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How to design a party tray

Special occasions call for great food, usually served on trays. You can make party trays attractive and appetizing by using these design ideas.

How many times have you selected food from a tray and admired its overall design? The foods complemented each other in color and layout and were easy to pick up with a toothpick, skewer, fork, or tongs. Putting together an appealing and accessible tray of food is similar to arranging flowers in a vase. You have many types and styles from which to build a masterpiece: choose fruits, sandwiches, cheeses, meats, vegetables, or any combination of these and arrange them in rows, circles, diagonals, and rectangles.

Unless you are preparing sandwich trays, the key to success is to use foods that are easy to eat with one hand. Most of the time, your guests will be standing; they may have a beverage in one hand while they "graze," or they are holding a dessert-sized plate in one hand and eating with the other.

Trays can be in any size or shape. Look around at discount stores and garage sales for unique platters. Plastic is acceptable for casual parties, but try to acquire a few nice glass pieces for indoor festivities. Sectioned trays are nice, too, when you plan to combine moisture-rich items with dry foods. The lingering pool of pickle juice that migrates to a carrot may not be a desirable taste combination for your guests.

Vegetable Tray Ideas

Put vegetables and herbs to work as dividers. Pad the space between cheeses and olives, for instance, with curly-leafed parsley. It is dense enough to keep olive juice from softening the cheeses. Try divider stacks of banana peppers or cocktail onions to add color to and complement a cocktail sausage tray. If you place a dipping bowl in the middle of a tray, surround it with an outer circle of leafy greens.

For seafood trays, include a central bowl of cocktail sauce. Add a circular base of greens topped with lemon wedges. In sections, include shrimp and cracked crab claws. Create boundaries with these vegetables: carrots in one section and celery in another.

A pickled relish tray might include individual sections of black olives, green olives, cocktail onions, baby kosher and sweet pickles, and banana peppers. In the center, create a space for cherry peppers encircled by assorted pickled garden vegetables. Garnish with fresh parsley.

A bountiful vegetable tray should include: cauliflowerets, celery sticks, carrot sticks, cucumber chips, radish roses, green onion spears, cherry tomatoes, and yellow and Italian squash spears. Place a bowl of vegetable dip in the center and surround with broccoli flowerets.

Meat and Cheese Tray Ideas

Meat and cheese tray design will depend on whether you are serving these foods for appetizers or as part of a sandwich tray. One option is to create the ham or turkey and cheese sandwiches beforehand and quarter. Prepare some with mayonnaise and some with mustard, some with tomatoes and pickles, and some without. While this is handy, the bread will dry out if the tray is sitting out for any length of time.

If guests are building individual sandwiches, place sliced meats on one tray and sliced cheeses on another, if possible. Not only does it make the spread appear larger, it decreases the remote chance of cross-contamination of foods. You can set up combination trays if they are small.

Meat choices include: pastrami, turkey breast, corned beef, roast beef Genoa salami, and smoked ham garnished with radishes and parsley.

Cheeses would include: Swiss, provolone, Muenster, cheddar, and a smoky sharp cheese garnished with red and white grapes. For a sandwich cheese tray, you could also incorporate appetizer cheeses in one-inch squares for dividers.

Layer and tier sliced cheeses flat, beginning at the outside of the tray. Rolling cold cheese slices causes them to break. If you do choose to roll, let the slices come to room temperature first. Work inward in smaller tiers to create a loose triangle with the smaller end of the group at the middle. Roll sliced meats into a flattened cone shape, then layer and tier toward the middle. Layer same meats in a complete circle on small trays and work inward with different types. You can use clear-glass, dinner-sized plates to create same-meat platters. Place a few cheese cubes and cherry tomatoes in the middle of each.

You have many other choices when planning a party tray

Bite-size meatballs, empanadas, pork satay, wontons, quiches, chicken wings, and mini tortilla cones filled with taco meat make wonderful appetizers or a complete meal. Just add separate trays filled with cheeses and vegetables. Round out your display with cracker varieties and toasted baguette slices.

Pastries, cakes, rolls, petit fours, and cookies will look elegant on trays. Create circles, overlapping rows, or random placement to achieve a colorful presentation. Remember to include a nice fruit bowl or platter filled with small chunks of cantaloupe, watermelon, and other in-season varieties.

We have talked about arrangements for round plates, but oval, rectangular, and square trays can be staged in many different ways.

For a rectangle shape, line up shrimp horizontally and place a cocktail sauce bowl in one corner. Tuck in parsley at the base and place lemon wedges between each long row. Rectangles work well for crackers, too.

Another rectangle assortment could be arranged this way:

Place two layered rows of crackers across a short end. With the remaining square space, create a diagonal. Place a variety of cheese cubes from one corner to the opposite one. Line with parsley. You should have two triangular corner spaces remaining. Fill one with olives and the other with meat bites.

For a square platter, picture a fan-fold design. Place your dipping sauce bowl in one corner and surround it with a garnish. Start at the opposite corner with cheese slices laid flat and tiered in rows. The cheeses form a small fan before beginning with a meat. In the longest row, which runs from one corner to the opposite, beginning layering folded meats. The apex of the meat row will overlap the last cheese row. Work your way inward toward the sauce or dip bowl.

Oval platters make a wonderful choice for ethnic dishes. For a Mexican fiesta, stack taquitos across the middle. Line each side with fried jalapenos and cheese straws. Create a side tray of sausage stuffed mushrooms and dipping sauce.

Party trays can be elegant or casual, festive or themed -- just let your creative side loose and enjoy the compliments from your guests.

You may also be interested in these:
Buffet Layout Ideas
Party Hosting Tips
Party Plateau Risers




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