This article originally appeared on MyRecipes.com
A few years ago I stopped by my friend’s house unexpectedly and within five minutes she had a glass of wine in my hand and an attractive, delicious cheese board assembled. As I sat a little stunned (and a lot impressed), she bestowed upon me some of the wisest wisdom I have heard to date. “Jes, your Cheese Drawer should always be stocked and ready to go.”
Up until that point in my life I had never kept more than string cheese, or if I was lucky, a block of cheddar, in my ‘Cheese Drawer’—let alone referred to it as a proper noun. Today I like to think I’ve perfected keeping my own drawer well stocked and I leverage the advice year-round, particularly during the all-important holiday season. With the right prep, it’s easy to pack your cheese drawer to impress last-minute visitors and houseguests or assemble an app on-the-go for your next holiday party.
The key with cheese is to have a crowd-pleasing variety on-hand. The standard mix of an aged, a soft, a firm, and a blue cheese is a great rule of thumb to follow. However, while I won’t touch a dirty martini without blue cheese olives, I find blue cheese polarizing so I usually skip it in favor of a more neutral variety like a triple cream Brie. While you can shop anywhere for your drawer’s goodies, I personally favor Trader Joe’s as they have a wonderful selection and tend to be more affordable than other stores.
Some of my top favorites:
- St. Andre Triple Cream Brie – This classic, luscious beauty is a perfect standby cheese for your drawer.
- 1,000 Day Gouda Cheese – My hands-down favorite; awesome on its own, and the best part are the little crystals formed by the aged cheese.
- Aged cheddar with Parm – The sharper, the beddah when it comes to cheddah, and I love the extra nutty kick from the Parmesan.
- Goat cheese multi-pack – Set one out and save the other two for your next gathering. Everyone loves goat cheese!
If you’re anticipating a sizeable crowd, you can find similar varieties in larger quantities at Costco. I recently did this for a big party and used the leftover cheese in pasta dishes and dips and on eggs for the next couple of weeks so it all went to good use. If you’re feeling adventurous, explore the “under $5” cheese basket at Whole Foods. It’s a bunch of remnant pieces wrapped up and priced to sell. It could help you find a new favorite or add another cheese to the spread without the same commitment of a larger block. I also love to keep a baked or “bread cheese” in my drawer; it can be warmed up on the grill or a frying pan and sliced to enjoy on its own or with some jam or whatever strikes your fancy.
I do not believe there is a better cracker on the planet than the Multigrain crackers from Trader Joe’s. I always keep 2 boxes of these on-hand, they’re great to set out without overpowering anything on your board, but are also delicious on their own with hummus or say, an onion dip. But if you do find a better cracker, please let me know immediately.
Trader Joe’s Fig & Olive Crisps are also a wonderful staple to have on-hand and a fraction of the competitors’ cost. Water crackers from any brand will only set you back a couple of dollars and are a good basic to have available as the most neutral vehicle for your cheese. And I would definitely stock up on a box or two of cheese straws for good measure! (Pro tip: Encourage your guests to wrap those cheese straws in prosciutto.) Of course any cracker variety you keep in your pantry will work just fine, it all depends on your personal preferences.
Charcuterie will add nice texture and color to your plate and can provide extra substance if your guests are on the hungrier side. I love aged salami, which you can keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks or in the freezer for a few months. And I always have prosciutto in my cheese drawer… it’s a crowd favorite, it goes nicely stacked on a cracker or wrapped around a hunk of cheddar, and you can fry up the extras for eggs or a salad the next day. With advance prep, you can also bake prosciutto with some olive oil and sage or rosemary to make crisps, which can definitely increase the fancy factor.
In keeping with our “last-minute” theme, in exchange for fresh olives, fruit, or veggies, I like to keep dried apricots, spiced pecans, and two different types of jams—such as sour cherry or fig jam—in the kitchen. Create a nice display by sprinkling the fruit/nuts directly on the board or pour into little bowls. For the spreads just open the jars, tuck in a spoon, and set out directly on the board. There are a ton of options out there for accouterments that come with a convenient shelf life, from preserves to mustards or jarred artichokes, gherkins, or peppers. Play around with a variety to find your favorites.
Assemble It, It’s Go Time
I love chalkboard cheese trays (which are also easy for labeling each cheese!) but any sizeable surface will work. I also have several decorative bowls in different sizes I use for various cheese board components and would encourage you to make use of what you have and get creative! In a pinch, you could even use a tall glass for the cheese straws. Of course, plenty of knives and spoons to pair up with everything you set out will be necessary. Finally, to keep things festive and cut cleanup time, I set out seasonal cocktail napkins instead of plates. They can be humorous, or pretty, or monogrammed, and they add a fun personal touch.
As far as quantities go, you can mix it up based on the number of guests you are entertaining. If you only have a handful of people over, a cheese or two and some accouterments can be enough. If you have a crowd, you can set out as much as you like, just be sure to restock after so you’re ready for your next round of visitors. Remember, it’s last-minute, so by no means does it have to be perfect.
With a few minutes of prep and a little advanced planning, your stocked cheese drawer can provide you with an instantly inviting, impressive display for your guests (and you!) to enjoy during the holidays and all year-round.