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Tips for making holiday grazing boards and tables

By Tanya Lara Published Nov 25, 2020 4:28 am

“We eat first with our eyes.” It’s true—we see before we taste. I don’t know who said this first, but I’ve heard it said by chefs so many times.

There’s a way for your creativity in the kitchen to come out this holiday season: by putting together a grazing table or cheese and charcuterie boards for your noche buena or family reunion.

Of course, the advice from the health department is to keep gatherings small and limited to the people in the same household, or at most to family members who have been isolating as well.

Making a grazing table is both easy and time consuming because while it doesn’t involve cooking, there are a lot small things you need to buy and prepare. It can be expensive too but that depends on the kind of cheeses and charcuterie you choose.

Amazing graze! A charcuterie and cheese board the size of a table. Photo courtesy of Trader Joe’s

Here are tips for prepping and creating amazing grazing boards.

A grazing table is good for physical distancing during a party

It’s a great way to enjoy food whether as appetizer or the main meal. People don’t have to sit close to one another; they can stand around and eat from small plates.  

Fresh fruits are a great way to balance the taste of cured meats.

In fact, you can even make individual boxes and set them on a table for everyone to pick up. For each serving, put food that you would otherwise arrange on individual boards.

For me, having a grazing table near the living room is one way to get my guests away from the kitchen where they tend to congregate for some reason. People spread out and talk to each other when they have small plates on their hands.

Combine tastes and textures, prep in advance

Choose creamy, hard and aged cheeses.

I hosted two holiday parties for friends last year—the first for about 14 people and the second for 25—and I really saved time by buying in advance everything I needed, and prepping the night before.

You have to decide first what to put on your grazing table. The rule of thumb is to mix tastes and textures: salty, sweet, sour, preserved, fresh.

Essentials: cured meats such as salami, pepperoni, prosciutto, smoked ham, sausages, etc.; hard and soft cheeses; olive oil, balsamic vinegar; baguette for bruschetta; olives, nuts, fresh fruits, preserved and fresh veggies; honey (for the cheeses); pretzels, pralines, chips, crackers. (For fruits, grapes balance the taste of cheese and meats so well; for preserved, I love mini gherkins!)

Bring out utensils you don’t use every day like cheese knives. Photo from Rustan’s Facebook page

Terry’s Selection and Santi’s are two of the best delis for cold cuts and cheeses like fresh mozzarella. Rustan’s Supermarket in Makati has things like stuffed olives and wasabi cheese, and their cold cuts are sliced to your preference. Robinsons, SM and Shopwise supermarkets also have them but with fewer varieties and cured meats are pre-cut and vacuum sealed.

For making bruschetta, the baguettes from Santi’s are perfect—they’re dense so you can slice them thin and put anything on them.

A good olive oil brings out the taste of a simple tomato bruschetta. Photo from Doña Elena Facebook page

Doña Elena’s olive oils, available in supermarkets, are great for bruschetta and salads. They also now have a truffle variant for dipping breads like herbed focaccia. (Learn to make sardine bruschetta here.)

I also use their bottled pitted olives, but if you want to splurge, Rustan’s Makati has olives stuffed with feta and red bell peppers stuffed with cheese.

A few years ago in Barcelona, I found out that one of their fave snacks is a simple bruschetta with diced tomato, onion, basil and a drizzle of olive oil. A few pieces cost 9 euros (about P600 at the time), and I thought, I can make this at home for P100. I’ve been doing it at every party since.

Terry’s Selection and Santi's have cured meats that can be sliced to your preference while supermarkets have them pre-sliced and vacuum packed.

Landers and S&R have pre-cut cured meats and cubed American cheddar in large bags—very convenient! It’s only at these two places that I found mini-pretzels, the kind used by hotels (not the large Rold Gold in packs, which works as well but is saltier).

What about crackers, do the imported ones really make a difference? Yes and no. The Swedish brand Wasa (plain) is good for topping with cheese or pesto because it’s tasteless. This is probably the only time when tasting like cardboard is okay. Skyflakes is also wonderful to top with anything.

Variety is key in the look and taste of your grazing table

If you don’t have a cheese board, use large plates or baker’s paper on the table. 

Choose creamy, hard and aged cheeses, and different types of cured meats. Add condiments and preserves for your guests to put on crackers.

If you don’t have a cheese board, use plates or baking paper on the table to assemble your cheeses and charcuterie on.

Having said that, there are some really beautiful wooden boards out there. Depending on the kind of wood and brand, cheese boards can be expensive—like P10 to P20k—but you don’t need to spend that much.

Invest in one beautifully grained and hefty cheese board to be the centerpiece of your grazing table. Last year, I bought a really good one at Crate and Barrel, and two or three cheap ones (below P500) at SM and Rustan’s to add to what I already had from friends through the years.

A variety of flavors, textures and colors make for a delish spread. 

Just as you mix the taste and texture of the food, use different sizes, heights and shapes of cheeseboards for a beautiful table—and for practicality.

The Barefoot Contessa Ina Garten adds fig leaves on her cheeseboards; Giada de Laurentiis uses pine leaves on the sides; Martha Stewart likes hers with veggie leaves.

To overload or go ‘sakto lang’?

The best charcuterie and cheese boards are ones that are artfully arranged. Sure they’re gone in 60 seconds, but half the fun is actually assembling them and the other half is seeing your guests enjoying the food.

I’ve seen boards overloaded with food, and also minimalist ones with one kind of cheese or meat per board. I’d say go for somewhere between the two. Sakto lang.

Put your grazing table where people can circulate around it, not against a wall.  Photo by Tanya Lara

… and a few more reminders

For easy cleanup, guests can use cocktail toothpicks (not the short regular ones). Last year I found cute toothpicks topped with wooden fruit shapes at Gourdo’s (they also have plain bamboo ones), and also decorated ones at Rustan’s.

Bring out the stuff you don’t use regularly like your fancy utensils and plates (black disposable appetizer plates will do as well). For parties, I use my tulip-shaped Turkish tea glasses for honey, a perfect height for the honey dipper.

Put your boards on a table where guests can circulate around. Best not to jam them against a wall, so they can access them on both sides.

Do remember to keep everything bite-sized—that’s the whole point of a grazing table—to enjoy a wide variety of flavors.

Half the fun is assembling your boards and the other half is seeing your guests enjoying the food.