Pimento olives. Celery. Carrots. Cheese spread—never cheese cubes or sticks, thank you very much. We’re talking relish trays, a Midwestern tradition. And when they’re good, they are very, very good indeed.
Anyone who has ever tucked into the celery sticks, carrot sticks and blue cheese dip that accompany Buffalo chicken wings can appreciate the premise of a relish tray. As one of their many fans explains, “Relish trays are like snowflakes. No two are identical, and you see a lot of them up north.” Classic pickled items such as canned black olives and cherry peppers might make cameos, but you also might spy tiny cornichons or local dill pickles, asparagus or beets. Here’s how to build an excellent relish tray, plus our ideas for how to serve it. (For those looking for a way to kick off a heavy dinner, such as—ahem, Thanksgiving—this is a great way to eat your veggies in a delicious fashion.)
First things first: A relish tray is neither a charcuterie-laden Italian antipasti platter nor an appetizer board, beautiful though those are. It’s less cheese- and meat-heavy. But you’ll want pickled elements, whether you make your own quick pickles (it takes an hour!) or purchase something yummy, such as pickled peppers, cauliflower, beets, and so on. We do love these Piccalilli, a tangy-sweet “pickle” with a saucy blend of mustard and cider vinegar, studded with cauliflower, onions, carrots, green beans, peppers, gherkins and capers. But get a variety of colors if you can; this is where the tray becomes a rainbow.
Somewhere in the Relish Tray Doctrine (just kidding, there isn’t one… that we know of) is the Olive Mandate. Let there be olives. They can be green or black, stuffed or not, a throwback to the stuff you ate as a kid or some of the best around. But the color balances your tray, and most of us love an olive.
Speaking of things we love, good grief, break out some cheese spread. Make your own pimento cheese or buy it; it’s so popular these days you should be able to find it. Stuff deviled eggs with it; those often make cameos on relish trays, too! If you’re going to do a second spread accompanying your relish tray and don’t have room for cheesy dip, we’d suggest warm beer cheese and pretzels.
4. Raw Veggies
Another thing this isn’t: a crudités platter! But there must be vegetables that have integrity and crunch, so bust out the celery and carrots, make sure there are plenty of them, and don’t overthink it, folks.
For those who love thrifting and flea markets, this is the excuse you don’t need to keep an eye peeled for vintage glass relish trays, anything with a handle upon which you could set little ramekins, or vintage-inspired trays, like this one.
OK, go! Get on out there and get your relish tray on this Thanksgiving!