Wednesday, November 28, 2001

Hardy party trays

Enquirer Taste Team tests carryout meat-and-cheese platters and finds a standout

By Chuck Martin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        All party trays are the same, you say? After all, this pick-up-and-go food is nothing but cold cuts and cheese piled on a little lettuce, scattered with pickles and olives.

        As usual, we disagreed. We thought there might be a difference in the quality of the food on the party tray, its presentation and cost.

party plate
No. 1: S & S Specialty Foods
        To prepare everyone for home and office holiday celebrations, we ordered seven small-to-medium (serving eight to 15 people) meat-and-cheese party trays from grocery delis and specialty stores. The prices ranged from $19.99 to $38.35. We picked up the trays the same day, laid them out on a table and put the Taste Team to work.

        The panel of seven, including guest member Jeff Thomas, owner of Jeff Thomas Catering in Ludlow, peered and poked at the trays, then nibbled. The Taste Team rated the party trays blindly on visual appeal, variety of ingredients and, of course, flavor. To determine the cost of the trays, we weighed them with and without their containers.

        The Taste Team's favorite — the one they would order to feed a hungry crowd of holiday revelers — was made by the deli crew at S & S Specialty Foods (formerly Silverglade & Sons) in Anderson Township. The team gave S & S an average score of 8 out of a possible 10, praising the party tray for its appetizing presentation, freshness, flavor and tasty blend of olives and pickles.

        Although the tray assembled by S & S was the second highest in price tested, it was also the only tray to include three loaves of sliced bread ($6.87 value). Bread comes in handy when you're making a heap of sandwiches.

party plate
No. 2: Costco Wholesale, Inc.
        Following closely in our test were party trays made by the delis of Costco Warehouse wholesale club (7.5 average score); Kroger (7.2); and Jungle Jim's Market (7.1). Further back in the pack, the Party Source (6.4) finished ahead of Bigg's (5.9), which edged Meijer (5.5).

How party trays scored

        The Taste Team scored these party trays on a 1-to-10 scale (1=poor;10=excellent), rating them on visual appeal, variety and taste. Cost per pound calculated by dividing retail price by actual weight (total weight minus weight of empty tray and cover).

1. S & S Specialty Foods

        Average score: 8.0.

        Ingredients: Dill chips, black and green marinated olives, Swiss, cheddar, ham, roast beef, turkey.

        Cost per pound: $5.29 (bread included). *

        Comments: Appetizing presentation. Beef tastes oven-roasted. Thick, generous slices of meat.

2. Costco Wholesale, Inc.

        Average score: 7.5.

        Ingredients: Coarse mustard, provolone, cheddar, gouda, turkey, ham, roast beef.

        Cost per pound: $3.65.**

        Comments: Easy to make choices and pick-up. Paper dividers kept cheese dry and prevented blending of flavors. Good variety.

party plate
No. 3: Kroger
3. Kroger

        Average score: 7.2.

        Ingredients: Stuffed green olives, grape tomatoes, pepper jack, cheddar, havarti, olive loaf, turkey, ham, salami.

        Cost per pound: $4.54.

        Comments: Neat presentation. Flavorful and fresh. Meat and cheese a little difficult to pick up.

4. Jungle Jim's Market

        Average score: 7.1.

        Ingredients: Marinated salad of sun-dried tomatoes, cubed feta, pickles and black olives, colby, cheddar, Swiss, roast beef, ham, turkey.

        Cost per pound: $4.88.

        Comments: Nice basket, colorful lettuce. Liked marinated medley of vegetables. Cheese has “Krafty” taste.

5. The Party Source

        Average score: 6.4.

        Ingredients: Dill chips and spears, cherry tomatoes, colby, Swiss, turkey, ham, roast beef.

        Cost per pound: $6.48.

        Comments: Beef is excellent, though a little rare. Cheese a little dry around the edges. Lots of color.

6. Bigg's

        Average score: 5.9.

        Ingredients: Pickles, olives, cheddar, Swiss, ham, turkey, roast beef.

        Cost per pound: $4.32.

        Comments: Good variety, but needed more cheese. Cheese sliced so thin it's difficult to pick up without tearing. Some meats have artificial flavor.

7. Meijer

        Average score: 5.5.

        Ingredients: Black and green olives, dill chips, ham, turkey, roast beef, corned beef.***

        Cost per pound: $4.86.

        Comments: Needs more color variation. Quality of meat and condiments poor. Corned beef cut with grain instead of against, making it difficult to chew.

        * Price includes three loaves of bread ($2.29 each).

        ** Price does not include Costco membership fee.

        *** Cheese was ordered for this tray, but was not included.

Where to buy the party trays

        Most stores and delis recommend ordering holiday party trays at least 24 hours in advance. Before ordering, think about how many guests you'll be feeding — and how much other food will be served.

        • Bigg's (seven Tristate locations).

        • Costco Wholesale Inc., 1100 East Kemper Road, Springdale, 346-7940; and 9691 Waterstone Blvd., Deerfield Township, 774-9259.

        • Jungle Jim's Market, 5440 Dixie Highway, Fairfield, 829-1919.

        • Kroger (multiple Tristate locations).

        • Meijer (eight Tristate locations).

        • The Party Source, 95 Riviera Drive, Bellevue, (859) 291-4007.

        • S & S Specialty Foods (formerly Silverglade & Sons), 6660 Clough Pike, Anderson Township, 231-6483.

Mayonnaise can flavor trays

        If you're picking up the party tray, you may have time to create flavored mayonnaises for your holiday celebration. Choose one or several of these variations, adapted from Joy of Cooking (Scribner; $30):

        Begin with 1 cup mayonnaise . . .

        • For mustard mayonnaise, blend in 1 teaspoon yellow or dijon mustard. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

        • For remoulade, stir in 1 hard-boiled egg, finely chopped; 1 tablespoon minced sour gherkins; 1 tablespoon drained capers; 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley; 1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh tarragon; 1 small clove garlic, minced; and 1/2 teaspoon dijon mustard. Season with salt and pepper.

        • For Russian horseradish cream, stir in 1/2 cup sour cream and 3 to 4 tablespoons grated fresh horseradish. Blend in 1 to 2 teaspoons cider vinegar, salt and sugar to taste.

        • For roasted red pepper mayonnaise, whisk in 1 peeled and finely chopped plum tomato; and 1 roasted red pepper (or 1 bottled pimiento, drained and finely diced). Season to taste with salt and white pepper.

        • For chipotle mayonnaise, stir in 1 tablespoon minced, canned chipotle chiles; 1 teaspoon minced garlic; 1 tablespoon tomato puree; 2 tablespoons chopped, fresh cilantro; and 2 tablespoons lime juice. Season to taste with salt and pepper.


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