Chow Bella

AndyTalk: New Year's Eve and the Simplicity of an Over-the-Top Cheese Platter

I like to think of the transition from one year to the next as a time to recharge (rather than discharge) my batteries; which is probably why I like a quiet New Year's Eve. 

For me that means a night spent with friends listening to upbeat music, watching an old movie or two if we can agree on which ones, and grazing on some really good party food. It's not hard to put together a feast of small bites. In Spain that's a Tapas party, in Greece and parts of the Middle East the bites are "Mezes," and in Russia they're Zakuski. What these great hors d'oeuvre have in common is that they don't come in a bag or a bucket.

For abundance, eye appeal, and ease of preparation I suggest a bounty of simple foods that I call a cheese platter on steroids.

To build a great cheese-based display all you need is 1. a trip to Trader Joe's (or Costco if you're having a lot of people), 2. couple of large wood cutting boards, and 3. an hour to spare. Sometimes I'll omit the cutting board and place the food right on the table if it's got a glass top.

Cheese ... This year I've been using a selection of hard cheeses that have a natural saltiness and are great to nibble. One of my favorites is nutty, finely grained aged Gouda. I also like Mimmolette (looks like cheddar and tastes like a blend of cheddar and parmesan), aged Pecorino, Manchego, and aged white cheddar. Many of these cheeses don't slice well, so I'll break them into small chunks. A little fig jam is a nice accompaniment. I also like to place a big chunk of feta cheese in a shallow bowl and drizzle it with honey. It's great on soft pita, or fresh crusty bread. I particularly like the creaminess of a French-style feta.

Cheese Plus ... Stuff medjool dates with Gorgonzola, secure with a toothpick and bake at 350 F for 10 minutes. The date will caramelize and the cheese will mellow. Wrap sticks of Gruyere in prosciutto. A small bowl of grainy mustard is a nice addition - and if you're not serving feta with honey swirl a little honey into the mustard.

Nuts and Dried Fruit ... Dried apricots, cherries, and mangoes belong right next to those cheeses. Figs are even better. Arrange the dried fruit in rows, like a Cobb salad, and alternate with rows of nuts like almonds, cashews and pistachios. Transfer a jar of great cherry or peach preserves to a small bowl and add that to the array. Feel free to add olives, salted caramels, biscotti, fresh fruit - especially grapes (I like to roast the grapes at 350 F for 12 - 15 minutes), and a big bowl of chocolates. There's room at any table for chocolate.

Have a happy, healthy, and tasty New Year.

Andy Broder is the chef/owner of AndyFood, A Culinary Studio.

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