The key to a successful cold cut platter is balance. The variety of cold cuts and types of pickles and palate cleansers all work together in this deceptively simple starter. Have the deli slice all the cold cuts and cheeses about the thickness of a credit card to get the most for your money.
Build a cold cut foundation with an equal quantity of each type of meat. You can use two varieties each from pork, beef and poultry, or four varieties each from beef and pork, it's up to you. For example, you could use pastrami and corned beef, prosciutto and capicola, and turkey and chicken. Buy 4 or 5 ounces of cold cuts for each guest. For example, if you're buying beef, pork and poultry to feed 10 guests, you need 40 to 50 ounces total, or 6 to 8 ounces of each type of cold cut.
Fatty foods need an acidic accompaniment to drive a spike in their richness. For the same reason a classic Italian hoagie gets topped with pickled peppers, cold cut platters should have at least one or two pickled ingredients. Pickled peppers provide a double-edged dose of heat and acid, which works well for high-fat cold cuts, such as mortadella, and soppressata. Cornichons or gherkins have just enough acidity to contrast the richness of moderate-fat cuts, such as regular ham, salami and corned beef. Sauerkraut also works in a cold cut platter, particularly when serving corned beef or pastrami. Other options include mustard, sun-dried tomatoes, marinated mushrooms and brined Kalamata olives. The fattier the cold cut, the more piquant the pickle, is an apt guideline when making a cold cut platter.
Select at least one type of cheese for each type of meat. For example, if your platter consists of serrano ham, Genoa salami, roast beef and corned beef, you might use Spanish manchego and Swiss Gruyere for a harmonious pairing. You could also pair a cheese with each variety of cold cut. Using mozzarella to temper the spiciness of salamino piccante, including sharp cheddar to contrast the heartiness of roast beef and provolone to balance salami with a soft sweetness are a few approaches to consider when creating a well-rounded platter. Plan for 3 to 4 ounces of each type of cheese for each person.
Palate cleansers reset your taste buds and ready them for another round of flavor. You need something fresh, crisp and cold in between different varieties of cured or smoked meats to prevent one flavor getting muddled with the next -- you need raw vegetables. A mix of greens and thinly sliced vegetables add the contrast needed to brighten up a smoky, salty cold cut platter. A fresh apple and fennel salad, a vinegary coleslaw or a light Thai salad take you on a quick trip to the garden for between cold cuts.
Group each variety of cold cut, each variety of cheese and each variety of pickle together. Place the proteins equally spaced from each other around the tray. Separate each variety of cold cut with a different variety of cheese. Place the palate cleansers and pickles in the center. For visual contrast, line the edges of the tray with a green, such as alternating leaves of Russian Red kale and common kale or simple Bibb lettuce.