Cocktail parties, family brunches, impromptu dos, the season for socializing is upon us. Everyone will need to eat, but being the one in charge of feeding a houseful can distract from the merry making.
Luckily, there exists a happy place between chips and dip and finicky hors d’oeuvres – a strategy that’s simple yet abundant and infinitely customizable for partygoers regardless of their age or dietary needs. And if you play your cards right, you can get away without doing any actual cooking.
Party platters or boards loaded with ingredients encourage conviviality. Easily executed and with little risk of error, they cater as much to the design-inclined as the home cook. A board of any size, composed with a variety of complementary tasty things, acts like a watering hole, a focal point that stimulates conversation as everyone nibbles.
Food stylist Lisa Dawn Bolton knows the party potential of a loaded board. Her new book, On Boards: Simple and Inspiring Recipe Ideas to Share at Every Gathering, is full of the artful, tasty arrangements she has become known for in her Vancouver home.
“I love how easily they come together, and how colourful they are,” she says. “Everyone gets close as they gather around the board, they talk, and build their own bites – so they can self-regulate, depending how hungry they are.”
Acting almost like a tiny buffet or mini-bar, boards eliminate the need to time several elements of a meal and can easily accommodate a wide variety of appetites. Whether guests are vegetarian or paleo, hungry or party-hopping, they can nosh accordingly. Ingredient possibilities span far beyond charcuterie and cheese – a board can be assembled for brunch or dessert, tied to the seasons or inspired by the holidays. If you like to prepare ahead, most dips, spreads and preserves actually benefit from a day or two in the fridge, and the whole process can be further streamlined by picking up olives, cured meats, fruits and breads at the grocery store. “I love a long table dinner, but there’s something liberating about not having a big meal to take care of,” says Bolton, who like most of us, doesn’t like being tied up in the kitchen. Perhaps best of all, only minimal cutlery and serving plates are required.
It’s likely you already have a perfectly usable board in the kitchen in the form of an old workhorse cutting board – any scrapes and burns will be covered with food. A catering friend uses glassed-in photo frames, minus the photo and back. You might also pick up single marble or slate tiles for $2 from Home Depot and stick small felt furniture pads at the corners underneath to give it a soft base and make it easier to move. If you’re bringing a board to a party, one that has a rimmed edge helps keep things in place.
From there, constructing an edible board is much like arranging a bouquet of flowers: Start with the largest items, such as blocks of cheese and whole salamis, spacing them well apart and positioning anything that needs to be sliced toward the outer edge for easier access. (Cut the first slice or two, Bolton suggests; no one wants to be the first to break into something beautiful.) Add bowls of dips, spreads, preserves, olives and the like, then arrange mid-sized components, such as crackers or crudités in the spaces between. Finally, tuck small items such as grapes and berries into the gaps, and add a bit of flourish – Bolton suggests edible pansies or fresh herbs, especially those with naturally occurring blossoms. There’s no need to calculate pieces per person – with backup in the fridge or an extra baguette on the counter, supplies are easily replenished as the board gets nibbled down. And if you have two or more boards on the go, one could be whisked back to the kitchen for a refill while the others stay out.
Giving your guests a little something to do makes everyone a bit more relaxed, and food is such a common connector. “People like having something to interact over,” Bolton says. “No matter where you set your boards out, it turns into a kitchen party.”
