Leveling up in the kitchen is an admirable pursuit. There’s a sense of satisfaction to mastering a sous vide steak or a perfect cocktail. truTV’s Upscale with Prentice Penny has already given us the ins-and-outs of making a great old fashioned right at home. Now they’re sending out intrepid host Prentice Penny to take on an amazing mélange of food called charcuterie (shahr-koo-tuh-ree).
Known as Antipasto in Italy, Brotzeit in Germany, and Lunchables in America, Charcuterie is one of those meals that’s devilishly simple yet infinitely complex and Penny is here to help us figure it all out. As he reveals, a good charcuterie board is all about building flavors upon each other in the “Holy Trinity” of meats, cheeses, and fruits. High quality salted and smoked meats along with real artisanal cheeses can transport the diner with each bite. Add in the sweetness and tart of a little fruity jam or maybe a briny pickle and you’re good to go.
As Penny knows, every good charcuterie board starts with a great actual board. Is it worth dropping some coin on a serious piece of slate or knotty maple? Yes. Or go hew it from a tree like the wild artisan you are. Point being: a plate loses the effect.
Once you’ve decided on your presentation, the recipe for this meal is straight forward. Pick some meats from more than one animal — beef, pork, and game are crowd-pleasing options. Make sure to choose different levels of spiciness and smokiness too. Get an herb-crusted salami or a smoky venison ham or a super spicy chorizo — be adventurous.
Penny reminds us to make sure to add a little flair to the presentation. Nobody wants meat and cheese haphazardly thrown on a board!
Next come the pairings. The meats and cheeses are going to be the star of the show. It’s important to remember ‘what grows together, goes together.’ That is, pair meats with cheese from the same region. If you’re getting some Jamon from the plains of Spain, hit up some farmhouse manchego from the same region. The pigs and cows will likely have eaten the same grasses and wandered the same hills. That terroir is transferred into the final product for perfect complementary notes. It’s worth giving it a little thought and even testing these things out at your local deli or butcher before committing to buying a pound or two of expensive meats (they shouldn’t mind feeding you tasters). Those two and some quince paste? You’re in business.
A lot of people really dig on olives — and as Penny points out, there are “literally hundreds to choose from.” Don’t be intimidated. Go to a deli and taste a few (again, they won’t mind as long as you buy some). Find one or two olives you like and that you think will taste good with some spicy chorizo or creamy brie and go for it. It’s always a matter of trial and error to find the combination that you’ll love, but that’s the fun of it.
Don’t forget to dress up you board with strong counterpoints to the meats and cheeses. This is where some nice tart, not too sweet fruits come in. Think figs, grapes, tangerines. You might even want to consider some of the dried varieties if you’re looking for a little more sweetness. You can also add a nice jam made from apricots or peaches — or any fruit with a little heft to it. Another option that’ll really wow whoever you’re sharing the board with is to get some smoked fruits — especially if you’re serving smoked meats or cheeses. Some alder or birch smoked cherries, plums, or apricots can really tie the whole board together.
Before you go out and spend far too much of this week’s paycheck on all this decadent bliss, watch Penny take on all things charcuterie for truTV’s new show Upscale with Prentice Penny Tuesdays at 10/9c. Until then, here’s a handy (and short) introduction of a few meat and cheeses options we like on our charcuterie boards.
PROSCIUTTO de PARMA and PARMIGIANO REGGIANO
Emilia Romagna is where all the good stuff comes from in Italy. Especially around the small city of Parma. This also makes it a good entry point for pairing foods from the same place. “PARM” is in both Prosciutto de Parma and Parmigiano Reggiano. It’s always fun to look for similar roots and phrases in names, kind of like solving a food puzzle.
The hugely popular ham variety called prosciutto takes anywhere from six months to two years two salt, dry, and cure. There’s no smoking involved so the final product is very smooth and piquant. The original parmesan (as we call it) is a highly regulated affair. Cows have to eat specific grass, the milk has to be direct from the utter when the cheese is made, and then the wheel has to sit in a cellar for at least a year. Both of these products are the highest standards with the least meddling from additives imaginable. And they’re delicious.
