When I was a kid my dad used to take me to the Rochester Public Market on Saturdays and each time we went he would pick up different types of cheese to try. I remember my mom complaining about the stinky limburger that was smelling up our fridge. I inherited that cheese gene from him evidently. At any social gathering you’ll likely find me somewhere near the cheese board. A good cheese board is a meal in and of itself when done right; a feast for all of the senses with a variety of textures, colors, and flavors ranging from sweet to salty to sour. Soft to crunchy. And the best part of a good cheeseboard is that you can create one easily using things you already have on hand if you have a well-stocked pantry. So when you have impromptu gatherings it’s easy to whip up a simple board that will hit all the right notes, look like you slaved all day, and pair perfectly with your favorite beverages.
Your starting point is the board itself. Going with the “whatever I have on hand” premise, look for a wooden cutting board, a large white serving platter, or a piece of slate, marble or granite. Ok, not everyone has those lying around but I happen to have a bunch and can tell you a place right here in the neighborhood you can pick one up pretty cheaply. Wood is nice because it absorbs moisture, ceramic is less desirable for the opposite reason, and stone is nice because it keeps foods cool and also absorbs moisture, and looks sexy.
The next step is to assemble some ingredients. For the most important part, consider using 3-5 cheeses in different categories: hard (gruyere, parms) semi-soft to firm (cheddar, Gouda, manchego) and soft (brie, chevre/goat, blue). I usually have a drawer full of cheeses in my fridge but if you do not, stop in at Abundance Co-op or the Rochester Public Market for some excellent choices. Outside the neighborhood, Trader Joe’s and Wegman’s have great selections too. Talk to your cheese monger, ask for samples, and always try something new.
Use markers to identify the cheeses you are serving. There are many options for these from simple paper flags to ceramic to recycled flatware stamped with cheese names. You can either cut your cheese into serving-sized pieces or leave it in a big hunk for people to saw into. If that is your preference use separate knives for each cheese, and use the right ones please – it’s hard to saw through Manchego with a spreader.
Assemble your accoutrements next. My go-to ingredients are:
• nuts(spiced, candied, or dusted in mocha)
• seeds or dried berries: pumpkin seeds or goji berries
• pickles of any kind you might have. Little cornichons fit well on any board
• olives(I like the pretty Castelvetrano ones but any are fine)
• fruit:again, whatever is in your fridge. Blueberries, blackberries, grapes, strawberries, or raspberries. If you want to get fancy, and have to go to Wegmans anyway, look for figs, star fruit, kiwi, pomegranate seeds, or champagne grapes.
• If I have these in my fridge I add sweet and spicy Peppadews which I like to stuff with pearl mozzarella balls
• I know some of you want meat on there but there is enough on here to satisfy you I promise!
You don’t need all of these, just use what you have and see what you come up with. Grab those little jars in your pantry that you buy and never use, check the dates on them, and open them up. Onion jams, red-pepper jelly, hummus, tapenade, sour cherry spread, pickled onions – open them up and add them to the mix. Raspberry preserves? Put a dollop on a disk of goat cheese. Use little ramekins on or near the board for spreads and dips. Your wet ingredients, the fruits, pickles, and olives, should be dried on a dish towel before you assemble the board. Then have some fun arranging things around your cheeses, which should be at room temperature when you serve this beautiful thing. Let them sit out and get all sweaty and delicious for a couple hours.
I usually don’t have space on my cheeseboards for crackers or breads, so I serve them on a separate plate or in a bowl. A fresh baguette, toasted if you have time, and some nut or rice crackers are good choices, or any herb-flatbread cracker. If you have an herb garden, garnish with some fresh leaves of whatever you have on hand. If not, don’t worry about it. The beauty of this is the fact that you don’t have to cook anything here. Just be creative, use what you have and what you love. Enjoy it, and enjoy sharing your creations with your friends and family.