Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Party Time (Fried goat cheese, charcuterie)

Just because the "Holiday season" is winding down doesn't mean we need to hold fewer parties. I spent the past week planning two for work and more with friends and family, but I don't want to stop. It's all a matter of pacing yourself, and sometimes moderating one's ambitions. Some dishes may be impressive in the demonstrable effort required, but you can still take the easy way out and, with a little attention to detail, still come off with something that looks stunning. Fried goat cheese is insanely delicious and may seem like it takes a lot of work, but it's really quite easy and, gussied up with a few other ingredients, becomes a wondrous display of variety.

Wondrous charcuterie
My obsession with fried goat cheese started when it was introduced as a small plate at our favorite tapas restaurant. Fresh goat cheese (chèvre) is soft, very creamy, and mild in flavor, making it an easy sell on its own. That appeal is only increased when laced with saffron and fennel seeds, mantled in a crispy, golden panko topping, and warmed through. It's great with a drizzle of warm honey (with or without chili flakes), and crispy crackers or crusty bread. For extra extravagance, make it into a charcuterie board by pairing with some cured meats and other cheeses. 

Extravagantly excessive
Charcuterie ("shar-CUE-tuh-REE"), from the French chair ("flesh") and cuit ("cooked") refers to the preparation of processed meats like cured pork, sausages, pâtés, and terrines. In more colloquial restaurant usage, though, it's any board of meats and cheeses. Taking the second option allows us to enjoy all the fruit of the charcutier's labor, without actually having to see how the sausage is made. The key to this presentation is plenty, while more modest preparations are great for a light dinner with more intimate company, for a party you want 2-3 meats, 2-3 cheeses, 2-3 fruit offerings, and at least one offering of nuts or olives, plus a good honey and grainy mustard or two. Within these subcategories, your goal is again to mix things up a bit, varying the flavors, colors, and textures at play. This not only pleases eyes and senses, it allows people to mix and match, finding favorites and experimenting with new combinations.

Today's combination: fennel seed
Following the Spanish tapas theme, pictured here are jámon serrano, chorizo, manchego, fried goat cheese, green seedless grapes, dried apricots, Marcona almonds, and a Columbian oak honey. Jámon serrano is a thin-sliced cured ham, just a little milder and more buttery than prosciutto (which makes a great substitute), chorizo is a hard, spicy sausage for contrast. Similarly, manchego is a fairly hard cheese, kind of like a cheddar but more nutty and less sharp, which makes it a great choice to play counterpoint to the crispy-creamy croquettes of fried goat cheese. With so many flavors to enjoy, even a night on the couch will become a party in no time.

Endlessly enjoyable

Fried goat cheese 

You can always mix up the seasonings, a bit. Crushed lavender blossoms would be a great addition for flavor and dried parsley flakes would add a little more vivid green. Serves 6-8.

10 ounces goat cheese
1 cup panko bread crumbs
1 teaspoon fennel seeds, finely ground
1 teaspoon dried thyme 
Pinch saffron threads, finely ground with 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon black pepper, freshly cracked
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup flour

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 

Place the goat cheese in the freezer for about 20 minutes to firm it up.

While the cheese chills, line a baking sheet with foil or parchment and combine the panko, fennel, thyme, saffron salt, and black pepper in a medium bowl.

Slice and dice
Retrieve the cheese from the freezer and use a very sharp knife to slice into 1/2-inch thick discs.

One at a time, dredge the discs in flour to coat, then toss in the beaten eggs.

Dressed for the occasion
Press the discs into panko on both sides, creating an even layer if breading. Space breaded discs evenly along the baking sheet, then return to the freezer for about 10 minutes.

Warm the oil over medium heat in a large, heavy skillet.

Fried and dried
Fry the cheese until golden brown on both sides, about 2 minutes each side. Remove to a plate draped with paper towels to drip dry for a minute, then serve warm.


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