For the unimaginative among us, snacking on cheese and crackers is reminiscent of an Oscar Mayer childhood, when lackluster box lunches consisted of a plastic wrapper of processed lunchables. But for those of us with vision and a penchant for following social media accounts that show off imaginative charcuterie boards full of goodies, it conjures polished teak slabs overflowing with rows of cured meats and cheeses, pickled root vegetables and spiced stone fruit Jams and sweet jellies, all complemented by miles of flights of carefully curated wine pairings.
Or maybe that’s just me.
Either way, with the holiday gatherings fast approaching, putting together a quick tray with some flavorful cheeses, some salted meat, and an array of crackers is a perfect way to get guests eating while the turkey gets the finishing touches .
Such an ornate hors d’oeuvre platter need not be relegated to a pre-meal side show, however, especially as charcuterie boards are increasingly becoming a worthy centerpiece at weddings, events and holiday celebrations.
That’s the idea behind Boards and Pours, the brainchild of Colleen Wolak and Alexa Carter. During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, when socialization was limited to a small quarantine circle of friends gathering for meals, Wolak and Carter saw a space to channel their creative energies into food-centric parties, but without the focus on traditional dishes.
“We want to redesign the way you ‘charcuts’ or browse,” Carter said. “Instead of individual portions, we want our food to be presented beautifully and invitingly on the whole table – one large table.”
Board and Pours began by showcasing more elaborate versions of charcuterie boards, but quickly progressed to full pasture menus — brunch, seasonal dinner boards, Thanksgiving-themed deconstructed mashed potato boards.
Anything goes for a board-style presentation.
Still, simple sausage spreads are what people are most familiar with, and Wolak and Carter run workshops showing beginners how to easily make this dish holiday talk.
Carter acknowledges that it’s easy to walk into a grocery store and get lost in the cheese and meat aisles and buy extravagant jams and specialty nuts in addition to the basics. Even a few boxes of fancy-sounding crackers can add up.
She recommends picking a crux item or two to spend money on — a fancier cheese wheel or a nice savory spread — and then stuffing the rest of the board as economically as possible.
Two easy ways to keep spending under control are to replace a few crackers with a sliced baguette or to toast the nuts yourself. Mix walnuts or almonds with a little butter and rosemary and put in the oven at 350 degrees for 15 minutes.
Build out of the cheese
Wolak explains that trying to take a sausage platter to the next level can sometimes be overwhelming, especially when trying to create a photo-worthy design. She says it’s best to start with the cheese.
“Place the cheese where you want it and then build the board from there,” Wolak said. “Maybe you have a wedge on one side, some dice on the other, and some discs on the other. Then all the fillers need to be applied.”
As far as giving each element its proper place, Carter says an understated effort is often elegant in its own spartan way.
“Just taking a few pieces of cheese and putting them on the board, with the rind and without cutting, that can be just as amazing as any fancy design,” she said. “So it takes up space, and a whole piece of cheese looks more expensive.”
Fillers can add color and flavor
“The product aisle is your friend and has a lot of color,” Carter said. “Every time you can put something fresh on a board, it only makes it stand out more.”
Fresh fruit like pears or apples can be sliced in unique ways to colorfully fill the space, while rainbow carrots, stale tomatoes and purple cauliflower add seasonal pops of color. Carter recommends adding a pesto or beetroot hummus. Either homemade or store bought.
“Pesto is such a super bright green, it looks fresh as hell on a board,” Carter said. “It’s just a hearty twist that you might not think of.”
The final touch in the form of fresh eucalyptus, sprigs of rosemary or other aromatic herbs can spice up the dishes both visually and fragrantly. Then try to make the board itself disappear.
“We always mention that at the end you should fill in nooks and crannies — nuts, berries, dried fruit — these really make a board look full,” Wolak said.
Have fun and keep it simple
“The most important thing is not to stress about it,” said Wolak. “There’s enough going on during the holidays, that really should be the least of your worries.”
While Instagram might be filled with sausage boards of salami arranged into origami-like flowers, Wolak says a picture-worthy board isn’t the end goal — it’s about enjoying the meal with friends.
“The thing is, no one has ever turned down a meat and cheese platter because it wasn’t pretty enough.”