some from goat. At my local farmers market I was able to buy goat cheese as well as cow milk cheddar and gouda this week.
When I put together a fruit and cheese plate I try to include more than one type of apple — one sweet and one tart, for example — and if there are pears and grapes to be had I add them too. (Apples, pears, and imported grapes are among the “dirty dozen” worth buying organically if possible.) I like to add figs, dried or fresh, if they are available, and if you’re feeling really flush, guava or quince paste make a nice accompaniment for a cheese like Manchego or Mahon.
Don’t cut the apples or pears too soon before serving, as they will discolor from oxidation. Just cut a few into pieces at the last possible minute and provide some additional whole fruit to be cut as needed by your guests.
Before saying anything about a specific cheese, let me remind you that the single most important thing you can do to increase your cheese-eating pleasure is to serve cheese at room temperature. If you eat it cold out of the fridge, you will be missing out on a lot of flavor and the texture will not be what it should be.
The second most important cheese-serving tip is to buy your cheese from a purveyor who knows about cheese and lets it ripen properly before selling it. Not every city or town is lucky enough to have such a purveyor, but you can buy cheese online from Formaggio Kitchen. (Disclaimer: I worked there many, many years ago, so I’m somewhat favorably prejudiced toward it, but I am not alone in my opinion. It is widely regarded as one the great cheese shops in America — it had the first cheese-ripening cave in North America!) Also, there’s Murray’s Cheese. Both are superb cheese stores.
Lastly, store your cheese in waxed paper or foil. Try not to use tightly wrapped plastic wrap.
I usually serve four or five different cheeses on a platter — some cheeses people will be familiar with and probably like, as well as a few new ones. I try to include a goat cheese for those who can’t eat cow milk cheeses. (I have several friends who are lactose-intolerant but who can eat goat cheese without a problem.) Plus, goat cheese is fantastic! There are many types of goat cheeses, hard and soft, but where I live you can only get logs of soft goat cheese at the farmers market. Goat Brie and Gouda are available at natural food stores.
Camel milk cheeses — one called, seriously, "camelbert" — will be available someday in the not too distant future. Whether my lactose-intolerant friends will be able to eat it remains to be seen.
To be continued next week …