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.

Crocks rock

Have I ever mentioned how much I love my crockpot?

After years of being relegated to shelves and pantries, crockpots are coming out of the closets and seem to be experiencing a resurgence in popularity, with good reason. You put some meat and veg in there, pop the lid on, turn it to high and leave it alone. Several hours later, you open it up and voila. Dinner. It’s like magic!

My dad gave me my crockpot years and years ago, shortly after I graduated from college, I believe. I never used it. It sat alone and forlorn, gathering dust in a cupboard for ages. Oh, I may have used it once or twice for BBQ cocktail weenies at parties and such, but certainly not with any regularity. It wasn’t until after I got married that I decided to haul it out and do some experimenting. I could have kicked myself when I quickly realized what I’d been missing out on all that time.

Hubby and I were living in Sonoma at the time, where there is certainly no shortage of delicious meat and produce year-round. The first thing I recall making in the crockpot was a boneless leg of lamb for one of hubby’s work colleagues and his wife who were coming over for dinner that night. We had a huge rosemary bush growing just outside our back door, so I snipped a few sprigs to throw in, along with a few slivers of garlic tucked into the meat and a drizzle of olive oil. I turned the crockpot on and we went out to run errands.

When we got back to the house several hours later and opened the door, the aroma coming out of the kitchen was absolutely intoxicating. When I later went to lift the lamb out of the savory jus, it was so tender, it fell into chunks as I laid it ever so gently onto the serving platter. Needless to say, it was delicious. The meal even inspired our guests to unearth their own crockpot and rev it up.

Over the next few months, my crockpot saw a lot of action as I played around with various recipes. I even put it to use for Thanksgiving – Cornish game hens stuffed with orange wedges and more of that delicious rosemary.

Now, when the weather turns chilly and I’m trying to decide what to make for dinner, my thoughts immediately turn to my crockpot. It’s the perfect vessel for comfort food on a cold snowy night – pulled pork, turkey chili, beef stew and pot roast are all ideal crockpot meals. Most recently, I used it to turn out a yummy pepper steak/goulash recipe courtesy of hubby’s cousin Noreen in Canada.

Seriously, crockpot cooking couldn’t be easier, and it all but guarantees that any meat you use will come out meltingly tender and juicy. The secret for the best flavor is to brown your meat first before you put it in the pot. Take a tip from Julia Child – dry your meat very well with paper towels, then brown it quickly in a pan with a little nearly smoking-hot oil over high heat. Transfer it to your crockpot, then deglaze your pan with a little bit of wine, stock or even water. Make sure to scrape up all the browned bits stuck on the bottom of the pan; that’s the good stuff. Pour all that yumminess into the crockpot as well. Your stews and roasts will thank you, trust me.

If you’ve got a crockpot languishing away forgotten somewhere in the depths of a closet or on a basement shelf, I urge you to wash it up and get reacquainted. I’ll even get you started – here are a few of my fave crockpot recipes to try for yourself:
Pasta e Fagioli

3 or 4 slices of bacon or proscuitto
2 Italian sausages, sliced into bite-sized pieces
1 can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
2 bay leaves
½ tsp. dried thyme
1/2 tsp. dried basil and/or oregano
a few sprinkles of hot red pepper flakes
3 cloves garlic, minced
½ medium onion, chopped
1  14.5 oz. can crushed tomatoes
1 quart chicken stock
1 cup water
1 cup of your favorite small pasta (ditalini, orzo, mini-farfalle)
1 wedge of parmesan cheese for grating

In a skillet, brown the bacon or proscuitto and sausage slices in a little olive oil and then transfer to the crockpot. Add the beans, tomatoes, seasonings, onion, garlic, chicken stock and water. Grate the parmesan cheese, save the grated cheese for garnishing and add the rind to the pot for extra flavor. Cook on low for about 4 or 5 hours or high for 2 to 2 ½ hours. Add the
pasta, stir into the pot and cover for another 20 to 30 minutes on low. (Can add another cup of water here if it’s too thick.) When pasta is cooked, the soup is ready to serve. Remove bay leaves and parmesan rind before eating. Salt and pepper to taste, drizzle with a little extra virgin olive oil, top with grated cheese and serve with crusty bread for dipping.

Crockpot Roast Lamb

4 to 5 pound boneless leg of lamb, or whatever size will comfortably fit in your crock pot
a few sprigs of fresh rosemary
about 5 cloves fresh garlic, cut into slivers
olive oil
salt and pepper

Open up the lamb and cut small slits throughout, stuffing with alternately garlic slivers and small pieces of rosemary. When lamb is sufficiently stuffed (use as much or as little garlic and rosemary as you like), rub lightly with olive oil and salt and pepper both sides.

Fold lamb up to fit into crock pot. Pour in about ½ c. of water. Cook on high for 3 to 4 hours or low for 6 to 7 hours. It will smell awesome and literally fall apart into tender chunks as you take it out of the crock pot.