The Food Fanatic’s Shopping Guide
Twenty-seven killer starters to dazzle any party crowd.
The Fancy Cold Cut
The game is simple: Bologna and boiled ham are at one end of the salumi spectrum; your goal is to get as close to the other end as possible. Artisanal dry-cured meats are a flavor-packed place to start. LAS VENTAS, the retail store attached to the tapas eatery Estragon in the South End, stocks LOMO IBÉRICO ($30/lb.), a Spanish pork tenderloin that has been cured like a salami, with heady flavors of paprika and garlic. For an actual salami, the North End’s SALUMERIA ITALIANA sources a terrific DRY-CURED SOPPRESSATA ($12.99/lb.) not from Italy but from New York, proving that excellence trumps loyalty to the mother country. Finally, there’s top-shelf ham, for which it’s all about the food the pig got in the trough. The best prosciutto hogs, for example, eat Parmesan cheese, lending their meat a sweet, rich complexity. But none can touch the king of hams, JAMÓN IBÉRICO DE BELLOTA, from porkers that spend their last months gorging on acorns—a fatty, luxurious diet that yields an intensely nutty taste. For that pleasure, you’ll shell out more than $100 a pound for jamones at Las Ventas ($110/lb.) or FORMAGGIO KITCHEN ($185.95/lb.).
Even unambitious grocery chains are stocking interesting olive varieties nowadays, as the pimiento-stuffed orb continues its descent into for-martinis-only territory. But ARAX MARKET in Watertown ups the ante with a massive selection that includes not only the most exotic brined varieties, but also MARINATED OLIVES ($3.99–$4.99/lb.) steeped in unique flavors such as chili oil and orange peel.
The Cheese Plate
Every decent cheese platter should have at least three options. That’s the rule. Not only does it allow for a little variety—something firm and salty, something soft and creamy, something in-between—frankly, it makes you look more generous. Following the law of three, we asked three top cheesemongers for their picks.
At FORMAGGIO KITCHEN, cheese buyer Kurt Gurdal mixes textures and milks. Belgian MEKKERBECK CENDRÉE (soft, goat, $22.95/10 oz.) is supremely luscious and herbaceous. COMTÉ LE FORT (hard, cow, $22.95/lb.) has a sweetly toasty, slightly meaty flavor. Finally, crumbly BLEU DES BASQUES (semisoft, sheep, $25.95/lb.) turns creamy in the mouth and tastes of mushrooms and earth.
Peter Lovis of the CONCORD CHEESE SHOP also likes to mix it up: CRUCOLO (semisoft, cow, $19.99/lb.), a creamy Asiago type from Rifugio in northeast Italy, has a good snap on the finish. Closer to home, Crystal Brook Farm in Sterling makes a fine lemony CHÈVRE (soft, goat, $14.99/lb.), and Peaked Mountain in Townshend, Vermont, turns out a Basque-style VERMONT DANDY (hard, sheep, $22.99/lb.) with nutty, butterscotch flavors.
The holiday-faves list at WASIK’S CHEESE SHOP in Wellesley starts with a classic GOUDDEN KAAS RESERVE ($18.95/lb.), a long-aged Dutch Gouda with alternating buttery/sweet/sharp flavors that co-owner Brian Wasik recommends taking with a glass of single malt. ZOLA CREMA ($32/lb.), a seasonal torta from Milan, has layers of mascarpone and Gorgonzola dolce. Finally, there’s PAVÉ SAUVAGE ($17.95 each) from Perigord, France, a chèvre studded with tarragon, juniper berries, and pink peppercorns.
The Cheese Plate Cracker
Supermarkets might as well stock the cash-register impulse racks with those limp, flavor-deficient Carr’s, given how lazy cracker choice tends to be. But obsessives know that the optimal fromage platform is sturdy (unlike Saltines), bite-size (unlike Wasa), and fairly lean—who needs a buttery Ritz for shuttling fatty milk mold? If it’s got the slightest concavity for cradling a runny époisses, so much the better. For $4.99, the SEA SALT CRISPS from York, Maine’s Stonewall Kitchen meet every criterion. Available at Foodie’s Urban Market.
The Addictive Schmear
The choicest party platters are well balanced with hearty, potent-flavored portions. You can pick up just the right arrangement with a single trip to the meze bar at Ana Sortun’s Middle Eastern bakery, SOFRA. The mostly veggie-based MEZES—the Turkish word for “snacks”—are luscious spreads that can be ordered individually ($3) or as a platter of five ($9); if you’re feeding more than six, call ahead to get larger portions. Three standouts that play nicely together are the citrusy green olive and walnut salad, the whipped feta with hot and sweet peppers, and the light-as-hummus whipped potato with almond and garlic. The platters come with doughy slices of the bakery’s bread.
SAMPSONS NUTS ($5.50/4 oz.), made in small batches in Watertown, perk up this cliché bowl snack. Try the peppery Hot & Sassy Almonds or another sure bet, the Citrus Curried Cashews. Available at Formaggio Kitchen.
A good pâté demands equal measures of butchery and culinary skills, and in Boston that’s typified by Barbara Lynch’s THE BUTCHER SHOP. Its GAME BIRD EN CROÛTE ($19/lb.) and DUCK LIVER MOUSSE ($20/lb.) are as easy on the eyes as they are on the palate.
The $2.99 Party Trick
When our favorite hostess whispered that her MUSHROOM TURNOVERS came from tiki-themed grocer TRADER JOE’S, we somehow weren’t surprised. These bites are buttery and positively habit-forming, as good as you’ll find at gourmet shops, and, at just three bucks for a box of 12, a cheap frozen treat that’ll win over the snobbiest foodies in your life.
The Luxe Lox
The trick to picking the right smoked salmon is gauging your salt reflex. THE BUTCHERIE in Coolidge Corner is chock-full of well-salinated COLD-SMOKED SALMON from Norway, Chile, Nova Scotia, and Scotland ($11.99–$29.99/lb.), and the gruff but helpful staffers can walk you through their picks depending on whether you want bagels and lox or platter-ready slices. For the sodium sensitive, the RIVER STREET WHOLE FOODS location smokes its salmon in-house ($17.99/lb.), a three-day process that results in tender, flaky fillets garnished or glazed in flavors like smoked chipotle-lime and sesame-wasabi.
Like the archetypical New England fisherman, East Coast oysters should be brash and briny, and smell of nothing but sand and surf. Carl Fantasia of NEW DEAL FISH MARKET in Cambridge prefers Connecticut-raised BLUE POINTS for their full, round flavor. As for the richer, creamier West Coasters, Fantasia suggests skipping the $2.25-a-pop, tightly clamped California Kumamotos—the diminutive, jewel-like darlings of many a high-end Boston raw bar—in favor of Washington state GOLD CREEKS. These larger, easier-to-shuck specimens boast the same intense creamy cucumber flavor, for just over a buck per. Call ahead for Kumamoto and Gold Creek availability.