By Rick Riozza

In the good ole summertime, especially here in the desert, we’ll tend to eat lighter and on our own time without having all the trappings of a formal meal.  That doesn’t mean that we’re excluding family and friends from the table—indeed, there’s no better time to catch up on things in a casual dining experience while browsing, nibbling, and chatting around & about the tasty and enchanting grazing boards.

Apparently, these “grazing” or “graze” boards are trending big time on your social media platforms such as Pinterest and others.  And with the foodie nation all around us, the designs and décor of these food platters are almost over-the-top—in a very good way!  Of course we’ve been doing share plates of food for a long time with family and friends: it’s immediately interactive; we’re relaxed and engaged.

Simple enough, these boards are simply food platters: that include artisan cheeses, cooked and cured meats, olives, antipasti, pickles, nuts, dried and fresh seasonal fruits, garnishes, condiments, crackers—you’ve seen them.  And I think they are the caterer’s delight! Streamline cuisine without a bunch of machinery.  We wine tasters continue to see them at wine trade tastings; and, more and more corporate functions, store openings and the like are utilizing these appetizing displays.  Especially with wine alongside, the flavors, textures, and nuances of the assortments are bumped up just that much more.

For as wonderful the idea of offering delights on a platter is, I’ve heard complaints that some of the “un-inventive” grazing boards can get a bit boring.  Hard to imagine that a block of cheese, slices of meats, some fruits and veggies and some similar accoutrement can be tiring or blasé, but I guess the point is, as to the assemblage: the sky’s the limit—so why not have fun and consider variety and availability in the age of cornucopia cuisine.

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Food platter morsels play out well both on the communal side of things and in the home. I remember referring to a simple but romantic platter in bed for our Valentine’s coverage. Grazing boards are actually a “plane” above our traditional charcuterie, salami, cheese, bread, breakfast, and dessert boards and crudités trays—and perhaps a good definition of a “graze” board is the combo or the “greatest hits” of the various food platters.

And the platter matters! While antique boards are pretty for display, they may not be the best choice for layering on your meats and cheeses.   New wood or marble boards with a smooth surface work for the visuals and are practical.  One great suggestion for the platter is the use of the Middle Eastern “Lavash” bread, that soft unleavened flatbread can come in squares or can even roll out for a yard or more!  Of course you’ll have a stable platter about to cut on.

No doubt, this is the stage, the theatre, the tablescape where the food artist frolics!  If we foodies were given free run of a Whole Foods store to create our smorgasbord masterpiece, I’m certain the gastronomic psychologists could simply view the mélange and grasp a glimpse of our soul to determine who’s the romantic, the nurturer, the meticulous one, the Francophile, and perhaps even the wine enthusiasts with their panoply display of wine-soaked cheeses.

Although we’re all free to be with our variety of delectables, certainly there are those favorites that must make the cut! Yes!—meats, cheeses, breads, accompaniments & condiments, fruits & veggies.

The deli counter is your playground when selecting a mix of cooked and cured meats. We are adventurous with smoky speck and creative with slices of bacon-like pancetta which will add richness and real Black Forest Ham adds a bit of sweetness. The Italian Salami plate is great to borrow from—the porky, oblong spicy soppressata of southern Italy, Tuscany’s fennel-scented finocchiona, even the salame piccante that we know as “pepperoni” here in the states. And of course you can never go wrong with mortadella!

Don’t cut the cheese! Leave it whole.  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.

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.

Accompaniments provide flavor excitement that is tart, sweet, salty, crunchy, smooth or savory. When put together properly it becomes a continual play on the palate. Cornichons, the little French, miniature, tart pickle is the perfect foil for rich fatty meats; Korean kimchi does the same job yet adds a modern twist with a complexity of flavors. Look also to grainy mustards, vegetable salsa, fruit chutney, honey, ratatouille, caponata, bacon jam, wine based jelly or caramelized onions.

Textural diversity is as important as flavor: crunchy raw vegetables, roasted nuts or apple chips. Dense and chewy can be had from dried fruit such as figs, cherries or apricots.  Firm and juicy grapes rule!

And speaking of grapes—do we have time to mention wine? We kept this advice last; for oftentimes, so much effort is directed to the graze board—let’s keep things easy here.

As we always tout, if you had only one wine to go with any dinner, it would be a brut Champagne or fine dry sparkling wine.  It’s because a good dry sparkler is lively, fruit tasty, cleansing—and it’s got such festive bubbles!  The same works around the graze board! Bubbly will pair wonderfully with your masterpiece!

Right now at Trader Joe’s Markets, you can find the delicious summertime sparkler Freixenet Brut Carta Nevada Premium Cava for only $5.99!  Cheers!

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