A cheesy proposition

When hubby and I lived in Sonoma, California the year after we got married, one of our favorite things to do was to pick up a random bottle of vino from one of the local wineries and assemble a cheese board for supper. In fact, we enjoyed this whole ritual so much, we did it on a weekly basis. In California wine country, every restaurant, grocery store, corner deli and gas station (no joke) offered spectacular wine and cheese selections. Creating something incredibly delicious without even turning on the oven was a total no-brainer.

One of the more memorable cheese platters that comes to mind from that era in my life was something we enjoyed with another couple, kicking off a night out at the swanky Ledson Hotel restaurant on the Sonoma town square. I don’t recall specifics, but I have a fond fuzzy memory of fragrant, fruity red wine complemented by salty, robust blue cheese smeared on small squares of housemade walnut bread and topped with paper-thin slices of sweet, juicy pear. It was a thing of beauty. I have no idea where we went for dinner or what we ate the rest of the night, but the memory of that blue cheese and walnut bread is etched in my brain forever.

Sadly, our cheese board habit has gone the way of the dinosaurs since moving back to Indianapolis. Every now and then, we’ll get a hankering for it, but these times are few and far between. Out of sight, out of mind I suppose. I’m not even sure where to go here in town for great cheese. Valentine’s Day, we decided, marked a perfect occasion to bring our long-lost tradition back to life.

In the past, our cheese board dinners and party platter offerings have consisted of fairly standard ingredients. Two or three cheeses, water crackers or slices of baguette, nuts, olives, grapes, perhaps a sliced apple. Maybe some salumi if we’re feeling wild and crazy. That’s about it.

From what I’ve gleaned in my culinary research over the years, the general rule of thumb for cheese platters is as follows — one hard, one soft, one blue. Which breaks down into a cheddar/gouda/havarti, a brie/goat, and a gorgonzola/blue. No rocket science about it. It’s what you choose to accent the cheese that really makes the difference.

Presentation is key when it comes to cheese platters, as it is for any plate you want to appear impressive. The saying “you eat first with your eyes” is definitely true. A few extra minutes can make any item you serve so much more appealing. Stack things up in little piles. Slice your vegetables and fruits with care. Set out a couple of cute cheese slicers or cocktail spoons for serving. Include some fresh herbs for garnish. The little details count big here.

I clipped a gorgeous two-page spread from a magazine (I believe it was Bon Appetit) several months ago detailing creative cheese platter ideas, and secured it to the wall of my fridge with magnets for inspiration. It includes yummy stuff like pine nut brittle, spirals of dried citrus zest, pate and spicy red pepper jelly. In short, it looks absolutely beautiful and oh so sexy. Alas, I had serious doubts about locating many of those items in my shopping.

For tonight’s offering, here’s what I put together:  a brie (which I ended up having to toss because it smelled overwhelmingly of ammonia. Thanks for staying on top of things in the cheese section, Marsh…), a slender chunk of creamy Edam (delicious, rich and buttery), and a wedge of Maytag blue (quickly becoming a go-to for me). A bag of toasted Italian bread rounds (which screamed for some sort of flavor or seasoning), sweet-salty chunks of proscuitto-wrapped cantaloupe, smoked almonds, sliced pear, yellow pepper matchsticks and a ramekin of pickled grapes rounded out the spread.

Valentine's Day dinner cheese platter. Seriously - look how pretty it is!

The grapes are another Molly Wizenberg recipe I cribbed from her “A Homemade Life” memoir. This woman can do no wrong. The seedless grapes are basically just marinated in a vinegar and sugar concoction with some pickling spices. They were fab, almost like tangy chutney with hints of cinnamon and pepper.

pickled grapes

The wine? A friendly and knowledgeable woman at Cork and Cracker steered me toward a lovely French Fleurie red Beaujolais. I like that place more and more each time I go in; they really seem to know their stuff.

The nice thing about having a cheese board for dinner is you can eat and eat and eat without ever really feeling like you’re pigging out. It’s perfect and romantic for a date night. Finger food, feeding each other tastes of things… get the picture?? And because everything is fresh and usually heavy on fruit and fresh items, it all feels fairly healthy.

For dessert, I baked up a batch of red velvet cheesecake swirl brownies. Sadly, I have yet to master the swirl – my marbled effect usually ends up looking pretty uniform. In this case, pink. No matter. They were tasty, and I used a biscuit cutter to carve them into rounds instead of the usual squares for a little something different.

red velvet cheesecake brownie rounds

This Valentine’s Day, dear readers, I hope your lives are full of love, and your love is full of life.

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