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Fromage Fort

There are two clear, stackable plastic bins on the top shelf of my refrigerator. Our refrigerator is mostly a war zone where condiments, pickles, and a half gallon jar of sauerkraut vie for space with half-empty bottles of wine, containers of leftover chicken soup, and a truly irresponsible amount of jam and butter.

The plastic bins on top, though, are something of a neutral zone. I would be lying if I said they stood in stark contrast to the rest of the fridge--pristine and clutter-free. Most often, those bins are filled with what would appear to the untrained eye to be bits of refrigerator flotsam and jetsam. But really, they are filled with cheese.

If there is one food that I have something resembling an obsession with, it is cheese. It's an obsession that started when I discovered goat cheese and that ripened as I worked on a goat dairy for several years. I have been largely indiscriminate in my love for cheese. I have my favorites, and then there are those cheeses that I do not care for, but I mostly just love cheese in all its beautiful, varied forms.

I love soft, supple cheeses, cheeses that ooze, cheeses that crumble, cheeses that crunch between your teeth. I love cheeses that smell like hay and sweet cream and dirty socks. I adore the restrained oily nuttiness of alpine cheeses--those cream-colored, smooth-textured beauties from high pastures where I can only imagine the cows gorge themselves on nothing but flowers and sip crystal clear snow melt. The mushroomy perfume of a delicate bloomy cheese waiting meltingly beneath its fine, white skin is one of my favorite smells.

The short story is that cheese is probably the one food I don't think I could give up. As such, its place tucked away on the top shelf of my refrigerator is a sacred one. But it is also a place where things can get easily out of hand. I might be innocently walking by the cheese counter at our local market, and the next think I know there are three darling wedges of cheese in my basket. Multiply that by a few more intemperate shopping experiences and those plastic bins are full of half-eaten cheese nubbins wrapped in plastic.

Leave it to the French to have a solution to this particular problem. I first read about fromage fort (literally, "strong cheese") several years ago. It is essentially a means of turning cheese odds and ends into a sort of spread. There aren't really any rules, but I have found that there are a few things to keep in mind when making fromage fort:

·      Don't use more than 1/4 the total amount of cheese in blue cheese. This isn't a hard and fast rule--just glance at the cheeses you're going to use and make sure that the amount of blue cheese is about 1/4. You don't have to use blue cheese at all, but if you do it can be really easy to overpower the other cheeses with it. Some blues are stronger than others, so use your judgment.

·      You can alter the texture of the spread by adding more or less white wine and softer or harder cheeses. You'll have a soft-textured spread if there is a greater proportion of soft cheese (like goat cheese or bloomy rind cheeses), but if you don't have much soft cheese to add, you can always add more wine during the blending stage. Another option is to add some cream cheese if you have it knocking around in your fridge.

·      Any added flavors (garlic, herbs) will intensify over time. Keep that in mind and be fairly conservative at first. You'd be surprised how easy it is to add too much garlic. For this latest batch, we actually roasted a whole head of garlic and squeezed the softened cloves directly into the food processor with the cheese. This added a nice, mellow garlic flavor that tasted great and didn't overwhelm.

·      For hard cheeses, I recommend grating them, then adding the cheese to the food processor.

I can't really give you a recipe for fromage fort. It all depends on what cheeses you have in your fridge and the ratio of soft to hard cheeses. But that's the beauty of the thing. It's designed to make use of odds and ends. In that spirit, go forth and clean out your cheese drawer! Fromage fort makes a great appetizer for a holiday party.

Other cheesy appetizers you might enjoy: Asparagus and Ricotta Tartines, Leek-Stuffed Mushrooms, Leek Dip

Fromage Fort

Pulse in a food processor until finely ground:
           Cheese scraps, rinds removed, any hard cheeses grated
Add as desired:
           Garlic (raw or roasted--use very little garlic if raw)
           Herbs (fresh or dried)
           Black pepper
           Red pepper flakes
To make a paste, pour slowly with the food processor running:
           Dry white wine
Add wine until the cheese is the texture you want. You can also add a splash of cognac if you like. If the cheese gets too firm as it sits, you can always put it back in the food processor and add more wine.
Fromage fort is especially nice served with flavorful dark breads such as rye or pumpernickel.

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