AMERICANS' growing sophistication with wines is evidenced by the mushrooming of specialty cheese and wine shops, where you can find an interesting new wine and the perfect cheese to uplift it.
A model of excellence in this field is the Wine and Cheese Center in San Francisco, where one huge wall is lined with redwood racks holding rare wines of California and the rest of the world, while, opposite, on big slabs of marble (with everything at room temperature for immediate tasting) are some of the world's finest cheeses.
The perfectionist drive behind this San Francisco operation comes from the owners, Dick and Helen Allen. Helen is a crusader against pasteurized cheeses, processed cheeses and especially those dreadful new "analog" cheeses -- the ones that are chemically concocted from vegetable fats and oils. Helen calls them "plastic cheeses."
Helen drives around the country looking for small artisan cheesemakers, then flies off to Europe to continue the search. Helen also has branched out into experimental cheese cookery and has found a new trick or two about unusual marriages of cheese and meat.
I didn't really believe her when she told me that certain goat cheeses, with their sometimes slight bitterness and always earthy flavor, make an outstanding contribution to stuffing for roast chicken. But I found it marvelous. I used the French stuffing trick, which is to gently loosen the skin of the bird and insert the stuffing between the meat and the skin. This, way, the stuffing moistens and penetrates the meat and bastes the skin, making it golden and lovely. You do, of course, have to baste from the outside as well.
I find it best to use one (or a mixture of two) of any of these cheeses, which now are widely distributed: le banon, sait-marcellin, sainte maure, valencay, crottin de chavignol, chevrotin and montrachet. You might want to experiment with others. HELEN ALLEN'S FRENCH ROAST CHICKEN STUFFED WITH GOAT CHEESE (4 servings) 1 roasting chicken, about 4 1/2 pounds 1/2 teaspoon crumbled dried oregano 2 teaspoons chopped fresh tarragon leaves, or 1/2 teaspoon dried 2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme leaves, or 1/2 teaspoon dried 1/4 cup top-quality olive oil For stuffing: 1 medium onion, finely chopped 2 tablespoons butter 1/2 cup goat cheese, lightly mashed 8 tablespoons butter, softened 1 large egg, lightly beaten 3 tablespoons finely chopped parsley, leaves only 1 tablespoon chopped fresh marjoram leaves, or 1 teaspoon dried 1 tablespoon chopped fresh young sage leaves, or 1 teaspoon crumbled dried 1 package (10 ounces) frozen small green peas 3/4 to 1 cup freshly grated Swiss gruyere cheese Coarse crystal sea salt or kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste 1/2 to 3/4 cup dried bread crumbs
Starting at the neck opening of the chicken, work the tips of your fingers under the skin on one side of the breast and break the connective membranes. Soon the pocket will be large enough to enclose your hand. Work your hand down the side of the body as far as possible. Repeat on the other side. The skin is firm and flexible, but you must be gentle so that you do not tear it. If you do the job right, you soon will have two large pockets for the stuffing.
In a small bowl, combine oregano, tarragon and thyme with olive oil. Gently but thoroughly rub the outside of the loose skin with the mixture, using as much as possible. Do not tear the skin. With poultry shears, snip off the wing tips to avoid burning. Let chicken marinate for about 1 hour -- longer if you have time. Remaining herb oil can be rubbed on after 30 to 40 minutes.
Saute onion in butter until barely transparent but still crisp; set aside. Blend together goat cheese and the softened butter. Then work in the frothy egg, parsley, marjoram, sage, cooked onion, peas, 3/4 cup gruyere, and salt and pepper, to taste. Work in only as much of the bread crumbs as needed to give stuffing a shapeable consistency. Work in more gruyere if desired. Cover and hold mixture, at room temperature, until ready to stuff the bird.
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Gently pat stuffing into the pockets between meat and skin. Gently push stuffing into the far corners. While you press inside with one hand, use other hand to push and shape from the back of the bird toward the neck. When filled, the stuffing should be 1 inch or more thick. Any leftover stuffing can go inside the cavity.
With a trussing needle and thin white string, tightly close the opening and repair any damage anywhere to the skin. Secure the drumsticks and wings with pins or string. Set the bird in a roasting pan and use your hands to shape the skin and stuffing into an attractive appearance.
Sprinkle with salt and pepper and set in oven center. Bake until it is sizzling loudly -- usually in 12 minutes -- then reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees. Do not open oven door for 20 minutes. Then baste thoroughly about every 10 minutes. It will be perfectly done (juices no longer pink) in a total baking time of 55 to 65 minutes. If the bird shows signs of getting too brown, cover with a loose tent of aluminum foil and lower temperature to 350 degrees.