So you’ve got people coming over and you need something for them to chew on while you finish up your cooking. Or maybe you just want to have the sort of dinner that is best eaten with the fingers — there’s a lot to be said for that. In either case, you need a charcuterie plate.
When building your charcuterie plate, don’t screw around with the cheap stuff. Ham rolls and cheddar cheese from your local grocer might be okay for an office party, but this is something you’re going to serve in your home, to people that you (hopefully) like. So don’t be a cheapskate. Buying high quality ingredients is actually better in the long run — richer, better meats will satiate your guests better, quicker, and more thoroughly, giving them a real “wow” moment before you spring your soup, salad, and main courses on them. And if, like us, you like doing this for the occasional dinner, treat it like a night out at a good restaurant — a good meat and cheese plate should be an event, something to be savored. Make it memorable. Here’s how:
Step one is prosciutto, always. Good prosciutto is a symphony of salty, sweet, nutty, and wild flavors all rolled up into a thin slice of unctuous ham. With prosciutto, the idea that a little goes a long way is key, so don’t let the sticker shock of the per pound price frighten you when you step up to the butcher counter. Yes, if you buy a whole pound of the good stuff you’re going to be spending some coin, but unless you’re feeding your local high school football team, you won’t need anywhere near a pound. This stuff is sliced paper thin, which means each slice is light — and it’s so rich, a couple of pieces are more than enough to satisfy most appetites. My favorite prosciutto comes from La Quercia in Iowa — and yes, I’ve had the imported stuff, and I promise that La Quercia is better. The picture above features their Prosciutto Americano on the left and a cut from the shoulder on the right. Different prosciuttos will have different flavors, so get a couple of kinds — your butcher will most likely let you sample before you buy (and if they don’t, get a new butcher).
Now that you’ve gotten your prosciutto foundation, you need to add a few more things to provide some variety in texture and flavor. A pate (lower right) is a must-have (recipe here), although a liver mousse can also be good. Pate adds an earthy element to the plate — there’s a lot going on in a well-made pate, and something wonderful about cutting into something that basically amounts to meat butter. Rillettes, headcheese, or scrapple can also make for an interesting addition — it’s processed meat the old-fashioned way. Good salami (lower left) is always welcome, and while I prefer a hard salami, just pick the one you like the most. Don’t like regular salami? Go for sopressata, or add some beef to the plate with some thin-slice bresaola. Have fun and use your imagination!
The top picture up there is my “wild card” meat, a house-made duck ham made by my butcher, Brandon Brown of Hillcrest Artisan Meats. Your butcher will probably have some of these specialty items that they make, so asking “hey, what’s good in the case” is always a great place to start — surprising things can happen. Brandon has fed me things like pastrami made from lung, house-made coppacola, and various sausages that have all been tasty. That duck ham has fat to it like the prosciutto, but also comes with a compelling smoky flavor that makes it different from anything else on the plate.
Now that you’ve gotten a variety of meats, you need cheeses. Gouda, brie, and blue cheeses are all good for a meat plate, as each appeals to different people and represents a variety of flavors and textures. Chevre or fromage blanc are also nice, as their soft consistency lends itself to spreading on bread or crackers. Cornichons, olives, pickled vegetables (okra, asparagus, and pearl onions are always good), and Dijon mustard are also good additions, and of course you have to have some good bread and crackers. Spiced nuts or other sweet items are optional, but can provide a nice sugar balance to all that cured meat.
Building a good charcuterie plate is almost as fun as eating one. Picking out just the right sort of meats and cheeses is something of an adventure — and your guests will certainly thank you with every bite. Happy eating!