This past holiday season did you attend a Christmas or New Year's party where there was a charcuterie board? As you cozied up to the various cured meats and artisan cheeses, to the pate and baguette, weren't you impressed by how cool and contemporary your hosts seemed? Well, I have, and I was the first time I experienced one. Our friends Luke and Meghan Eisdale have always been the "cheese" of cooking and entertaining. In the vast world of charcuterie, it's good to have a guide. Here's how to make one of your own that will remind your friends how "with it" you truly are.
1. Select the variety of meats.
A variety of cured meats is where it’s at. Charcuterie should vary by texture, spice and slice thickness to create a myriad of flavor combinations for food and wine pairing. Start with selecting whole muscle meat cuts. These meats are cured, thinly sliced and are traditionally forms of beef and pork:
Prosciutto- This Italian meat is cured, dried pig thigh that has been aged for 24 months. It is known for being paper thin and having a salty texture. (A solid pillar for the plate. I suggest starting with this and building)
Speck- Prosciutto's cousin is heavily smoked and also thinly sliced ham. It has been deboned, flattened and spiced before it is dry cured and smoked.
Coppa- Similar to prosciutto and speck, coppa is thinly sliced and dry cured. Unlike other hams, coppa is not brined and aged is up to 6 months.
Serrano Ham- The Spanish version of prosciutto, serrano ham is named “mountain” ham due to the elevation where the landrace white pig is cured.
Jamon Iberico- This more expensive relative of serrano ham is hand carved black iberian pig and often confused with serrano.
Bresaola- If you’re looking to add some beef to your plate, try bresaola. It is salted and air dried, served very thin and pairs well with extra-virgin olive oil, lemon and shaved parmesan.
After you select at least one whole muscle cut add some cured sausage to the platter:
Chorizo- Known for its spice, this cured pork sausage is full of paprika and salt flavors.
Salami- Typically a beef or pork cured sausage, salami is ground meat and fat mixed with salt, spices and garlic. It is later packed, salted, cured and air-dried.
Sopressata- This beef or pork sausage is a drier variation of salami.
Mortadella- The nutty flavors of mortadella include whole pistachios and berries. You may be familiar with this product, as it is known as bologna sausage in the U.S.
Kulen- If you want to try something Eastern European, kulen sausage is heavily smoked, with strong flavors of garlic and paprika.
Nduja- While not quite a pate, this Italian sausage is spreadable and has similar flavors to salami with the added taste of roasted red peppers.
The final essential meats on a charcuterie board are the spreadable options:
Pate- This creamy and soft mixture of meat, fat, and pork or chicken liver is cooked with spices and brings a different flavor and texture that may be missing from your platter.
Terrine- The chunkier version of pate has similar flavors and is best served cold.
Rillettes- Unlike pate, rillettes are made from a single animal. It is smoother and has been slow cooked in fat, cooled and mixed with more fat making it spreadable and rich.
2. Choose different cheeses that complement your palate.
Similar to the charcuterie, maintain a texture difference. To maintain interest, cheeses should also vary by mouthfeel, fat content and milk type.
a) Fresh cheese- (burrata) This fresh cheese resembles a fresh mozzarella ball, but when split open, you will be delighted to discover a rich-tasting soft filling of fresh pieces of Mozzarella soaked in heavy cream. Sweet and milky.
b) Soft-ripened cheese- (camembert and brie) Brie, is characterized by its white velvety exterior and cream-colored, buttery-soft interior. When you encounter a perfectly ripened, quality brie, nothing is ﬁner, more sublime or creamy.
Also in this category is an Eisdale favorite: Harbison of Jasper Hill Farm. A soft- ripened, bark-wrapped cheese with a rustic, bloomy rind. Its rich, creamy paste is both sweet and herbal, often with notes of mustard.
c) Semi-soft cheese- (havarti or herbed gouda) Gouda, one of the world's most popular cheeses, is a Dutch yellow cheese made from cow's milk.
d) Firm cheese- (aged provolone and applewood smoked cheddar) Applewood smoked cheddar is a fairly dense semi-hard round cheese. The cheese tastes of smoke and is coated with mild paprika, giving it a golden-amber appearance.
e) Hard cheese- (parmigiano reggiano) True parmesan reggiano is named after its origin. A hard cheese with gritty texture and is fruity and nutty in taste.
f) Veined cheese (gorgonzola or stilton) Stilton is one of the most spectacular cheeses to come out of England and is the only English cheese that enjoys trademark protection. Flavors are buttery, salty, rich and creamy, pungent and peppery veining.
3. Purchase the right quantity.
Generally speaking, between 2-3 ounces per person for meat is recommended for meat as an appetizer portion. It's pretty rich. If you're hosting a cocktail party, where the charcuterie is the majority of the food people are eating, double the amount of meat and serve it with plenty of bread. So about 5 ounces per person.
4. Slice meats cold and not too far in advance.
Charcuterie oxidizes quickly and loses its freshness relatively quickly. A general rule to remember with salami is slice it cold, serve it at room temperature. Same rule holds for the cheeses.
5. Provide accoutrements.
Accoutrements act as palate and cleanser pairings while also adding a variety of texture to the plate. Cured meats are very salty, you want to counteract that with things that aren’t. Look for sweet, tart or crunchy options to balance it out. A classic palate cleanser are pickled vegetables. Cornichon (french pickles) are a nice choice. Grapes, olives, nuts and dried fruits pair well, cleansing the palate. Honey and jams are a must as they are a simple way to add some sweetness to the mix. Our current favorite is Red Bell Pepper and Ancho Chili Jam by Earth & Vine I found at Nugget Market. Don't forget baguettes or other crusty, artisan breads and crackers. Meghan and Luke always have Leslie Stowe Cranberry Hazelnut Raincoast. Make it your mission to find these....So good!
6. Create an elegant presentation.
The arrangement can make a big impact so take time to organize your meats, cheeses and accouterments. In Italy, slices of meat are ideally laid out flat, but if you’re serving a large crowd you need to make space where you can by folding. Fold lighter meats into rosettes, cut cheddar into squares and sheep’s milk into triangles. Turn sliced salami so that pieces fan out from the front of the platter. Sprinkle fresh herbs on the plate for color and appeal. I drizzle olive oil over the pates and spreadables and crack black pepper on top. Add grounding salt to finish it off for a bit of texture and deliciousness.
Many would argue that fuller-bodied red and white wines are too bold for light charcuterie meats and cheeses, but there are always exceptions to the rules. Champagne and sparkling wine are so often considered the best wine pairing with charcuterie due to high acidity, lower alcohol and their affinity for salty dishes. Because Vannatta Wine's Sangiovese/Tempranillo blend (Primavera) has silky texture, fruit forward flavor, nice acidity, subtle tannins and lower alcohol, it’s a very versatile red wine with charcuterie. Dry sausages with higher fat content, benefit from Sangiovese based wine for their strong herbal notes and more tannic structure, which helps to cut through the added richness in the salami. If you love red wines, the key is to look for those with lower tannins and alcohols under 14%. Vannatta Chardonnay also has lower alcohol and higher acidity, so it can also work with prosciutto and other salty meats. The no-fail, across the board, number one wine recommended for charcuterie when you can't decide what to drink: Riesling! Vannatta Wine Riesling is crisp, mineral and it will refresh the palate rather than overwhelm it.
Get creative. Make it your own. We would love to see pictures of your creations or hear about them. We always love new ideas.