Pear Crisps with Blue Cheese & Spiced Nuts
My home would never be described as formal. (Think two teenage boys, their buddies and a plethora of bats, baseballs, basketballs, footballs, guitars, book bags, notebooks, and life-size paper mache science homework projects.) While I could do without some of the commotion at times, I prefer a generally relaxed atmosphere. In keeping with that, I tend to be a casual entertainer. But, that doesn’t mean I don’t like to get a little playful and ‘wow’ my guests.
When I invite friends over for a meal or holiday, I almost always start with a carefully-sourced bit of indulgence…say cheese! Not just any cheese, mind you—if I’m going to treat myself to even a morsel of cheese, I want to make it count (more on this later). Most cheese tastes great with something sweet, so I often serve it with quince paste, fig jam or fruit chutney. All are good choices and can be purchased at a well-stocked cheese counter or shop. But, once in a while, I pair a first-rate cheese with these beautiful, homemade (even Martha Stewart-ish) pear crisps instead. My husband loves them because they are a great gluten-free, cracker/bread substitute. They also make a great addition to a DYI holiday food gift basket.
A little bit about making the pear crisps. Nope—you don’t need a dehydrator. However, you will need a mandolin (either that or have some pretty stellar chef-level knife skills.) There are some inexpensive, good quality mandolins available. A mandolin is a great tool to have around your kitchen – it makes quick work out of a lot of vegetable prep (think coleslaw and potato gratin).
Once the pears are thinly sliced, I brush them with a light coating of maple syrup (honey and sugar also work) and then sprinkle on a little black pepper. They take two to three hours in a low oven to crisp up–so hunker down with a pot of coffee (or bottle of wine) and be patient. The wait is worth the end result–the fruity essence of the pear is captured in these delicate, gorgeous crisps.
Now back to the cheese – let’s just say that shopping for cheese is my form of retail therapy. I’ve been known to linger at a cheese shop for what might be considered an inappropriate, extended length of time.There is a broadening selection of cheese available to explore these days and many of the finest are now coming from local artisanal cheese makers. (Good thing: It’s about time that we Americans come up with a better cheese to represent this fine, cheese-loving nation. I mean, really, is American cheese the best we can do?)
Whether I end up serving one large piece or a selection of three or four cheeses, I promise that you will never find a bland, mass-produced Brie (which in this country is rarely true Brie) or a hunk of waxy Swiss in the mix (sorry, Dad). I always go for cheese with a little spunk and and some funk: an oozy, tangy goat cheese, a nutty Gruyere, a pungent blue cheese, or a triple cream Camembert layered with some earthy black truffles – yes, please! …So, although I may be laid back about the pile of size 11 (scary) sneakers that seem to be multiplying in my front foyer, I’m anything but when it comes to cheese!