This season, we’re turning to California’s wine country for culinary inspiration. When it comes to entertaining the wine country way, ingredients are the main event; gardens and farmers’ markets guide the menus, rounded out by cheeses, charcuterie and other artisanal foods from small producers. Everything else — the atmosphere, table setting and presentation — is designed to create a communal gathering for people to linger over the food and enjoy one another’s company.
Elevate your cheese plate. Buy a range of cheeses: hard and soft, and from cows, goats and sheep. Serve big wedges or whole cheeses and large bunches of grapes — not only is it more interactive for guests to serve themselves, but it also keeps the cheeses from drying out. Add charcuterie and olives, plus extras such as herbs, crackers, dried fruits, cornichons and honey. Make sure all cheeses are at room temperature for the best flavor. Alison’s tip: keep leftover cheeses and combine them into a four-cheese macaroni and cheese, or crumble onto a flatbread with figs.
Create rustic shapes and textures. Tear flatbreads before stacking them on an antipasti board, and cut cheese wedges so that their edges are rough. The added texture and varied heights makes the presentation more inviting and less fussy. Torn figs (not sliced) and cracked walnuts still in their shells achieve the same effect.
Ask for advice. Buying foods straight from artisans and producers gives you an opportunity to ask them for suggestions. Find out what wines, fruits and other accompaniments cheesemakers would pair with each of their cheeses. The same goes for meat purveyors, specialty spreads, oils and vinegars.
Prepare for extra guests. Wine country entertaining is casual and communal, and it’s fun to have guests bring their friends along, too. Forget a formal, set dinner table and serve everything family-style. Dishes like pasta are ideal for big groups, because they’re easy to prepare and can accommodate any unexpected guests. Make a big batch of the sauce and cook the pasta as needed.
Start a conversation. Look for opportunities to make the experience interactive and loosen up the vibe of the party. Alison suggests passing around a block of cheese to grate or bread to break off at the table.
Mind the wine. In the summer, serve lighter and creamier cheeses, which pair well with white and rose wines (don’t forget an ice bucket). With red wines, serve hard and blue cheeses. Need pairing suggestions for the rest of your meal? Find them in our Guide to Wine.
Let the food inspire the decor. Grape and fig leaves make beautiful, natural additions to platters of fruit, cheese, cured meats and other foods. The edible foliage pops against brown wood. Try tucking fresh rosemary sprigs and bay leaves under the food, too. When in doubt, fresh herbs, good olive oil and shaved Parmesan cheese are foolproof garnishes.
Think outside the centerpiece. You don’t need a grand bouquet for a casual gathering. Instead, set out big bowls of grapes or a cheese platter and let the food become part of the table setting. Use your surrounding herbs, vines and leaves in place of flowers. Alison likes lavender for its fragrance and ambiance.