You can keep your chutney. Cheese, for me, is best enjoyed paired with a lusciously ripe piece of sweet fruit to complement its mouth-coating richness and dense, fudgy texture. The exact fruit will depend on the cheese: toffee-scented dates, for example, are best paired with a fairly fresh, tangy cheese like goat’s or feta; stronger, sharper, crumblier cheddars go better with crisp apples or grapes. Having said this, an excellent all-round fruit for pairing with cheese is the pear. Crisp and glassy or soft and yielding in texture, tangy and grassy or delectably syrupy depending on ripeness and variety, there’s a pear to partner almost any cheese you can think of.
This combination can be enjoyed unadorned: a slice of pear, spread with a little piece of cheese, is a simple but lovely thing, and negates the need for crackers, which take up too much stomach space and mean you eat less cheese overall - a definite downside. Bread, however, is more rewarding than crackers, so worth it: a chunk of good sourdough, smeared with a soft blue or goat’s cheese and topped with slivers of glistening pear, will make you wonder why you bother cooking anything more complex, ever. I have also experimented with a dish of creamy blue cheese pasta, bacon, caramelized fennel and pears, and it was one of the best things ever to emerge from my kitchen.
The other night I decided to incorporate this combination into another cheesy, comforting dish: risotto. Although fruit in a risotto might sound odd, this absolutely works. The risotto is tender with a little bite, creamy with stock and butter but permeated by soft, caramelized onion and fennel to keep it earthy and rich against the pear. There’s the perfume of sage and thyme, which work so well with anything creamy, and the tang of blue cheese, stirred through the rice to make it even thicker and creamier. Add some Parmesan, and you have something very deeply savoury. To counteract this, pears are caramelized in a little butter and sugar and finished with a splash of treacly balsamic to keep them sweet and tangy, before topping off the risotto alongside a sprinkling of toasty pine nuts (great with both Parmesan and pears, and providing a necessary crunchy texture and buttery flavour).
If you love risotto, cheese and pears, you need this in your life. I thought about adding bacon, too, and do go ahead if you’re a rampant carnivore, but I don’t actually think this needs it. It’s a deeply satisfying plateful, and great for vegetarians (although use vegetable stock and vegetarian cheese). The combination works so well together, and it’s also rather a pretty plateful to look at, especially if you garnish with extra Parmesan and some fresh thyme leaves. Next time a cheese and fruit craving strikes, and you can be bothered to do more than just put those items unadulterated into your mouth, make this.
Risotto with caramelized balsamic pears, blue cheese and pine nuts (serves 2):
- 1 tbsp rapeseed oil
- 1 onion, very finely diced
- 1 small bulb of fennel, half finely sliced and half finely diced
- ½ tsp dried sage
- 20g butter
- 180g risotto rice
- 150ml white wine
- 1 litre chicken stock, kept hot on the hob
- 1/4 tsp rosemary and garlic salt
- A few sprigs fresh thyme, leaves only
- 50g blue cheese (I used Stilton), crumbled
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tbsp pine nuts, toasted in a dry pan
- Parmesan cheese, to serve
- For the pears:
- 2 ripe but firm pears
- A knob of butter
- 1 tsp light muscovado sugar
- 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
Heat the rapeseed oil in a large sauté pan, then cook the onion and fennel over a low heat until it has softened but not coloured – this can take up to 15 minutes. Add the sage and butter, and stir until the butter is melted, then add the rice. Cook for a couple of minutes, stirring to coat the rice in the butter, then add the wine and let it bubble until completely absorbed.
Now add the stock, a ladleful at a time, stirring after each addition until the liquid is completely absorbed before adding the next. Stop once the rice is tender but still slightly al dente (you may not need all the stock, or if you need a little more then use boiling water from the kettle), then add the salt, blue cheese, fresh thyme and a generous grind of black pepper, and stir to combine.
Meanwhile, prepare the balsamic pears. Quarter and core the pears, then slice lengthways into thin slivers. Heat the butter and sugar in a frying pan over a medium-high heat, then add the pears and cook, stirring frequently, until golden and caramelized. Add the balsamic vinegar, let it bubble over the pears to coat them, then remove from the heat and set aside.
When the risotto is ready, divide between two plates and top with the pears and pine nuts. Grate over some Parmesan and serve immediately.