I love to cook. But if there’s one thing that I like even more, it’s having someone else cook for me. Playing hostess is very nice, but it has nothing on the sheer luxury of sitting (or heck, even standing) in someone else’s kitchen, sipping a glass of wine (or, in a pinch, a cold Pabst), and watching that someone whip up a meal for me. Just tell me where to show up and when, and I’ll be right over. I’ll also reward you with a prompt thank-you note. I don’t care if it’s a cheeseburger or a four-course country-French hoop-dee-doo: it’s all pretty wonderful to me. And as luck would have it—which is also pretty wonderful—I have, over the years, amassed a good collection of Friends Who Like to Cook, which means that often I don’t have to. Among types of friends, this is my favorite by far. Cooking is what we do, and even more importantly, it’s what we do for each other.
Just last week, for example, there was Jimmy, who baked eggs and bacon while I sat, thanked my lucky stars, and sipped a Mimosa. The week before that, there was Shauna, who served up pork chops with a sweet-tart sauce of Italian plums, and all I had to do was set the table. [A blessedly low-pressure task, since I was, ahem, a bit slowed by our champagne aperitif.] And then there was my friend Keaton and her man Mark, who invited us to dinner this past Saturday. The evening was billed as a birthday celebration for Brandon and me—both Virgos, born on the 10th and 14th, respectively—but really, mainly, it was an excuse to spend a few hours together, and to stand around the kitchen and sip something cold on a warm night. Best of all, it was a delicious meal, and all I had to do were the hors d’oeuvres. Keaton knew just what I wanted for my birthday.
In keeping with the spirit of things, I wanted to make something that was supremely unfussy. So, recalling a recipe that I once clipped from Saveur, I sliced a log of goat cheese into thick, white discs, which I lay like loose paving stones in a shallow dish. Then I ran a bath of olive oil over the top and scattered around lemon zest, herbs, and sea salt. Standing in Mark’s kitchen, we scooped up drippy hunks of the soft cheese and ate them with water crackers and beer, which I highly recommend.
It was almost as good as the late-summer meal they made for us: a salad of sweet onions, okra, and homegrown tomatoes; slices of pan con tomate with slivered manchego; eggplant involtini filled with onions, sweet peppers, and something else that I ate too eagerly to identify; a spicy, brothy stew of olive oil, artichokes, and potatoes; and a two-layer coconut cake. It was sheer luxury, the stuff of great birthdays—right up to the sad moment near midnight when Brandon and I were soundly defeated at Trivial Pursuit. But we got to take home the leftovers of the marinated goat cheese, and no crappy Millennium Edition can cast a shadow over that.
In fact, we so loved this cheese that on Sunday, I found myself making a second go-round—a one-off riff this time, inspired by a recipe of my sister’s—for a second birthday gathering with friends that night. Next to not cooking at all, it is the easiest thing I can imagine.
Marinated Chèvre with Lemon Zest and Fresh Herbs
Inspired by Laura Chenel and Saveur
This recipe marks one of the rare occasions on which I am choosing to not give precise quantities—mainly because I didn’t use them myself. [Brandon is so proud of me.] I put this dish together by eye, mostly, and so far as I can tell, it would be hard to go wrong. The original formula calls for Italian parsley and chives, but I used basil, thyme, and marjoram instead, because that’s what we had on the patio. The only element to be careful with is the lemon zest, which can easily overwhelm the other flavors. I like this best after it has had a good day to rest in the refrigerator, where the lemon flavor softens wonderfully and melds with the oil and herbs. It makes for an easy, refreshing, end-of-summer appetizer.
About 6 oz. fresh, mild goats’ milk cheese, such as Laura Chenel’s Fresh Goat Log
Good-tasting olive oil
About 4 pinches of finely grated lemon zest
About 1 Tbs chopped fresh basil
About 1 tsp chopped fresh thyme
About ½ tsp chopped fresh marjoram
Sea salt, such as Maldon, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Slice the cheese into ½”-thick slices, and place them in a single layer on a serving platter or in a shallow dish. Drizzle olive oil over the cheese to just—or nearly—cover. Scatter the lemon zest and herbs over the top, and season with salt and pepper. Cover with plastic wrap, and allow the cheese to sit for a couple of hours at room temperature, or, preferably, in the refrigerator for a day or so. Allow to sit at room temperature for at least 30 minutes before serving with crackers, such as water crackers, or warm, crusty bread.
Yield: 4 or so servings
My Sister’s Marinated Chèvre
My sister Lisa made this delicious mixture at Christmastime a few years ago, and with a bit of prodding, she wrote the recipe for me on a sheet of lined paper, which I have kept in my clippings file ever since. My mother thinks that the recipe may have originally come from my father’s cousin Sharon, so perhaps I should call it “My Father’s Cousin’s Marinated Chèvre, as Made for Me by My Sister.” Either way, it makes a rustic but elegant appetizer and, like the recipe above, is wonderfully easy. If you can, make it a day ahead, and stash it in the refrigerator to let the flavors meld.
1 lb. fresh, mild goats’ milk cheese, such as Laura Chenel’s Fresh Goat Log
2 cloves garlic, cut in half and smashed under the side of a chef’s knife
½ tsp dried rosemary (or a bit more, minced, if you use fresh)
½ tsp dried thyme (or a bit more, minced, if you use fresh)
¼ tsp red pepper flakes
1 tsp peppercorns, either black or multicolored
1 Tbs chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 Tbs chopped fresh basil
½ cup kalamata olives, pitted and coarsely chopped
¼ cup sun-dried tomatoes
Good-tasting olive oil
Slice the cheese into ½”-thick slices, and place them in a single layer on a serving platter or in a shallow dish. Place the garlic pieces among the slices, and sprinkle with herbs, pepper flakes, peppercorns, olives, and tomatoes. Add olive oil to nearly cover the slices. Cover with plastic wrap, and allow the cheese to marinate for a few hours at room temperature or in the refrigerator for a few days. Allow to sit at room temperature for at least 30 minutes before serving with crackers, such as water crackers, or warm, crusty bread.
Note: On a whim, Brandon put part of a batch of this into the food processor, and it became a delicious creamy spread that would be perfect for sandwiches of grilled vegetables or meats, or on a crostini. Mmm, mmm.
Yield: Quite a bit