How to serve cheese and what to serve with it is one of those never-ending cheese quandaries. Even if you've got your favorite standbys figured out — Quince paste! Honey! Marcona almonds! — you're bound to become a little bored. And forget about serving the same cheese setup to the same guests.
Time to switch it up. Here, 10 new ideas that will surely give your regular cheese accompaniments a run for their honey.
Serving a really impressive cheese platter is just about as sure-fire a way as it gets to start a great meal. I particularly like all of the following ideas for cheese boards because they're snacky and food-focused, which is a great way to make the cheese platter a bit more hefty. Not a bad idea if you're serving a lighter dinner, which seems to be the theme during these summer months, anyway.
• 1 Corn Nuts: Salty, nutty, and totally snackable. Why don't they make more frequent appearances? In Italy this summer, where they're as ubiquitous as bread on a table before a meal, I wondered this pretty frequently. They arrive on cue alongside your Campari cocktail, and I couldn't help but imagine how pleasing they'd be on a cheese board. Next to cheese, they make a satisfying, salty foil for other flavors, and would go equally well with soft, spreadable cheeses as with harder, more toothsome picks.
• 2 Cherries: Dried cherries are a cheese plate must have — cherry jam is great for cheese, too, for that matter — and so it's really beyond me why I've never recommended the fresh version of the fruit. Strewn across a cheese board, they're cute as can be, and much more exciting to eat than those ubiquitous grape clusters. They make great pairing partners for virtually every style of cheese, too. The only trouble with fresh cherries is that they're so seasonal; get them when they're around, though, and they're sure to add a little edge to your cheese course.
• 3 Focaccia: Bread and crackers are kind of a no-brainer addition to cheese boards. Switching it up just a bit to a simple focaccia is one of the more tasty ways to vary your usual cheese board. I love pairing a basic, olive oil and sea salt focaccia with a stinky, creamy washed-rind cheese. Or try a tomato or herb-studded focaccia to add another flavor to your spread. Super elegant, just a little bit different, and so yummy.
• 4 Shell Peanuts: Nuts are one of the safer food categories to pair with cheese. Peanuts, though, are rarely at the top of the pick list, overshadowed by the supposedly more cheese-friendly nuts like almonds, pecans, and walnuts. Peanuts are so crowd-pleasing, though! And there's something grungy-chic about sitting around and cracking open some peanuts in the shell. They're as happy sitting alongside a little French goat cheese as a robust aged sheep milk cheese. Just be sure to provide a discard bowl for the peanut shells.
• 5 Potato Chips: Another European staple during aperativo hour! It's so easy to find really delicious potato chips now. You could even make the argument that potato chips have a bit of an elegant edge, if you find the right ones. Seek out thick cut, small-batch kettle chips, or even Terra Chips. Chips work with blues, bries, and everything in between. Pairing two things that are endlessly snackable is never a bad thing.
• 6 Fresh Figs: I always recommend dried figs for cheese plates. They have an almost savory quality to them, and their insides are satisfyingly jam-like. So, so great with cheese. Their fresh counterpart bears such small resemblance: fresh figs are delicious, of course, but they also offer that unique only-found-in-figs textural component. They go remarkably well with fresh goat cheese.
• 7 Radishes: Radishes, butter, and sea salt are such a classic, delicious combination. Cheese isn't too far from butter — especially those triple cremes, which are comprised of at least 85% butterfat — and every cheese has a pretty generous salt component. So it's not a far stretch to go from pairing radishes with butter and salt to pairing radishes with cheese. Spicy, cold, and crunchy, a small bunch on a cheese plate offers a punch of color and a refreshing contrast to rich cheeses. Try them with bloomy rinded cheeses, especially the super creamy ones.
• 8 Olive Tapenade: Olives are one of the greatest standby cheese accompaniments of all time. Making a simple switch to a tapenade offers that same, satisfying essence of olive, but switches up the format a bit. A slather of tapenade on some bread makes a superb vehicle for your cheeses. Stick with heftier, rustic cheeses that can stand up to such an assertive, olive-y condiment, like farmhouse cheddar or mountain cheese.
• 9 Walnut Bread: Walnut bread may possibly be my very favorite kind of bread to pair with cheese. So many different styles of cheese have nutty characteristics: Aged goudas, mountain cheeses like Gruyere, and natural-rinded, semi-soft cheeses. Pairing cheese with seeded or nut breads only exemplify these latent flavors. So satisfying, and great if lightly toasted, too, which further amps up each and every nut.
• 10 Nothing: Don't underestimate the ability for cheese to stand alone. Like, all alone. There's no better way to truly taste and savor cheese. And while eating cheese entirely on its own might be a bit of an adjustment for some people, it's really not that painful. And keeping it simple makes things just about as easy as it gets for the host. Pick beautiful cheeses of different shapes, colors, heights, and textures to increase their eye-catching capabilities.
Here's to your new and improved cheese platter, and all of the great pairings that are sure to come from departing from your typical cheese routine.
Nora Singley is an avid lover of cheese, and for some time she was a cheesemonger and the Director of Education at Murray's Cheese Shop in New York City, where she continues to teach cheese classes for the public. She is currently an Assistant TV Chef and food stylist on The Martha Stewart Show.
(Images: Nora Singley)