Sunday, November 17, 2013

Ploughman's Party

Molasses and vinegar flavored Branston pickle and pickled onions accompany a British cheese board.
Thanksgiving success is often a matter of keeping excess kitchen activity low, particularly during the hours before and even the night before the big meal.  Take inspiration from a meal that doesn't require much, if any, kitchen equipment or cooking time-- the very English Ploughman's Lunch-- for an easy pre-dinner cocktail hour.   Everything is laid out cold (or room temperature) so it can be set up quickly and does not interfere with any wild goings-on in the kitchen.
-->It can even stand in for dinner one night (maybe the night before Thanksgiving as relatives arrive) or as a Super Bowl theme.
Every culture has a bread and cheese meal, often served with a fruit confection like Membrillo (quince paste) with Manchego in Spain or fig jam with Italy's Pecorino Romano cheese.  Ploughman's Lunch is served in pubs across the British Isles and includes local cheese, slabs of hearty bread and pickled vegetables epitomized by Branston Pickle.  This jarred chutney, a combination of root and winter vegetables preserved in a molasses and vinegar pickling medium, is easy to find in the U.S.  It's strong, piquant flavor stands up beautifully to aged cheddars.

When I was a student in England I discovered the ploughman's lunch served with a pint of bitter, the England's pale ale and generally a lower alcohol choice.  Cider (hard or soft) and beer are natural partners. Fill a cooler or an elegant ice bucket alongside your Ploughman's cheese spread and let people serve themselves.

Sometimes the pub special included a really generous helping of pickled cauliflower florets, pearl onions and gherkins.   A little ham, pate or cooked and iced shrimp can augment your table to add a little more substance if the numbers are large or if this is the main meal on the night before Thanksgiving. When we enjoy a Ploughman's Lunch it accompanies a fall soup like pureed butternut squash and roasted pear soup.

While it is easy to picture an 18th century farmhand sitting in the shade of the plough enjoying his midday meal of cheese, bread and beer, the pub version was not popular in the U.K. until the 1950s. A serious post-war effort by England's Cheese Bureau intended to reignite their industry after intense rationing promoted the Ploughman's Lunch into such a classic that even today tourists expect to see it on pub menus.

Here in America,  it is easy to find a few classic English cheeses and pickles and chutneys to accompany.  If you cannot find Brandston pickle, try Major Grey's Chutney.  The American pepper jelly would also be welcome at this meal.  When I was shopping for cheeses I asked the counter man if there was anything else besides Cheddar and Stilton I could include among English cheeses.  I had just picked up a wedge of Wensleydale from Yorkshire speckled with cranberries which fit the season perfectly.

We went over to the Cheddar section where I selected a pale yellow Seaside Cheddar that had aged for 14 months.   As luck would have it, an Englishman was there too.  I explained my plan and when asked about the cranberries in the Wensleydale, he assured me this was enjoyed on both sides of the pond not just a gimmick sent to us for the season. I'm glad I saw it.  Cranberry Wensleydale is my cheese find of the season and will show up right through New Year's.  Wensleydale is mild with honey undertones, a nice foil to tart cranberries. 

He also intimated that though its nice to have a range of cheeses, if you can only find or afford one cheese, make it cheddar, English or American.  As he put it, "It wouldn't be a ploughmans without Cheddar."

Wishing you and yours a Happy Thanksgiving with all the sanity you can handle.