A grazing lunch is my all-time favorite meal. Last week, my family and I gathered around our table to dig into the best bits and snacks we could find. We sliced into a crusty, fresh baguette, still warm from my local bakery. I added a ripe wheel of Harbison, one of my favorite oozing cheeses, and a hunk of Cabot 5-year cheddar. My husband had snagged some duck liver pate and chorizo from the fancy grocery store. We added the blackberries we had left in our fridge and a big bowl of sweet grape tomatoes. Plus, some butter and strawberry jam, just to gild the lily. It was perfection.
Recipe developer and cookbook author Yasmin Fahr is a big proponent of this kind of set-up — delicious food set out on a single board so diners can graze. “Everyone knows the best start of any meal, and the best part of any party, is a cheese and charcuterie board. Or any gorgeous spread that can be eaten finger-food style,” says Fahr. She also suggests branching out beyond those standards. Consider a pancake board for a festive brunch, a flatbread board that can start with store-bought flatbread or naan for a lowkey cocktail party, or a top-your-own chili board for a cozy game night or movie night.
Fahr is such a believer in board-centric meals that she created a whole cookbook celebrating their merits: “Boards and Spreads: Shareable, Simple Arrangements for Every Meal.”
“Sharing builds conversation and lets people try new things,” she says. There’s nothing to break the ice like gathering around a cheese board.
Another upside: It takes pressure off the host. “I don’t want to leave the kitchen exhausted or do a ton of dishes, especially when I have people over,” says Fahr, who is also the author of “Keeping It Simple: Easy Weeknight One-Pot Recipes” and the forthcoming “What’s for Dinner.” Since prepping this style of party is more about curating your favorite components than about cooking, the work can mostly be done ahead of time. That way you can focus on your friends and family instead of executing complicated maneuvers in your kitchen.
You can also concentrate more on food that’s delicious, and less on food that meets everyone’s dietary restrictions, particular palates, and individual preferences. Because everyone serves themselves, she says, “you can have what you like. For example if you make a chili spread with a toppings bar, people can adjust each dish, they can make it spicy or not, they can add cheese or not.” Boards empower your guests to pick and choose quantities and variations with no pressure.
Fahr offers four tips for success to create your own boards-and-spreads occasion:
Choose a culinary focal point.
For a dinner-party board, Fahr suggests “starting with one thing you’re excited by and going outwards from there.” That might mean cooking up a very simple centerpiece of tender sheet-pan chicken thighs. “Maybe tuck some pita bread under them to catch the juices,” she says. Serve the chicken thighs alongside your favorite ready-made spreads, dips, and sauces, plus some raw sliced scallions and an array of hand-torn fresh herbs. Fahr has been growing herbs on her home’s balcony, so they’re always ready for sprinkling.
Another way to focus your menu: Rather than centering it on a single dish, choose a theme or a style of food. For example, you could stick to a general Mediterranean vibe and “mix and match, knowing everything will generally go together, as it’s in the same flavor profile,” Fahr says. She might add a pasta or farro salad beside the chicken thighs, a big bowl of arugula dressed simply with extra-virgin olive oil and parmesan, or perhaps cook some broccoli sprinkled with cumin in the sheet pan along with the chicken.
As the finishing touch, she adds bowls and bottles of “olive oil, lemon wedges, red pepper flakes, nice flaky sea salt, and plenty of fresh herbs” so people can create their own customized plate.
Rely on smart shortcuts.
“Buy good quality things, and then make them your own,” Fahr advises. For instance, you could order hummus and then “dress it up to taste homemade, maybe add chopped-up preserved lemons or just a drizzle of olive oil.” Two Middle Eastern restaurants in Miami are favorite sources for putting together a savory snack board: She’ll pick up hummus or labneh from North Miami Beach’s Kabobji and fill a bowl with RICE Mediterranean Kitchen’s baked pita chips.
Smashed Castelvetrano olives (or Cerignolas, if you can’t find them) make a great addition to most boards. Another of Fahr’s recommendations: ordering in naan (like the fluffy goodness from Akash Miami Beach — choose plain, garlic, or both) or any freshly baked bread. Top it with olive oil and za’atar, and toast it for a homemade-ish side.
Fahr is a big proponent of condiments to elevate simple dishes and add a pop of flavor and color. Harissa, the North African hot chili pepper paste, can be served alongside roast chicken or mixed into yogurt for a creamy, zesty dip. You can spoon it into a little bowl or serve it straight from the jar.
Use pretty plates.
Think of your board, platter, or tray as the blank canvas on which you’ll assemble your culinary work of art. A gorgeous board makes even a single slab of cheese with a handful of crackers and a jar of honey feel like a party-worthy spread.
You can use a cutting board or butcher block, or create a collection of marble, slate, or even whimsical boards if that makes you happy. (Fahr collects animal-shaped boards.) If you love to entertain, consider investing in a custom serving board from Seattle’s Slow Table. They’re made by artisans in the U.S. from single pieces of high-grade walnut, so each is unique.
Don’t forget dessert.
Desserts can double as spreads, too. The same principles apply. Fahr might buy a pie or chocolate cake from a local bakery, then set it on a board with fresh fruit and pillowy whipped cream (homemade or store-bought) so guests can slice and top their own. She’s a fan of the passion fruit key lime pie from Sweet Delights Key Lime Pies; she serves it with lime wedges and juicy berries. “You don’t have to go through the effort of making it, but it still looks pretty,” she says.
At the heart of the board philosophy is flexibility. You decide how minimalist or elaborate the meal is. You’re in charge of what flavors you love and what ingredients you want to showcase. This way of hosting lets you easily pull together an intimate gathering in your home or an impromptu picnic in the park. Whether you’re having a few friends over or a raucous celebration, your board and spread party will leave everyone full, happy, and ready for their next invite.
PHOTO CREDIT: Courtesy of Yasmin Fahr