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Amazing Graze

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Thivjan Tharma and Kailee Brennan of New Glasgow, enjoy a grazing box prepared by PastaSalt for a cozy dinner at home. Photo: Steve Smith, Visionfire

Small bites with big style for your winter gatherings

As the days become colder and the holiday season approaches, more families will be staying indoors, spending more time together while enjoying some delicious bites.

Among this season’s hottest dining trends are charcuterie boards and grazing boxes. Charcuterie is typically a presentation of cured meats, cheese, and olives. And this year grazers are taking it to a new
level, finding ways to elevate their creations.

“It’s a way in keeping or bringing the family together, and also a way to alleviate community stress,” says Simone Metlege of Boxed Bites Catering in Halifax. “When I started hosting my events, I thought about how to put things together. I was always putting so much effort into how things look, researching different ways of styling. I realized there are more opportunities to make it more than just typical meat and cheese.”

Vegetables, fruit and sweets are getting added to the regular staples you would find in a board or box. For Sheldon O’Neill of St. John’s Charcuterie in Newfoundland, that means trying to find ways to offer something different. Among the items he includes are Bavarian cheesecake tortes and Caprese salads, which are alternating rows of tomato, mozzarella, basil and a balsamic oil drizzle on top.

“It’s quite a mixed bag,” he says. “Oddly enough, there are quite a few people who don’t enjoy olives, so that throws a little bit of a monkey wrench in my plans. I replace olives with pepperoncini, anything pickled that gives it that salt content without the olives. Also, dill pickles, cream cheese stuffed peppers: anything you would find in a tapas section in a grocery store or a specialty store that would add to or enhance the board in that salt category.”

Jennifer McKenna is a co-owner of Cured Creations in Charlottetown. As a chef, she has always been accustomed to cooking and baking, so there is a personal touch when she creates her boards.

“I do a lot of the different chutneys, pickling and all other stuff, so I go beyond being normal,” she says. “I try to have fun with it and keep it as seasonal as possible. It makes it a big difference.”

Not everyone eats meat or animal by-products, so plant-based and vegan items can accommodate those palettes. Cashew or soy-based cheeses and vegetarian meats are popular but Metlege says that there are many other possibilities. 

“With all of the boxes, there are options for everyone. When those specific requests do come in, we make them different,” she says. “Instead of adding more of the dairy or meat, we can add more homemade dips, fruits and vegetables.”

International flavours are also in vogue. Metlege’s Mediterranean box is an homage to her Lebanese roots and includes traditional foods and herbs such as mint, halloumi cheese, zaatar dipped crackers, pita bread, hummus, vegetarian and meat pies.

Halifax’s Posh Thali creates Indian inspired grazing boxes full of exotic flavours such as cardamom, rose water, and mint. Tin foil leaves and rose petals give it a more authentic presentation. Offerings include samosas, aloo tikki, pakora and mithai (sweets). Mint, tamarind and mango chutneys are Indian essentials. All boxes are vegetarian or vegan, and the mithai is made with vegetable oil instead of ghee and has no preservatives.

“In Indian culture, food and hospitality is so important to us. Any chance we get, we love to share knowledge about our heritage,” says owner Katelyn Junus. “My boxes are a boxed taste of India; everything from the items, to the design, and colour scheme. It’s a nice way to share our culture with other people. Instead of having one or two holidays for us, it’s like an ongoing celebration for us.”

Unique occasion boards and boxes have soared in popularity. Metlege’s company has become renowned for creating boxes to celebrate a birthday, the birth of a child, or mark a life milestone. The addition of chocolate-covered, coloured pretzel sticks and custom cookies are extraordinary because they come from a local bakery that she works with frequently. She recently started shaping her offerings into numbers and letters, which customers love.

“Those I have a lot of fun with because of the creative aspect and making them all unique,” she adds.

When it comes to themes, presentation complements taste. With the holidays fast approaching, Metlege says using a lot of greenery or gold will elevate any small gathering or even a box to enjoy. Also, using Christmas trees brings height to a charcuterie spread at home.

“I hope to add herbs that smell Christmasy. I want it to feel like it’s Christmas in a box or on a table,” she says. “Over the holidays, I am hoping to do wreath and ornament shapes, which are going to be awesome for holiday parties as well.”

