Life of the Party
Interview with Stephanie Smith & photographs by FIG & HONEY GRAZING
The cheese board or cheese and charcuterie plate is often the centerpiece of your hors d’oeuvres table and an easy way to wow guests while offering variety. Local foodie and avid entertainer, Stephanie Smith, shares some thoughts and ideas.
What’s your first step when building a cheese board or a cheese and charcuterie plate?
I like to choose my serving pieces. They help set the feel of the gathering and will dictate how many foods I can mix in with the cheese – and maybe the meats.
There’s a saying, “You eat with your eyes.” Would you agree?
Absolutely. Presentation is so important, but taste trumps everything!
How do you decide how many cheeses to include?
It depends on how many people are coming – usually three.
How do you pick which cheeses to serve?
I like to have a theme. I’ll do cheeses from different regions or a trio made from different milks – such as cow’s, goat’s and sheep’s milk. Sometimes, I’ll build around one specific cheese. Blackberry Farm is producing their own version of camembert called Magnolia and it’s delicious. I used it as the center of the board for a recent get-together – I like that it’s locally made. Of course you always need to vary the textures – something creamy like brie or camembert, a firm cheese such as cheddar or aged gouda, and a semi-soft cheese like havarti. It’s fun to add in a good stinky cheese, too – a tasty topic of conversation!
After you’ve chosen the serving piece and cheeses, where to go from there?
After I situate the cheeses I just start layering things in. If you do use a super stinky cheese allow some space between it and the others. This might be a good area to place the charcuterie, and it could act as a great divider amongst the various sections on the plate. This area of cured meats can include salami, capicola or prosciutto. After the positioning is complete I add things that will compliment the cheeses. I always include fresh and dried fruits and nuts. Sometimes, I add in assorted olives and gherkins – especially if I have charcuterie. Besides being delicious, these all give good color and texture when mixed in, laid over, etc.
What about sauces, dips and spreads?
I always include a few – something sweet and something savory. Some type of preserve, fig or quince jam, maybe honey – apple butter would be good as we go into fall for the sweet. As for the savory, I almost always have pepper jelly, bacon and onion jam on hand – Trader Joe’s Red Pepper Jelly and Blackberry Farm’s Bacon Jam and Smoked Onion Jam are three of my faves. If I have charcuterie, I’ll have an interesting mustard or harissa, too.
How do you handle serving the condiments?
Have a spreader or spoon for each of the dips. This is another way to set the feel of the party. I love to use pewter spoons. Michael Peters Home, a shop in Bearden, carries pewter spoons and spreaders by Vagabond House – it’s gorgeous stuff and can be dressed up or down. Sometimes I use antique silver – a sterling baby spoon is the perfect size for a taller condiment jar and it’s so cute! If I want the get-together to be super casual I might use little bamboo or olivewood spoons.
Lastly, do you have to use cheese knives?
In my opinion, no. But, I usually do. There are millions of options – lots of three piece sets that will have a knife for each type of cheese (some multi-purpose). Knives with the fork at the end are great for cutting and then piercing hard cheeses like cheddar or aged (hard) gouda but they work with almost any cheese – and you can use them for charcuterie, too. The knife that looks similar to a spreader is usually used with soft cheeses like brie, camembert, goat, etc. Lastly, the knife with a wide blade – sometimes they look like a spade or a hatchet – is great for cutting through semi-hard cheeses like havarti and red wax (young) gouda. The knives help to reinforce the feel, too.
I forgot to ask about breads and crackers?
I like to put them on a separate dish, in a basket or on the outer edges of the cheese board if I’m using a really big platter. I don’t like the way it looks to have the cheese board overloaded with crackers.
Regardless the type of get-together, whether we’re being fancy, celebrating a holiday, watching football, whatever, I want my friends and family to feel comfortable and content. And, to enjoy the food!