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How to Assemble an Awesome Vegetable Platter
A good vegetable platter is a staple of any finger-food based buffet, but how often do you hit a graduation party or a concert reception only to find the same old stale, sorry-looking, dried-out carrot sticks, celery sticks, cucumbers, and if you're lucky, bell pepper strips all sitting listlessly around a tub of store-bought Ranch dressing?
No wonder nobody likes to eat vegetables. Imagine instead, if you will, a world in which vegetable platters were actually made from fresh, seasonal vegetables. Crisp pink radishes frolicking through Elysian fields with bright green stalks of fresh-from-the-earth asparagus. Bitter endives make merry with sweet, vine-ripened cherry tomatoes under the vigilant but beneficent eyes of a baby zucchini. Baby romaine lettuce leaves shed their inhibitions, say "f*ck it," and dive bottoms first into the homemade dip, skinny dipping alongside the tender young heirloom carrots who were in the process of doing some very naughty things indeed.
Now is the time for you to upgrade your carrot-and-celery plate into a veritable orgy of hedonistic vegetal delights. All of this can be yours. All it takes is a trip to a good vegetable market, and just a bit of effort.
Tip #1: Get In The Right Frame of Mind.
Stop thinking of vegetable platters as the default table-space-taker-upper and start thinking of them as the centerpiece of a spring or summer buffet table. Once you start taking them seriously, then perhaps they will start taking you seriously as well.
Tip #2: Don't Make a Shopping List.
It's sad but true: spring and summer produce are ephemeral beasts. The asparagus that was perfectly sweet and crisp two days ago may be wilted and woody by the time you make your way to the market. The best way to shop for a vegetable platter is to go with a certain amount of vegetables you'd like in mind—say, an eight to a quarter pound per guest—then buy what looks best. Use your nose and your eyes to guide you around the produce section (or better yet, the farm stand or farmers' market). With few exception, there are no spring or summer vegetables that won't work on a vegetable platter provided you treat them right. We'll get to that in a moment.
Tip #3: Can't Make A Decision? Then Don't.
Those white asparagus look so fresh and crisp, but so do those baby zucchini, and wow—what about those tight-blossomed baby purply artichokes? Or hey, those juicy looking easter egg radishes, how about them? The good news is that you don't have to decide between one or another. The most surefire way to make sure that your vegetable platter is memorable is to put as many different things as you can on it.
Show off the bounty of the season. Go for as many different colors, textures, and shapes as you can.
Tip #4: Go Shopping The Day Of (Or At The Earliest, The Day Before).
All vegetables lose quality as time goes by. For the most striking vegetable platter, make sure your vegetables are utterly fresh by buying them the morning you plan on serving them. If you must store them overnight, here are a few tips:
- Root vegetables such as carrots, turnips, radishes, fennel, and the like, should be stored in a loosely closed plastic bag in the vegetable crisper. If they have greens that you'd like to use, wrap the greens in a damp paper towel and place a plastic bag loosely over them.
- Green vegetables like asparagus, snap peas, zucchini, broccoli, and such, should be stored wrapped in a damp paper towel inside a plastic bag in the vegetable crisper.
- Lettuces and other leafy vegetables such as endive, radicchio, or baby romaine/little gem should be stored wrapped in damp paper towels in a plastic bag, and left on the root for as long as possible. Do not separate lettuce leaves until just before serving.
- Tomatoes should be stored at room temperature. Never put a fresh tomato in the refrigerator as it negatively impacts texture.
Tip #5: Make A Good Sauce
It should go without saying, but how many times have you seen a crudité platter beautifully prepared and laid out, only to find a jar of gloopy, gloppy, artificial flavoring-packed dip-from-a-can in the center of the spread?
Just don't do it! You're putting in the effort to get great vegetables, they deserve a great dip do go with them!
My favorite is the classic Green Goddess Dressing, a mayonnaise and herb-based dip flavored with anchovies that was the most popular dressing in the West up until Ranch came and took it over. You say you like Ranch? Well OK, we can help you out on that front as well. Here's our recipe.
Is Blue Cheese your thing? (It's my thing, quite often), if so this three-minute, five-ingredient Blue Cheese Dressing should do the trick. Potato chips aren't the only thing that go well with Real French Onion Dip, though I'm sure guests wouldn't kill you if you added a side of chips to your veg platter.
