By Paul Partica, The Cheese Shop Of Centerbrook
When summer arrives, along with all the heat and humidity, I’m always reminded of last year’s July 4th barbecue. I have to admit; barbecuing is one of my favorite things to do, but the thought of changing my opinion crossed my mind after standing 45 minutes in front of a hot grill last year. While others were sitting back having delightful iced cocktails and a few cold ones, I was dripping wet. Even my once ice-cold beer couldn’t compete with the heat from the smoked ribs and chicken I was grilling. It’s okay to put ice cubes in beer under these conditions, right?
Taking a step back from the grill, my thoughts always drift back to cheese. The story usually plays out as follows: I start with cheese. A good hour of appetizers works out fine, but soon enough it’s time to start cooking dinner. Not just yet. Another glass of wine, a couple more nibbles of cheese, maybe a few more olives, a little more charcuterie… Toss in a growing laziness and dinner is pretty much over. I’m told I am in good company with this experience.
So let’s step away from the grill and consider some cool alternative summertime meals and snacks, with cheese, of course.
Feta Watermelon Salad
This is a simple but delightfully refreshing salad that can even be served as a dessert. Start by balling or cubing watermelon in a bowl. Then add small chunks of feta. You can stop here if you want or get a little creative. Try a drizzle of balsamic vinegar or some fresh, julienned mint or basil sprinkled over top.
Other ingredients pair well with watermelon and feta. Some enjoy adding fresh avocado or even a squeeze of lime juice. For a little crunch, walnuts or pecans are among my favorite add-ins.
Those who know this great Swiss dish may be a little confused with this suggestion. Traditionally, Raclette is a wintertime dish made by melting cheese in front of a hot fireplace and serving it with boiled potatoes and cornichons. The American version, lesser known, is made year-round and is especially great for summer entertaining. New Swiss-made Raclette cookers are designed with a top grill, not just for grilling cheese, but myriad other foods. Here are just some of the choices we like:
Steak Sausage Pork Tenderloin Chicken
Shrimp Scallops Salmon Peppers
Onions Asparagus Mushrooms Bacon
These options make the meal similar to beef fondue and Raclette combined. You also add an array of different sauces and condiments such as steak sauce, balsamic vinegar, peach mango salsa, etc.
For the full Raclette effect, we often cook the ingredients on top, then place them in the heating pans. We then add cheese on top and melt it under the grill. This is a great summertime use for Raclette cookers. Everyone cooks to their desired finish and eats at their own pace. There is some prep time involved, but once completed, you sit and enjoy the meal at leisure.
Fresh Mozzarella, Tomatoes and Basil (Salad Caprese)
A staple in most Italian restaurants, Salad Caprese is so ubiquitous it is easy to overlook. But I would be remiss in my job as cheesemonger if I did not at least mention it. Toppings include fresh basil, olive oil and Balsamic vinegar.
Triple Crèmes, Pears and Dessert Wines
A triple crème is a soft-ripening cheese is similar to Brie, but butterfat content is increased to 75%. When in good condition, triple crèmes should be extremely soft and runny with a white, bloomy outer layer. If overripe, you will see an outside layer of brown and it will have an ammoniated taste. This condition means the cheese is ruined, spoiling any attempt at creating a great dessert. Many of these types of cheeses have been over-stabilized to provide longer shelf life for supermarkets, but in so doing have been ruined. I suggest you not look for a specific name, but rather a triple crème that is in perfect condition. There are many cheeses I no longer carry because of over-stabilization. The triple crèmes I do buy are a result of their condition, not their name. This is really a classic instance of a cheese to try before you buy.
The other part of this pairing is the wine. Be careful to choose a white wine that is sweet due to grapes that have been allowed to over-ripen on the vine. This creates a preferred natural sweetness compared to a wine made with added sugar. Naturally sweetened wines can be expensive and are often hard to find. Examples include dessert wines such as French Sauterne and Barsac, German Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese, and many available Ice wines.
Try to buy pears that are still a little on the firm side because you will be using them like a cracker. Spread the triple crème on the pear and be sure to follow the bite with a taste of wine. Even a dry red wine drinker like me loves this combination.
Although this great combination of flavors can be served as an appetizer or anytime snack, it is truly a great dessert. In addition to pears, you can also use strawberries or other fruits.