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How to build the perfect charcuterie (and beer) spread

Chef Steve McHugh of San Antonio's Cured lays out the plan for a perfect charcuterie display.
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Food styling by Marcella Capasso, photographed by Ed Rudolph for DRAFT

Food styling by Marcella Capasso, photographed by Ed Rudolph for DRAFT

At his charcuterie emporium Cured—housed in the admin building of San Antonio’s old Pearl Brewery—chef Steve McHugh is wildly creative: Think smoked duck ham, lamb-citrus terrine and apple-jalapeño pork rilletes. But he has some rigid standards for how it all comes together on a board. Here’s what you need for the ultimate spread:

MEATS
1. Something cured: a ham or coppa
2. Something with a novel texture: a pate or rillettes
3. Two kinds of sausage: a salami, and something spicy or herbed

The great nitrate debate: You pick up two packages of cured, sliced meat from the grocer’s deli case. One is labeled “nitrate-free;” the other isn’t. Is one healthier than the other? “That is 100% labeling,” says Elias Cairo, owner and salumist at Olympia Provisions in Portland, Ore. “It’s completely irrelevant.” That’s because the USDA doesn’t allow cured charcuterie to be sold without either the chemical compounds nitrate or nitrite to act as a preservative and a guard against disease. If nitrites are naturally derived—say from chard or celery or spinach juice, all of which contain high levels of nitrites—then meat can be labeled “nitrate-free.” Ultimately, producers say, all meats that are safe to eat contain either nitrite or nitrate. And listen up: You want those preservatives in your meat. “We need to use nitrates to protect people from E. Coli and salmonella,” says Greg Laketek, co-owner and salumist at Chicago’s West Loop Salumi. “We’re saving you by putting those in there.”

ACCOMPANIMENTS
1. Two different mustards: one creamy, and one dark and seeded
2. Three types of pickles: gherkins are safe, but experiment with other veggies like olives, okra and cauliflower.
3. A marmalade or jam: aim for a fruit or onion jelly or jam, something sweet but not seeded.
4. A bread or cracker: look for something artisanal and very plain; it shouldn’t introduce new flavors to the board.

FOOL-PROOF BEER PAIRINGS
Whether you’re starting at a stack of salami or a hoard of head cheese, these three beers will make the most of your meat:
1. Saison: A saison’s farmhouse character, like spicy pepper and light funk, plays well with the meat’s gamey tones.
2. Wild ale: An American wild ale’s acidity is a perfect foil to fatty cuts.
3. Porter: A porter’s ashy and roasted notes complement similar flavors in smoked meats.

To fold or not to fold? “If I have a beautiful slice of coppa, I don’t want to fold it up or make a rose out of it,” McHugh says. “I want to see how beautiful that meat is. I like it flat and slightly layered on the baord. For terrine, I want it flat, to be able to see that hard work that went into it. If your charcuterie is good enough to start, you don’t need to do anything to trick it up. Just lay it out and let people go.”

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