Serving charcuterie is an easy way to take quite simple or complex deli delights and present them in a delicious and delectable way, fit to feed crowds of many sizes and a variety of ages. If you love to entertain, but don’t want to get stuck in the kitchen and want to enjoy your party, consider charcuterie! Snack, Appetizer, Meal, or Dessert…there are infinite options and varieties built to suit the occasion, and many can be prepped with lots of lag time so you are available to spend time with those you love.
Charcuterie (shar-KOO-ta-REE) is a specific term with origins reaching as far back as 15th century France; literally translated, it means the products of a fancy pork butcher. Modern charcuterie does often include pork, but the definition has widened to reflect a dish served throughout many cultures.
Growing up, our Christmas Eve dinner was a family favorite meal comprised of simple meats and cheeses, fresh homemade rolls, sliced veggies, olives and pickles, served by candlelight. It always felt magical and so special, and now realize that without trying, my mother first introduced me to charcuterie.
Let’s talk basics:
Charcuterie is intended to be finger foods. If communal eating and sharing food in this way with your friends or family makes you squeamish, maybe this isn’t the thing for you, or now us not the right time. Also, there are ways of serving almost everything so you can encourage use of deli forks, knives, tooth picks, and tongs to grab and serve and limit the germs and touching.
Serving: I like a large, interesting wood platter, or a collection of a few if your spread expands beyond your starting piece. Shape doesn’t really matter; it can be round, rectangle, extra long, with a handle or not. You should think about where the board will sit for serving, and try to make at least two sides of the board accessible. These types of boards are readily available for purchase from your local wordsmith artisans (try street fairs or art markets, pretty and personalized makes a lovely gift) and findable with short notice at just about any retailer (Target, Home Goods, Crate & Barrel, to name a few) if you decide on short notice to host and don’t feel like your wood cutting board makes the cut. I’m loving the grainy look of long boards in Acacia.
I recommend having plates available for your guests, but you decide if ceramic or paper plates is the way to go for your crowd and fit for the occasion and clean up preferences. Just don’t serve charcuterie with only dinky cocktail napkins. You’ll annoy your guests and be left with an abundance of leftovers because no one could properly eat.
Variety is key, in colors, shapes, sizes
Start by choosing what you like, or would be interested in seeing on a platter, and is easy to eat. Ideally, you will have so many options, that even your most persnickety (read: picky) eater can find something that suits their fad diet, allergies, or preferences. Below is meant to be a big list of choices, certainly not exhaustive, with a choose your own adventure model.
Salami: Italian, Dried, Pepperoni
Ham – The one self inflicted chosen complication for my NYE board is I decided to make a ham. Super duper not necessary, just what I wanted to do that day and had extra time on in my hands. Bonus that the house smelled like amazing brown sugar glaze, and now have the leftovers and task to decide what to do with my ham bone. (link to ham recipe)
Meats can presented in all sorts of variations, rolled, stacked, even wrapped around the rim of a glass to look like a rose. When building the board, I try to buddy up the meats I think pair nicely with a neighbor cheese, as a suggestion.
Cheese – Try for a variety of soft, firm, and blue
Brie, Chèvre (Goat cheese), Mozzarella*
*Mozz – Worth mentioning, because as much as I love this multi functional cheese, it is often too wet for this kind of shared presentation, and this might not be the best place for it, unless segregated and served in its own bowl, perhaps in marinated balls. Trader Joe’s carries a yummy marinated option.
Cheddars – Sharp, Irish White, Goud, Gruyère, Pecorino, Manchego, Pepperjack
Irish cheddar and manchego are my favorite cheeses, so these are likely finds on my charcuterie boards. The hard cheeses are also the easiest to cut into interesting shapes for variation, you can even cut the same cheese into different shapes for different parts of your board, and it will look like you have more options. Try cubes, rectangles, triangles (neat hack to arrange triangles back to back to make a fan).
Blues: Roquefort, Stilton, Gorgonzola
Gorgonzola is a peaceful entry into the blues without being over powering. Careful where you place blues on your board. Some folks will avoid anything near it. Apples seem to be a friendly ally.
Fruit, dried and fresh
Fresh: Apple varieties (honeycrisp and granny), pears, red and green grapes, berries (make sure they are firm and fresh). If it’s summertime and stone fruits are in season, fresh peaches, apricots, and plums are a nice add.
Dried: Apricots, cherries, raisins
Heirloom cherry tomatoes, baby carrots, cucumber (baby or sliced on the bias), celery, jicama.
Try not to convert this to a crudité platter – the meats and cheeses should still be the stars.
Green olives stuffed with garlic, blue cheese, black olives (all olives should be pitted), dill and sweet pickles
Jams, mustards, honey
Fig jam, blackberry preserves, Dijon mustard, grain mustard, horseradish, honey
You can get wild with your condiments, so make a decision of where you’re headed. If you have mayo and mustard out, folks might start looking for slices of bread or subs to make a sandwich, so keep focus on the snack or nosh concept which is the key to charcuterie.
Breads, crackers, nuts
Include at least a few different sizes and shapes of crackers or small rolls. Include a gluten free cracker, which often holds up well and is good for crunch, as well the celiac inflicted guests. While simple, the kids always grab up the Ritz, and those with more discerning palates may enjoy a multigrain cracker, or something fun with cranberries or pistachios baked in. Use what you have – I cut up some pita bread into slices this time, and those were early to go.
Know your crowd if you can, and only sprinkle nuts straight on your board if you are confident you don’t have guests with nut allergies. You can always serve small bowls of nuts on the board without causing higher allergen risk. I like making spiced pecans (quick pan roast with butter, salt, brown sugar, and cayenne then dried in a paper towel), and also have cashews and pistachios.
Just remember, rest easy in knowing there is really no wrong way to do this…buy and serve meats and cheeses you enjoy, and try to put it together with some shape and color variety, and focus on spending time with your friends and family instead of worrying about it.