The art of a successful charcuterie spread begins with the canvas: Start with a beautiful serving board and layer on the best of ingredients. Fortunately for those short on time or slim of wallet, less is often more. A quality cheese with complex flavor is enough to satisfy guests from reaching for thirds.
When shopping for cheeses and charcuterie, visit establishments that encourage sampling. This means they care about their goods and want you to learn more about the product, too. If you have a smaller serving board as a foundation to work off, try building your selection by size and proportion—perhaps focusing on one cheese with various accompaniments based around that dominant flavor.
The same logic applies for charcuterie: speck or jamón can be the sole meaty centerpiece of a spread. If you have a larger serving board, your possibilities grow: Add a fattier meat (salami or mortadella, or anything that contains nice chunks of lardo) or something cured (jamón Serrano, prosciutto, speck or braesola), as well as a chewier option, such as saucisson. When varying textures, look also for a pâté or rillettes that can be spread on small toasts.
Finish your spread with a dollop of tangy and sweet in the form of quince paste, jam or honey. Add seasonal fruit, such as concord grapes and ground cherries, leaving their delicate paper-like shells intact for full effect. Hazelnuts or Marcona almonds (raw or warmed in a fry pan with seasoning salt) create a nice crunch alongside gherkins and other pickles. Pantry items like these can be picked up or prepared ahead of time and kept on hand for last-minute entertaining.
Lastly, don’t forget color—both in the spread and the material of the board itself. Darker woods and stone, like black walnut and slate, show off the marbling effect in an Irish cheddar or the thin blue ripple in a wedge of Humboldt Fog. A lighter wood or stone, such as birch and marble, highlight the pop of color in a bunch of currants or pickled beets. Your guests just might admire the charcuterie board for an extra moment before digging in.
Kendra McKnight is a cook and food stylist living in Boston. See more of her work here.