Holiday party platters
It’s not hard to create festive party platters and gorgeous cheeseboards that will impress your guests or make you the most popular person at the office potluck. This is how I prefer to entertain whether I’m hosting just a few friends or a large group. The last time I had a dinner party it was a bit of a struggle to get everybody out of the kitchen where we had been enjoying appetizers and into the dining room for the main course. As delicious as the meal was, I think everyone would have been just as happy to stay in the kitchen munching on crudités (fresh-cut vegetables), cheeses and bread.
Whether they are simple and inexpensive or elaborate and decadent, a party platter can be utterly gorgeous if arranged artfully and intentionally. For many, a veggie tray is nothing more than an afterthought – dried-out baby carrots languishing next to bland cherry tomatoes with ranch dip. But with just a tiny bit of effort, you can create a stunning vegetable display beautiful enough to serve as a centerpiece.
Uniformity is the key to preparing attractive plates, so it’s important to make sure all your vegetables are cut to roughly the same size and shape. The vegetable cuts should be large enough to scoop dip but small enough to be eaten in one bite. Most vegetables can be served raw, but a few such as green beans, broccoli, snap peas, Brussels sprouts and asparagus will benefit from a quick dip in boiling water before being plunged into an ice bath. This process, known as blanching, enhances the color, flavor and texture of the vegetables. Crudités can be prepared the day before you plan to serve them by arranging slightly damp paper towels over them before wrapping well with plastic wrap to keep them from drying out.
A cheeseboard is the ultimate low-maintenance party food, perfect for the busy host. When building a cheeseboard I like to serve three to five different types of cheese, always including a soft, ripened cheese such as Brie or Camembert, a blue-veined cheese such as Gorgonzola or Stilton and a firmer cheese such as an aged Gouda or manchego. To those I might add a semi-soft cheese like havarti or a ball of fresh goat’s milk cheese rolled in chopped herbs. If cheese is the only thing you’re serving, plan on 6-8 ounces of cheese per person, and half of that amount if other food is being served.
Softer cheeses like Brie and rich blue cheeses can be served whole in rounds or in large wedges. I usually cut firmer cheeses into triangles or thin rectangles or break them up into rough aggregates to make it easier for my guests to serve themselves. Good, quality cheeses can easily cost around $20 per pound, so when I’m serving a large group I sometimes like to pad out my display with less expensive cheeses such as pepper jack and colby, cut into cubes or wedges. Avoid buying pre-cubed cheese as it has been coated with cellulose and preservatives.
Accompaniments are what distinguish mundane cheeseboards from spectacular ones. The acidity and sweetness of fresh fruit is a natural foil to rich cheeses and cured meats. Dried fruits, preserves, pickles and nuts arranged amongst the cheeses contribute color, flavor and texture. Think vertically and build your ingredients up to create an edible landscape. I like to snip small clusters of grapes and arrange them in mounds amongst pyramids of rolled-up prosciutto or folded slices of salami. Make sure you set out your cheese display at least 30 minutes before you plan to serve it to allow the cheese to come to room temperature.
If you have a little more time on your hands you can group several types of nibbles on a large platter to create a themed display. Roasted or grilled vegetables piled up high alongside marinated mozzarella, olives, artichokes, cured meats and toasted bread makes for a festive antipasto platter. Combine store-bought items like spanakopita (spinach and cheese turnovers) and dolmades (grape leaves stuffed with rice) with cubes of marinated feta, olives, crudités, homemade hummus and cucumber-yogurt dip for a fresh, Greek-themed platter.
Remember that small details make a big impact. Dress up an unsightly tray by lining it with large Swiss chard or kale leaves for a beautiful presentation. Give your display a signature touch by using a hollowed-out winter squash or bell pepper as a vessel for dip. Finish off your platter with a sprinkle of freshly chopped parsley over the top or scatter assorted berries onto a cheeseboard for a professional-looking polish that’s sure to impress.
SPICY BROWN SUGAR NUTS
These savory-sweet nuts are perfect for adorning a cheeseboard or sprinkling on top of a spinach salad
3 cups pecan or walnut halves
¼ cup powdered sugar
¼ cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary
½ teaspoon dried thyme
1 ½ teaspoons Cajun seasoning
Cover the nuts with hot water and let sit for 15 minutes until nuts have swollen slightly. Drain them well, then combine with the remaining ingredients and mix to coat. Transfer to a greased baking sheet and bake at 325 degrees, stirring every 10 minutes until the sugar mixture has evaporated and nuts are toasted but not burnt.
HERBED YOGURT DIP
½ cup mayonnaise
½ cup Greek yogurt or sour cream
2 tablespoons each of minced green onion and parsley
1 tablespoon minced dill
1 teaspoon celery salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
A few dashes of hot sauce, to taste
Mix well and refrigerate until ready to use.