It’s the time of the year when there are holiday parties a-plenty and it starts to look a little like Groundhog Day. Not only do you have the same conversation with a guy in a stupid Santa tie about how a Kindle is pretty much the same thing as an iPad, but the finger food gets pretty repetitive. You got your brie, you got your random water crackers, your cut up cauliflower with ranch dressing…it’s pretty boring. I believe in the true spirit of the season — showing your friends how much better of a cook you are than them. But what to do? It’s tough to stand in front of that cheese counter and know what to pick up, but luckily there are professionals out there who are a little more clued in. Enter our experts and their tips for putting together the best charcuterie, vegetable and cheese trays you can.
A Charcuterie Plate That Would Make a Pig Cry
If you aren’t a pro at the butcher counter, a well composed charcuterie plate can seem daunting. Everything looks kind of the same, and if you’re me, you end up with twelve kinds of prosciutto and not much else. Kyle Bailey, executive chef at Birch & Barley and Churchkey, has a little better idea of what to do. In Chef Bailey’s own words:
When planning a charcuterie or cheese platter, you’re going to want to have some diversity. I suggest having a solid cured muscle (prosciutto or lonza), a hard cured salami (Calabrian or sopresatta), a soft emulsified sausage (mortadella), a terrine and a pate. It’s really cool to make at least one of those products yourself, and unless you have a charcuterie cave off of your garage, it should probably be the terrine or pate. There are hundreds of super easy country terrine recipes out there, and pates are basically just pureed products. I suggest practicing any recipes you want to make beforehand.
For a really, really cool charcuterie platter, try cooking fresh sausage to order for your arrangement. Most supermarkets have at least some kind of charcuterie for sale, but I suggest finding a butcher in your area and asking about his specialties. I use Nate Anda at Red Apronfor my charcuterie needs. It’s great to have somebody who cares a great deal about the history and craftsmanship of charcuterie. Ask him what he’s been working on and I guarantee you’ll get something really special.
For garnish, I like a strong grainy mustard and housemade pickles with toasted bread. Making your own pickles takes a very short time with very little work, and you can find thousands of quick-pickle recipes. If you don’t want to make pickles, I suggest cornichons, small French gherkins. Making your own mustard takes a while longer, so you may want to purchase some. I like a lot of horseradishy heat and vinegary tartness in mine. The bread should be crispy on the outside and soft on the inside before toasting, like a baguette or ciabatta. Toast in the oven until slightly crispy.
The Holidays Can’t Be All Meat and Cheese
Just to make sure we make it to the holidays next year, it’s important to get some vegetables in amongst the meat and cheese. Unfortunately, veggies sometimes aren’t all that exciting and we tend to just pick up the prepackaged tray from Harris Teeter and rip off the plastic wrap moments before the guests arrive. Our vegetable expert is Lisa Zechiel of Washington’s Green Grocer, a home delivery service specializing in local and organic produce, dairy, and free range meat and poultry. Here are her tips for not one, not two, but three veggie platters:
Winter Whites:We love to keep it seasonal and here’s a really visually striking way to do it. Find all the seasonal white vegetables that you can, couple them with a few other white goodies and arrange them in something interesting. Here we used a wooden insert from an old tool box and arranged cauliflower, parsnips, turnips, fennel and belgian endive spears. We roasted some chestnuts and peeled them and added in some great pickled garlic (which makes an unbelievably tasty Martini garnish so you’ll probably find them near the olives and pickled onions). We put out a little bowl of really fruity olive oil and another bowl of truffle salt; dip the veggie in the oil, then in the salt and let your taste buds enjoy the buzz. You can use regular coarse salt as well, but you may as well ride the salt trend and experiment with some of the different offerings out there. Maybe a mellow one and a more striking one like the truffle salt or a smoked salt. You can find all of these vegetables and the chestnuts in season right now.
Good Things Come In Small Packages:Make mini crudite servings. Shot glass work great, especially ones with some height 4 ounce canning jars work well too. Put a dollop of your favorite dip on the bottom of the glass and then pop in about 5 spears of different vegetables. We used green beans, asparagus, red bell pepper, and carrot. We threw a chive in for another interesting texture (remember, we eat first with our eyes!) and made a little radish rim garnish for the glass by cutting them into rounds, making a slice half way through the circle and hanging it on the rim of the shot glass like you would a lemon for iced tea. Lined up on a big platter, these just shout “par-tay”! Don’t stop at single serve crudite. We love making single serve mini salads in glasses with a fork set right in the glass. Chopped salads that hold up longer once they are dressed work the best here. Be sure to party sustainably by using glass and not plastic and choosing metal forks over plastic. You can use them year after years, not only for perfecting your crudite skills but for other things as well. If you use the canning jars, you can give gifts in them once they’ve been washed.
