Boards of Education
Unlike a steak or bottle of wine — where the higher the price point, the better it’s likelier to taste — you can get away with not forking over a wad of cash on a charcuterie or cheese spread.
For many, charcuterie boards, antipasto platters, and cheese boards are likely keeping ranks among other intimidating “gourmet” terms, like tapenade or pâté. Maybe you’ve seen these types of spreads at fancy dinner parties or weddings and happily filled a plate, but never considered how truly easy they are to replicate at home.
First off, charcuterie, cheese, and antipasto platters are three variations of what comes down to virtually the same thing: a pleasing array of cheeses, meats and cured meats, jams and spreads, and other complementary sweet, acidic, and salty bites. And unlike a steak or bottle of wine — where the higher the price point, the better it’s likelier to taste — you can get away with not forking over a wad of cash on a charcuterie or cheese spread and still create a winning masterpiece.
It’s always most important to start with the foundation: a beautiful wooden cutting board, paddle, or marble slab for serving. And you don’t need to spend a lot here, either; discount retailers like Ross and T.J. Maxx actually carry an impressive array of serving platters of all shapes, sizes, and styles.
When assembling a charcuterie platter, it all comes down to four things: arrangement; texture; pops of color; and a balance of sweet, salt, savory, and acid. This is all very easy to master with just a little guidance and not a lot of coin. Seriously, the deli meat you see on the platter in these photos is Oscar Mayer, and the peanuts and raisins are from the Dollar Tree.
Although it ruins the magic by admitting the origin of these food items, here’s the thing: your guests never have to know. They’ll be gobbling up cheeses and milling around the kitchen thinking you’re the new Ina Garten. And as far as creating a great cheese spread, it can be as cheap or as expensive as you want to make it. People love cheese in all forms and fashions, so you really can’t mess up (maybe skip the Cheez Whiz, though). Having a set of cheese-specific knives and spreaders will also add an aesthetic functionality to your board while also allowing guests to easily serve themselves.
Use these two diagrams as a jumping off point to fancy up future parties, create a romantic date night-in, or even (and especially) to spoil yourself during a solo Netflix binge session.
Fresh fruits like thin-sliced pears, blackberries, little clementine wedges, or small clusters of grapes not only add a look of fresh, bright color, but also a satisfying and juicy tang. Foodie tip: the pears are shockingly delicious when eaten topped with a slice of cheddar.
For sweetness and texture, add clusters of dried fruits like apricots, cranberries, raisins, or dates.
For saltiness, crunch, texture, and palate cleansing between cheeses.
Crackers and/or sliced bread
A vehicle for cheeses, dips, and spreads.
Stuffed or not stuffed; whole or chopped; black, deep purple, or green — in whatever form or color, olives are essential to your board, as they bring that necessary acidic touch to the mix. Add them even if you don’t like them because, chances are, many of your guests do.
Decorative pops of color
Depending on the size of your board, add one or both halves of a Cara Cara orange (pictured) or a blood orange for a look of bright, bountiful freshness. Pomegranate halves or seeds work well for this purpose also.
Garnish for aestheticism and texture
With a charcuterie or antipasto platter, it’s all about the taste and presentation. Garnishes like one or two sprigs of fresh rosemary or thyme are an essential because they add texture and give your board a hospitable, inviting look. You could also tuck in individual leaves of mint or basil here and there to achieve the same look.
Tiny wedges of Brie or Laughing Goat, fresh mozzarella balls, a cheese ball, a spreadable cheese log, slices of Gouda, Swiss, or cheddar … all are excellent options to complement your board. (Optional: on semi-soft cheeses like cheddar or Gouda, use a small cookie cutter—like a heart or star— to add extra flare).
Prosciutto, pastrami, salami, pepperoni, and hard sausages (like a good spicy chorizo) are all fair game for adding a savory, porky saltiness to the platter.
Cooked and sliced deli meats
Adding sliced deli meats like turkey or ham are great for simply adding more meat options to the board, or to add an option for the less-adventurous partygoer who may be leery of the cured meat.
Jams, jellies, spreads and condiments
Adding tiny jars and dollops of spreadable options like spicy, grainy mustards, tapenades, chutneys, or a wheel of softened cream cheese topped with jalapeno jelly will give guests a diverse array of sweet, savory, spice, and tang to top crackers and bread.
For an added note of decadence, break apart a bar of chocolate into squares that are at least 60 percent dark. The slight bitterness of the dark chocolate will allow the taste to stand out among other sweet items on the board, like dried fruit or jams. It can also act as a palate cleanser or complement to a glass of red wine.
Correlating clusters for balance
Make sure your board includes evenly dispersed clusters of matching items, like dried fruits or berries. This will give the eye an overall pleasing and well-balanced look.
Always add safe cheeses that are guaranteed crowd pleasers. These are common and familiar cheeses like cheddar, aged cheddar, Gouda, Swiss, or provolone.
A wedge of blue cheese adds color and a distinct tang. It also feels fancy and adventurous without asking too much of your guests. Varieties range from semi-soft to spreadable, and mild in taste to very pungent.
Something soft and spreadable
A goat cheese log is a good option as it brings its own unique, musky taste to the board, and guests will feel like they have a well-rounded assortment to choose from.
Something for the adventurous
You might as well call it what it is — stinky cheese. For the modern foodie or those among your party guests feeling brave, add a stinker to the mix for a conversation piece at the very least. And interestingly enough, even though “stinky” cheeses are an assault on the nostrils, oftentimes they taste nothing like they smell and have a complex, rich and delicious flavor. Good candidates of stinky cheese include Limburger, Camembert, raclette, Roquefort, Stilton, and taleggio.
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