Picturing the oncoming whirlwind of food that is the next couple of weeks, I closed my eyes and wondered what Ina Garten, the queen of easy, breezy entertaining, would do.
She would probably work on her cheese and charcuterie game.
Cheese and charcuterie boards are prevalent on local menus, but they're also the perfect appetizer to serve at home this holiday season. While friends and family await dinner, a cheese board will keep them happy until the big meal. Or, for a holiday gathering, these beautifully composed platters can even serve as the evening's main event. They're fun, festive and easy. And they don't require an oven.
Your board can be as extravagant or budget-friendly as you'd like, a sort of choose-your-own-adventure with cheese and meats. Create a lush, colorful platter decked out with all kinds of accompaniments; pick up an assortment at a specialty store, or simply raid your pantry. Go all out with a sexy slate board and tiny knives whose sole purpose is carving cheese, or just use your biggest wooden or glass cutting board. Even more casual: Tear a sheet of brown kraft paper, lay it over the table and label the cheeses with a marker. This option has the advantage of easy cleanup; just pack up any leftover meats and cheeses, then toss the paper.
"I think it's important to do things that are unexpected and fun. And to not be afraid. I can't reiterate that enough," said Hope Mauck, head cheesemonger at Mazzaro's Italian Market in St. Petersburg. "Don't overthink it. Have fun with it because, after all, it's cheese, and it's not going to be bad no matter what you do."
The No. 1 thing to remember is to serve your board at room temperature. Serving cheeses and meats straight from the fridge will mute their complex flavors, so arrange your board and set it on the table about an hour before guests arrive. Unwrapping them before serving lets the cheeses breathe. It's also important to talk to your cheesemonger.
"We call ourselves cheese therapists here at Mazzaro's because it's really about coaxing out information and finding out what you're into and guiding you to the perfect cheese," Mauck said. "We understand people don't know a lot about cheese and that's why we're here."
Matt Bonano, owner of Brooklyn South, a specialty market and deli in St. Petersburg's Edge District, starts with three cheeses. He usually chooses one from each species: cow, goat and sheep. Cow's milk cheeses can be very flavorful and fatty, and complement many different foods, he said. Goat's milk cheese is gamier, tangier and often has a sweet mineral flavor. Sheep's milk is very fatty with a "sheepy" flavor, which he describes as almost oily butterfat. It's earthy and savory.
After milk type, Bonano chooses a variety of textures from soft, semisoft and firm cheeses.
Three cheeses and three meats is ideal for a cheese and charcuterie board. The combination offers plenty of variety without exhausting or confusing anyone. Plan on about an ounce per person per cheese and half an ounce for charcuterie. For a more intimate gathering, local cheesemongers recommend leaving your blocks and rounds of cheese whole to show them off, and let guests break off hunks as they go. For a larger party, go ahead and break down your cheeses into slices or chunks and place toothpicks nearby for guests to easily grab. If you're looking to keep costs low, stick to one or two cheeses.
The charcuterie side of your board should also contain diverse textures, shapes and flavors. Lately, I'm reaching for mortadella studded with pistachios or soppressata. Prosciutto is always the place to start for Bonano, who halves the long slices for easy eating. He also likes finocchiona, an Italian-style salami redolent with fennel seed, and mousse truffee, a chicken liver mousse with black truffles that is "insanely beautiful" but not too strong and a little sweet. Choose things you like to eat.
Chad Johnson, executive chef at Haven and the Epicurean Hotel, says a lot of charcuterie is pork-based, but there are less common options to try for your board, too. He likes to offer products that seem familiar but are new to his guests. Bresaola, which is like a prosciutto made from beef, is unexpected but relatable. In the fall and winter, Johnson serves venison or wild boar terrines and more fatty, rich pates. Rillettes are a rustic pate easily made at home with minimum effort for maximum reward. "It's basically meat dip," he said.
When your friends ask what they can bring, tell them to bring the bubbly. Pairing wine or beer can be tricky with several cheeses, but Champagne, prosecco or cava won't clash with any cheeses on your plate.
"Champagne is the safest thing. It cleanses your palate," Johnson said. "It gives you a fresh start for the next bite, and with the holidays, sparkling wine is perfect for celebrations."
Labeling your cheeses is helpful so people know what they're eating and can buy it for themselves later if they find a new cheese they love. You can keep it simple with a piece of paper and toothpicks or chalk. Include the name of the cheese, and also the type of milk or where it came from if you'd like.
The timing for when the cheese hits the table is important, but you don't have to be as diligent about clearing it. After several hours a sheep's milk may develop some oil condensation, but the flavor won't be affected, Mauck said. Before bed, just wrap the cheese and place it in the fridge. You can party all night and so can your cheese.
Ileana Morales Valentine writes the In Our Kitchen column for the Taste section, and she lives in St. Petersburg with her husband. Follow her blog, ALittleSaffron.com. Say hello at [email protected]