For those unimaginative, snacking on cheese and crackers goes back to Oscar Mayer’s childhood, when a lackluster lunch bag consisted of a plastic bag of processed Lunchables. But for those of us with a vision, as well as a penchant for following social media accounts depicting fancy charcuterie boards filled with treats, he conjures polished teak slabs filled with rows of cured meats and cheeses, marinated root vegetables and stone fruit flavored with spices. jams and sweet jellies, all complemented by mile-long carefully selected wine pairings.
Or maybe it’s just me.
Either way, in the run-up to holiday get-togethers, prepping a tray with a few flavorful cheeses, salted meats, and a selection of crackers is the perfect way to keep guests munching while the turkey is put on for the finishing touches.
However, such an ornate appetizer platter should not be relegated to pre-meal serving, especially as charcuterie boards are increasingly becoming a worthy centerpiece at weddings, events, and festive occasions.
This is the idea of Boards and Pours, the brainchild of Colleen Volak and Alexa Carter. In the midst of covid, when socializing was limited to a small quarantined circle of friends gathering for food, Volak and Carter saw an opportunity to channel their creative energy into food-focused parties, but without the focus on traditional dishes.
“We want to change the way you ‘graze’ or graze your livestock,” Carter said. “Instead of individual portions, we want our food to be beautifully and attractively arranged all over the table – one big board.”
Board and Pours started showing elaborate versions of the sausage boards, but quickly moved on to full menus – brunch, seasonal dining boards, deconstructed Thanksgiving-themed mashed potato boards.
Anything goes for a chalkboard style presentation.
However, the main sausages are what people are most familiar with, and Volak and Carter run workshops instructing newcomers on how to easily turn this dish into a holiday feast theme.
Carter admits it’s easy to walk into any grocery store and get lost in the cheese and meat section, loading up on extravagant jams and specialty nuts in addition to staples. Even a few boxes of fancy-sounding crackers can start to add up.
She recommends picking one or two key items to splurge on—a more refined cheese wheel or a tasty, savory pasta—and then filling in the rest of the board as sparingly as possible.
Two easy ways to keep costs under control are to replace the crackers with sliced baguettes or toast the nuts yourself. Mix walnuts or almonds with oil and rosemary and put in the oven for 15 minutes at 350 degrees.
Build from cheese
Volak explains that trying to take a sausage board to the next level can sometimes feel overwhelming, especially when you’re trying to make a photo-worthy design. She says it’s best to start with cheese.
“Place the cheese the way you’re going and then build a board from there,” Wolak said. “Maybe you have a wedge on one side, some cubes on the other, and some slices on the other. Then it’s just a layering of all the fillers.”
As for giving credit to each element, Carter says the understated effort is often elegant in a spartan way.
“Just taking a few slices of cheese and putting them on a board, skinned and unsliced, it can be as awesome as any fancy design,” she said. “So it takes up space, and the whole piece of cheese looks more expensive.”
Fillers can add color and flavor
“The grocery aisle is your friend and it has a lot of flowers,” Carter said. “Every time you can put something fresh on the board, it only lifts it up even more.”
Fresh fruits like pears or apples can be sliced in unique ways to fill the space with color, while rainbow carrots, heirloom tomatoes and purple cauliflower add a splash of seasonal color. Carter recommends adding pesto or beetroot hummus. Either homemade or store bought.
“The pesto is so bright green it looks damn fresh on the board,” Carter said. “It’s just a mental twist that you might not have thought of.”
Finishing touches like fresh eucalyptus, rosemary sprigs, or other aromatic herbs can make a dish more visually and aromatically appealing. Then try to make the board itself disappear.
“We always remind people that you have to fill the nooks and crannies at the end — with nuts, berries, dried fruits — that will make the board really full,” Wolak said.
Have fun and be simple
“The main thing is not to be nervous about this,” Volak said. “There’s enough going on during the holidays, it really should be the least of your worries.”
While Instagram can be filled with charcuterie boards of salami arranging into origami-like buds, Wolak says a picture-worthy board isn’t the end goal – it’s enjoying a meal with friends.
“The thing is, no one ever turned down a meat and cheese dish because it wasn’t beautiful enough.”