By lynn ogryzlo

The grazing board: it’s a funny name that conjures up images of cows in a field. Yet to me, it’s the most delicious of casual dining experiences. Of course, I’m talking about sipping on drinks that stimulate an appetite for nibbles of gourmet foods that you and your friends’ leisurely nosh while layering the experience with great conversation.

Often confused with a charcuterie board, a grazing board is the cheese platter of the 1980s, reincarnated by the modern day carnivores’ lust for cured meats and demand for exciting flavours. They include both meat and cheese with accompaniments that can be tart, crunchy, smooth or savoury. When put together properly it becomes a continual play on the palate that lasts for hours.

Charcuterie boards on the other hand, are only cured meats with a few condiments for flavour contrast. Notice how I said cured meats and not charcuterie. Charcuterie is a French word and yet, very few (if any) of the ingredients on the board are French.

Think about it, prosciutto and salami are Italian, kielbasa is Polish and ham hocks are German. Sure, cornichons, the little French, miniature, tart pickle is the perfect foil for rich fatty meats but it has now been replaced with Korean kimchi which does the same job yet adds a modern twist with a complexity of flavours the little cornichon lacks.

Creamy French pate has become passé being replaced with coarsely textured terrines, which are both English and French inspired. So where is the justification to use the French word charcuterie?

John Zagaria of Dolce Lucano, the Woodbridge equivalent to Niagara’s famous Pingue Prosciutto is a specialist in all cured meats but he refuses to use the French word charcuterie. Preferring instead to talk of salumi, the Italian word for the same family of meats such as sopressata, capacola, bresaola, Genoa salami and prosciutto. But since the word salumi is not showing any signs of popularizing the way charcuterie did, I think we’ll continue to hear charcuterie.

My preference has always been for a grazing board because it offers many more options to try new and interesting foods. Organized properly a grazing board becomes an afternoon amuse to your bouche. The goal is to feel pampered and satisfied in an atmosphere of indulgence. To do this, quantities are kept to a minimum while maximizing on the number of flavour elements. Keep in mind that on any good grazing board there could be three meats, two cheeses, three accompaniments, bread and fruit. Certainly you can add more or less, depending on the number of people and the time you have to indulge.

The great thing about a grazing board is that you own it. It can be as adventurous or tame as you like and get this – all ingredients can be purchased from a convenient grocery store to a well stocked, specialty food shop. How much easier can decadence be?

GRAZING BOARD DESIGN

Meat

The deli counter is your playground when selecting a mix of cooked and cured meats. Be adventurous with a smoky speck and creative with slices of cooked sausage. Bacon-like pancetta will add richness and real Black Forest Ham will add a bit of sweetness. You may also want a cured sausage like soprasatta or aged items like bresaola. Whatever you do, don’t forget Niagara’s quintessential cured meat, prosciutto di Niagara.

If you choose two different meats, plan on two ounces of total meat per person. The more kinds of meat you have, the more people tend to eat so for three meat choices, count on three ounces of total meat per person. Bring meats to room temperature for the best flavour. To do this, remove them from the refrigerator approximately 15 to 20 minutes ahead of serving and simply include a small fork for serving.

Cheese

Don’t cut the cheese! That is so 1970s! Instead, leave it whole. To make the board more visually appealing, stick to an odd number of different favours and styles of cheese.

Firm cheeses include Asiago, Grana Padano and Manchego. Everyone loves a rind cheese such as brie, gorgonzola and ash veined. If you like creamy cheeses, pull out a small bowl and fill it with rondule, buratta or chèvre.

You can also try selecting cheeses by the type of milk such as cow, goat or sheep for a range of different flavours.

When planning your cheeses, balance the strength of the cheese to your choice of meat. If you choose smoky meats, pair it with an equally strong blue cheese. If your meats are salty and elegant such as prosciutto, a hard cheese like Pecorino partner best. If you’re serving a really strong cheese, serve it on a separate platter to avoid flavour contamination.

To serve, bring the cheese to room temperature by removing it from the refrigerator approximately one hour before serving.

For firm cheese, a knife with holes prevents the cheese from sticking to it, a butter knife works for soft cheeses and for hard varieties, a cheese plane will shave off the perfect thickness of cheese for your cracker. If you don’t have special cheese knives, just remember to provide one knife for each cheese to avoid mixing the different flavours together.

Accompaniments 

Condiments, condiments, condiments! Use them generously, they build layers of flavours beyond the meat and cheese, add interest and round out the entire experience. Serve them in little bowls on the board with a small spoon or knife for easy sharing. Choose a variety from the following:

Acidic foods cut the richness of cheese. Choose from gherkins, kimchi or anything pickled like red onions, artichokes and mushrooms. Fresh fruit such as slices of mild pear, the tang of an apple or grapes. Look for delicate champagne grapes for a special treat.

Oily foods are a great foil to meats. Examples are olives and marinated vegetables such as mushrooms, eggplant and sun-dried tomatoes.

Flavour excitement comes from sweet, savoury and salty foods. The sky is the limit here. Grainy mustards, vegetable salsa, fruit chutney, honey, ratatouille, caponata, bacon jam, wine based jelly or caramelized onions.

Textural diversity is as important as flavour. You could add crunchy raw vegetables but I recommend roasted nuts or apple chips. Dense and chewy can be had from dried fruit such as figs, cherries or apricots.

Bread plays a supportive role. Offer a selection of breads, including sliced baguette, bread sticks, and crackers in all different shapes and sizes. It’s not a good idea to vary the taste and texture among the breads because they will just fight with everything else on the board. If you’re serving soft cheeses and spreadable condiments, slices of fresh baguette allow for easy smearing of all the flavours.

Spread out the spread

Once you’ve chosen your food it’s time to put the platter together. Choose a large plate, a food grade wooden board or marble slab, with plenty of room so that none of the cheeses or meats touches anything else and you have plenty of room for cutting. Really strong cheeses should be on their own platter.