Effortless, casual entertaining in the summer wouldn't be complete without a bountiful cheese board highlighting the best of the season. Making a beautiful warm-weather cheese board is super-simple, as long as you keep a breezy, easy-going vibe when setting up the cheese and accompaniments.
When choosing ingredients, think about contrast in texture and flavor as well as visual contrasts and harmony. Feature lots of garden-fresh vegetables and fruit for pops of color, plus grilled bread and smoked sausage along with the usual cheese, olives and nuts. Improvising is always encouraged, but here are our favorite tips for making a perfect summer cheese board.
Step 1. Start with a Central Focal Point
I like to think of a cheese board as having a center structure, which is usually the highest point. If the guests will be gathering around the board from all sides, you'll want it to be beautiful, interesting and balanced from all directions. If the cheese board will be on a stationary hors d'oeuvre buffet against a wall, then build the central focus at the back and center of the board.
In the summer, choose summer fruits and garden veggies to build your central structure. Play with various colors and textures to make it visually interesting. Whereas grapes and dried fruit would be a good choice in the fall or winter, in the summer peaches, plums and other stone fruit make a lovely focal point. I also love to pile on fresh berries. Both kids and adults appreciate nibbling on the sun-ripened berries. They contrast well with tangy cheeses.
Fresh vegetables from the garden, such as baby zucchini, peeled rainbow baby carrots and cherry tomatoes make nicely portioned additions to the central focus. I also love husk cherries (pineapple tomatillos) or a bowl of blistered shishito peppers.
Step 2. Choose a Variety of Cheeses
When selecting cheeses to feature, consider choosing at least one of each: cow's-milk, goat's-milk and sheep's-milk. I also like to provide one soft-ripened cheese, a harder aged cheese and a fresh cheese. Blue cheese is always a nice addition as well; it provides a sharp contrast and goes particularly well with summer fruit.
An elegant way to elevate fresh goat cheese is to roll the cheese in freshly chopped herbs. Make a mix of two parts parsley to one part each chives, tarragon and chervil, and roll the cheese into the herbs to give it a bright green coating.
The cheese board pictured above features a hard sheep's-milk cheese, a sharp aged Cheddar, the herb-coated soft fresh chevre, a bloomy-rind cow's-milk cheese and a cow's-milk blue cheese.
Another way to select cheeses is to choose all from the same type of milk with different aging processes and from different areas of production. English Cheddar is surprisingly different from many domestic Cheddar cheeses. Generally speaking, the harder the cheese, the longer it has been aged. Bloomy-rind cheeses, such as Brie, have a shorter aging process (just a couple months) and are inoculated with specific cultures that create their familiar white outer rind. Hard cheeses, such as manchego, are aged for up to two years. It can be fun tasting the difference between a mild Cheddar, aged for two to three months, contrasted with sharp Cheddar aged for a year or more. The region where the cheeses are produced also would be something to consider focusing on for your theme. Highlighting all French cheeses, for instance, would be a great way to showcase many contrasting varieties.
Step 3: Add Marinated Olives
Basil adds a fresh, summery vibe to marinated olives. Drizzle 1 tablespoon olive oil and a generous pinch of crushed red pepper onto store-bought olives, along with chopped fresh basil, to make a simple marinated olive salad. Place the olives in a small decorative bowl directly on the cheese board for a visual contrast.
Step 4: Include Grilled Bread, Smoked Sausage and Nuts
In the summertime, adding hot grilled smoked sausage and grilled baguette to a cheese board is a welcome surprise. Grill smoked rope sausage for 6 or 7 minutes over a medium-hot fire until it's browned and hot. Rest it for 3 minutes, then slice into bite-size pieces. I like to serve the sliced smoked sausage with bamboo toothpicks, available at party stores, kitchen and bath stores, on end caps in the supermarket or order them online.
A generous portion of salted nuts is a hearty, crunchy addition to consider. Just fill in the gaps among the cheeses, fruits and veggies to create a bountiful visual effect.
To grill the baguette, slice it and brush the cut slides with oil. Then grill the baguette for a minute or two over a medium-hot fire just until crisped.
Step 5: Tuck in a Variety of Crackers
Whole-grain crackers are a healthy choice. Think beyond whole-wheat: crackers are now also made with quinoa, brown rice, whole rye, amaranth and more good-for-you whole grains. Try contrasting shapes of crackers to keep things visually interesting. Include gluten-free crackers if you or a guest is avoiding gluten. Just be sure to keep wheat-based and gluten-containing items on a separate board or platter from the rest of the food if cross-contamination is a concern. Avoid flavored crackers, which can overwhelm the flavors of your cheeses and also tend to be higher in sodium.
Step 6: Finish with Edible Flowers & Fresh Herbs from the Garden
A nice touch in the summer is to finish off the cheese board with freshly picked edible flowers. Early in the summer, violets and chive blossoms add pretty purple and blue accents, whereas later in the summer brightly colored nasturtiums add a peppery bite. Make sure your flowers are grown for eating, as those from flower shops are likely sprayed with pesticides. (Read more about edible flowers here.) Finally, add a sprinkle of chopped herbs if you like. Mint and chopped flat-leaf parsley work well.
Make sure to tag us on Instagram @EatingWell and #plantyourplate with your summer cheese board creations!