Charcuterie: A Basic Guide
Last night my sweetie and I celebrated Valentine’s Day in grand style at one of the fine dining establishment here in Colorado Springs. It was a decadent exploration of the chef’s tasting menu. However, today I am suffering from a rich-food hangover. When I was planning for dinner tonight, I knew we were going to want something a bit simpler for tonight. So I am planning a light dinner featuring a charcuterie board.
When I was a kid, my mom would put together a smorgasbord—at least that was what she called it. It was not a true Scandinavian meal. More of a collection of cold cuts, fresh veggies, pickles, olives, dips, chips, and whatever else struck our fancy. It was one of my favorite meals, all finger food and I ate only the good stuff (no orders of “eat your vegetables” on this night!).
As an adult, I still love a good smorgasbord, but I crave something a little more than just simple chips and dips that thrilled me as a kid. I find that a nice charcuterie board, some accompanying chesses and sides are just the thing.
Charcuterie is a style of cooking dedicated to the preservation and preparation of meat products. Originally, the word referred to only pork products. Today, it describes any preserved meat—pork, poultry, fish, seafood or other meat and game, using traditional methods curing methods.
Whether you want simple, everyday meats like salami, chorizo or prosciutto, or more complex specialty flavors like Bresaola (an aged beef from northern Italy) or Jamon Iberico (a Spanish artisan ham), flexibility and innovation are essential in creating a memorable charcuterie spread.
When planning a plate, why not pick a country or a specific region and highlight its best-cured meats? Another idea might be to prepare a wide selection of cured and air-dried meats, giving your guests a variety of choice. On the other hand, you could create a charcuterie plate based on a single theme, such as pates, and highlight only a couple of examples.
Recommendation: Plan your charcuterie board around 3 or 4 meats—a dry-cured meat, a cooked sausage, a dry-cured sausage, and a pork alternative.
While the term charcuterie refers only to the meat products, when you are preparing a board at home, it is important to pair the meats with a flavorful mix of cheeses. A bistro will also add a sampling of cheeses to the plate, turning a traditional charcuterie spread into an appetizer or light dinner.
Distinct cheeses are often easier to find at specialty shops and local farmers’ markets than high-end designer meats. Goat cheese, English Stilton, Mancheego, and Gruyere all pair well with cured meats, and it is always a good idea to have a balance of strong and mild cheeses on the charcuterie plate. This is especially important when you are entertaining as not everyone enjoys strong, pungent cheeses.
Recommendation: Choose 3 cheeses—a soft cheese, a blue cheese, a sharp cheese. If you feel you need a fourth, choose something unique and unexpected.
Do not Forget the Sides
It is a general rule of thumb to have something acidic on the charcuterie board to offset the richness of the cured meat. Dates, figs, almonds and olives are all a good choice. Small pieces of chocolate have also been known to show up in a charcuterie spread. Whether you opt for complex flavors and pairings or just want to create a simple but visually stunning plate, charcuterie is a lot like jazz. The best results occur when you improvise.
Recommendation: Dried pair well with salty cheeses, while pickles, olives and peppers compliment the meats. Honey, balsamic vinegar, and jams help balance flavors from salty to spicy.
Your Turn: What are your favorite meats, cheeses and sides for a charcuterie board?