I'm a designer, and I travel a lot, which means I am constantly inspired. On recent trips to Ireland and Argentina, I was reminded of an entertaining idea that is brilliant in its simplicity. Call it hors d'oeuvres, aperitivos or appetizers; it's so easy you don't even have to cook. It's all about delicious ingredients and a great presentation.
On a cutting board.
There's a version for everyone. In Argentina, at an estancia outside of Buenos Aires (read about it on my blog), I was served meat and cheese with homemade breadsticks artfully arranged on top. At Avoca Café in Dublin, the platter was a vegetarian one, with several spreads and grilled bread.
Not to be outdone, I've come up with a holiday sweets version, using store-bought cookies, candies, nuts and berries.
Serve before or after (in the case of the sweets) a formal (or informal) dinner, or on its own for a cocktail party. It all goes on a cutting board, or two or three, befitting the size of your crowd.
This is meant to be a no-stress concept, but I have one style rule: each ingredient should be grouped in its own row or section. It just looks better that way, trust my designer's eye.
Here's a list of potential ingredients. Use any or all, depending upon what you like, what's in season or what's available in your local market. Prepare items in sizes that are easy to pick up with a toothpick or by hand.
Meat: sliced, cured varieties such as salami, sopressata, prosciutto, prosciutto cotto (cooked ham), bresaola, mortadella, saucisson or pepperoni. If you feel like you have to cook something, consider grilling up sausages or skewers of chicken or steak.
Cheese: sliced, cubed or bite-size wedges of brie, gouda, havarti, provolone, gorgonzola, pecorino, cheddar or fresh mozzarella.
Vegetables: grilled zucchini, eggplant, roasted red yellow peppers, blanched asparagus, marinated artichoke hearts, peppadew peppers, grape or cherry tomatoes, cucumbers or pickles. The board I had in Dublin had salad greens in the center, which looked pretty but wouldn't be practical for this purpose.
Additionally: olives (I usually put in small bowls on the board), figs (halved lengthwise), spreads such as hummus, tabouli, tapenade, tzatziki (in small bowls with spoons.) Add a small glass or tiny cup of toothpicks for self-service.
Bread: breadsticks, crusty rolls, baguette (sliced diagonally), grilled rustic bread or assorted crackers.
Both my mother and grandmother have traditionally baked at least a dozen different variations of Christmas cookies and candies. If you are like them and have home-baked goods, arrange them on a board and serve. As I didn't inherit the baking gene, I shopped.
I've kept the color scheme to red, white and chocolate for the holidays. My cutting board is placed on a vintage French tea towel that I found in Paris, but you can find new versions of them at places like Ikea and Williams-Sonoma. You'll also need small cups or bowls if you don't already own them, Anthropologie has little latte bowls that are perfect.
Now for the sweets. This is what I came up with in my local grocery store:
In mini-cupcake baking cups: three different types of fudge (chocolate espresso, vanilla walnut and fruit and nut)
Additionally: I found these dark chocolate cups at the grocery store, filled them with blueberries, raspberries and blackberries, and put a small bowl of whipped cream, with a spoon, alongside the board, for a topping.
Candy canes in a small glass (or you could use a bud vase) add height and a festive touch to the board. These are Starburst strawberry-flavored. (I liked that they were monochromatic, but you can use regular red and white ones if you want.)
Be creative in arranging your board, and prepare to impress your guests with the presentation!
To see where I get my inspiration, check out my blog.