The old fashioned relish tray is back! Easier and lighter than cheese platters or charcuterie boards ~ it’s the perfect holiday appetizer!
the relish tray is the genteel cousin of the charcuterie board
I’m guilty! I’ve served more than my share of gargantuan cheese plates, ginormous charcuterie boards, and grand platters. I do love them, but they’re a bear to make, and you feel like a bear after chowing down on one! Today we’re stepping back a few decades to a simpler time, a time when appetizers were more…restrained, but no less festive. I’ll show you how to make simple relish trays for your next cozy gathering.
Table of contents
- the relish tray is the genteel cousin of the charcuterie board
- lessons we can learn from the mid-century relish tray
- RELATED: Easy RITZ Cracker Canapés
- what is a relish tray?
- relish tray necessities
- where can you find relish trays?
- what if I don’t have a relish tray?
- can you make a relish tray ahead?
- why we’re loving this retro appetizer
- more easy appetizers
lessons we can learn from the mid-century relish tray
A relish tray is a great way to lighten up the appetizer hour without taking the fun out of it. We make ours colorful, with lots of textural interest and pops of flavor.
A less is more approach to entertaining can be a good thing. The mid-century relish tray was a quick and convenient way to get the party started.
Lower carb appetizers feel right during the holiday season when meals (and desserts) are heavy.
RELATED: Easy RITZ Cracker Canapés
what is a relish tray?
Relish trays were a staple of the mid century American cocktail party. Think Mad Men era glam, Martinis, bar carts, cigarettes, and Miles Davis on the stereo. A relish tray is an appetizer serving dish that held a variety of pickles, olives, raw veggies and other bite-sized snacks. What distinguishes a relish tray from other dishes and platters is that it’s divided into sections: usually from 2 to 4, or sometimes more.
Hostesses with the mostest served up their offerings in fancy cut glass relish trays that you can find for pennies in most thrift stores today. That’s the perfect setup for a relish tray comeback!
relish tray necessities
Relish tray food is finger food, so make sure everything is easily grab-able and not messy to eat out of hand. Provide toothpicks or cocktail forks for messier items as necessary.
- Olives: green or black, always pitted, and often marinated or stuffed with pimentos, garlic, or almonds.
- Pickles: various types of pickles, such as dill pickles (slices rather than spears) and gherkins.
- Celery Sticks: crisp celery sticks served as a base for stuffings like cream cheese, pimento cheese, or deviled ham. Endive leaves can stand in for the celery.
- Pickled carrots, pearl onions, beets or cauliflower: from an olive bar, or jarred. Of course you can make your own quick pickles, too. Fennel is delicious pickled.
- Marinated artichoke hearts: don’t forget the toothpicks.
- Radishes: fresh radishes, sliced or whole, providing a peppery bite.
- Cherry Tomatoes: small tomatoes, served whole, adding color and sweetness.
- Cheese Cubes: cheddar and Swiss are fine, but how about Manchego or a wine marbled cheddar? Cut the cheese in bite sized cubes, triangles, or slices.
- Hard-Boiled Eggs: sliced hard-boiled eggs or deviled eggs.
- Nuts: back in the day it was probably a canned cocktail mix. Nuts are healthy and low carb, but instead of opening up a can I like to go with luxe macadamias, Marcona almonds, and spiced pecans or my favorite: Dark Roasted Almonds.
- Boiled shrimp, cubed meats like ham, or sliced salami: for some heartier protein.
- Dips: dips are a modern relish tray upgrade,
- Crackers etc.: the occasional cracker sneaks onto a relish tray, think Ritz, Saltines, melba toast, pretzels, crisp breadsticks. If you want to modernize, I recommend Copycat Raincoast Crisps® Crackers.
where can you find relish trays?
Check out just about any thrift store and you should have lots of choices. They come in a dizzying array of shapes and sizes! Most of what you’ll find is ‘pressed glass’ or machine made cut glass. Pressed glass is mass-produced with repetitive designs, less intricate than cut glass or crystal.
You can also find new examples for sale like this one on Amazon.
what if I don’t have a relish tray?
If you don’t have a relish tray just separate your items into sections on a regular plate or platter. Or try this: take a plate or platter and fit it with 2-3 smaller bowls or glasses to hold your different appetizers.
can you make a relish tray ahead?
Depending on what you’re serving, you can usually assemble your tray ahead. Cover it with damp paper towels and plastic wrap, and it can stay in the fridge for several hours before serving.
why we’re loving this retro appetizer
We do a lot of appetizer spreads in our house. It’s our thing. And most days, around 5:30, we’ve got a little something something on the coffee table. When we entertain we default to a big cheese plate or a hot cheesy dip and while everybody loves it we sometimes crave something a little less grand. A little less…over the top.
Ditching the chips, crackers, and crusty bread feels so good!
We love choosing a dish and letting it guide our night’s selection. The compact size of the relish tray helps confine and refine our appetizer menu.
How to Make a Relish Tray
- divided relish tray
fresh or pickled veggie choices
- celery ribs stuffed with spreadable cheese or ham salad
- pickled asparagus spears
- fresh or pickled carrot sticks, see my recipe here
- dill pickles, see my recipe here
- radishes, whole or sliced
- bell pepper strips (assorted colors)
- sugar snap peas
- pickled mushrooms
- pickled onions or shallots
- dilly beans, see my recipe here
- cornichon pickles
- giardiniera, see my recipe here
- pickled peppers like pepperoncini or jalapeño, see my recipe here
cold dip choices
- hummus (classic or flavored varieties), see my recipe here
- Greek yogurt tzatziki, see my recipe here
- roasted red pepper dip, see my recipe here
- whipped feta, see my recipe here
- smoked fish dip, see my recipe here
- onion dip, see my recipe here
- Boursin cheese, see my recipe here
- smoked salmon salad, see my recipe here
- ham salad, see my recipe here
cheese choices, cubed or cut into bite sized pieces
- macadamia nuts are always festive
- candied or spiced pecans
- marcona almonds are buttery and delicious, I love them with rosemary and olive oil.
- deep roasted almonds , see my recipe here
- mixed cocktail nuts
- Let your relish tray guide your choices. You can make a homogeneous tray with all cheese or all nuts. But you can also have more fun mixing things up. Use more than one tray for a bigger crowd.
- Arrange different types of foods in different compartments of your relish tray.
- Cubed cheese, stuffed olives, pickled carrot sticks, Marcona almonds
- Giardiniera, shrimp with cocktail sauce, Manchego cheese, black olives
- Celery stuffed with Boursin cheese, deviled eggs, roasted almonds, green olives
- Mini cheese balls, Ritz crackers, mixed nuts, gherkin pickles