November 4, 2014

SAY CHEESE | Complementing Your Cheese

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By NICK HUANG

Cheese arrangements with ripe fruit and paper-thin cured meats may conjure up  an image of a fancy-pants, black tie occasion, but cheese and cheese pairings aren’t exclusively for high-class events. Afterall, nacho cheese goes with tortilla chips just as well as Stilton goes with ripe pears. Pairing cheeses with fruits, nuts or cured meats isn’t rocket science either. The simplest way to get the most out of your cheese is to rely on flavor and textural contrast.

Contrast emphasizes the differences between two foods, allowing the eater to appreciate the characteristics of both more fully. There’s a reason behind trends like salted caramels and candied bacon. Culinary traditions from across the globe utilize contrast in dishes from gyros with tzatziki to Peking duck to churros con chocolate. Examples of contrasting textures and flavors closer to home include Hawaiian pizza and chili dogs with mustard.

Another great example is cheddar cheese paired with apple slices. Cheddar cheese and apples make for a pairing that’s both approachable and accessible. Cheddar is common; it comes in a range of sharpness, and most people are familiar with its salty, milky tang. Similarly apples are commonplace, but come in many varieties. Eating these two together may sound weird at first, but when eaten together, it just makes sense.

I’m sitting in front of my laptop with this post half-written. I’ve got a Honeycrisp apple and some slices of sharp and mild cheddar cheese. I try the apple by itself first. It’s crispy and the juice is sweet but balanced with some tartness (Honeycrisps are my favorite). I try the cheddar cheeses, which I’ve let warm up to room temperature: both are firm and waxy, salty and creamy with the sharp cheddar a bit stronger on all counts. Now, I try them together with a slice of apple on top of a slightly smaller slice of cheddar cheese.

Wow. The first bite is intriguing as the top of my mouth detects the coldness and crispness of the apple while my tastebuds come into contact with the firm and salty cheese. I previously thought that the pairing was meant to be enjoyed simultaneously like most wine pairings, but to be honest, I felt like having them both in my mouth at once caused a strange flavor canceling effect.

On the other hand, alternating bites of the Honeycrisp and Cheddar works perfectly. I eat a few slices of the apple until I can feel the acidity make my mouth pucker. Trying the Cheddar right after that makes it taste saltier and richer than before, making more perceivable the aged funkiness. Another piece of apple really cleanses the palette and primes it to enjoy another piece of cheese.

Beyond Cheddar and apple, there are a handful of common, well-known cheese pairings: Brie with grapes, Parmesan with Prosciutto, Feta with watermelon, Stilton or Gorgonzola with pears. I didn’t do anything fancy here. All I had was an apple, some cheese, a knife and an open mind. If you have the time, it’s nice to just sit down, munch on some cheese and think about what it tastes like by itself or with something else. You don’t have to be a sophisticated food critic or have any background knowledge. Truth be told, you don’t even need to have  an opinion about what you’re tasting unless you want to. At the end of the day, if it tastes good to you, that’s all that really matters!

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