CHEESE, Please

It's a different course for those who prefer an alternative to sweet dessert treats

November 03, 1999|By Karin Remesch | Karin Remesch,Sun Staff

Imagine indulging in a softly ripened Camembert instead of creme brulee, a blue-veined Stilton instead of apple pie or a creamy goat cheese instead of chocolate mousse. xx Forget traditional gooey sweets for dessert. This is the year to say "cheese."

The after-dinner cheese course, long considered a European tradition, is making a comeback on the American dinner table. Even the 1998 Zagat Restaurant Survey includes a first-time listing of where to go for the best cheese trays.

"Cheese is returning. I can really see the difference," says Fernand Tersiguel, owner of Tersiguel's, a French restaurant in Ellicott City. "I used to lose money on cheese, but now I'm breaking even."

After taking the cheese course off his menu some time ago, the restaurateur is planning to return the offering. He will serve French cheeses exclusively in deference to his native country and only as an after-dinner course.

Many Europeans believe cheese is too "heavy" to be served as an appetizer and prefer to indulge in the protein after dinner to "close" their stomachs. "When I came to this country, it was the biggest surprise to see that cheese was served before dinner," Tersiguel says.

For those worried about fat intake, cheese actually contains fewer calories and less fat than a slice of pie.

"An average piece of pie has 450 calories and a high amount of saturated fat," says Colleen Pierre, a Baltimore-based registered dietitian. "An ounce of cheese has 110 calories and about 9 grams of fat -- that's not enough to give you a heart attack."

Pierre says that while the fat content of the entire meal needs to be taken into consideration, "There's nothing better than a piece of cheese with some crunchy fruit."

Cheese is not only pleasing to the palate, it is also easy to prepare. No more tedious desserts involving rolling out pie crusts or peeling and slicing apples. No more worries about complicated mousses or fallen souffles.

All you need to do is find a good deli or gourmet shop. Then talk to a cheesemonger, who can help take the mystery out of Muenster and ensure that you don't need to be trilingual to understand the names of cheeses. It does help to learn a few key words, such as chevre, the French word for goat; vaca, Spanish for cow; and pecora, Italian for sheep.

But if those words are too much like tongue twisters, don't worry. Most specialty stores label their cheeses so that a buyer can learn the place of origin and the type of milk used to make the cheese.

"Always ask questions and taste cheese before making a purchase," says Rochelle Wildberger, a cheese specialist at Fresh Fields, a Mount Washington food market whose cheese department was voted "Best in Baltimore" two years ago by Baltimore magazine. "We gladly make suggestions, talk about each cheese but, ultimately, you have to go with the cheese you like best."

For a dessert course, Wildberger suggests using three varieties of cheese -- about 2 ounces per person -- along with apples, grapes, olives, crusty bread and flat, crispy crackers.

Her recommendations include a Maribo, a German brie-like cheese made with creme fraiche; a Parrano, a cross between a Gouda and Parmesan-style cheese with a rich and nutty taste; and an aged Cheddar from Wisconsin with a pleasant sharp bite.

Tersiguel's suggestions for after-dinner fromage include a creamy brie or Camembert and a Bleu d'Auvergne, an intensely flavored blue cheese.

Cheeses should be stored in their original wrappings in the refrigerator at temperatures of 35 degrees to 40 degrees and brought to room temperature two hours before being served.

If time is of the essence, cheese can be brought to room temperature by microwaving it at 30 percent power and checking it every 10 seconds, says Mary Beth Sodus, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dairy Association.

"A cheesemonger might frown on this, but we have to be realistic, sometimes we just don't have two extra hours," she says.

To serve the cheese, arrange three to four types in varying shapes, tastes and textures on a cheese board or crystal platter, decorate with a few sprigs of fresh herbs, add a basket of crusty bread, bowls of fresh fruit and nuts, and voila! -- a hassle-free finale to a feast.

Despite European traditions, a hostess on this side of the ocean should feel free to stray from Old World customs and serve cheese as an appetizer or even as a main course as well as dessert.

"Cheese is perfect for any meal," Sodus says. "A cheese course evokes sharing and community."

For a cocktail buffet featuring cheese, allow 4 ounces of cheese per person. You also might want to add varied dishes such as a salad, fondue, nut bread and chocolate butter to the traditional cheese board.

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