Be the Hostess with the Roasted (or the Host with the Roast):Who says your veggie platter has to be raw? Fire the oven up, rub your veggies with olive oil and roast them up until tender but not falling apart. Some favorites of ours are beets, butternut squash, asparagus, green beans, carrots, parsnips, Brussels sprouts, all kinds of peppers, green onions, radicchio, and fingerling potatoes. Cut them into manageable sizes, just like you would raw veggies and arrange them on a big platter with a bowl of simple aioli or a curried aioli which is the simple aioli with the addition of curry powder. Toss on some olives and maybe some roasted nuts, put out little skewers for easier eating and you’ve got yourself quite an impressive display if we do say so ourselves!
Make Way for the Baby Cheesus Platter (Sorry, I Had to Go There)
What would the holidays be without a big ol’ cheese board? But the cheese section at the store can be daunting, especially around the holidays where everyone is grabbing so quickly you can’t tell your Cheddars from your Chevres. Here to guide us through the storm is Sarah Mason from Cheestique, here’s what she has to say:
When constructing a cheese platter for friends or family I like to keep it pretty simple, so guests aren’t confused about what to eat or how to eat it! I present the cheeses (no more than five) on a FLAT plate, board, or tray, for ease in cutting. If I have a wedge of cheese with an inedible rind, I cut off most of it so that eaters won’t have to remove it themselves. If I have an cute little individual cheese (like a little round of soft cheese), I will often cut it right in half before serving, to encourage people to dig in! I make sure to have at least two knives, if not more, on the plate. Ideally, people will use a knife for the soft cheese and a separate knife for the hard cheeses. (In reality, people will often ignore this distinction and use the knives indiscriminately, but two knives is still a good option to offer.) I position the cheeses at least a couple of inches apart from each other, in a circular pattern, with the pointy end of the wedge of cheese always facing out toward the edge of the platter. In the middle of the platter, I’ll usually place one accompaniment. Good all-purpose condiments are: fig jam, honey, chutney, a marinated veggie, or olive tapenade. Definitely put some type of serving implement (a small spoon or spreader, a butter knife) directly in the condiment to encourage guests to partake. I like to place any breads or crackers on a separate plate. Honestly, almost any bread or cracker will work fine no matter what your cheeses are. I usually have some sliced baguette and cracked wheat crackers.
Now for the cheeses. Obviously, the cheese you choose is the most important part of creating a great cheese plate. (Am I biased because I am a cheesemonger?) Great cheese doesn’t have to be found only in a fancy specialty shop, though! Almost any grocery store these days will have a “gourmet” cheese selection, usually located separately near the deli or wine aisle. It’s nice to offer a mix of textures and milks. Even the most basic grocery will have a sharp cheddar and maybe a fresh goat cheese log (also called Chevre) or a Danish blue cheese. Add some honey or chutney and some crackers and you’ve got a party!
I like my cheese platter to have a soft brie-style cheese, like St. Andre or Delice d’Argental. A buttery cheese is almost always everyone’s favorite. Then I will usually include one mild firmer cheese. My current favorites are two Spanish cheeses: Naked Goat and Idiazabal, a sheep’s milk cheese like Manchego. To round out the platter, add a creamy blue cheese. I love almost all French blue cheeses. If you’re feeling flush, splurge on a piece of Roquefort, known as the “King of all French cheeses.” If you don’t like blue cheese, a soft goat’s milk cheese works well. I love to serve a plain fresh chevre log sprinkled with freshly ground black pepper; this cheese goes really well with honey. You can also include a long-aged, more intensely flavored hard cheese like an aged Gouda (Beemster makes some great ones) or even a chunk of real Italian Parmiggiano-Reggiano (the older the better!). It wouldn’t hurt to serve the really hard cheese with a steak knife for cutting.
Some of my favorite products at Cheesetique for “gussying up” platters are made by Quince & Apple and Gracious Gourmet. On a more local note, I LOVE the Appleton Farm Plum Chutney from Middleburg, Virginia. It has teeny crispy pieces of ginger in it and mustard seeds that pop! It’s sooo amazing.
Happy Holidays, and Happy Eating!