There is no better time than the holidays to celebrate with loved ones, relax and eat! Festive bites are a mainstay of most holiday gatherings, but long menus and complicated recipes can stress out even the most seasoned host. This year, why not throw together a crowd-pleasing, no-cooking-required cheese and charcuterie platter?
GR|MAG sat down with Evan Talen, general manager of Aperitivo, to get the scoop on how to curate a festive, stunning and delicious holiday board that will be sure to wow, whether you’re hosting for the holidays or having a cozy night in.
Choosing your cheeses
First and foremost, let’s talk cheese! Variety is key when it comes to creating an excellent cheese and charcuterie platter. Talen recommends using different textures, shapes and types of milk in the cheeses that you choose as a baseline for ensuring that your platter has a good amount of variety. For example, when thinking about textures, consider including something soft and spreadable, like a brie or goat cheese, in addition to the more standard harder cheeses like gouda, cheddar or manchego. Talen also encourages amateur cheese connoisseurs to embrace some of the more unusual choices, like a pungent blue, although it’s not a necessity. A hard, crumbled cheese like asiago or Pecorino Romano can add an unexpected flair and different texture element as well.
When it comes to letting the holiday spirit shine through on your platter, Talen recommends keeping the seasonal-flavored cheeses to a minimum and, instead, evoking some festive vibes with the accompaniments that make charcuterie and cheese platters so unique and wonderful.
“Trying to find a cheese that’s specific for a holiday is more difficult, (but) finding accouterment to reflect the holiday is a little bit easier,” Talen says. “Just having a sprig of rosemary tucked in there somewhere can add that kind of visual appeal, but also an aroma appeal; it’s so many senses all brought into one.”
Other ways to infuse festive flavors into your platter are through the use of seasonal jams or chutneys, cold-weather fruit like pomegranates or persimmons, and pickled produce; the Aperitivo crew’s favorites this time of year are cranberries and golden raisins. Don’t forget to include some of the other cheese platter staples like cured meats, olives, cornichons and fresh or dried fruit to fill in the gaps.
In terms of vehicles for all of the snacking that lies ahead, Talen insists that, frequently, the cheese, meat and accompaniments can stand on their own. But if you need a grain in the mix, he recommends keeping it simple, saying “my go-to things are a French baguette and basic, flatbread crackers.”
Make it pretty!
If you’re left worrying about how to pull all of these pieces together into one stunning, picture-perfect foodscape, fret no more. Simply find where you’d like your cheese to sit on the board and go from there. “I always try and find what my centerpiece of cheese is first, and I build around that,” says Talen.
Once you’ve decided where each cheese will live, cut the pieces into different shapes to add interest. “It may be one piece that I’m leaving whole on the board, then arranging these other cut pieces around that to make it a visually appealing space,” Evan continued. “When I’m picking out those different cheeses for those different profiles I’m also thinking about how I’m going to cut them.”
When your cheeses are situated, add the cured meats. Again, think about using colors and shapes to diversify. Roll some thinly sliced pieces into tubes, cut others into triangles, or leave some slices whole; the possibilities are endless, and the creativity is part of the fun of putting together a great platter!
Finally, fill in the remaining empty space on your platter with your various accompaniments; spreads, dried or fresh fruit, pickled vegetables and more.
When the platter is ready to go, enjoy a glass of wine while waiting for your guests to arrive. While there isn’t one miracle bottle that will be a match for every item on display, Talen recommends sticking to wines that are higher in acidity in an effort to accompany the cheese, rather than overpower it. “Generally wines with higher acidity grow in colder weather, which are going to be more white wines and lighter reds,” Talen says. “You’re looking at pinots and white wines versus big bold cabernets.”
Most important, though, is to remember what your cheese platter represents: time spent with loved ones during one of the most special seasons of the year. So kick back, grab a drink and enjoy your gorgeous platter. Cheers; you did it!
Find Lauren Spangler’s piece “Hosting for the Holidays” in the Grand Rapids Magazine November 2018 issue. Available on newsstands now.
*Photos by Lauren Spangler