MORTADELLA and PECORINO
Let’s stay in Italy for a moment. Mortadella is the grandpappy of what we call Bolonga in America. The difference being is that Mortadella is to Bologna what Pliny the Elder Double IPA is to cheap beer. Mortadella is a heat-cured ground pork that has to be at least 15 percent pork fat and often comes with peppercorns, berries, or pistachios right in the meat. It’s the most decadent meat log you’ll ever eat.
Pecorino is a very sharp and hard sheep’s cheese generally from Sardinia. It’s been a coveted cheese since Roman times and is often called Pecorino Romano. It’s got a slight farm edge to it with a sharpness that compliments the mortadella’s fatty lusciousness.
CHORIZO and MANCHEGO
Heading over to Spain you could get some more ham and spend some serious cash on a decadent Jamon Iberico. But let’s get a salami in here. A spicy chorizo belongs on every charcuterie board. The pork lean and fat are mixed with varying levels of spicy pimento. Is there anything better than smokey meat, unctuous fat, and fire-y chili spice in one mouthful? Doubtful.
Manchega sheep wander the plains of La Mancha and provide the milk for Manchego cheese. The semi-hard cheese is made very similarly to Pecorino, but tastes drastically different. There’s a piquant edge to the creaminess. The cheese is firm, but won’t flake like a parmesan or pecorino. Overall, it strikes that perfect balance between hard and soft cheeses that work with the spice of a solid chorizo.
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SCHWARZWALDER SPECK and BERGKÄSE
Up in Germany they know their way around a pig. Schwarzwalder Speck, or Black Forest Bacon, is a smokey delight. Basically they cure their ham or pork bellies the same way as they would in Italy with a prosciutto or Spain with a jamon, but the Germans add in one key element while the meat is curing: They smoke it. All that Black Forest wood layers itself into a spectacular ham that hits you first on the nose and then on the tongue.
Bergkäse, or Mountain Cheese, is a semi-hard cheese made high up in the Alps. It can be a Gruyère or an Alpine Cheese depending if it was made in France or further east. There’s a very rich creaminess that’s accented with a nice nuttiness due to the high altitude grazing of the animals and storage of the wheels of cheese in huts clinging to mountain slopes. Along with the Black Forest meat, you’ll get a real sense of the Alpine with this match. (This is also a great pairing to get some smoked plums or cherries.)
TERRINE and CAMEMBERT
Oh, France… So much good food, so little time. A nice Terrine might be a little advanced for some people’s palates. Generally a terrine is a forced meat loaf that is prepared almost identically to a pâté, but with more ingredients which are more coarsely chopped. It’s kind of like a rustic style pâté if you will. There are almost endless options here. You can get game, salmon, pork, with all sorts of add ins from garlic to nuts and fruit. The flavors are all rich and rewarding if you’re willing to be a little adventurous.
A super rich, funky, and runny camembert is a must. It should be stinky. It should be served room temp. This pairing is richness on richness, but sometimes you need a heavy hitter in between the smokey meats and tart fruits.
COUNTRY HAM and CHEDDAR
There’s great charcuterie to be had stateside too. Places like Salumi in Seattle and chefs like Sean Brock are championing bringing back the old ways of curing, smoking, and serving meats. A country ham is usually from the South where it’s salt cured, hardwood smoked, and then aged creating an American version of the Germany’s speck. And it’s delicious.
Cheese in America is making a strong comeback from the over-processed and pre-packaged days of the last 50-ish years. Dairies and cheese mongers are popping up in every farmer’s market and we’re all better for it. Getting a nice, freshly made and homegrown cheese is crucial to pairing with the smokey country ham. A nice super shard cheddar is a good way to counterpoint all that smoke and fat from the meat. And even if you can’t locally source your cheese, national brands like Tillamook’s Extra Sharp Cheddar will do the trick in a pinch.