Charcuterie 101

When assembling a charcuterie board, bear in mind that it’s more about making the right impression than feeding people; otherwise, why not just throw some baloney and cheese on a plate with a jar of mayo and a loaf of Wonder bread on the side and set it on a card table near the keg? It’s all about appearance, and the very fact that you accessed this article in the first place is solid evidence that you’re trying to rise above your raising. Well, never let it be said that I shirk at the opportunity to give fellow aspirants a leg up. These tips can help you put together a charcuterie that will impress those frozen hairdo harpies in the Junior League.

First, choose your board. My rule for this is that is should be wood; plastic is just out of the question, glass is rather chintzy, and metal inappropriate. A “butcher board” (which, in the most literal terms, is what a charcuterie is) should be quite sturdy, unwaxed and unvarnished. I prefer a dark color. Patterns tend to get lost, though I did have a friend who once used a ouija board for Halloween. (Nobody touched it. NOBODY.) If you don’t have a good board, go to Home Depot and have them cut you one, any size (or shape) you like. Always wash your board and wipe with culinary oil before setting up.

In addition to the board itself, you’ll need some small dishes for plating and serving. Chances are, you probably have a lot of fussy little plates and saucers around the house you can use, or go to the local thrift shop and pick up a selection. You can also find all kinds of cool little cheese knives, picks, and other serving do-dads there. Go shopping on the cheap, and do what you can to avoid having to buy plastic serving utensils. Keep it simple: white or glass dishes, a little color, try to avoid anything busy.

Nice cheeses and meats are generally on the pricier side. That being said, the charcuterie board is where you should feel comfortable splurging, since the board itself makes a display on the buffet table, and it feeds a lot of people who are just grazing. Again, this is your board, so choose your favorite varieties of cheese. Some good selections include firm cheeses such as chunks of parmesan, aged/smoked gouda, asiago, gruyere, colby, sharp cheddar; semi soft: havarti, muenster; soft: triple-cream brie, burrata, mascarpone; blues: gorgonzola, Dunbarton blue, marbled blue jack, Maytag; and crumbly cheese: feta, goat cheese. Use at least three types of cheese, about 2 ounces of cheese per person, and provide knives for each type. Take the cheese from the refrigerator at least 30 minutes before serving. Choose among a variety of dried meats and sausages: dry salami, prosciutto, mortadella, sopressata, Spanish chorizo, ahle wurscht, and coppa or capicola. Keep your meats in groups. (NO JERKY!)

For fruit, use whole berries and grapes. I always use halves of pomegranates for color. Do not use fruits that will discolor like apples, bananas, or pears or juice fruits like citrus. Keep a separate bowl of whole fruits—apples, bananas, pears, citrus—nearby; this also serves as décor. Add dried fruit: pineapple and apricot, figs and dates. Serve marinated olives, artichoke hearts, cucumbers, beans, and other vegetables in bowls. Use slivers of sweet peppers and nuts—pecans, pistachios, smoked almonds—fill in gaps. Include cornichons and gherkins (cornichons are dilled gherkins, not sweet gherkins; all cornichons are gherkins, not all gherkins are cornichons).

Add breads, crackers, and nuts at the end to fill in spaces. Choose breads and crackers of different shapes, flavors and colors: rounds, rectangles, wheat, white, rye, whatever; arrange some on their side, some flat and fanned. Provide a bowl of honey with a dipper for fruit, cheese, and soft bread. You’ll also need an herbal butter and mustards such as a Dijon-style, spicy stone-ground, and horseradish. Yellow mustard is far from verboten, and provides a nice splash of color. Use fresh rosemary and thyme for greenery and aroma.