It is not always strictly necessary to cook something to make a spectacular meal. A cheese plate is one of the most perfect dishes you could ever eat, and requires neither stove nor oven.
In the heat of summer one of my favorite dinners is two cheeses—usually a small goat cheese and a wedge of some kind of soft, spreadable cow’s milk cheese—and a loaf of good bread, some in-season fruit, whatever olives and nuts are already in the house, and a quick salad tossed with a bright vinaigrette. I just plunk the cheeses on a plate, set everything else on the table and make a rosé spritzer to go with the whole thing. This is also an excellent adult meal for nights when family dinner just doesn’t work out and the children eat first and the grown-ups go foraging after bedtime.
Sometimes though, it’s nice to get a little fancy with the whole thing. Whether you want to celebrate Bastille Day by storming the cheese counter, wow your neighbors at a potluck, or put out a beautiful appetizer spread at your next dinner party, a really special cheese and charcuterie array is a way to do that without heating up the kitchen or actually having to cook. Here’s how.
Select your anchors
You’re going to want two to four cheeses that serve as the main attraction. When choosing, think about your audience. If it’s primarily for you and close friends, just get cheeses you love, end of story. If it’s for an outdoor event, you’re probably going to want more firm cheeses so you don’t get a melty mess. Wedges or matchsticks of hard cheese are less intimidating, too, for a crowd that might not be super into a gooey washed-rind. At the very least, those cheddars and manchegos can serve as gateway cheeses for the more challenging stuff.
If you’re feeling adventurous and have a cheese counter you frequent, just ask the cheesemonger what they recommend—I worked at Murray’s Cheese in New York City years ago, and helping someone build a cheese plate was the absolute favorite task for everyone on staff.
Traditional platters aim for a mix of styles and types of milk—cow, sheep, and goat. “For a Bastille day celebration, of course you’d want to pick out some lovely French cheeses, or if you want to keep it local, American farmstead cheeses that are based on/inspired by French styles,” said Lilith Spencer, a cheesemonger who has won awards for her beautifully designed cheese plates, in an email to Quartzy. “It’s nice to offer different textures and milk types…this varied selection will give you not only a range of flavors and textures for you and your guests to explore, but also a beautiful color palette to work with.”
Do not let the smaller selection of cheese at the supermarket slow you down, if that’s where you prefer to shop. Small logs or buttons of fresh goat cheese, nice goudas, and solid blues can usually be found in the dairy or deli sections.”There’s almost always going to be a good cheddar,” says Aaron Foster, a cheesemonger and owner of Foster Sundry in New York City. But, he adds, “if it slices in the deli, don’t put it on a cheese plate.”
Add delicious, and colorful, fillers
Yes, the cheese is the star of the show here, but the the extra ingredients add visual interest and more snacking options. “A lot of people treat their cheese plates like kids treat dinner plates, where none of the ingredients can touch,” says Foster. “One way to make things taste better and also to make it look more interesting is to fill your plate with stuff and make everything touch.” He recommends adding in olives, grapes, fresh cut fruit and veggies, fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, in a combination cheese plate and crudité platter, especially in the summer. “When it’s hot, cheese can be a little bit heavy,” says Foster. “Anything to lighten that up.”
Look at this as an opportunity to use up jam, tapenade, and all those other assorted jars in your refrigerator or pantry. Dried fruit, nuts, pickles, sun dried tomatoes, honey, mustard, and spreads of any kind all make good accompaniments. Charcuterie can function as additional anchor points—think a slice of pâté or ripples of prosciutto—or you could use a meaty component like bacon jam as a condiment.
“Aesthetically, keeping it simple is always a safe bet when it comes to presentation. If you aren’t confident in your knife skills, there’s no need to attempt paper-thin slices or crazy mosaics,” Spencer writes. “The cheese is quite pretty on its own and I have no problem with leaving slabs whole for guests to cut into themselves (just make sure you provide a separate and appropriate knife for each cheese).”
Spencer counsels that keeping softer, runnier cheese in a wheel or a wedge makes everything neater and prevents the cheese from drying out. As for harder cheeses, “achieving aesthetic success has a lot to do with consistency—cutting all those pieces the same size/thickness and then arranging them evenly on a platter goes a long way, no fancy patterns required.”
Using something like a cutting board, the top of a cookie tin, a slate, or something else creative makes the whole thing much more visually interesting than a simple platter, Foster noted. He recommends starting from the outside and working your way in if you don’t have a rim to keep things like olives and nuts contained, lining the edges with stay-put cheese and charcuterie. Spreads like jam or mustard can go in small dishes or ramekins, and settle in among mounds of fresh vegetables or dried fruit. Mix up shapes and textures as you go—don’t put round grapes next to round olives.
Foster suggested using the thinnest knife you own for slicing, for a more accurate, cleaner cut, and taking a look at cheese cutting diagrams to make matchsticks and triangle shapes, that can be stacked or fanned. His one rule for a good looking plate? “Stay away from cubes,” Foster says. “It’s just the most boring thing in the world.”