Advice from a Pro for Creating Perfect Holiday Platters

Neen LeMaster, N14, shares seven tips for hosting holiday gatherings and serving up a spread to tempt your tastebuds and your eyes
A charcuterie board for a party with meats, cheeses, crackers, and olives.
“People can create a really beautiful experience, and it doesn’t have to be expensive," says Neen LeMaster, N14. Photo: Timolina/Shutterstock.com
December 17, 2021

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Holding a small gathering this holiday season? You may be wondering what to serve, how it should look, and how best to feed your guests’ senses and souls.

Neen LeMaster, N14, has answers. A cheesemonger at gourmet food shop Unwined Alexandria, LeMaster also held that position at Cheesetique Specialty Cheese for two and a half years, and additionally makes his own cheese, charcuterie, and caramels.

When he’s not engaged in one of his other passions—including doing yoga, writing poetry, and working toward a goal to hike in all 50 states—LeMaster is advising Unwined customers on everything from putting together a meaningful charcuterie board to offering a sensitive selection of beverages.

People have a misconception that a holiday spread must be fancy to be good, according to LeMaster. He’s here to prove them wrong. “Really, it’s just what tastes good together,” LeMaster says. “People can create a really beautiful experience, and it doesn’t have to be expensive.”“People eat with their eyes first," says Neen LeMaster, N14. "If you put a platter in front of someone that looks really beautiful, like a piece of artwork, then they get really curious about it.” Photo: Courtesy of Neen LeMaster

1. Offer something for everyone. Always check for eating restrictions. For example, on a charcuterie board, for those who don’t do pork, try beef salami or even duck prosciutto. For pescatarians, tinned fish doesn’t end with sardines—there’s mackerel, tuna belly, scallops, lobster, often fresh-caught on Spanish or Italian boats and instantly canned in olive oil.

If you’re feeding vegetarians, lean into the cheeses, and prepare your cheese and charcuterie separately; if you’ve got vegans, swap out that pimento cheese spread for hummus or baba ghanoush. Gluten-free crackers are great to have on hand as well. “It’s been a tremendously difficult year and a half for some people,” LeMaster says. “Making people feel seen goes a long way.”

2. Neglect not the no-alcohol options. Here’s one that hosts often miss. In addition to special wines—such as smoky, spiced, highly mull-able Glühweins; unfiltered, “funky,” orange wines; and natural, sparkling pét-nats—make sure to include special alcohol-free beverages. Spring for a local cider. Non-alcoholic wines range from Prosecco-style to aperitif-like. Non-alcoholic beers include IPAs, lagers, and stouts. Non-alcoholic cocktail mixtures, flavored spritzers, and canned bitters in soda can be refreshing and sophisticated—and can double as mixers for booze.

“It’s a nice surprise when I show up at a party and someone has thought of that, because I’m so used to just grabbing soda water,” LeMaster says. “It’s nice to have something a bit more adult.”

3. Mix and match. LeMaster likes to pair cheeses with a range of meats from spicy to mild, and to include something sweet, something crunchy, and something tart. Dark chocolate is a great hit of sweetness, if dessert is nigh. So is fruit—plum chutney offers fresh fall flavor and vibrant color, while the grainy chewiness of dried apricot contrasts with smoother foods.

Honeycomb, a favorite of LeMaster’s, packs both sugar and crunch. But for those without a sweet tooth, Marcona almonds and cashews—or popcorn and corn nuts, if you’ve got nut allergies—will give teeth a workout just as good.

For tartness, go seasonal with a cranberry spread, or try a dipping mustard or pickled fennel. Anything pickled has the added benefit of clearing the palate, especially after high-fat items such as oily fish or creamy cheese. Not a pickle fan? The minerality and salinity of sparkling and white wines will also wipe those taste buds clean.

4. Presentation, presentation, presentation. Offer white, orange, and red cheeses, or those with herbed or floral rinds, and pair bright green kalamata olives with dark red jam. Fill gaps between items with grapes, nuts, and crackers for a bountiful feel. Comb Google for tricks like the one LeMaster stumbled upon as a charcuterie novice— folding meat slices to resemble roses. “People eat with their eyes first. If you put a platter in front of someone that looks really beautiful, like a piece of artwork, then they get really curious about it.”

5. Take guests on a journey. Lean into a location or culture as a theme. LeMasters has recommended Mediterranean boards, including Greek and Italian cheeses, hummus, yogurt sauces, and dried chickpeas. For the anniversary celebration of a couple who had honeymooned in Sicily, he paired red and white Etna wines with pecorino sheep milk cheese and green olives (all from Sicily). A Spanish wine inspires him to reach for the membrillo paste, a sweet, sliceable gel made from quince fruit; a Brie sparks thoughts of the French countryside and fresh summer berries. “Things that grow together, go together,” LeMaster says.

6. Experiment. Although LeMaster is happy to guide customers, there are no hard and fast rules, he insists. “Every palate is different, and what tastes great to you is not going to taste great to your neighbor. But it might introduce someone to something they never thought of,” he says. “Don’t let people bully you into thinking traditional pairings are the way to go. Don’t be afraid to try new things and see what works and what doesn’t. You might come up with a combination no one ever thought of that’s really beautiful.”

7. Make it mean something. As you assemble your spread, think back to a meaningful location or memory, LeMaster advises. “Is there a place you all went together that you really like, or a food your grandmother really liked making when you were kids?” he asks.

A scrumptious and well-composed platter goes a long way, according to LeMaster, but a great party is also about reviving fond memories and experiences of closeness—and creating new ones.

“So many people didn’t spend the holidays with their families last year and want to make something a little special,” LeMaster says. “Those of us who work in any sort of hospitality arena want to make people feel like they can make things special again.”

Monica Jimenez can be reached at monica.jimenez@tufts.edu.