FOOD DEC 2012

 

Pass the Charcuterie & Cheese

Sophisticated, stylish and as smooth as fine barrel-aged bourbon. That’s the tone to set when entertaining this holiday season. You can pull this off with ease. In fact, you’re already familiar with the basics. You probably stock your kitchen with cold cuts, cheese, condiments and crackers. That’s your everyday fare.
If you’re so inclined, you can make your own tantalizing meat products, pickles, jams and crisp, paper-thin crackers, thanks to chef-authored cookbooks. But if simplicity also is a goal, purchase party fixings in supermarkets and finer food stores, and use your creative energy to assemble mouth-watering pairings of meats, cheeses and accents.
“It’s an easy style of entertaining, whether you’re cooking or bringing something,” says Paul Virant. For inspiration, visit a local gourmet shop. See how the ingredients are merchandised. Learn where the products are from, then taste to determine the predominant flavors. Cheese shops often sell nuts, honey, crackers and condiments, says Chester Hastings, chef at Joan’s on Third, a family-owned gourmet food emporium.
That’s a clue about foods that pair well together. The challenge is to provide a balance of textures and flavors. No one taste should dominate.  Experiment and pick the flavors you like.
The salty-and-sweet pairing of grapes or figs with cheese appeals to Hastings, author of “The Cheesemonger’s Kitchen” (Chronicle Books, 2011). Meat, especially artisan-style cured and cooked products, delivers additional layers of interest. “You taste really good pork, then you taste salt as a supportive role, and then the other seasonings,” says Vanessa Chang of Creminelli Fine Meats.
“Basically you have a food product that’s very concentrated in flavor,” says Chang, marketing and education manager of the company known for its fine salami. She suggests pairing cured meats with vegetables. Chefs agree. Virant likes to serve fresh vegetables with the pickled counterpart.
“It’s a cool thing to do,” he says. Virant suggests pickled and raw carrots or pickled and roasted beets. You may find that your guests are drawn to the vegetables first. When Sean Baker introduced vegan charcuterie to Gather Restaurant, he had no idea it would become a rave-worthy concept. Don’t imagine kohlrabi carved into prosciutto slices, however.
“It has nothing to do with [conventional] charcuterie,” says Baker, executive chef and co-owner of the restaurant. “It’s a plate of vegetables prepared with a good amount of technique,” he says. Baker’s passion is pickling and fermentation. “Fermentation brings a new flavor experience to the table,” says Baker. He favors kimchi, the classic Korean fermented-vegetable dish, varying the recipe to use seasonal ingredients, such as cauliflower leaves in the fall. The mouth-tingling dish stands up to any meat.
Now that cured meats, cheeses, crackers and condiments are on the menu, here are some tips for balanced and beautiful presentations.
• Garnish cheese platters with a sprig of herbs or flowers “to keep the idea of nature,” Hastings says.
• Judiciously drizzle honey on cheese.
“Honey can be wonderful,” Hastings says.
His book includes a very simple dish of goat cheese and roasted garlic that’s mashed to a pulp. The cheese and garlic are layered in a bowl lined with cheesecloth and chilled overnight. The combination, which is shaped like a beehive, is turned out onto a serving dish, lightly topped with honey and accompanied with crackers.
Virant’s “The Presentation Kitchen” has an appetite-whetting photo of a charcuterie platter with coppa, fried pickled tongue, prosciutto, vanilla melon jam, pickled watermelon rind and watercress. The platter says: help yourself.

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Ideas & Tips

Broaden your vocabulary
helpful entertaining tips

For parties, polish your culinary vocabulary and upgrade your shopping list to look something like this:

>> charcuterie
>> fromage
>> mostarda
>> a combination of candied fruit
    and mustard
>> aigre-doux, a sweet-sour
    flavor combination
>> specialty crackers

OTHER TIPS
• Don’t overlook vegetables as a food
  carrier. Replace crackers with cucumber
  slices or sturdy endive leaves.
• Lightly layer meats instead of heaping
  slices on a plate. For example, bresaola,
  air-dried beef, has a deep red color.
  Thinly sliced and arranged in overlapping
  pieces it looks like rose petals.
• Set out small plates or bowls as a gentle
  hint that the food should be tasted, not
  inhaled. Similarly, put condiments in
  small serving bowls.
• Don’t feel you have to arrange picture-
  perfect food to entice your guests.

“For me, the idea is sweet, sour, salty. That’s the flavor profile in general that I’m looking for,” says Paul Virant, author of “The Preservation Kitchen” (Ten Speed Press, 2012).
When he’s entertaining at home, the menu might include “some really good salami, some preserved eggplant, my own pickled artichokes, shaved Parmesan and grilled bread,” says the chef. His cookbook explains how to make, and cook with, pickles, preserves and aigre-doux.

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