Cheese and sausage always meant we were having a party. I remember instinctively knowing our family was hosting New Year's Eve when I saw small logs of summer sausage and bricks of cheese stashed in the corner of our refrigerator after Christmas. My holiday parties still include cheese and sausage, but I also offer dried fruit, jams, nuts and olives all served on a huge wooden cutting board, my version of a charcuterie board.
According to charcuteriestyle.com, the word "charcuterie" is derived from the French words for flesh (chair) and cooked (cuit). Pronounced "Shar-coo-ter-ee," this not-so-new, but very trendy, way to serve cheese and sausage is popping up on menus at some of the nicest restaurants and wine bars around.
Preserving meat through salting, smoking, and cooking, techniques that date back to the origins of human beings. During the 15th century, the French developed a variety of meat loaves, sausages and cured items that were commonly traded and sold. Charcutiers were skilled in developing ways to season and cook meat while making sure it was still moist and flavorful, a practice that gradually spread across Europe. Today, charcuterie is a delicatessen-style cured meat most often served with cheese, bread and pickled vegetables.
The deli is where I start building my charcuterie board. Thinly sliced salami and prosciutto are a must, but if I am serving a large crowd, I add cured Spanish chorizo, pepperoni and capicola. While waiting for my turn at the deli counter, I visit the olive bar and fill containers with garlic and blue cheese filled jumbo green olives, along with other favorites including a spicy Italian mixture we like.
My hunt continues at the cheese counter. It is best to serve several different types of cheese, all with different textures. I like Brie, Manchego, Gouda, and maybe even a smelly cheese, but get whatever appeals to you. I like to serve my cheese in large pieces with small cheese knives allowing my guests to slice themselves.
Before you leave the cheese area look around; this is where you can often find some fancy crackers, but they can be pricey, so be sure to supplement with your favorites from the cracker aisle as well. One of my tricks is to find crispy breadsticks in the Italian section of the grocery store where there are often some flavor choices and are typically reasonably priced. Stop by the bakery section to pick up a thin baguette, too.
A charcuterie board is more than the cheese and sausage of my childhood, now including honey, jams and pickled vegetables. A little sweet jam or chutney is delicious with a small bit of salty cheese on a cracker. If you haven't already tried this, go to your refrigerator now and make yourself one of these snacks, you will be hooked.
My favorite jams to include are blueberry, fig and peach, all wonderful with my favorite cheese. Honey also adds a sweet note to cheese.
No charcuterie board is complete without some dried fruit and pickled vegetables, and the traditional choice is the little French dill pickle known as the cornichon. No need to take a trip to Paris; you can find the mini dills in your local grocery store, along with my favorite dried fruit, the apricot.
Don't forget to put a couple of packages of nuts and a bottle of whole-grain mustard in your cart, too.
I like to offer red and green grapes, even though they might not be traditional because they look nice and are an excellent choice for someone wanting something other than protein. I cut my grapes into small clusters using scissors.
Now you get to pretend you're an artist and arrange your goodies on your canvass, but please don't let this intimidate you. Consider placing nuts in martini glasses and jams/honey/olives in mini Mason jars or bowls for added interest. Start by placing your containers on the board first, followed by meats, cheese and crackers. Just put your foodstuff on your surface in piles, without placing similar items next to each other and you will be a success. Fill in the gaps with your remaining goodies and grapes, finishing with herbs.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention my son's contribution to my charcuterie. Keith, who likes to make things out of wood, (including his dining room table) took me to a specialty lumber yard to pick a piece of "live edge" wood. This is a piece of unfinished lumber having bark on the two long sides. We found a 7-foot piece of cherry about 1½-inch thick. He took it home, stripped off the bark to expose the rough edge, cut it to fit my kitchen island, and then sanded the entire piece. The final step was to apply cutting board oil, which brought out the beautiful color and natural features of the wood. It is absolutely beautiful and what I use when preparing charcuterie for large groups. This is the board in all of my photos.
So, as you plan your holiday appetizers consider a charcuterie board, you don't need a huge cutting board and can use a platter, or cluster of dishes filled with goodies. It can be large or small, but the goal should be to include something from every food category. The balance of salty and sweet, along with creamy cheeses is visually stunning and sure to be a hit at your next gathering. Happy New Year!
• Penny Kazmier, a wife and mother of four from South Barrington, won the 2011 Daily Herald Cook of the Week Challenge.