Give Thanks for Cheese

My all-time favorite holiday is Thanksgiving: A day set aside to give thanks to the bounty of the harvest. Just as the weather starts to get chilly and hearty appetites are sparked, this beautiful autumn holiday rolls in with potatoes in every form, roasted squashes, Brussels sprouts, and of course, crispy turkey with heaps of rich gravy. My mouth starts to water just thinking about it.

The harvest is an important time for cheese, too. This is the time where most animals have been feeding outside on rich, full summer grasses.Their milk is the best by the time autumn cheeses roll through.

For Thanksgiving, I usually start planning about a month ahead, figuring who in my family will bring what, which farm to get our turkey from and how to get my mom to make even more of her famous poppy seed butter again. One ridiculously easy dish that always starts my families' Thanksgiving feast is, of course, cheese.

We like to keep it pretty loose for the holidays. With about 23 people coming over, all family, all ready to eat as soon as they walk through the door, cheese has served as a lifesaver to abate the hungry throngs. The strategy: put out 3 easily accessible cheeses, that is cheese that everyone in the fam will like, along with some crusty bread, candied nuts, maybe a bit of fruit and a homemade cranberry jam.

Once that’s set up, I can step back and let them attack. It gives me plenty of time to put the finishing touches on my bird and finish setting the Thanksgiving buffet.

Thanksgiving flavors are all about fall so the first thing I think of is spice. Cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, pumpkin pie, roasted root vegetables, acidic bright cranberries and, of course, savory rich gravy and juicy turkey. When choosing cheeses for the turkey day feast, I like to think about those flavors and be sure the cheeses I choose don’t fight them but rather prime the palate for what’s to come.

Top Thanksgiving Cheeses:
  • Robiola Due Latte are soft, ripened little squares of succulence.

Creamy and rich by a combination of sheep and cow’s milk, their sumptuousness and slight lactic tang works perfectly with my homemade cranberry jam. The combination is so good, it’s my go-to contribution to holiday parties anytime from October through December. It’s very impressive and absurdly easy to put together. Something like a Cranberry Lambic (A Belgium fruit Beer) pairs really nicely with this as well as any bright light red wine like a Gamay.

  • Two-year Goudas are rich, buttery, nutty and caramelized in flavor.

I love the super aged five-year Gouda’s, too, but the two-year cuts better and is generally more accessible. Some quite good Goudas are Old Amsterdam, Beemster Vlaskaas, and Marieke, which is made in Wisconsin. Traditionally Gouda’s were eaten during the flax seed harvest in Holland with rich dark flax bread. I love to accompany a big hunk of this cheese alongside some flaxseed crackers and slices of dark pumpernickel bread that I’ve toasted in the oven till crisp. Dark beers like stouts are amazing with this cheese but my favorite is a crisp malty Octoberfest to keep things seasonal.

  • Clothbound Cheddars are it for Thanksgiving.

What’s more fall-like than a sharp robust, grassy cheddar? I like to serve a nice slab alongside some roasted cashews and a pile of crisp, sliced apples. I usually toss the apple slices in just a bit of lemon juice to keep them from browning, but they’re eaten so quickly I’m not sure it even matters.

Some of my favorite Clothbound Cheddars are; Neal’s Yark Dairy Keen’s from Somerset England, Cabot Clouthbound from The Cellars at Jasper Hill in Greeensboro Vermont and Fiscalini’s Bandaged Wrapped Cheddar from Modesto California.

Bonus Tip: Spread Out Your Cheeses

Don’t cause a fight over the cheese board. I like to put each of the three cheeses and their accompaniments out on separate plates or boards throughout the house. Put one on the table, one in the living room or wherever guests are mingling pre-meal, and of course, one in the kitchen near you. When it’s time to sit down for the main meal, everyone’s tried some cheese and usually there is enough left over to bring to the table and pair up with sides and crumble over turkey with gravy and mashed potatoes.

Get some extra and put it aside for making leftovers, but that’s another blog.

Jason Sobocinski is the owner and founder of New Haven’s award-winning restaurant/cheese shop Caseus Fromagerie Bistro, host of Cooking Channel’s The Big Cheese and an all-around food lover.

Tune into The Big Cheese on Cooking Channel tonight at 9:30 p.m. ET.

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