Crudités, a haute French import (the French word means “raw”; the culinary term is always plural), surfaced in stateside cookbooks around the mid-20th century, and Americans latched on immediately. Homemakers and restaurant chefs appreciated how easy it was to platter up crisp vegetables with a dip or two and call it hors d’oeuvres. Even James Beard glorified crudités in one of his works, declaring it “the most appetizing dish imaginable.”
With the advent of baby carrots in the 1980s and eventually prepackaged relish trays, the concept stopped feeling even remotely glamorous. But it’s back on the upswing: Farm-fresh produce has never been more diverse; dips, more inspired; and grazing boards, more in vogue.
Start with the freshest seasonal vegetables you can get. Beyond that, it’s all about treating the produce nicely, whipping up full-bodied dips, and plotting out an eye-catching display.
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Build a Curated Board
Make the Right Amount: Plan on 4 to 6 ounces of vegetables and 1/4 cup of dip per person.
Go for Lots of Color: Choose produce in a spectrum of colors, including rainbow carrots, Easter Egg radishes, and cherry tomato medleys.
Mix Up the Dips: Serving multiple dips means that you can offer a range of flavors and consistencies. Garnishing them adds visual contrast; consider fresh herbs, crushed or ground spices, and olive oil.
Consider the Cuts: Try making long and short cuts on the same item; quartering colorful cauliflower florets to see the gradient; and leaving the tops partially intact on root vegetables.
Size up the Platter: Decide if you prefer the “wall-to-wall” look, where the surface is generously covered, or a more minimalist aesthetic.
Make Veggies Extra-crisp: While arranging the board, submerge raw vegetables in an ice bath to keep them hydrated and crisp.
Arrange Thoughtfully: Place the dips down first and the vegetables around them. If plating on a rectangular surface, flank the perimeter with longer items and cluster smaller pieces in the middle.
Choose Radishes According to Heat Tolerance
Common round red varieties pack a fiery punch, as do the streaky Purple Ninja kind. The heat in pastel Easter Egg radishes builds progressively as you eat them, and the tapered French Breakfast type are truly mild mannered.
Go For Thin-Skinned, Less-Seedy Cucumbers
Slender English (also called European or hothouse) and petite Persian cukes boast thin, tender skins that are usually unwaxed and contain fewer bitter-tasting cucurbitacins than slicing cucumbers do. Plus, their tiny seeds go almost unnoticed.
You’ll throw away as much as half of each stalk’s weight if you snap off the ends at their natural breaking point, and the uneven bunch won’t plate nicely. Trimming 1 inch off the base and peeling the lower half of each stalk reduces waste and results in tender, refined spears.
Keep Color in Colorful Cauliflower
Blanch purple cauliflower very briefly to prevent its water-soluble anthocyanin compounds from leaching out. As soon as the pieces are crisp-tender (after about 90 seconds), shock them in ice water to stop the cooking and set their color. (The carotenoids in orange cauliflower are not water-soluble and won’t leach out; chlorophyll in the green variety will lose its bright color if overcooked, but not in a quick blanch.)
Buy Bunched Carrots, not Bagged
Carrots with their feathery tops still attached aren’t just prettier than bagged ones; they’re fresher and richer-tasting, too—sold within a few weeks of harvest when their greens are still vibrant and their flavor complex.
A Case for Blanching
Blanching tenderizes tough vegetables and softens their raw bite; it also seasons them and brightens their color. Here are three keys to doing it well.
Blanch in Sea-Salty Water. Supersalty water (½ cup of table salt per 2 quarts of water) not only seasons the vegetables and concentrates their flavors but also quickly softens pectin in their cell walls so that they turn tender before losing their vibrant color.
Shock in Ice-Cold Water. Shocking halts cooking so that the vegetables don’t oversoften or lose their bright color. The water bath will warm up quickly if you’re blanching in batches, so be sure to add plenty of ice (and replenish as necessary) to keep it really cold.
Cook in Batches. Blanching each type of vegetable separately helps avoid over- or undercooking. Here’s a cheat sheet of suggested cooking times for common produce for crudités, as well as a list of naturally tender items that shouldn’t be blanched.
- Asparagus: 30–45 seconds, depending on thickness
- Broccoli: 30–45 seconds
- Carrots: 90 seconds
- Cauliflower: 90 seconds
- Green Beans: 30 seconds
- Snap Peas: 60 seconds
- Bell Peppers
- Cherry Tomatoes
- Snow Peas