Saturday, June 28, 2008

Tangy Asiago-Almond Spread

At the risk of showing pride, I'll admit that I was pleased with how the smoked salmon spread (blog post of 6/25/08) turned out. Then today I discussed menu with a bride-to-be whose wedding we will be catering in November. She is vegetarian, as have been a number of people whose weddings we have catered in the last year or two. Aside from no 'roast beef station' (which we don't do anyway, but typical high-end caterers do), nor 'ham biscuits' for real Southerners, vegetarian means creative for parties. It struck me to my dismay that my new favorite appetizer spread would not do for the wedding, and we need several appetizers, since the wine and beer bar will be open well before dinner. The idea hit me that asiago cheese, with which I have a love-hate relationship, might be as strong flavored as smoked salmon and be the base for a tasty vegetarian spread.

Real Asiago is a tangy dry cheese from a town of that name in the Alpine region of eastern Italy. But I've never had the real thing. There is an 'asiago' from Wisconsin I'm familiar with that is very sharply tangy, and moderately priced. I don't like it, frankly, when it's baked on top of bread or bagels. But it challenged me. With that much character, asiago should be able to be put to good use. You'll have to judge if I've accomplished that.

This spread also contains almond butter, which I get freshly made at our Dekalb Farmer's Market. But pretty tasty almond butter is also available at Trader Joes and at health food stores. The almonds work well with the asiago to tone it down, give it a mellowness, and add their own particular charm. As with the smoked salmon spread, the wine-marinated sun-dried tomatoes and minced scallion green and freshly grated black pepper do their magic. I was, in fact, as pleased with this vegetarian appetizer spread as with the salmon version.

In terms of wines that this would go with this -- although the spread would be part of an appetizer or hors d'oeuvre course, rather than a featured course -- almost any fairly dry red would do. The dish is not acidic, having no lemon juice or other strongly tart tast that would require an acidic wine. And unlike the salmon version this replaces, the asiago-almond version does not need a white wine. Crackers, bread, or cucumber on which to serve the spread should not be salty.

The recipe makes enough for the appetizer for six or more people. Leftovers keep well in the fridge.

Tangy Asiago-Almond Spread Tim

2 tablespoons (packed) diced dried tomato, measured after you dice it
2 tablespoons white wine
1/2 pound (8 ounces) cream cheese or low-fat cream cheese
3/8 cup (6 tablespoons) packed grated asiago cheese
1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) almond butter
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons (packed) thin-sliced green part of scallion

Using a chef's knife on a cutting board, shred the dry tomato, if not already shredded, and then dice it. Soak the tomato in white wine at least 15 minutes. Finely slice the green part of a scallion and cut across the slices a few times, until you have 2 teaspoons, packed. Grind the black pepper.

With a fork, mash the cream cheese with the grated cheese, almond butter, and pepper in a bowl. Mix until reasonably smooth. Add the marinated tomatoes and any juices, and onion greens. Mix well. Let sit for a few minutes for flavors to mingle. Mix again, and taste. Add a little salt if needed (the quantity depends on how salty the cheese and almond butter were). If the spread is very thick, add a teaspoon of milk or water, and mix well. Add more liquid only if necessary.

Serve in a shallow bowl, sprinkled with minced parsley or thinly sliced scallion greens. Accompany with water crackers or other low-salt crackers, thinly sliced baguette, or other crusty bread. Alternatively, use cucumber sliced 1/8-inch thick, cutting on an angle to make slices longer than they are wide. Rinse and drain the slices.

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