For the unimaginative among us, snacking on cheese and crackers hearkens back to an Oscar Mayer childhood when lackluster sack lunches consisted of a plastic pack of processed Lunchables. But for those among us with vision, as well as a penchant for following social media accounts depicting fanciful charcuterie boards brimming with treats, it conjures polished slabs of teak wood crowded with rows of cured meats and cheeses, pickled root vegetables and stone fruits, spiced jams and sweet jellies, all of it complemented with mile-long flights of carefully curated wine pairings.
Or maybe that’s just me.
Either way, with holiday gatherings fast approaching, cobbling together a quick tray featuring a few flavorful cheeses, some salted meats and an array of crackers is a perfect way to get guests munching while the final touches are put on the turkey.
However, so ornate an hors d’oeuvre platter need not be relegated to a pre-meal sideshow, particularly as charcuterie boards are increasingly becoming a worthy centerpiece at weddings, events and holiday gatherings alike.
That’s the idea behind Boards and Pours, the brainchild of Colleen Wolak and Alexa Carter. During the height of covid, when socialization was limited to a small quarantine-circle of friends gathering for a meal, Wolak and Carter saw a space to channel their creative energies into food-centric parties, but without the emphasis on traditional courses.
“We want to redesign how you do ‘charcuts,’ or grazing,” Carter said. “Instead of individual servings, we want our food to be plated beautifully and invitingly all across the table — one big board of stuff.”
Board and Pours started out showcasing elaborate versions of charcuterie boards, but quickly stepped up into full grazing menus — brunch, seasonal dinner boards, deconstructed Thanksgiving-themed mashed potato boards.
Anything is fair game for a board-style presentation.
Still, basic charcuterie spreads are what people are most familiar with, and Wolak and Carter teach workshops instructing novice-boarders how to easily elevate this dish into a holiday feast talking point.
Carter acknowledges it’s easy to go into any grocery store and get lost in the cheese and meat section, loading up on extravagant jams and specialty nuts in addition to the staples. Even a few boxes of fancy sounding crackers can start to add up.
She recommends picking one or two crux items to spend on — a fancier cheese wheel or a nice savory spread — and then fill in the rest of the board as economically as possible.
Two easy ways to keep the spending under control is to substitute a sliced baguette for some crackers, or roast the nuts yourself. Mix walnuts or almonds with some butter and rosemary and put them in the oven for 15 minutes at 350 degrees.
Build from the cheese out
Wolak explains that trying to raise a charcuterie board to the next level can sometimes feel overwhelming, especially when trying to make a design that’s photo worthy. She says the best place to start is with the cheese.
“Place the cheese how you’re going to and then build the board from there,” Wolak said. “Maybe you’ve got a wedge on one side, some cubes on another and some slices on the other. Then it’s just layering in all the fillers.”
As far as giving each element its due, Carter says that a low-key effort is often elegant in its own spartan way.
“Just getting a few wedges of cheese and plopping them on the board, rinds on and without slicing, that can be just as amazing as any fancy design,” she said. “It takes up room that way, and a whole wedge of cheese looks more expensive.”
Fillers can add color and flavor
“The produce aisle is your friend, and it has tons of color,” Carter said. “Anytime you can put something fresh on a board, it just elevates it that much more.”
Fresh fruit, such as pears or apples, can be sliced in a unique way to fill space colorfully, while rainbow carrots, heirloom tomatoes and purple cauliflower add splashes of seasonal color. Carter recommends adding a pesto or a beetroot hummus. Either homemade or store-bought.
“Pesto is such a super vibrant green, it looks fresh as hell on a board,” Carter said. “It’s just a hearty twist that you might not think of.”
Finishing touches in the form of fresh eucalyptus, rosemary sprigs or other aromatic herbs can make the food pop visually as well as fragrantly. Then, try to make the board itself disappear.
“We always mention to people that you should fill in nooks and crannies at the end — nuts, berries, dried fruit — these will make a board look really full,” Wolak said.
Have fun and keep it simple
“The number one thing is to not stress out about it,” Wolak said. “There’s enough going on during the holidays, this really should be the least of your worries.”
While Instagram might be populated with charcuterie boards featuring salami arranged into origami-like florettes, Wolak says a picture-worthy board isn’t the end goal — it’s enjoying the food with friends.
“The thing is, nobody’s ever turned down a meat and cheese platter because it wasn’t pretty enough.”
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.