Lush Life

To be a lush chef, does not mean to drink in excess - this can result in scary fires and bad dishes. A lush chef is one who enjoys gourmet cooking/baking, often with fresh ingredients and the smart use of one's home bar. If there happens to be half a bottle of beer, a glass of wine, or a sip of brandy left over...well, one cannot be wasteful. I give you permission to imbibe.

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The Lush Chef
Twitter: @thelushchef Provenance: Santa Monica Dish: Coq au Vin Spirit: Whiskey Wine: Malbec Beer: Hefeweizen Farmer's Market: Santa Monica on Main Street
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Jun 3, 2011

The Perfect Cheese Plate

There aren't many things I love more than a generous cheese plate - it's the perfect thing to pair with a gaggle of friends and multiple bottles of wine.  It doesn't take long to put together and is an appetizer (or meal) that everyone can contribute to.  It's always a success, as evidenced by the picture on the left - our plate has been half devoured.  It's something you can linger over for hours and keep adding to.  Another friend swings by?  Still hungry?  Add more cheese!

At pretty much every Lush Chef family dinner or impromptu cocktail party, I always like to put out a cheese plate.  I tend to get most of my items at my local Whole Foods or Trader Joe's, and if I'm feeling fancy, Andrew's Cheese Shop in Santa Monica.  Here's how I like to build my cheese plates:

- The "plate" - When I moved into my first apartment in Santa Monica, I found a giant leftover piece of cutting board underneath the sink.  Score!  This giant hunk of wood has now become my favorite cheese plate.  If you weren't fortunate enough to have forgetful repairmen, then just use the biggest cutting board you have or buy a lovely slate cheese board from Williams & Sonoma for under $40.  The key is having a surface big enough for plenty of cheese and accoutrements.

- The knives - If you tend to do a lot of cheese plates like I do, then why not invest in some pretty knives?  It's good to have a variety of knives to cut through different textures of cheese and also have blades that aren't too sharp to cut your guests.  I'm absolutely in love with the red Laguiole set I got at Sur La Table a while back, and I use them ALL the time.  Anthropologie has a nice set you can buy for about $30.

- Have a minimum of three cheeses - one soft, one hard and one in between.  It's also nice to get a mixture of cow, goat and sheep cheeses.

- Have at least one basic kind of cheese for those whose palates aren't too adventurous.  A favorite amongst our friends is the Kerrygold Dubliner White Cheddar.  You can get this cheese almost anywhere now, and it's become our go-to selection.  We discovered it at the liquor store around the corner where they had only cheese sticks...and this cheddar.

- Surprise your guests and select a cheese that no one has tried before or has a fun ingredient added, like a pecorino or sottocenere with truffle or a white stilton with blueberries.

- Tired of brie?  Try an Époisses de Bourgogne - it's a really runny French cheese with a slightly salty and pungent flavor.  For those who don't have an affinity for stinky cheeses, this is a good one for them to start out on.

- Crackers & bread - I like to have a selection of crackers consisting of plain water crackers and some crumblier wheat crackers.  I'm a fan of Trader Joe's Organic Cracker Assortment (6 kinds).  It's also nice to have some rounds of crusty french bread or small wedges of fruit & nut bread.

- Spreads - Having a small selection of jams and spreads takes a cheese plate up another notch.  My girlfriends and I always have a jar of Dalmatia's Adriatic Fig Spread in the cabinet, and we bring it to each other's parties and picnics all the time - it's truly heavenly.  Other favorite spreads include olive tapenade, red pepper & eggplant spread, strawberry or raspberry jam, orange marmalade and honey.  Put out a couple of these and you're sure to impress your guests, or spoil them like I have.

- Fruit - Whether it's fresh fruit or dried, it's good to break up the cheese abundance with something else to munch on.  I'm a big berry fan for spring/summer cheese plates and for the fall/winter, I stick to sliced apples and dried apricots.

- Nuts - For some crunch and protein, toss a couple kinds of nuts on the platter.  Have at least one plain nut like Marcona Almonds, and one flavored nut such as chocolate covered almonds, candied walnuts or spiced pecans.

- Meat - If this is going to be more of a meal for your guests rather than an appetizer, then toss some meats in there as well.  You can't go wrong with some prosciutto and salami.  I also like to find at least one cured meat that has a little surprise ingredient, such as finocchiona (fennel seeds) or the chianti and pinot grigio artisan salamis from Trader Joe's.

At the end of the day, I'm not one for being snooty about pairing the right kinds of cheeses with the right kinds of wines.  The most important thing is that you get what you and your guests will like eating, and to have some fun and experiment.