I had four great parties to attend (and host) over the recent festive season, in Auckland. And with the Kiwi practice of ‘bringing a shared plate’ something that Singaporeans would call a ‘pot-luck’ dish, I decided to be adventurous and announced that I would bring a grazing platter as a starter.
Fascinated with the concept of grazing, I have discovered that you can create a visually stunning ‘gourmet’ platter, quite simply and effectively at home. All you have to do is to put the right ingredients together in the right combination, employ the right serving tools and follow some really simple and useful guidelines which I have shared below .. and voila!
Experience from the four parties this season has taught me that the concept of a grazing platter is a great way to break the ice, especially if you have a room of people that don’t know each other well. Because of the nature of the platter and the fact that you have to come close to pick off it, it actually brings everyone together, around the table or a central area instead of having people wander off to different parts of the room and engage in separate conversations. As it is the first course to any meal, it also visually whets people’s appetites and tastebuds and quite often because it is first on the table, it almost always gets emptied with gusto. And that’s the impression you want to leave everyone with – that it was so-o-o-o gooo-ood!
Some quick tips to create a stunning grazing platter:
Decide on a theme
Depending on the size of the party and what the other starters are, decide if yours is going to be an all-cheese or a mixed meat and cheese platter. Then select the ingredients you buy, to suit your general theme.
A Cheese-only platter has as its staple at least 3 basic cheeses (preferably 2 hard and 1 soft). With this, you will serve up a menu of dried and fresh fruits (raisins, cranberries and apricots) combined with seedless grapes preferably red and green and a variety of whatever berries are in season. Add on a variety of sweet (candied walnuts) and salty nuts (cashews and almonds), plain and fancy crackers, Dips are optional but it is nice to have a flavourful savoury dip (a salmon and caviar cream) and a tangy sweet dip (ginger-marmalade chutney) or a nutty dip (vegan pistachio and cashew with sun-dried tomatoes) to make things interesting.
The Mixed Platter has a meat or fish component added on to the above. If its meat that you are going for, I recommend 3 different meats – prosciutto, a mild salami and a cured or smoked spicy chorizo – all thinly sliced are all winners to me. With a special occasion like Christmas, the Mixed Platter can look visually appealing, deliver that generous, wow factor and feed a fairly big party.
From Italian anti-pesto to Greek Mezze, Mediterranean, Spanish Tapas or North Indian – the themes are all up to you and what you think will best wow your guests. The important thing about a theme is to find a theme-specific dish to anchor the platter and build the items that you choose around it, to support and create an edible story.
The Right Tools
It’s true, presentation is everything and first impressions do count especially since the art of feasting, begins wth the eyes!
Invest in three types of basic boards to present your platter. A long wooden plank serves a large group of up to 25, a round 12 inch pizza style paddle with a handle can feed about 15, a regular sized lazy susan also makes a good and larger option to a 12 inch paddle plus it has the advantage of being able to rotate. And if you can get a square or rectangular bread board, this also creates good options to feed smaller parties.
Build a small collection of empty glass food jars. Don’t collect standard sizes, instead make sure that they are in different shapes, sizes and heights. Consider also that the mouths of each of these jars will be wide enough so you can hold anything from breadsticks to carrot wedges. I like jam, honey or sauce bottles (labels soaked and stripped off). I also save the amazing terracotta jars from French dessert shop Paul Lafayet, each time I buy one of their ready-packed desserts from the super-market. I often also buy interesting patterned or odd-shaped clay bowls when I travel or look for unusual sauce dishes that will add interest and highlight to whatever theme I have chosen for my platter.
A couple of quality fancy cheese knives (as those will be scrutinised and well-used on your platter) are also good investments along with a number of small-ish spoons that can be used to scoop out the dips onto crackers.
The pleasure of grazing is having a small pick either stuck into the food you serve, or available in a jar so guests can grab one and pick at what they want. Invest in a few rustic looking mini skewers, metal picks or mini dessert forks along with small dainty cocktail size serving dishes or trays for your guests to enjoy the graze.
Tuck or fold a small napkin along with your palm sized serving plates and mini dessert forks or fancy picks. Hand these out once everyone has a drink in hand, and you are ready to start the party.
Quality rather than quantity
It is so tempting to think quantity when you are buying to fill a grazing platter – 3 packets of this and 4 packets of that … I have learnt that you should go quality rather than quantity.
Whilst it is important to have enough, interesting items and a good variety does matter and lends an artisan feel to your creation.
Here’s a shopping list of what went into this platter which I organised for 20 guests.
- Grapes and Carrot sticks and Blueberries (1 plunket of red and black seedless grapes, loose anti-oxidant rich blueberries and carrot sticks)
- Cheeses (5 types altogether: 3 soft creamy cheeses – I picked a Double-Cream Camberbert, Regular Brie and a Creamy Blue. There were also 2 hard cheese – I picked a Dutch Maasdam Cheese which looks just like the ones you see in the Tom and Jerry cartoons with the holes in them – they are lovely and firm and you can shred or cube them easily, just like I did with the Gouda)
- Meats (3 types – shredded Proscuitto, slices of Mild Salami and thinly-sliced Spicy Smoked Chorizo)
- Crackers (3 types – Textured Oat and Walnut with Cranberry crackers and Cracked Pepper Wafers. To make it appetising, I also bought a variety of cheese and herb sticks which I stood up in a bottle jar)
- Nuts (2 types – Salted chilli mixed nuts, Sweet mix of raw almonds, walnuts, cashews and cranberries)
- Dips – A lovely Salmon and Caviar cream fresh from the Auckland Fish Market.
Handmake your signs
The key to the success of your platter is to make sure that it has a few indisputably interesting quality items that you highlight with signs so that they also become positive conversation points and ice breaker topics.
Show some pride and effort for your creation. Bring attention to these items by creating some signs to highlight them. The concept is the same as what you see in a fancy restaurant menu. It’s all in the copy. You automatically want to try it out of curiosity when you read that it’s not just fish but ‘line-caught Atlantic Wild Salmon’ and instead of mushrooms, these are ‘hand-picked first-crop Truffles’. Remember it does pay to put the extra into the ordinary and don’t leave your guests guessing at what they are picking at.
Variety and texture
A platter should not be static, one dimensional and blah. There are a few rules when arranging your platter.
For example place your cheeses at the ends of a round cheese board or near an edge of a square platter so that people can access them easily to cut off a wedge or pick a cube of what they want. Cube the hard cheese or crumble it into chunky pieces. Look to give everything a sense of depth and texture whilst at the same time controlling the portion sizes on your platter.
Have things laid out in according to what makes sense – put the bland flatbread or breadsticks next to a tangy or savoury dip, the cucumber or carrot sticks next to a something spicy or flavourful. Have the blue cheese next to the pear and walnuts so that people don’t have to search for what are natural food pairings. Look to wow with colour and contrast.
My next graze challenge …
With the Lunar New Year around the corner, my next personal challenge is a themed grazing platter that incorporates an Asian theme with nibbles like kwa-chi, nuts, new year goodies like peanut and walnut cookies, my favourite pineapple tarts, bak-kwa (roasted pork), pork floss, various sweets and savouries, mandarins, pomelos and flowers especially pink peonies (my personal favs).
If you have been inspired and want to join in the challenge – send me pictures of what you have created and I will be happy to share them on our facebook page or instagram.
In the meantime, a happy new year to all and watch this space – for shots of my next little home-made effort – from the heart and hearth of my kitchen to yours!