Listen. I don’t claim to know a thing or two about cooking or baking or sauteeing, about chiffonade techniques or a parboil. If you point me in the direction of a culinary kitchen, I will be unable to name approximately 84% of the available trappings. Basting and barding and blanching? Foreign languages.
But food placing? As in, from package to plate? You’re reading from a bon vivant in that department.
A few days ago, I received a note from an overwhelmed mother in search of a holiday party menu for kids and adults, ages 2 to 82, for a crowd of 30ish, that she could prep in a single afternoon. An edible unicorn if ever there was one, but dare I say it? I have the answer.
There is no recipe, of course. It is simply purchasing your favorite finger foods and scattering them wherever the heck you’d like. But I do have some ground rules and some standby flavors, for the charcuterie curious (charcurious?):
Start with a few large cutting boards or flat trays for serving (slate or wooden are pretty, sure, but use what you’ve got). I like to offer dry salami, prosciutto and fig crackers with 2-3 cheese wedges as my foundation, but have at it with your favorite meats and treats. If your dairy guy at the grocery (Hi, Allen!) recommends the new red wine coppa, don’t say no. Other crowd-pleasers to add: stuffed peppers, wrapped asparagus or bacon dates.
Think color (or don’t).
This is likely overkill, but yes, I do in fact like to color code my charcuterie. If I’m going for a muted palette like this one, I tend to pair the softer colors in pickled okra or pink prosciutto with darker, dense heirloom grains or blackberries. Add a light yellow goat gouda and some earthy nuts for a beautiful spread all around.
Dip it good.
For the condiment fiends (guilty), consider adding a set of pinch bowls to taste test like bacon jam, red pepper jelly, tapenade, romesco or ale mustard.
I’ve never loved a perfectly symmetrical meal, so no need to attempt a mirror image spread here. Mix shapes, sizes and textures and layer/scatter away – the more random, the better. Few things are less appetizing than compartmentalized stacks of food that feel like they came pre-packaged from the grocer’s freezer.
Make a mess.
A simple trick: When you’ve arranged the boards to your heart’s delight, sprinkle in shelled pistachios wherever the board needs filling. They look artful and fun, but won’t overpower each individual flavor.
Consider a formula.
Once all is said and done, check your math. Is there enough food? (As a main meal, aim for 4 adults per board.) Do you have something from every group covered? Here’s my favorite ‘formula’ if you’re in need of some extra direction:
MEAT: Try salami, prosciutto (pepperoni for the little ones!) – mix thick and thin, or select different curing techniques.
CHEESE: Try honey goat cheese, a stinky bleu, a mild gouda or a creamy brie – you’ll want to pair both hard and soft, both mild and sharp. For kids, opt for the familiar beloved cheddar.
GRAINS: Try a mix of crispy table crackers with thick and crunchy fig crackers, or go simple with focaccia hunks, breadsticks or naan slices.
VEGGIES: Mix raw (cauliflower, green beans, peppers) with pickled (okra, beets, string beans). For a kid-friendly addition, even popcorn or purple potato heirloom chips will do the trick here.
FRUIT: Try olives, berries, grapes, dried apricots or cherries – whatever’s in season!
SPREADS: My favorites are bacon or fig jam, red pepper jelly and ale mustard, but ask your dairy guy for his favorite pairings. (No dairy guy? Get thee a dairy guy.)
NUTS: Walnuts, pecans, cashews and pistachios all make for a lovely addition if your crew is nut-allergy free.
Tell me, do you charcuterie? I’d love to hear your standbys!