By Bonnie Fishman / San Francisco Bay Area
If there’s one thing we do well at the Fishman Family Compound, it’s host. Cooking and serving have become an art form down to the last detail. One funny exchange during one of our recent reunions was about the use of charger plates. “What’s a charger?” “Why do we need that?” “I’ve never used a charger, let alone owned one!” It’s not the first time we’ve heard that, either
Charger plates are also called service or under plates. They are larger than dinner plates and left on the table during the meal. I have always found that they dress up a table. My sisters and I are obsessed with fine china, place settings, table clothes, and so on. We have quite the collection of charger plates, from wood, to ironwork, rattan, glass, and galvanized steel. I think we inspired some of the guests to go out and buy some!
There’s a feng shui with tablescapes. The charger plate anchors the place setting. It can also add a specific theme to your meal. For example, when we celebrated my husband’s 75th birthday during the pandemic, I ordered live lobsters from Maine. I carried the whole New England theme out on the table using a blue-checkered cloth, galvanized pails for lobster shells and galvanized chargers to tie in with the pails. We wore lobster bibs, too!
Chargers were originally created in the mid-13th century in England for fine dining, banquets, and weddings. Alan Wormser, the owner of Barry’s Let’s Rent It! in Novi, Mich. told me when we chatted recently that chargers lend an air of elegance and help with the “wow factor” when a guest comes into the room. Alan began working at this well-regarded party rental company in 1990. Fast forward, he purchased the business from the original Barry in 1999, and moved into his own building in 2019.
Alan was my go-to guy when I needed equipment for our catered events at Bonnie’s Kitchen. He has a wonderful selection of china, flatware, glassware, tables, chairs, linens, and tents for parties. He says chargers are more popular than ever. A bride will come in seeking a certain look for her wedding. The charger adds to that look. I’ve wondered if they were used more by specific groups of people. However, Alan told me that charger plates cross all ethnic and socioeconomic lines.
Chargers also have a practical purpose of catching spills and crumbs, keeping hot food hot, and protecting table tops from getting scorched or wet from condensation. Etiquette-wise, the service plate should be removed with the dinner plate, before dessert is served. I prefer to buck this tradition and use it through dessert service.
Food should not be served on the charger plate. That’s why some are constructed of non-food grade material. Look on the bottom for the “not food safe” label. Actually, this allows more possibilities of substances that are used to make them. When shopping for charger plates, consider if you want a more formal or informal look. Why not have two sets?!
To demonstrate the use of chargers, I’ve created a nice plated appetizer, served on a 7” plate, where it is complemented by the larger serving plate. For more formal meals, fish and seafood are commonly offered as starters because they are a lighter way to begin, especially when the main course is red meat or even poultry.
I’ve chosen scallops in a light cream sauce. Shrimp can be substituted. This recipe was one of my favorites from the Cordon Bleu when I attended in the ‘70s in London. I’m using fresh French tarragon. If you don’t care for the mild anise flavor of this herb, feel free to swap it out with dill or basil.
For those of you who didn’t know before this about charger plates and their importance on a table scape, let us know here at The Insider if you’ve been swayed to go out and purchase a set. For you folks who already use them, tell us if you’re inspired to buy even more. I’m thinking I may shop for new chargers, too!
Scallops with Fresh Tomato Tarragon Cream Sauce
Yield: 4-6 appetizers
1 lb. lg. sea scallops, 12-15
1 English cucumber, peeled
2 lg. ripe tomatoes or 3 ripe Roma tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped small
2 Tbsp. finely minced shallots
1 Tbsp. butter
1/4 c. dry white wine
juice of 1/2 lemon
6 Tbsp. heavy cream
1 Tbsp. fresh chopped tarragon
Cut the scallops in half crosswise. Reserve in a bowl.
Cut the cucumber lengthwise. Remove and discard the seeds with a grapefruit spoon. Cut each half lengthwise into thirds. Cut into 2” rods. Blanch the cucumbers in boiling salt water for 2 minutes. Drain in a colander. Rinse with cold water; dry on paper towel. Reserve.
Place the scallops, their liquid and wine in a skillet. Squeeze a few drops of lemon juice on each scallop. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Cover. Cook for 2 minutes, turning after 1 minute. Remove scallops to a bowl. Reserve liquid.
Sauté the shallots in the butter in a skillet over moderate heat. Add the chopped tomatoes, lemon juice, and some fresh grated nutmeg. Boil over moderate heat, stirring often, until the tomatoes begin to break down, about 5-7 minutes. Pour on the scallop cooking liquid and any liquid that has collected in the scallop bowl. Continue to cook for another 5 minutes.
Add the cream to the sauce. Cook for 2 minutes or until thickened. Add the cucumbers, tarragon, and scallops to the sauce. Season with salt and pepper. Cook until the scallops are heated through. Serve at once.
Bonnie Fishman attended the Cordon Bleu Cookery School in London. Later, she owned and operated Bonnie’s Patisserie in Southfield, Mich. and Bonnie’s Kitchen and Catering in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. She has taught cooking for over 35 years and created hundreds of recipes. She is now living in Northern California.