Grazing Boards: A ‘still life’ painting to savor

Chef Babz Goldman

Ask anyone how they entertain guest and they will each have a different answer. For some it’s all about the food, others the ambiance or location, some the libations, and to many the guest attending. Entertaining goes beyond all of those answers. It goes beyond the budget, location, equipment, or facilities. Entertaining is a state of mind. It is about sharing of yourself and what you have with those you care for, or those with whom you hope to develop a personal relationship.

Food presentation has always been one of my favorite areas of the culinary arts. When I first began my career, one of my favorite mentors Chef Ila Calton told me food is 90 percent visual. Most guests will make up their mind if they like a dish or not the minute it catches their eye. The taste ultimately decides, but their mind has been about 90 percent made up.

I had the opportunity to visit Chef Ila’s beautiful 40 acre estate, Karnak, in Kansas City, Missouri. It was nothing for Chef Ila to create food for high-level conference groups, private luncheons or dinner parties, celebrations for casual groups involving pool parties, brunches, picnics, brunch, or family get-togethers. Her special events ranged in numbers from 750 guest for a luau, holiday open house for 200, cocktail parties, bridge luncheons, graduation parties, and more.

No matter the size of needs of the group, Chef Ila always kept her cool. One reason she attributed to this temperament was the style in which she presented her food. Guest would always arrive hungry, and she was always prepared with a delicious grazing table.

Whether setting up a buffet table or simple an appetizer area, her goal was to set up a beautiful multi-dimensional picture in the minds of her guests. She knew the beauty, color and the aroma were all essential to the success of the meal. She spent careful time arranging food-garnishing meat with sprigs of bright green sprigs of herbs, slicing tomatoes onto a lettuce or cabbage lined plate, and generally creating a “Still Life” painting for the mind’s eye to savor.

Wether you are hosting your first get together, or a traditional Memorial Day Celebration in it’s umpteenth year, todays article is for you. Don’t believe what many say about hosting. Hosting never comes to someone like a rabbit out of a hat. Learning how to host, or continuing to develop hosting talents, comes from exploring food options and observing other host and hostesses, wether at other parties you attend or simply exploring the internet. This is a quick way to realize not only what you do want on your table but also what you don’t want.

Today I have included not so much a recipe, but guide for creating a grazing table. Known also as a cheese and fruit board/tray, this creation has no boundaries. Just remember to have fun with it. When you use fresh and especially local ingredients every bite will be something delicious.

Good luck and enjoy!

Grazing Table

1. Selecting Food for the Table: Choose a variety of different cheese. This can be as simple as cheddar and Swiss, or a little more edgy with blue cheese or gouda. Then add plenty of accompaniments such as seasonal fruits, dried fruit, olives, local jarred preserves. I love to add cured meats such as country ham, smoked salmon or even proscuitto. Remember your audience. You don’t have to add all of these items. And remember your budget. Select items that will be the biggest hit and have the prettiest colors and textures to play with. Don’t restrict yourself to just savory. Sweet grazing tables are always a hit.

2. Display and Dimension: The keys to a fantastic display are height, props, and texture. Position your table in a central place that will accommodate guest and promote mingling. Sharing is part of the fun. When creating height, work back to front. The back being the furthest from the view of the guest, and the highest point and the front the lowest of the display. This formula goes for any table, round or square. Height gives your table a three dimensional feel and allows you to create multiple vignettes with different platters or textures. If you don’t have height, your table will be to flat. I recommend using wooden boards, marble boards, glass or porcelain bowls, and cake stands. A personal favorite are vintage props. Old crates, depression glass in various colors, or pewter trays are some of my favorite. Old props really allow you to give your table a story and personality. This is also a great way to use what you have and stay under budget. Beyond the props, introduce edible foliage and florals. This will bring color and life to your set up. Just make sure if you use flowers, the smell doesn’t take over the food. Make sure everything has something underneath it with texture. This means pieces of collard green leaves under strawberries, purple cabbage leaves to hold dips, or fresh herbs in a face beside sliced cheese.

3. Go Nuts: After you have finished your display, go over the spread and make sure there are no empty spaces. This will also add additional dimension to your table. Scatter nuts, crackers, toast, sprigs of herbs wherever your hearts delite. Make sure everything that requires a utensil has a spoon or a knife. This will help guest feel comfortable and less over whelmed with attacking your work of art.

The photos and recipes used in todays article are from the kitchen of Chef Babz with a little help from local farmers and Casual Entertaining with a Flair, 1979, By Ila J Calton.

Chef Babz Goldman