I had the privilege of feeding about 100 women last night as part of Good Earth Garden Market‘s second-annual Ladies’ Night.
It got me thinking. While I heard a lot of really nice comments about the food, I also heard a lot of talk about how hard entertaining is.
“You did all this yourself?” one sweet lady asked. “I could never do this.”
Of course you could! The secret to last night’s success wasn’t my role as a personal chef. It was Good Earth’s pristine ingredients and the way they were combined.
Trust me … anyone with an excellent neighborhood market and a couple of big platters can create delicious, memorable noshes for all kinds of occasions. Here are my five favorite party platters and the little something extras that make them sing:
1. Crudites: Forget about the carrot-broccoli-cauliflower triumvirate you grew up with. Vegetable trays are unexpected and delicious when you use surprising ingredients. Asparagus, green beans and snow peas are always hits. So are radishes and slices of English cucumbers and zucchini. You can serve the peas, radishes, cucumbers and zukes raw. The day before or morning of your party, plunge the asparagus in boiling salted water for about 1 minute, then transfer it to ice water. Do the same with the green beans for 3-5 minutes. You’ll make those veggies more digestible and lock in their brilliant emerald color.
2. Antipasti: Fill a big platter with four or five Italian deli items. Prosciutto is a must for its satiny saltiness. I always include garlic- or jalepeno-stuffed olives and some sort of marinated vegetable. (Think big button mushrooms or pickled green beans.) Mozzarella cheese is a given, but don’t just throw down a hunk of store-bought gunk. Find freshly made mozzarella, marinated in olive oil, basil, parsley and red pepper flakes. Fresh tomatoes round out this platter nicely during the summer. In other seasons, buy a pint of cherry tomatoes and let them hang out in vodka or tequila for an hour before draining them and putting them on your plate.
3. Cheese Fondue: Here’s the thing about this ’70s throwback. The cheese is great, but the dippers make the magic. Make a cheese sauce using Irish cheddar or Gruyere (or buy a sauce at the store), then keep it warm in a crock pot. Assemble a dipping platter of chicken-apple sausages, salami slices, tiny creamer potatoes, hunks of sour dough bread, and chunks of apples and pears. At first, your guests will wonder if they’re really supposed to dip the fruit (or the salami!) in the cheese. But after awhile, they’ll start raiding your other platters for yummy dippers.
4. Dried Fruit & Cheese: This is a great sweet-yet-savory dessert platter. Buy a pint of dried figs and a pint of pitted dates. Then find the best jar of boozy cherries, raspberries or blackberries that you can. Assemble the dates and figs next to the drained fruit. Sprinkle everything with candied walnuts and blue cheese. The cheese keeps the fruit from being cloying. The walnuts add crunch. The dish disappears.
5. Unexpected Pairings: I like to have one showstopper per party. It’s the dish that brings people back for seconds and thirds; the dish they talk about the day after your gathering. My favorite is this roasted grape relish from the Gourmet Today cookbook. I like to spoon it into tiny phyllo cups, but it’s just as good paired with crackers, little corn muffins … or nothing at all! Serve this with one or two of the platters above, and you’ll get your own accolades in no time!
Roasted Grape Relish (Gourmet Today)
Slice 1 pound of seedless grapes (use all red or a combination of red and green) in half. Toss with 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1/8 teaspoon pepper and 1 teaspoon olive oil. Place on a greased, foil-lined baking sheet, and roast at 400 degrees for 25 minutes. Remove from oven and cool.
In a bowl, combine 1/2 cup finely chopped green olives, 1/4 cup finely chopped celery, 1/4 cup finely chopped red onion, 1/2 teaspoon finely chopped jalepeno (seeds removed), 1 minced clove of garlic, 1/3 cup toasted pine nuts and 1/ 2 teaspoon finely grated orange zest. Add grapes, 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar and 2 tablespoons olive oil. Let sit for at least 15 minutes for flavors to meld.