Friday, January 22, 2010

The Cheese Tray: A Pot-Luck Strategy

We spent a lovely holiday season catching up with various friends and relations.  As usual, pot-lucks figured into more than one occasion. This year I tried something new: bringing a tray of cheeses for that pre-dinner wait that sometimes takes forever.  Unlike fruitcake, this would work at any time of year.

For persons with multiple food allergies, pot-lucks can be trying. We check in advance with the hostess or other friends, to see what else will be served. Then I plan to bring one complementary dish that is "safe for James" and tasty for normals. This season, my contributions was a large platter featuring sheep and goat cheese, which he can have, along with cow cheese for comparison.

The presentation of the cheeses was instigated by finding adorable white ceramic figures of cows, sheep, and goats: two each plus a pen to write the variety in washable ink at the base of the figure. This led to interesting visits to cheese bars at several local stores featuring a variety of sheep and goat cheeses. You don't need a high-end store to find non-cow cheeses: Trader Joe's now stocks a good variety of Manchgo, Peccorino, Goat Brie, and other cheeses.

Overall, our best finds (all at Whole Foods) were a goat Fleurette, soft and delicious; a "Drunken Goat" with a Gouda-like texture, and a wonderful non-pasturized sheep Manchego. To go with them, I baked a gluten-free whole grain bread from Jacqueline Mallorca, or brought Nut Thins.  The Trader Joe's Basque sheep cheese, Manchgo, and Goat Brie all turned out well too.

The reception varied with just how ravenous people were in the interval before dinner. The first attempt, at Thanksgiving, was devoured in 45 minutes.  Other presentations were nibbled more discreetly.  People enjoyed the animals, although the writing sometimes ran off into the cheese. Only one person flatly refused to go near anything from a sheep or goat, international prizes notwithstanding.

Watching how people deal with cheese, I realized it's not an affectation to use individual planes for each of the hard cheeses and soft knives and spreaders for the soft cheeses. The more expensive cheeses have wonderful, distinct flavors. A little taste goes a long way toward satisfaction.

The project was not as expensive as I'd feared: the cheeses averaged under $5 for a 3-5 ounce cut, which was enough to put out on a tray. And, as with buying wine, you can say up front what price range you are want and the counter person will be able to direct you.

I was happy with the experiment. We learned more about sheep and goat cheeses, most of our friends enjoyed trying some different, and I did not have to knock myself out in the kitchen. Options are good.


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Anonymous said...

Hi Danine,
Love your display of cheeses. Have you ever been to Harley Farms in Pescadero. A lovley goat farm with delicious cheeses and other goodies in a tasting room woth the trip! Let me know if you and James would like to go sometimes, it's one of our favorite places. Or just us girls, I was thinking it might be a nice trip for retired and unemployed Angels during the week.....Heather