With clever presentation, you can make the food itself a focal point of the table’s design. O’Neill likes to get creative with bacon for occasions that express love.

“On Valentine’s Day, I make bacon roses, and I mount them on breadsticks and put greenery inside to make it look like a bouquet I will add them to vases,” he explains. “I do them also anniversaries. Bacon is the candy of meat.”

Lately, there have been more requests to make boxes the entire family will enjoy, including kids. Having completed their first kid box for a kindergarten class, McKenna leaned towards the usual things.

“We did the basic Ritz Crackers. We added in some little candy and Goldfish Crackers to keep kids happier because their taste buds are different,” she recalls. “We also do… a ‘Sweetcuterie’ box, so it’s all different occasion themed cookies, and occasion everything so it’s more sweets than meats and cheeses.”

O’Neill likes to stage a scene with his boxes so kids can be in awe or show excitement for it. He will use something comparable to cookie cutters to slice out of cheese into characters from video games and television shows to create the scene.

“I like to throw in a few different things like candy, but I try to keep it healthy as well: reduced salt intake,” he adds. “Make it fun and inviting!”

Drink-pairing is a challenge because of the variety flavours on a charcuterie board. Wine is the most popular, while martinis and gin and tonic are the preferred cocktail options. For an Indian spread, a light beer will offset the heaviness of the spice. Water with a touch of lime or lemon, ginger or masala chai and mango lassis also work well.

A well-designed charcuterie board will have something for everyone.

“No wonder we love charcuterie—we grew up eating Lunchables every day,” O’Neill says. 

Photo: Steve Smith, Visionfire

Amaze Yourself

We asked the proprietors of Boxed Bites Catering, St. John’s Charcuterie, Cured Curations and Posh Thali how to create your own food canvas. There are few hard and fast rules—imagination reigns—but these tips will keep you on the right track

• When gathering your items, get things that you will enjoy and make sure they are high-quality ingredients. “The best thing is to make them personal, unique and different,” Metlege adds.

• A good starting point is picking up hard and soft cheese, 2–3 different meat types and fruit. 

• Vegetables provide balance. “You would need some vegetable to cut through the fat,” Junus says.

• Overall, there are a few categories you want to look after based on palates. Those are sweet, salty, crunch and texture.

• Pickles are simple to make and always popular. “Whether it’s just pickles or red onion or just pickling anything in the kitchen, using a simple pickling recipe, it takes no time at all. Any sort of mustard is always good and any sweetness,” McKenna adds.

• If doing an Indian theme board or box, chutney is essential.
“I always put in a coriander mint—that’s the staple. I always have tamarind and sweet mango. Those three are such different flavours that they complement the appetizers very well,” Junus says.

• Add crackers or little baguettes;  “Little baguettes, cut them up and toast them in the oven to get them nice, warm and crusty,” McKenna says.

• Include some sweets such as macaroons, chocolate, cookies, mithai and fruit.

• For vegan offerings, consider cashew and soy-based cheeses, plus vegetarian meats. Likewise, you can include more fruit, vegetables and homemade dips.

• Presentation is everything. Be cautious with colour because the goal is for visual appeal. For example, do not put white cheese next to white crackers. “Leave a little separation in between each of larger items, especially for better colour or shade so that you can fill in the insides with something that gives more of a pop on that colour. So like a vibrant green like an olive or kiwi works well with strawberries,” offers O’Neill.

• If experimentation is the goal, include items you have not tried before. “Dragonfruit is not something people are familiar but with that dark pink exterior and then when you cut it open, that bright white with the black seeds. It’s just a wonderful addition to a board, and it tastes good as well,” adds O’Neill.

• Be creative by cutting up cheeses, vegetables and fruit in different shapes or (or even cartoon characters for kids) instead of the standard cubes and slices.

• Stack food items up on top of each other to give dimension.

• Use greenery, gold, flowers, trees for presentation on boards and in boxes.  

• Create a unique theme by making a charcuterie or grazing box in the shape of a letter, number or to reflect a special occasion such as Christmas, birthdays, Valentine’s Day and Easter.

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