Another five-ingredient dip that takes a Greek twist is our Tyrokafteri, made with whipped feta and hot peppers. Even a classic garlicky aïoli would make the perfect dipper for fresh spring vegetables.
Tip #6: Style!
You can go a few different routes with laying out your platter. Sometimes I feel like compartmentalizing by color, arranging my vegetables the way I'd put crayons back into a box of Crayolas, creating an even spectrum from one end to the other (yes, I'm anal about putting crayons and markers back in the right order). This can be particularly striking when you have a huge assortment of vegetables of all different shades and can really create a strong spectrum from the red tomatoes through the pink radishes, through to the bright orange carrots, to the yellow endives to the green broccoli, all the way to the purple asparagus or radicchio.
That said, more often then not these days I prefer the "overflowing cornucopia" approach. That is, jam everything possible onto the plate, using a bit of care to make sure that colors are spaced out and that all the vegetables are showing their best side.
Either of these approaches works better than the dried-carrot-in-a-plastic-clamshell method.
My 18 Favorite Vegetable Platter Vegetables And How To Prepare Them
There's no way I could ever get through every possible vegetable you can put on a crudité platter, but here are the ones you are most likely to find, along with tips on the best way to prepare them. The key is to remember that folks are going to be eating with their hands, so vegetables have to be pick-upable, as well as dip-able in shape.
- Artichokes should be peeled and pared down to the heart, choke removed, and simmered or steamed until tender. Baby artichokes can be left whole with just the pointy tips of the leaves removed, simmered or steamed until tender.
- Asparagus of all different colors can be served raw and unpeeled if very slender. Thicker stalks should be peeled from the top two-inches and below, then briefly blanched in boiling salted water and shocked in ice water while still tender-crisp.
- Baby romaine, little gem, and other crisp small letuces should be separated into individual leaves as close as possible to serving time, washed carefully in cold water, and spun dry in a salad spinner.
- Bell peppers should be cored a de-stemmed, then cut into strips.
- Broccoli and cauliflower should be first separated into bite-sized florets, then depending on their tenderness, served raw, or more likely, blanched for just a moment in boiling salted water, shocked in ice water, and spun dry in a salad spinner.
- Broccoli rabe and broccolini should be blanched for just a moment in boiling salted water, shocked in ice water, and spun dry in a salad spinner.
- Carrots and parsnips will very by size. Full-sized carrots can be cut into sticks and served raw (store them in cold water to keep them moist), while parsnips should be blanched in simmering water until just tender. Baby carrots should be peeled with the stem end left on (make sure to get the dirty bits around they stem when peeling—they're like the dirt under your fingernails), then can be served raw or simmered until just tender in salted water.
- Celery can be simply cut into sticks and served. For fancier platters, celery should be peeled to remove any long, stringy, fibrous threads. Store celery in ice water.
- Cherry or grape tomatoes should be served as-is. Keep them on the vine if possible for a prettier presentation.
- Cucumber should be peeled, split in half lengthwise, the seeds removed with a spoon, then cut into sticks lengthwise.
- Endive and related bitter greens such as radicchio should be treated like small lettuces: separate into individual leaves as close as possible to serving time, wash carefully in cold water, and spin dry in a salad spinner
- Fennel should have its central core and green stalks removed, the white bule cut into thin wedges.
- Fiddleheads need to be lightly trimmed of any unfurled fronds or browned bits, then blanched for about 30 seconds in boiling salted water and shocked in ice water.
- Green beans can be served completely raw if very slim and tender. Thicker green beans (or wax beans) should be briefly blanched in boiling salted water and shocked in ice water.
- Jicama can be cut into sticks and stored in a moist paper towel until served.
- Radishes can be simply scrubbed and served with a few leaves still attached as a handle. I especially like the sweet, tender, spicy little French breakfast radishes. If your regular radishes are extra large, they can be split in half or quarters.
- Snap peas and snow peas should have their strings removed, then can be served completely raw, or very briefly blanched in salted boiling water and shocked in an ice bath.
- Zucchini or summer squash should be but into sticks then very briefly blanched in salted boiling water and shocked in an ice bath. If you can find baby squashes, they make for especially tasty additions. They have a crunchier texture and more intense flavor than their larger counterparts, and blanching them is easier, as they are protected all around by skin.
What are your favorite vegetables and dips for entertaining?
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.