- Cured salmon or gravlax
- Mini bagels
- Cream cheese
- Jammy hard-boiled egg halves
- Small cured pork sausage
- Mini avocado toasts with toasted baguette or crostini
- Papdi or fried flour tortillas
- Roasted or boiled, diced potatoes/tater tots tossed in chaat masala
- Spiced chickpeas
- Chunks of paneer
- Minced purple onion
- Finely diced tomato
- Masala-spiced yogurt
- Tamarind chutney
- Mint-coriander chutney
- Sev or Bombay mix
- Pomegranate pieces or arils
- Roasted carrots with a bit of their green tops
- Vegan cheese-stuffed dates
- Falafel balls/small patties
- Crispy grilled tofu skewers
- Focaccia with za’atar
- Olive tapenade
- Avocado-tahini-garlic-lemon dip (recipe below)
- Chunks of feta, marinated optional
- Grilled halloumi, on little bamboo skewers optional
- Muhammara (recipe below)
- Prosciutto and/or salami
- Caper berries
- Toasted almonds
- Fig halves or quarters
- Mini meringues
- Bite-sized brownies
- Homemade/gourmet marshmallows
- Small shortbreads
- Caramel sauce, for dipping
- Chocolate salami, sliced to show cross-section (recipe below)
- Tiny lemon meringue (or other) tarts
- Fresh berries
This is a delicious Middle Eastern dip made with roasted red peppers. You can start with the jarred kind, but roasting your own is even better: roast halved, seeded red bell peppers at 450 F for 20 minutes, until blistered. Transfer to a bowl, cover with a plate, and peel with your fingers once cool enough to handle.
Makes about 1 1/2 cups
- 1 cup walnut halves, toasted and chopped
- 3 roasted red peppers
- 1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs
- 2-4 garlic cloves, crushed
- 1-2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
- 1/4 teaspoons cumin
- Pinch red pepper flakes
- Salt to taste
- 1/2 cup olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
- Pomegranate seeds, for garnish
- Flat-leaf parsley for garnish
In the bowl of a food processor, pulse the walnuts, roasted peppers, breadcrumbs, garlic, pomegranate molasses, cumin, red pepper flakes and salt until well blended.
With the motor running, slowly pour the olive oil through the feed tube until the mixture is smooth and creamy. Taste and adjust seasoning, and spread the muhammara in a shallow bowl, top with pomegranate seeds and parsley and drizzle with olive oil. Serve with fresh pitas or pita chips.
Very ripe avocados work best for this garlicky tahini dip, which improves with some time in the fridge.
Makes about 1 cup
- 1 ripe avocado, peeled and pitted
- 1/4 cup tahini
- Juice of 1 lemon (about 3 tablespoons)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 tablespoons plain yogurt (optional)
- 1-2 garlic cloves, crushed
- Salt to taste
Blend all the ingredients in a small food processor, or put the avocado through a food mill and blend with the tahini, lemon juice, olive oil, yogurt (if using), garlic and salt.
Makes 2 logs
This recipe is from On Boards: Simple and Inspiring Recipe Ideas to Share at Every Gathering by Lisa Dawn Bolton. You could replace the crushed ladyfingers with the same volume of other fillings such as mini marshmallows, finely chopped candied ginger, dried fruit, or crushed graham crackers or digestive cookies.
- 1 1/2 cups finely chopped dark chocolate
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 large egg
- 1 large egg yolk
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 2 tablespoons dark rum (or an additional 1 tablespoon vanilla)
- 2 cups mixed nuts, toasted and roughly chopped
- 1 3/4 cups roughly crushed ladyfinger cookies, about 12
- 1/3 cup icing sugar
Add 2 inches of water to a medium-size pot and bring to an active simmer over high heat. Place a heat-safe bowl on top of the pot, ensuring the bowl does not touch the water, and turn down the heat to medium. Add the chocolate and butter. Stir gently until melted.
In a separate medium bowl, mix together the sugar, egg, egg yolk, vanilla and rum. Add to the melted chocolate and continue to cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture is smooth and shiny, about 4 minutes. Remove from heat. Add the nuts and crushed cookies and gently fold in with a spatula until well combined.
Divide the mixture on to 2 pieces of parchment paper. Roll into a log shape of your desired circumference and length (3 inches by 10 inches works well). Twist the ends of the parchment tightly and place in the fridge overnight or in the freezer for 4 hours.
Pour the icing sugar into a shallow bowl large enough to hold 1 log. Unwrap the chocolate logs and gently roll them one by one in the icing sugar. At this point, the logs can be served or tied with kitchen twine to resemble a dried salami.
Keep the logs in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 7 days or in the freezer for 3 months.