Cheese is among the most versatile of foods, which makes it great for entertaining, whether casual or formal. It works served quite simply, with French bread and a glass of wine or beer, or it can be made far more elegant and complex, such as drizzled with liqueur, topped with apricots, raisins, and pine nuts and lightly baked.
We asked a couple of chefs, a purveyor and a cheese book author for some suggestions for serving cheese, and how to select cheeses and accompaniments for a cheese plate (country of origin and type of milk are indicated in brackets after cheese names).
All emphasized that cheese should be served at room temperature. Linwood Dame, of Linwood's/Due in Owings Mills, said if he's serving cheese in the evening, he gets it out in the morning and lets it sit out all day. As the cheese warms, the flavor develops and deepens.
They all also emphasized the importance of experimentation, of trying things to see whether you like them. There's no "science" to serving cheese. Graham Vinzant, of Cross Street Cheese, said, "We don't want people to think this is so mysterious they can't do their own thing."
Nor is it necessary to bust the budget. "You can get good cheese without spending a ton of money," Vinzant said. "It's not cheap, but you don't have to buy $15-a-pound cheese to have something good.
Steven Jenkins, author of the "Cheese Primer," suggested starting at the supermarket, where you can find decent Parmigiano-Reggiano [Italy, cow's milk] and decent Gruyere [France, cow's milk].
If you're not familiar with a variety of cheeses, they said, start out slowly, sampling things that are close to what you know you like. "If they say they like Cheddar [England, cow's milk]," Vinzant said, "we give them one of the wonderful Canadian Cheddars." Instead of jumping into blue cheese with a strong flavor such as Gorgonzola [Italy, cow's milk] he suggests a milder blue such as Saga [United States, cow's milk].
In general, cheese pairs marvelously with nuts, fruits (except citrus), wine, and such condiments as balsamic vinegar and chutney. Here are some suggestions:
Graham Vinzant: "One of the real nice cheeses we've discovered is Wensleydale [England, cow's milk] with apricot on it. If you taste it cold, it's nothing, but when you let it warm up to room temperature, wow." He also suggested serving Muenster [Alsace, France, cow's milk] or a younger Gouda [The Netherlands, cow's milk] with a light white wine and a French baguette.
For a fancier presentation, he suggested slicing a round of brie in half, spreading the bottom half with raspberry preserves fortified with a hint of rum, then replacing the top half and covering it with fresh raspberries. "You could do a little mini-brie," he said. "It wouldn't be expensive, but it would be impressive to the people you're serving."
Linwood Dame: "One of my favorite cheeses of all time is Gorgonzola [Italy, blue, cow's milk]. Sometimes I stuff it into pear halves and slice them." He suggested that a nice cheese platter might have a good triple-cream brie [France, cow's milk] ("I know it's the fattiest, but it softens quickly and everybody likes it"), a goat cheese with herbs or black pepper, and a good Parmigiano-Reggiano.
"With something a little bit strong, like Gorgonzola, I always look for something that's creamy, like brie."
He suggested serving a simple cracker, such as Bremer Wafers, and a berry, such as strawberries. "Sometimes good old celery sticks -- peeled with a potato peeler -- can be really refreshing with cheese."
Steven Jenkins: He suggested serving American Cheddar [cow's milk] with chutney and sourdough bread, or real buffalo-milk mozzarella [Italy] on a bed of prosciutto and topped with roasted pepper and drizzled with olive oil. If you serve bread, he said, "it's got to be good."
For something new, he said, look for cheeses from Spain, such as Manchego [sheep's milk] or Roncal [sheep's milk].
Scott Hoyland, of Hampton's at Harbor Court: He keeps three cheeses on hand at the restaurant for customers who request a cheese course. One is a Tomme de Savoie [France, cow's milk], a mild cheese. One is a goat cheese made in Pennsylvania. And the third is Roquefort [France, blue, sheep's milk].
He likes to serve cheese with sturdy bread, such as a walnut banana bread, or a French baguette. And, for the adventuresome, he said, he likes fresh pineapple with a soft cheese such as St. Andre [France, sheep's milk] or Explorateur [France, cow's milk, fortified with cream]. "The creamy cheese takes the acidity of the pineapple really well," he said.
If you'd like to serve a cheese appetizer or snack that's a little more elaborate, here are a couple of recipes from the new "Cheese: Quick and Easy Recipes for Elegant Entertaining," by Lou Siebert Pappas (Chronicle Books, $9.95).
Apricot and pine nut-crowned brie
Serves eight to 10
1 1-pound wheel of brie
2 tablespoons orange curacao, Cointreau, cognac or brandy
1/3 cup dried apricots, cut into 1/4 -inch strips
3 tablespoons golden raisins
wafer crackers or toasted baguette slices for serving
Heat oven to 350 degrees. With a sharp paring knife, cut off and remove the top rind of the brie. Place cheese on an oven-proof serving dish. Prick the top with a fork in a dozen places and drizzle with 1/2 tablespoon of the liqueur or brandy. Toss the remaining 1 1/2 tablespoon of liqueur or brandy with the apricots, raisins and pine nuts and scatter mixture over top of cheese. Bake 8 to 10 minutes, or until cheese softens. Serve with $H crackers or sliced bread.
Chile con cheso
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 large garlic clove, chopped
2 Roma tomatoes, chopped
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1 fresh Anaheim chili, or 1/2 red or green bell pepper, cored, seeded and finely chopped
2 cups (8 ounces) shredded Monterey Jack or Cheddar, at room temperature
4 ounces natural cream cheese, broken into small chunks, at room temperature
blue or yellow corn tortilla chips, for serving
jicama strips, red bell pepper strips, diagonally sliced zucchini chips for serving
In a stove-to-table skillet over medium heat, heat the oil and saute the onion, garlic and cumin until soft, about 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes and chili or pepper and saute until the vegetables are soft, about 3 to 5 minutes.
Sprinkle the cheeses in and cook, over low heat, until just melted; do not boil. Keep warm over a warmer or hot tray. Accompany with baskets of chips and vegetables.
Pub Date: 12/11/96