Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Holiday Cheese Ball

After the success I've had serving Amy Sedaris' L'il Smoky Cheese Ball, I decided to make another one to bring home for the holidays. Since my sister is a vegetarian and would therefore not enjoy a cheese ball that was reminiscent of bacon, I set out to create one with a different flavour.
I found a forgotten jar of gourmet mango chutney in my pantry, and added a few tablespoons of it to the base recipe of cream cheese and butter, substituting aged cheddar for the smoked gouda in Amy's recipe. Inspired by the pink grocery store cheese ball that my parents usually have on hand, I added a generous glug of port to the mixture. Then, for extra flavour, colour, and texture, I folded in a handful of chopped dried cranberries. Finally, I rolled the cheese ball in a mixture of chopped toasted pecans and walnuts.

This cheese ball couldn't be more different from the earlier version, but it was a fantastic and festive appetizer. The mango chutney and port brought a lot of sweetness to the mixture, which was balanced nicely with the tartness of the cranberries and the sharpness of the aged cheddar. Once again, the toasted nuts brought the taste and texture of the cheese ball to the next level.

I enjoyed this cheese ball as part of a finger food buffet dinner, spread on rice crackers and crostini, and as breakfast the following morning on 7-grain crackers with a big mug of coffee (over the holidays, I will eat absolutely any leftover for my first meal of the day. I think it's a big part of what makes Christmas special).

I'm excited to try even more cheese ball variations. With a great base recipe and tasty additions, how could it go wrong? How about, in 2010, we all live on the wild side, and experiment with our recipes? Try something new, share your results with your loved ones, and feel warm and fuzzy as you stuff yourself silly. Cheers!

Holiday Cheeseball: The Recipe

2 sticks cream cheese, room temperature
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, room temperature
2 cups grated aged cheddar cheese (I used 4 yr old Canadian)
2 tbsp mango chutney
1/4 cup port
1 cup dried cranberries, chopped
2 cups toasted pecans and/or walnuts, chopped

To toast nuts, spread on a cookie sheet and into a 350F oven for 8-10 minutes. Cool, then chop.

Using an electric mixer, mix cream cheese, butter, and grated cheese. Stir in mango chutney and port. Fold in cranberries. Let mixture chill overnight.

Form mixture into two balls. Roll into chopped nuts, pressing them into the cheeseball. Serve with crostini and/or crackers.


Sunday, December 6, 2009

Polenta with Marinara Sauce and Mushrooms

On the first snowy morning of the season, Jeff decided to make himself some cornmeal porridge for breakfast; however, by following the directions on the back of the bag that are meant to feed an entire family, he unintentionally ended up with an entire saucepan full of it. After he served himself a bowl and set to sweetening it with cream and brown sugar, I poured the rest of the plain porridge into a dish so that it would cool completely and mold.

Although traditional Italian polenta is cornmeal that is more coarsely ground, I was confident that this would be a close approximation. Since it's not at all common in my region, I've only tried polenta once before, several years ago in a restaurant in Fredericton, where it was cut into triangles and served under a wild mushroom ragu. I loved how it was an interesting alternative to pasta or potatoes, and how its neutral taste absorbed the flavour of the ragu. Armed with this tasty memory, I set to work on creating a polenta dish to call my own.

To start, I sautéd a mixture of sliced cremini, shitake, and white button mushrooms with kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper in butter and olive oil until soft and fragrant.

I then seasoned the sliced polenta and fried it in butter until it was golden brown on each side. This took about 3-4 minutes on each side on medium-high heat.

I placed the fried polenta in the bottom of a shallow dish. I thought of making it arty and having the pieces radiate outward in a star shape, but then I snapped back to reality. That's just not how I operate! Random placement is just fine.

Lucky for me, Jeff had a marinara sauce bubbling away on the stove (made from crushed canned tomatoes, onions, garlic, basil, oregano, thyme, bay leaves, and copious amounts of red wine.) I ladled a generous serving of the sauce all over the polenta, and topped it off with the mushrooms.

The only thing left to do was to add some grated parmesan cheese for garnish, of course.

I was really pleased with this dish. The buttery polenta acted like a delicious sponge, and really took on the flavour of the sauce. I also loved the combination of the different kinds of mushrooms. This was a very hearty vegetarian dish, one that was perfect for the cold weather we've suddenly come into.

I'm grateful for Jeff's culinary mishap, because it allowed me to be creative and try something new.

In fact, from now on when he gets a craving for cornmeal porridge, I'll insist that he follows the instructions on the back of the bag.

Amanda's notes: Something I'd like to try in the future would be to mix herbs and spices and/or cheese into the cornmeal before allowing it to cool.
I think leftover slices of polenta broiled with a sharp cheese on top would make a wonderful breakfast.