Founded in 1991, Stonewall Kitchen’s roots are humble and wholesome. Founders Jim Stott, Jonathan King and their respective family members would sell their blueberry jam at the farmers market in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Today, their award-winning company makes over 75,000 jars daily of different jams, chutneys, jellies, sauces, oils and mustards. But similar to how the holidays bring people together, the driving force at Stonewall Kitchen is still centred around loved ones. It’s one of the reasons Irene Matys, Expert Food Stylist & Photographer aligned forces with the company and offered us the secret to hosting a winning festive fête. What is it? Grazing boards – that do all the work for you.
“And they make for great party conversation starters too – who else do you know has sent their jams to space!” Matys enthuses. It’s true. Astronaut and Maine native, Chris Cassidy, loved the company’s signature Wild Maine Blueberry Jam so much (he says it reminds him of home) – that he asked to bring a jar into space. In 2013, the request became a reality. The company created a unique “space-safe” jar made from polypropylene. Back on planet Earth, we’re getting into the holiday spirit. And the key to enjoyable hosting is to avoid overthinking anything. When done correctly, entertaining can result in maximum successes and minimum stresses.
It’s all about being mindful of visuals, layering, and having a touch of logistics thrown in. And it doesn’t have to be costly either. “I’ll go to a vintage or discount store and get a long, large wooden board. HomeSense is great and there are always sales. A lazy susan (found at local kitchen store/suppliers) is also helpful for stacking and giving the presentation some depth,” explains Matys. About $125 covers more than enough food for 20 people. From there, it’s all about sourcing seasonal ingredients and strategic placement of jams and spreads to “guide” the grazer. But again, it’s the holidays – so there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to enjoying food. And in a digital age where we can feel pressure to channel Martha Stewart and make everything from scratch, in all onesty (and perhaps, for your sanity), artisan spreads, jellies and quality ingredients will do the trick. You want to be enjoying yourself and not “slaving away” in the kitchen while your guests have fun without you.
To get started, Matys advises using quality and local ingredients, which help “anchor” the boards. “For winter, think colour – pomegranates, figs and tangerines – all of which are currently in season.” She scatters groupings across the board. “Equal distribution matters. You don’t want all the meats in one section and then the cheeses in another, for instance. Spread it out so people don’t have to reach – and it also spreads the guests out themselves so there’s no overcrowding.” Another tip? Sweet and savory combos. Matys places Stonewall Kitchen’s Hot Pepper Cranberry Jelly beside fresh figs and prosciutto with plenty of crackers (e.g. Stonewall Kitchen’s Simple White and Rosemary Olive) on hand for ease of access as people always want a tasty “vehicle” to house their edible goodies. Furthermore, these holiday boards usually feature a lot of heavy/rich cheeses and meats, so something acidic and/or tangy is an ideal “palette cleaner”. Tillen Farms (a new member to the Stonewall Kitchen family) Pickled Crunchy Carrots is perfect for this.
- Keep it rustic and not overly “groomed or manicured”. Group and create separate mounds of (not fanned out) salami, turkey, and other meats. Doing this makes it easier to pick up with forks, toothpicks and wooden skewers.
- Fill up gaps and spaces: will create a sense of lushness. Use smaller items such as grapes, olives, roasted nuts, seeds to achieve this.
- Or, create height and depth by placing smaller foods into decorative bowls.
- Estimate 250g of food per person when grocery shopping.
- Take meats and cheeses out of the fridge 45 minutes before serving to guests.
- Have all your fruits and vegetables cut up and piled near dips and spreads.
- Whole blocks and wedges of cheese can be quartered and placed throughout the board. It’s not only for ease of access but to “stretch” this more costly food item.
- Avoid really “smelly” foods such as strong blue cheeses and game. Otherwise, if you adore funky flavours, drape bundles of herbs over-top (such as sage, rosemary, and basil) of these items.
- Don’t throw away stalks and stems. Use them (e.g. radish stems, carrot stalks) as board accents and decoration (which provides added texture and height).
- Create labels for cheeses and meats. Inexpensive cardboard/holders can be found at the dollar store (or if you have wine corks, cut slits and place cards in them).
- Add additional colour with plates & napkins (flank them on all sides of the boards), and serving utensils (cheese knives, serving forks).
Most importantly, have fun with it! Your board showcases your personality and tells YOUR story – it’s an ideal way to introduce your friends to what you enjoy eating and who you support in the food community.