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The Secret Ingredients to the Best Relish Tray

- Chicago Tribune/Getty Images
Chicago Tribune/Getty Images

Our moms, grandmothers, and favorite aunts sure knew how to put out a relish tray, a type of appetizer that could serve double duty as a side dish when moved to the Sunday lunch or holiday table. Relish trays – a thoughtfully arranged assortment of pickles, olives, crudité, and the like – were so popular that they often warranted their own service pieces, such as ornate cut-glass or crystal plates and platters. Some of the plates were partitioned so that the components stayed separate and organized. A cook with an eye for presentation assembled the tray as though piecing a quilt top. Actually, one of the beauties of a relish tray is that the assembler didn’t have to be a cook so much as a savvy shopper and displayer. And in that we find the reason to revive and redo the relish tray. They are quick and easy, with lots of room for creativity and personalization.

A relish tray can, in theory, include almost anything that can be eaten with fingers or picks, but the focus should be on produce -- fresh, brined, marinated, and pickled. This is what separates a relish tray from a cheese plate or charcuterie board. A relish tray shouldn’t need bread or crackers as an accompaniment. Even with that caveat, the possibilities abound.

It’s possible that everything you need for a relish tray is already in your fridge. Pull out all of those olives and odd pickles, plus a few raw vegetables. If not, a quick trip to the store will fill in the gaps. Start at the salad and olive bars. Swing by the cocktail mixer aisle as well to get some of those darling little pickled onions and martini olives stuffed with all sorts of delicious things. Remember, this is finger food, so avoid anything too oily or slippery, and drain everything as you assemble the tray. Scan the produce aisle for the most eye-catching versions of fresh vegetables that can be served whole or cut into sticks or wedges and then served with a little bowl of crunchy garnishing salt and cracked pepper. There’s no need to overspend. A bread-and-butter pickle is as welcome on a relish tray as a tiny French cornichon, although fascinating pickles can be head-turners. A relish tray must look nice, so think about color and texture. Select as few as three items or as many as your platter can hold, but keep each individual item simple.

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Speaking of platters, use what you have. No platters? A baking sheet covered with parchment can hold a ton of stuff. Or, use an array of bowls, barware, wide-mouth jars, and/or small plates. Peruse your kitchen cabinets for anything you can use as creative service items. Vegetable sticks can stand in a gravy boat or tea cups, for example. Nothing has to match. Use your serving space for edibles, not garnishes. A relish tray requires no decoration because the food itself is the decoration.

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It’s your tray and you boss it, so include what you like. Overall, however, it’s wise to not cross the line on what constitutes finger food. Guests should be able to grab and graze. Have fun with this. Relish trays should be as enjoyable to create as they are to nibble

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