By JeanMarie Brownson, Special to Tribune Newspapers
December 26, 2012
My theory works: Surround myself with friends, good food and wine on New Year's Eve, and the future's so bright I gotta wear shades.
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
Coarse salt, optional
1. Cut a slit in each date or apricot so you have a pocket for stuffing. Put one of the cheese pieces into each date along with a few fresh cilantro leaves and a piece of pecan, if using. This can be done several hours in advance.
2. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Place stuffed dates on a foil-lined baking sheet. Bake until heated through, about 5 minutes. Serve drizzled with balsamic glaze and sprinkled with chopped cilantro and a little coarse salt.
Per serving: 36 calories, 1 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 2 mg cholesterol, 7 g carbohydrates, 1 g protein, 9 mg sodium, 1 g fiber.
Wrap each stuffed date in a half-slice of bacon and secure it with a wooden pick. Increase baking time to crisp bacon, about 20 minutes.
Radicchio salad with cider-poached quince and Danish blue
Prep: 30 minutes
Cook: 30 minutes
Servings: 4 to 6
Note: Three firm d'Anjou pears can be substituted for the quince; reduce cooking time to 5 to 10 minutes and test often for tenderness.
2 medium quince, about 12 ounces each
2 to 3 cups unfiltered apple cider
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
4 to 6 strips orange zest with no white pith
½ cup walnut or pecan halves, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 heads (6 ounces each) radicchio, torn into large pieces
3 cups baby arugula
¼ to 1/3 cup crumbled blue cheese, such as Danish blue
Pomegranate seeds, optional
1. Peel quince. Cut through the stem end into quarters. Remove core. Cut each quarter into 3/8-inch thick slices. Heat cider, sugar, pepper and orange zest in a saucepan until sugar dissolves. Reduce heat to very low. Add sliced quince to cider mixture. Simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the quince is fork-tender, about 15 to 20 minutes. Gently lift the quince out of the liquid to a plate; let cool.
2. Boil pan juices over medium-high heat until reduced enough to make a light syrup, about 15 minutes; you'll have about 1/2 cup. Cool, then strain. If desired, finely slice orange zest.
3. Toast walnuts in a small skillet over medium heat, stirring constantly, until fragrant and lightly golden, 2-3 minutes. Cool.
4. For the dressing, put the cooled syrup, vinegar, mustard and salt into a jar with a tight-fitting lid. Shake well. Season to taste with pepper and more salt if needed.
5. Mix radicchio and arugula in large bowl. Add some of the dressing; toss to mix. Arrange mixture on 4 to 6 serving plates. Scatter quince slices, cheese and walnuts over each salad. Sprinkle with pomegranate seeds and sliced orange zest if desired. Pass additional dressing.
Per serving: 159 calories, 9 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 7 mg cholesterol, 19 g carbohydrates, 4 g protein, 163 mg sodium, 2 g fiber.
Chipotle two-cheese fondue
Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 5 minutes
Servings: 6 appetizers
Large seedless grapes, halved strawberries, clementine segments, tart apple chunks, quartered tomatillos
Large cubes (1 1/2-inch) ciabatta or French bread
12 ounces mild Swiss Gruyere, shredded
4 ounces Appenzeller, Emmenthal, Gouda or mild white cheddar, shredded
1 to 2 teaspoons pureed (or finely chopped) canned chipotles in adobo to taste
2 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
3/4 cup dry white wine, such as Vouvray or other chenin blanc, plus a little more as needed
1 or 2 strips lemon rind (no white pith)
1. Arrange fruit and tomatillos on a serving tray. Arrange bread in a basket; cover with a towel. Have the base of the fondue pot ready or heat water in the bottom of a double boiler or large saucepan.
2. Toss the shredded cheeses with chipotle in a bowl until mixed. Add cornstarch and toss to coat well.
3. Put wine and lemon rind strip into fondue pot or a small heavy saucepan. Heat over medium until wine is simmering. Add about a quarter of the cheese to the hot wine and stir until cheese melts. Stir in another quarter of the cheese until melted. Repeat until all cheese is melted.
4. Set pot over the fondue burner or over the simmering water. Keep the fondue bubbling very gently just to keep the cheese warm and melty. (Don't let it get overheated; it will get stringy.) Turn off the fondue pot as needed to maintain this low temperature. Thin with additional wine if needed.
5. Serve fondue warm. Use fondue forks to dip fruit and breads into warm cheese.
Per serving (plus the dunkables): 316 calories, 24 g fat, 14 g saturated fat, 84 mg cholesterol, 4 g carbohydrates, 22 g protein, 354 mg sodium, 0 g fiber.
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