Let’s build a charcuterie platter

photo 4 (2)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:

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High quality prosciutto from La Quercia

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).

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Clockwise from top: Hillcrest Artisan Meats duck ham, pate, and Olli salmi

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!

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Coppacola from Hillcrest Artisan Meats

photo (4)Go ahead and spend some time looking at that picture over there. I can wait. I promise you that nothing I’m going to say about it will exceed the sheer beauty of that photograph.

Did you take it in? How could you not, right?

That, my friends is some house-made coppacola from our friends over at Hillcrest Artisan Meats. You may have heard me mention them a couple of hundred times. Hey, when the food is this good, a man’s gotta talk about it, you know?

So I’m sitting at work last week, and I load up Twitter to find a message from H.A.M. that I should stop by the store to try something new. At almost the same instant, I get a text message from Steve Shuler over at the Little Rock Foodcast telling me that it would most definitely be in my best interest to head up to the Hillcrest butcher shop. Neither message let on what is awaiting me there, and since I don’t need much of an excuse to go hang out at the meat counter, I hurried that way as soon as I got off.

What greeted me was that lovely display you see up top: pork cured with salt and sugar, rubbed with cayenne and left to air-dry for 4 months. Unlike other versions of this salume I’ve had, this wasn’t dried to the point of having a leathery texture, instead possessing a chewy, unctuous texture that hit the sweet spot that comes with the perfect balance of muscle with fat. The flavor was salty, spicy, earthy, and wild all at once, with a sort of elegant funk to it that gave it one hell of a character. I chewed a couple more slices in silence, eyes half closed, experiencing one of those food moments that only seem to happen to me with good pork. It was a delightful and delectable triumph, and a sign of more good things to come from the H.A.M. crew.

Special thanks to Brandon and Tara Brown for sharing this particular delicacy with me — I made sure to buy a pound of hanger steak as a thank you (and I still got the better end of that deal, because I had hanger for my supper). Yet another reason why Little Rock has the best butcher shop in these United States. Happy eating!

Great salad, or greatest salad?

photo 2Sometimes, all I want to eat is a salad. There’s just something that’s extremely compelling about the light, fresh crunch of greens topped with a little bit of protein and a killer dressing. We’re blessed here in Little Rock with several places that know their way around salad, from the cheese-piled chef-style salads at US Pizza to the artisan meat and cheese affairs served up at Boulevard Bread Company to a chicken liver-topped masterpiece at South on Main that blows me away every time. And after eating salads all over this city, I think I’ve found the greatest salad that Little Rock has to offer.

And it’s being sold at a burger joint.

Now before you scoff, let me clarify: this ain’t no regular burger joint. I’m talking Big Orange, part of a family of restaurants that has made excellent salads part of what they do. Starting with ZAZA Pizza in the Heights, these restaurants excel at pretty much everything they do. And with the Thai Chop Salad, I they have gone above and beyond a mere salad and into the realm of the sublime.

The Thai Chop is a massive plate of romaine lettuce, shaved cabbage, tasty tomatoes, fresh jalapenos, red pepper, cilantro, basil, peanuts and sauteed steak, all served with a spicy, tangy dressing that is one of the most compelling combinations of ingredients I’ve ever had. You may think I’m being hyperbolic about how good this salad is, but I promise you, it’s even better than I can describe. Savory, spicy, and at the same time cool and light, this salad keeps the flavors coming in all directions. I love Big Orange’s burgers, but lately this salad is all I want to eat — and since the Midtown location is just up the block from me, I eat there often.

Summertime is salad time, so if you haven’t tried this one yet, put it on your agenda. The Big Orange gang also tries to locally source ingredients whenever possible, which is another plus — so pass on the burgers on your next trip and try the best thing on the menu. Happy eating!

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