It may be tempting to pop into the supermarket to purchase a deli tray of meats and cheeses, but what you'll gain in convenience, you'll lose in creativity. Think of an empty platter as a palette where you can create an appetizing tapestry of finger foods with spicy meats complemented by creamy cheeses. Presentation is as critical as your choice of meats and cheeses, so take time to plan how foods will be positioned on your platter.
If you're overwhelmed by the myriad choices of meats and cheeses on the market, from the insipid marble cheese to ubiquitous hunks of ham, seek inspiration from a country or region. Italy is a natural standout, but go beyond the expected and offer something more exotic than a wedge of salty Parmigiano-Reggiano and spicy salami. Skewer baby bocconcini (fresh mozzarella cheese) with cherry tomatoes and fresh basil leaves and accompany with a sweet-tart balsamic vinegar dip. Wrap some salty prosciutto around a ball of honeydew melon (instead of cantaloupe) and squeeze some fresh lime over top for a refreshing variation of the classic Italian appetizer.
Creamy Pate and Cheeses
Creamy pate may by made with a variety of ingredients, ranging from duck liver to cognac and mushrooms. It's usually topped with an edible layer of jellylike aspic that provides a textural contrast to the smooth pate. Arrange two to three types of pate on a platter and accompany with crispy crackers, earthy pumpernickel and crusty slices of French bread as variations on flavour and texture. Creamy cheeses such as Brie or Camembert are natural accompaniments (they spread as easily as pate), as are tiny cornichons (gherkins) or pickled cocktail onions. Serve these in tiny bowls interspersed among the cheeses and pates.
When planning a cocktail party, remember that guests will often be balancing a plate and a beverage, so aim for one-bite portions. Sausages and meatballs are both prime candidates for a platter. Don't stop at simply plopping a pick in a meatball or slice of juicy sausage; add dipping-sized dishes of spicy or grainy mustard and plum or barbecue sauce. In keeping with the theme, pair the meats with one-bite cubes of cheeses that pack a punch, such as sharp cheddar, Swiss cheese and Stilton.
Every meat or cheese platter is elevated by accompaniments, so offer plenty of choices. Cheeses are even more decadent when spread with fruit pastes, dipped into honey or enjoyed with nuts (hazelnuts and almonds are good choices), dried apricots and figs. When it comes to meats, think of natural accompaniments you might find on your dinner plates: roast beef and horseradish; ham and mustard; or chicken and capers. And don't forget the olives. Opt for an assortment of sun-dried Moroccan olives, mild green cerignola and briny kalamata olives.
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