Jude’s Culinary Journey

Cheese please

By JUDE WATERSTON
Posted 3/25/20

I was trying to put together an hor d’oeuvres menu for a couple my sister, Janet, and I had invited over, when I received an email that one of the two was lactose intolerant and could eat not a …

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Jude’s Culinary Journey

Cheese please

Posted

I was trying to put together an hor d’oeuvres menu for a couple my sister, Janet, and I had invited over, when I received an email that one of the two was lactose intolerant and could eat not a thing containing cheese. This was near-devastating news for me. Besides the obvious and almost obligatory cheese platter I usually put out, I had planned to make the following dishes: stuffed mushrooms, a hot artichoke dip and baked spinach squares. The stuffed mushrooms contain two kinds of cheese, the hot artichoke dip is loaded with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and the spinach squares also boast two different cheeses. I had also been contemplating a simple dish, combining the textures of creamy and cheesy with crispy, called parmesan toasts, but that went down the drain with the other choices. In our family, cheese plays an important role.

Janet did not eat cheese as a child. She would go so far as pulling off the layer of oozing mozzarella on a slice of pizza so she could just eat cooked pock-marked dough with tomato sauce. In high school, she did a turn-around and discovered the glories of gooey, mild mozzarella and, by the time she entered college, she found she adored melted cheese of nearly any sort. Slap some cheddar, Gruyere, gouda, or fontina into the folds of an omelet or on a slice of crusty bread thrown under the broiler, and she is not only satisfied, but fairly gushing with delight. She often suggests tuna melts, cheese quesadillas, grilled cheese sandwiches, or (her favorite) cheesy creamed spinach over wide egg noodles. I sometimes joke that I if I melted cheese on a shoe, she’d devour it.

While Janet was happy to consume any version of melted cheese, she refused to eat cheese in any other form. Eventually, painstakingly, I introduced her to soft-ripened, bloomy rind cheeses such as brie and camembert, then snuck in more assertive varieties like Italian taleggio, robiola and bel Paese. Though it pains me, she does not like the tang of goat cheese and neither of us has ever been able to get close to any of the blues produced by so many countries. Janet won’t even entertain the idea of trying them, but I have boldly tasted French Roquefort, English Stilton, Danish blue and Italian gorgonzola in an attempt at have an all-encompassing, inclusive appreciation of cheese, but I just can’t get past that particular funk.

Getting back to the upcoming company, I had to think long and hard about hor d’oeuvres that are devoid of dairy. I have many tried-and-true dishes I’ve concocted over the years and keep on file and a plethora of cookbooks, a couple of which concentrate solely on nibbles to serve with cocktails. I rifled through both the recipes I’d developed and perused the pages of a favorite cookbook and came up with a few choices. There were tiny lamb meatballs with a pomegranate glaze and garnish of fresh mint; salmon roe and chives served in cucumber cups; sweet-and-sour chicken picadillo mini empanadas; and a chunky, spritely Mediterranean eggplant dip that is great with pita chips. I’ll still put out a platter of parmesan toasts for those of us who are not lactose intolerant. We have rights too, don’t we?

Eggplant dip in the Mediterranean style

Makes approximately 1.5 cups

1 medium eggplant
1 large garlic clove, finely minced
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon tiny capers, rinsed and drained
2 anchovy fillets
1.5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 to 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 to 3 tablespoons fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1 to 2 tablespoons fresh mint leaves, chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Using a fork, prick eggplant in eight or nine places, spacing them evenly. Place eggplant on a baking sheet and bake, turning occasionally, for 35 to 40 minutes, until somewhat collapsed and soft when pressed with fingers. Remove from oven and let sit until cool enough to handle. Meanwhile, mash the anchovy fillets on a wooden board with the back of fork until a paste forms. Set aside. When eggplant is cool, peel back skin and discard. Also discard any large pockets of seeds. Roughly chop pulp and place in the bowl of a food processor. Scrape anchovy fillets into processor bowl and add the remaining ingredients. Pulse about five or six times until mixture is combined but still coarse. Scrape into a serving bowl and taste for seasoning. Serve with pita chips or crackers.

And for cheese lovers:

Parmesan toasts

Makes 20

1 cup (packed) finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 teaspoon grated red (or white) onion
2 tablespoons mayonnaise, preferably Hellman’s
1 narrow Italian, French or ciabatta baguette

For parmesan spread, mix the mayonnaise, parmesan cheese and grated onion together in a small bowl.

To make crostini toasts, slice the baguette into thin rounds, no more than 1/4” each. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Lay the toasts out on a large baking sheet and place in the oven. Bake for about four to five minutes on each side until the toasts are crisp but with a little give in the center.

To make parmesan toasts, turn on the broiler of the oven. With a butter knife, spread each crostini with some of the parmesan mixture—it should be a little thick—and place it back on the baking sheet. When they are all done, place the pan under the broiler and broil for about a minute, checking so that they do not burn. The cheese should turn golden and be bubbling. Serve immediately.

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