Perfect for a party: Build a charcuterie board with home butchery expert Meredith Leigh

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen
A charcuterie board made by Meredith Leigh, featuring pickled vegetables, fruit and a variety of salumi.

There's no need to reach for the charcuterie board template. The art of arranging charcuterie is only as complicated as you make it.

"The truth is that there's a lot more wiggle room than people think," said Meredith Leigh, a home butchery expert who teaches classes on everything from whole-animal butchery to charcuterie making.

Leigh's cookbook "The Ethical Meat Handbook," recently won the IACP 2021 Award in the food issues category. It's no surprise she recommends starting with locally made and ethically produced meat where possible.

Author and butchery expert Meredith Leigh

"Let's eat in a way that supports our food systems so they're resilient," she said. 

Local butcheries are becoming easier to find in most metro areas and places where boutique meat producers are abundant. But there's certainly no shame in visiting your supermarket deli counter.

Once you've selected your source, here are some things to consider.

Build your foundation

When selecting meats for your charcuterie board, choose a variety of textures and flavors, and select them in small amounts. Slice hard sausages thinly for the best result.

Leigh tells her students that charcuterie should be served in small portions. "It's meant to be an amuse," she said. "It's very concentrated in flavor, and that's important to remember." 

More:Fig jam, honey and crowd-pleasing cheeses belong on every charcuterie board

After that, remember that you're limited only by your imagination and, of course, what your wallet can handle.

Want to put pre-sliced pepperoni on your board? That's perfectly acceptable. The best advice is to wander around the deli and see what looks good to you. If it's a full-service deli, you can ask questions.

More:Don't have mad cheddar? Here are Cheese Gal's tips for making charcuterie boards on a budget

Try these meats

Prosciutto: "This is the Italian approach to salt-curing a whole ham with the bone in," Leigh said. Prosciutto should be sliced paper-thin and practically melt in your mouth. Serve this rolled up loosely.

Other aged hams to consider include a variety of stellar Jamons from Spain. The North Carolina-based Cúrate at Home ships incredible Jamon and other exceptional cured meats to your door. 

Don't forget about boutique, aged country hams from the U.S., particularly those from Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams in Tennessee

Spicy or sweet capicola: "This is a salt-cured, fermented and dried preparation from the pork shoulder," Leigh said. This whole-muscle cured meat is delicately fatty, tender and flavorful and should be sliced thin.

Dry-cured chorizo:  Spanish chorizo, with its deep flavor of smoked paprika, can be either spicy or sweet. Unlike Mexican-style uncured chorizo, Spanish chorizo is a cured, hard, sliceable sausage.

Meredith Leigh's charcuterie and pickles.

Salami: The varieties are practically endless. Try the dried Finocchiona, which is mild, sweet and lightly spiced with garlic, pepper and fennel, or the more widely recognized Genoa salami, which is widely available presliced.

Lardo: This is more of an accent rather than a foundation, but if you can find it, you should buy it. "This is just back fat, salt-cured and dried," Leigh said. Drape paper-thin slices over stone fruit, cantaloupe or toast.

Now get something spreadable

Spreadable meat? It's a thing. Here's a brief and incomplete guide. 

Nduja: "Spreadable salamis are weird but so freaking good," Leigh said. "Nduja is really having a moment." Pronounced in-doo-yah, it's a deliciously spicy, spreadable, fermented sausage that you won't want to put down. 

Charcuterie board should display a variety of colors and textures. These are by Meredith Leigh.

Pate: Pates and mousses made with organ meat aren't exactly common to the American palate. It's time to get familiar, Leigh said. "They're delicious and make use of some most nutritious and underused parts of (the animal)," she said. "We could probably advance our palates and our culinary literacy if we opened ourselves to those preparations."

Try Leigh's adaptable and doable recipe for liver pate.

"If people can't stomach the idea of liver pate, then there's the country pate, which is 10 percent liver and more ground meat and spices," she said. "I would definitely say that's a good gateway product." Country pate is generally sliced rather than spread.

Rillettes: "People are getting really jazzed about rillettes," Leigh said. "That's a fun one. I have not met one person who's not obsessed with it." So what is it? Essentially a confit, it means meat, slow-cooked and preserved in its own fat. 

Think outside of the box

Though the Culinary Institute of America defines charcuterie as the "preparation of pork and other meat items, such as hams, terrines, sausages, pates and other forcemeats," you can think outside of that box. That's especially the case if not everyone you're serving eats meat.

"Be creative in terms of what you think qualifies," Leigh said. "Think out-of-the-box stuff, like dips and chutneys and cheeses and pickles and other elements."

If you're serving dips, don't forget crackers, cheese straws, toasts or crudités (a fancy word for raw vegetables).

And if you're serving anything runny, such as soft cheese or tinned fish packed in oil, serve it in a small dish so it won't sog out your crackers.

Make sure to have plenty of acidity on board to go with your cured meat. "The acid cuts through the fat and the salt on your tongue and gets you ready to go back in for another bite," Leigh said.

Elements to consider:

  • Smoked fish dip
  • Tinned fish: Sardines, white anchovies
  • Spiced fruit chutney
  • Nuts: Marcona almonds, cashews
  • Olives
  • Pickled vegetables: Green beans, okra, pickled peppers
  • Mustard
  • Marinated roasted vegetables
  • Fresh fruit: Grapes, melon balls, berries
  • Dried fruit: Figs, apricots, dates
  • Cheese: Something soft, something hard, something funky and something sweet.
  • Spicy pepper jelly
  • Bread: Cubes, toasts, croutons

TRY THESE RECIPES:

Make it pleasing to the eye

You don't have to go fancy with your charcuterie base. You can use a wooden cutting board, platter, or even a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Just try to fill in all the negative space.

Leigh also says getting a template — or a map that tells you where to put your charcuterie elements — isn't necessary.

"Taking a class is not silly, but what's silly is trying to remove any bit of challenge," she said. "Follow your senses. Think about having a diversity of shapes, and think about bounty — nothing bothers me more than a bunch of spaces between everything." 

Find pops of color in seasonal fruit. Wander around the grocery store and select what looks pleasing. 

"Just have fun and trust yourself," she said.

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Mackensy Lunsford covers food policy, restaurants, agriculture and other food-related topics for the USA TODAY Network's South Region. She's the editor of Southern Kitchen and correspondent for The American South. Sign up for my newsletter here.

Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com