Sunday, October 11, 2009

Marinated Goat Cheese and the Power of Memory

Most of us have certain foods that hold the power to instantly transport us back to childhood or another memorable time. In “Remembrance of Things Past”, Marcel Proust famously wrote an eloquent description of how a single taste of a petite madeleine cookie conjured up a flood of childhood memories, and I think many people can relate to a particular taste triggering a stream of involuntary memories. However, I’ve started to realize that I actually have the reverse issue. My awareness of the current date—and the memories of what happened on that day in any given year—is often the trigger itself for some very insistent cravings.

Sometimes these cravings are seasonally prompted, but my cravings are often weirdly specific, usually corresponding to the first time I tasted a particular dish. It’s not terribly unusual to seek out desserts featuring fresh berries when these summer gems are most plentiful, but I have had an insatiable craving for Mixed Berry Shortcakes every July 4th ever since I first experienced these in 1996. For five years now, I have been overwhelmed by an almost desperate need for Chocolate Toasts every January 30th, and I am likely to create a scrumptious BLT made with fried green tomatoes each August 19th in honor of the outrageous sandwich I had in 2006. And I get strangely hungry for goat cheese on October Ninths, largely because of a hilarious conversation I once had with Christopher Walken about bizarre dreams and goat cheese soufflés before a matinee performance on October 9, 1999! (Click here to read the story.)

This October 9th was no exception in the goat cheese department. Over the past decade, I often made my favorite Softly Scrambled Eggs with Chevre on this particular date. If I had the luxury of time, I’d bake a disk or two of Montrachet coated in fine bread crumbs and serve it atop a salad. Sometimes I simply enjoyed a ripe little wheel of Boucheron—my favorite of all goat cheeses—with some toasted baguette slices and a few thin slices of ripe pear. But since Jorge was coming over for dinner last night, I took advantage of the opportunity to make his favorite Marinated Goat Cheese with Lemon and Thyme.

This is one of my standard dishes any time I throw a party, and it never fails to be a huge hit. The goat cheese serves as a neutral canvas against which the earthy thyme leaves and zingy lemon can truly shine. A Microplane zester makes this particularly easy to prepare, and I often use it to zest the lemon as well as grate the garlic. I like to drizzle the whole thing with a great peppery olive oil, which ties the flavors together and adds a luxurious note.

Whenever we get together for a meal, Jorge frequently asks me to tell him stories about any given day, and when he said to me at dinner last night, “Tell me about your October Ninths,” I was happy to oblige. This is a date which corresponds to a whole arsenal of particularly treasured memories, especially involving the initial discovery of amazing works of art and the fortuitous re-discovery of incredible people in my life, not to mention the occasional random conversation with the likes of Christopher Walken about using goat cheese to make a soufflé! And it somehow seemed appropriate that we had a whole plate of this beautiful marinated goat cheese on the table to accompany us through a recital of these stories, going all the way back to a memorable 1999 and far beyond.

I used to make this with the small 3-ounce logs of chevre, but I always found that it disappeared too quickly so I’ve increased the quantity to use a large 8-ounce log. Be warned: this is very addictive! If for some reason I have any leftovers, I love adding some of the marinated cheese and the herbed oil to a salad, which can turn into a meal of its own.

An 8-ounce log soft goat cheese, slightly softened
The grated zest of 1 large (or 2 small) lemons
1 large (or 2 small) garlic clove, finely minced
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, coarsely chopped
4 tablespoons good-quality olive oil, divided
Salt and pepper
Toasted baguette slices, for serving

Form the softened goat cheese into a flat disk shape on a large plate or a wide shallow bowl. Mix the lemon zest, garlic and thyme together in a small bowl. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil, a sprinkling of salt and pepper and mix till thoroughly combined. Spread this mixture evenly onto the goat cheese, pressing it slightly into the cheese. Cover with the remaining tablespoons of olive oil and several good grinds of salt and pepper. Let it marinate for at least 30 minutes to allow the flavors to mingle before serving. (If you’re preparing this ahead of time, let the marinated goat cheese stand at room temperature for about 20 minutes before serving.) Serve it with toasted baguette slices and watch it disappear before your very eyes.

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