With Fall entertaining in full-swing, I thought this was the perfect time to introduce one of my own party essentials, the gourmet charcuterie tray. I’m not a professional chef or an expert in wine and cheese, but when it comes to hosting, I love to make the presentation pop. With a little creativity, I’ll show you how a gourmet tray can serve as a gorgeous and edible centerpiece that will impress even the most discriminating of guests.

Stock Up

Creating the perfect palate pleaser is easier than you think. Typical cheese trays have a variety of meats, fruit, preserves, honey and olives to fill in the gaps and help create a mix of flavors and interest. I bend the rules a bit and throw in sweeter elements like dark chocolate almonds and a spicy dark chocolate dip which works well with the lighter cheeses and fruit. I love that you can get creative and there’s really no limit as to what you can do. Just make sure it’s appealing to the eye and tastebuds with an array of colors, textures and tastes.

Where to Shop

If you want to find unique items and super-fresh produce, head to Prairie Roots Co-op in Downtown Fargo. While in the vicinity, visit Pinch & Pour, where they encourage guests to taste test until you find the perfect olive oil and balsamic concoctions. For the cheeses, I used a mix of local favorites from Pinch & Pour, Prairie Roots Co-op, Luna and even Costco. If you’re not sure how to choose the cheese, the experts at Luna are happy to help anyone navigate their impressive cheese selection.

Wine & Dine

After choosing four varieties of cheese, we asked The Spirit Shop’s Ronni Heggen to coordinate the perfect wine pairings to complement our selection. When hosting, never assume your guests are master sommeliers. Positioning the wines directly behind each cheese lets guests enjoy the experience without the guessing game.

10 Tasty Tips

1. If you’re new to cheese trays, keep it simple. Select at least one soft cheese like brie, one hard or semi-hard cheese like cheddar and another bolder variation such as blue cheese. In this tray, I included a coordinating cracker or bread for each cheese. Example, water crackers and artisan crisps pair well with the Brie. Use a french baguette with Blue cheese or olive oil, and any other unique cracker for the Cheddar and Montamore.

2. For a more festive and fresh approach, make sure to include spreads and produce that are currently in-season.

3. If you don’t have a specific cheese tray or cutting board, take a look in your pantry and get creative. Any large serving ware or clean, flat item can work. If you’re doing trays for larger parties, consider splitting the food up by category breads and crackers, cheeses, produce, dips and spreads and even a bite size dessert tray.

4. To achieve the fullest flavor, make sure to take your cheese out of the refrigerator at least a half hour before you serve it. Cheese should always be served at room temperature.

5. To begin your tray design, start with placing the cheese, spacing them out so you have room to add in the complimenting produce, nuts and spreads. Placing largest to smallest is an easy way to create an appealing tray.

6. Make sure you thoroughly drain olives and capers before placing them on the tray. This will help eliminate runny messes. If you need to use watery fruit like watermelon, you can also use small ramekins to keep the foods separated.

7. If your tray includes meat varieties, create sections of each separate meat near the cheese. Then get creative and fold, flower or roll the meat for added visual appeal.

8. Get creative with your garnish. A finished tray is not complete without a little greenery. I like to use fresh herbs like Rosemary and Thyme, ferns, flowers or pine branches depending on the season. If you opt for herbs, throw a sprig in your olive oil for an extra punch of flavor.

9. Try making your own candied nuts. You can find multiple recipes online, but most just call for roasting the nuts in the oven at 350 degrees first, then quickly stirring them into a saucepan with melted sugar. Once coated, lay them out on parchment paper and sprinkle with salt. Just remember to work quickly as you’ll only have seconds before the sugar starts to crystallize.

10. As any good host knows, keeping food and drink flowing is a tough task to keep up with while entertaining guests. Simplify the process by pre-cutting extra fruit, cheese, and meat, then placing them into presentable ramekins or small bowls in your refrigerator so that you can easily restock, even in mid conversation. This will help keep wrappers and plastic produce containers out of sight and you won’t have to stop mid-party to slice and dice.

The Price to Party

As an appetizer, our tray with four cheese selections would typically accommodate about six to eight people. For this size, expect to spend around $100 to $150, with plenty of leftovers to create another. If that’s out of your budget, just scale it down using fewer cheese and cracker options with less produce. The price of the cheeses vary, but the ones we selected ran about $10 to $15 dollars per block.

Love Your Leftovers

To get a longer life out of your leftovers, make sure to store your cheese according to its type. Soft cheeses like Brie should be kept in an airtight container. Semi-hard cheeses like Cheddar and Blue cheese can be wrapped in plastic wrap. Hard or aged cheeses should be wrapped in parchment paper or cheese cloth. If you need a quick storage solution for hard or semi-hard cheeses, you can also purchase special parchment bags at most grocery stores.