By Jill Erber
About this time every year, I am filled with both excitement and trepidation: excitement about celebrating (and eating great food) with loved ones; trepidation because I often cook all that food — and if I see one more recipe, I’m going to turn into a piece of coal.
So, today we will focus on how not to cook for the holidays by preparing a bountiful, seasonal cheese and charcuterie spread. You’d be amazed at what a conversation piece it can be — plus, the steps are simple and fun.
Step 1: Know your guests
Cheese novices? Opt for more approachable selections. Vegetarians? Skip the charcuterie
(or serve it separately). Lots of kids? Keep things mild and colorful.
Step 2: Quantity
Select three to five cheeses for variety without overwhelming your guests. For an appetizer, serve three to four total ounces per person. For a main course, serve five to six ounces per person.
Step 3: Variety
Offer different looks, tastes and feels with one soft-ripened, one semi-firm and one hard cheese. Then throw in a couple with interesting colors and/or flavors.
Step 4: Accompaniments
Bread and crackers are the means by which the cheese gets to your mouth. Ideal choices: sliced baguette, raisin nut bread and interesting flatbreads. Tip: Serve more than one.
Cured meats like Prosciuto and salami are natural partners, while decadent, velvety pâte is always a treat. Nuts, pickles, olives and mustards add savory tang while creating a beautiful visual element. Fruit jam, quince paste or honey can be spooned into a ramekin and placed among the cheeses. Fresh and dried fruits add additional sweetness, acidity and color.
Step 5: Beverages
Sparkling wine complements cheese like nothing else, so have plenty on hand. Great choices: Champagne, Prosecco and my secret weapon, Spanish Cava (tastes like Champagne, but at a fraction of the cost).
White wine with high acid and a bit of residual sugar cuts richness and balances saltiness while amplifying flavor. Great choices: Riesling or Gewurztraminer. Red wine is robust and
fruity — just don’t go too heavy, as a “big red” can dominate everything else. Great
choices: Malbec, Pinot Noir.
Step 6: Presentation
Allow cheeses to sit at room temperature for an hour. Not only will they reach ideal flavor and texture, but this gives you plenty of time to get ready before your guests arrive.
Provide a knife for each cheese so flavors don’t mingle. It’s just prettier (and tastier) that way. Make it educational by labeling your cheeses. (Note: this is only if you have time – it’s by no means necessary.)
The best part of the holiday entertaining is spending quality time with your friends and family. Not standing over a sizzling skillet is the first step. And lots of wine doesn’t hurt, either. Happy holidays from our cheesy family to yours.
Jill Erber is owner and “cheese lady” of Cheesetique, a specialty cheese shop and cheese and wine bar located at 2411 Mt. Vernon Ave., Alexandria with additional locations at 4056 Campbell Ave. and 800 N. Glebe Road in Arlington.