As always, buying high quality ingredients is the key factor here, and consider presentation. If you don't have a small pretty dish, hit TJ Maxx and pick up a festive serving tray (ignore my old plates in some photos...as these were quicky appetizers made at home for just Mike and myself.)
The first option you have comes from our amazing culinary friends - the Italians. Who knows better that you can combine a slice of tomato, a single piece of basil and a ball of fat, milky Buffalo Mozarella and make a bite of sheer heaven by simply drizzling it with balsamic vinegar, olive oil and a light dusting of sea salt and fresh ground pepper:
3-4 Fresh Roma Tomatoes
1 large bunch fresh basil (I prefer the kind bought with the roots still in the dirt)
1 container fresh Buffallo Mozarella or 1 large ball of Mozarella*
1-2 Tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1-2 Tbsp Balsamic Vinegar
Sea Salt & Ground Pepper to taste
*Note: Fresh tomato and basil are important, but the coup de grace of this dish is the mozarella. If you have the time and the funds, I highly suggest going to a specialized cheese store (such as The Cheese Store, with locations in Beverly Hills and Silverlake). You can also find a nice selection of gourmet cheeses at your specialty supermarket, like Whole Foods or Bristol Farms. The more milk in the cheese, the better this will taste. When I was in Naples and cut into a piece of caprese the ball of cheese literally bleed milk across my plate. The moist, fresh milky flavor combined with the nuttyness of olive oil and acidic balsamic is something to experience at least once in your life. Yes, I feel this passionately about cheese.
If you are a busy person and have neither the time nor funds to hit a cheese store or specialty supermarket, be discerning when you are at your local Ralphs or Albertsons. You are looking for a cheese that looks moist and doesn't have added herbs, etc.
1. Slice tomatoes into 1/4" wide slices. If necessary, slice mozarella into 1/4" slices.
2. Arrange all ingredients on a serving plate in an artistic fashion, using the following order:
I like to do this in one long row (as shown above). Some people prefer to arrange the tomato slices on the bottom of the tray, and then stack on a layer of cheese, followed by the basil. This is your world, have fun with it!
3. Drizzle a few tablespoons of olive oil and balsamic over the dish. Lightly sprinkle with sea salt and fresh ground pepper. Whala!
(If you are transporting this dish, wait to do this last step right before serving.)
This second item is near and dear to my heart:
The Cheese Plate
My sincerest "thank you" to the French for inventing the cheese plate. The cheese plate, much like chili, is a general idea that can personalized in more ways than I can describe. For me, variety and simplicity are key. And yes, to beat a dead horse, fresh high-quality ingredients.
Think of your cheeseplate as a venture to explore a variety of flavors and textures. Sweet, versus salty. Acidic versus creamy and basic. Firm drier cheese, versus soft and spreadable.
I especially adore brie and include it on every cheese plate. You can find some great spreadable alternatives, such as Goat Cheese rolled up with herbs or apricot preserves at Trader Joes.
Meat selections can range from prosciutto to salami or even thin-sliced turkey, if you are trying to be a bit healthier.
The selection I picked for this particular plate was a variety of what I already had in the house with a few add-ons:
A selection of 2-3 cheeses. I used the following:
-Aged Irish Cheddar
-Applewood Smoked Mozarella
A selection of 1-2 thin-cured meats. I used the following:
A selection of 1-2 nuts and/or olives. I used the following:
-Roasted and Salted Pecan Halves
-Manzalla Green Olives
A selection of 1-2 spreads. I used the following:
-Quince Artisinal Preserve
-Fig Artisinal Preserve
(I also love to use stone ground mustard)
A selection of 1-2 fruits. I used the following:
(Grapes, figs and dates are all wonderful alternatives)
Bread or Crackers, for spreading.
My favorite is a good, old fashioned sliced baguette.
Arrange all ingredients on a plate, or plates in a an artful fashion (I like to roll up the slices of meat into little piles and place piles of nuts or fruit inbetween). Slice up bread and serve in a bowl or basket lined with a cloth napkin; or arrange crackers on a plate.
Be sure to include a few cheese spreaders and tongs or small spoons for serving the added olives, spreads and other goodies. Poor a class of champange and enjoy a wonderful New Year's party!