Your initial attempt at putting together a solid cheese plate is a lot like having sex for the first time. You think it will be the final step to becoming a true adult. But you have no idea what you're doing, and end up risking embarrassment for little more than a messy table and bad breath.
Really though, assembling a solid cheese board takes little more than a trip to Trader Joe's. You just need to know what to look for. So we enlisted the help of author and ex-VP of NYC’s Murray's CheeseLiz Thorpe to decode the dairy aisle.
You'd think a fancy-pants cheese consultant would be doing us a favor by stooping to Trader Joe's instead of some bougie shop. But Thorpe's a certified TJ's fan, and praised the store's quality, price point, and ample cracker/fruit selection. She shared her tips on cheese shopping, plus a plan to execute a baller TJ's cheese spread for around $21 (minus crackers and such). That's more than enough cheese for eight people. Adjust your purchase according to the number of guests, and definitely use that extra money for a case or six of Two Buck Chuck.
Starting off is almost always the hardest part. Don't panic! And definitely don't be distracted by the cheese with all the crazy shit inside of it.
"TJ's has lots of cheeses with stuff in them, like fruits. I avoid those and go for their goat medallions ($4 per 6oz package). They're smooth and citrusy with no graininess or sour flavor," said Thorpe. "And you can make your own flavors by rolling them in ground black pepper, dried fruits (cherries are my fave), chopped nuts, or herbs (herbes de Provence is good one). Way cooler and incredibly easy."
Move your spread beyond Brie
You'll want to pick up something that's savory and smearable, but you don't need to fall back on a standard block of Brie. You can, but where's the fun in being predictable?
"Trader Joe’s Camembert ($1.75 per¼lb) had some nutty, mushroomy aspirations that made it more interesting than expected, but I went for a slab of the cream-enriched triple-crème Delice de Bourgogne ($3 per ¼lb)," Thorpe said. "Spread on Pumpkin Cranberry Crisps and you have something akin to pumpkin cheesecake."
Don't be sheepish about sheep's milk
You could build a whole cheese plate around stuff made from cow's milk and be just fine. But you're also being a little -- sigh -- sheepish if you don't move around the barnyard. You're also denying yourself and your guests some more nuanced flavors.
"Everyone knows (and most love) manchego, the sheep cheese from Spain. My sheepy pick, however, is Mini Basque ($2.75 per ¼lb). Hailing from the French Pyrenees, this style of aged sheep cheese is firm but fatty and tender, with a smooth, mellow, heading-on-sweet flavor," Thorpe said.
Get something firm with some intensity
While the cheeses above are damn fine offerings in their own rights, the mark of a true cheese-plate maestro is creating a cohesive sense of balance. The trick is creating a medley of cheeses with complementary flavor profiles and textures -- basically, mixing things up while keeping the overall plate consistent. So you will definitely need a bracing, firm cheese to round out the lineup. Don’t worry: It's not that hard!
"My favorites came down to a Euro classic: raw cow milk cave-aged Gruyere ($3 per ¼lb) and Trader Joe’s Toscano with red syrah ($4 per ½lb). The former is beefy and full of roasted nut intensity with a dense, chewy texture," Thorpe said. "The latter is made by an excellent cheesemaker in Wisconsin, a kind of Parmesan-ish cheese that tastes like melted butter with a fruity edge from a washing in TJ's coastal syrah."
Both of these pair very well with another TJ's specialty: fig butter, a just-sweet-enough fig jam that Thorpe called "an ideal vehicle" for these firm, flavor-intensive cheeses. Oh, and obviously you should pair them with syrah.
Blue cheeses are often gambles. Sure, sometimes they are quite pleasant and totally accommodating. Other times, they're just way too pungent for most people to enjoy. It’s all about hitting the right notes, and when you do, it really ties the board together.
"The French blue cheese Roquefort -- when old or in poor condition -- can taste like nail polish remover. TJ's offering made by Societe ($2.50 per ¼lb) is moist and heavy, dissolving instantly on the tongue in a wash of mushroom, salt, and something savory. Like the hard cheeses we picked, it's a fine foil to the fig butter,” Thorpe said.
Your Tl;DR shopping list
In case you didn't read any of this and are just looking for a quick list to hand to your mom/butler/significant other, here you go, charlatans:
Trader Joe's goat medallions
Delice de Bourgogne
Trader Joe's Camembert
Trader Joe's Mini Basque
Trader Joe's Toscano with syrah
While prices vary slightly between locations, you should be able to score all of the above cheeses for right around $21, netting you nearly 2lbs of seriously great cheese. That's a solid start. For you. Maybe double down if you want to share.
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Wil Fulton is a staff writer for Thrillist. He actually blames Gwyneth Paltrow for most of the world's problems. Follow him @wilfulton.