Homage to fromage
All-cheese menu makes a festive New Year's party
Queso fresco, herb-stuffed dates: A rendition of stuffed dates served warm with a simple balsamic glaze. Medjool dates prove soft and easy to stuff. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune / December 26, 2012)
Some years my friends and I revel in an array of appetizers; others we cook up steaming bowls of stew or platters of luxurious pastas. This year, cheese stars in an homage to a memorable, Parisian all-cheese repast of our youth. To lighten things up a bit, we're pairing a variety of world cheeses with a variety of fruit: fresh, poached and dried.
For starters, a rendition of stuffed dates served warm with a simple balsamic glaze. Medjool dates, though more expensive than their smaller cousins, prove soft and easy to stuff. Plump, whole dried apricots work here too.
Stuffing the dried fruit with fresh cheese tames the intensity of the fruit, adds a creamy unctuousness and a hint of salt. Herbaceous cilantro leaves add freshness. Fresh cheese options include mozzarella and soft goat cheeses. My favorite for these nibbles is the milky-rich, salty queso fresco found in Mexican markets or the cheese aisle of large grocery stores.
For the ultimate cheese lover's pleasure we turn to a luscious pot of fondue. For the very best fondue, it's essential to use cheeses that melt without turning to rubber or releasing their fat into an oily mess. The Swiss have it figured out. Mild Gruyere makes a phenomenal, nearly foolproof base that melts smoothly. I like to stir in another cheese for a more complex flavor, such as Swiss favorites Emmenthal (sweet, nutty, fruity) or Appenzeller (sharp and tangy), or sharp Spanish manchego and salty, mellow Dutch Gouda.
To accompany the fondue, a stunning salad of quince, blue cheese and vibrant red radicchio. Always on the lookout for new and unusual items to add to our table, we thought quince fit the bill. Trouble is, these large yellow fruits are so hard they need coaxing into tenderness. Poached in unfiltered apple cider flavored with sugar, orange and black pepper, the fruit works magic on a salad of bitter greens.
For the holidays, I sprinkle pomegranate seeds on everything — just for brightness and fun. So put on your shades and welcome in the New Year.
Sparkling sherry cocktail
Pour 1 ounce dry, cold sherry and a dash of ginger liqueur into a Champagne flute. Add 4 ounces dry sparkling white wine, very cold. Garnish with a cocktail skewer with a red grape, very thin slice fresh ginger and lemon rind twist.
Queso fresco and herb-stuffed dates
Prep: 30 minutes
Cook: 5 minutes
Makes: 24 pieces
Note: Balsamic glaze is sold near balsamic vinegar; if it's unavailable, simply boil an inexpensive balsamic vinegar until reduced to a syrupy glaze.
24 large Medjool dates or plump dried apricots, about 8 to 12 ounces total
6 ounces queso fresco, cut into 24 pieces, each about 1-by-1/2-inch
Small, fresh cilantro leaves, plus more chopped cilantro
Broken pecan halves, optional