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Saturday, August 25, 2012 - Page updated at 11:30 a.m.
Perk up cheese pairings with jams, gelées and things candied and pickled
By Providence Cicero
FOR THE cheese plate at Meadowbrook Lodge's Copperleaf Restaurant, chef Mark Bodinet pickles grapes and Yakima strawberries, grills figs and candies rhubarb. He makes apple-pepper chutney, and marmalades, mostardas and preserves from berries, dates, citrus and stone fruits.
Once slices of crisp apple or a bunch of fresh grapes routinely adorned a cheese plate — and certainly when those fresh fruits are at their peak they are still ideal companions. But chefs devoted to using seasonal, local ingredients are putting more effort into how they accessorize cheese.
What's on hand often inspires Restaurant Zoë's James Sherrill. "If I have a lot of lavender and it's sitting next to a jar of honey, the next thing you know I'm making lavender honey gelée." He likes to gelée the honey because a little gelatin sets it up and makes it easier to scoop up with the cheese.
Sherrill also likes to pair apricot and lemon verbena jam with goat cheese, but finds a pepper-steeped Bing cherry marmalade better suits a pungent blue cheese. What works, he notes, is often a matter of trial and error, because cheeses can vary in taste even if they are the same type.
Nathan Lockwood concurs. "You put two things together that you think will work, and about half the time it's a disaster."
Lockwood has rules for the cheese plate at his Capitol Hill restaurant, Altura. There is always a cow's milk, a sheep's milk and a goat's milk cheese. Each is visually and texturally different: ash coating or a grape-leaf wrapper, for example, add interest. And one of the three must be "borderline offensive," an assertive cheese that makes the progression from mild to intense clear.
Experimentation typically determines the accompaniments. To illustrate, he assembled celery gelée, rosemary-roasted grapes and candied fennel. Celery and the sheep's milk cheese Pecorino is a classic coupling in Italian cookery. For the gelée, Lockwood braises tiny diamonds cut from the inner stalks, embedding them and celery leaves in a twice-reduced celery stock thickened with gelatin. It played beautifully against a truffled Pecorino but didn't much enhance Pecorino fresco verde dusted with herbs.
Rosemary-roasted grapes brought out the worst in a wine-washed Rossini blue cheese. More flattering was candied fennel, a compote of the root simmered with fennel seed and pollen in anisette-spiked simple syrup.
Lockwood had intended the candied fennel for Carboncino, a mixed-milk robbiola dusted with vegetable ash. But when he spooned pine nuts fried in olive oil alongside that rich, runny cheese, it was a dream team. The roasted grapes found their mate in the herbed Pecorino. But when all else fails, Lockwood says, herb-roasted hazelnuts are his fallback.
Providence Cicero, Seattle Times restaurant critic, co-hosts "Let's Eat" with Terry Jaymes at 4 p.m. Saturdays on 97.3 KIRO FM. John Lok is a Times staff photographer.
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