To a large degree, it is true we eat with our eyes. The visual appeal of what is placed before us at a meal has a major impact on our appetites. Plating and presentation are practiced arts, used …
To a large degree, it is true we eat with our eyes. The visual appeal of what is placed before us at a meal has a major impact on our appetites. Plating and presentation are practiced arts, used extensively, for a reason, in restaurants.
Decorating or embellishing a dish is done by garnishing. Garnishes add visual, color and flavor appeal. Whether I am cooking for myself, my sister and myself, or for company, I never neglect to garnish the food.
There are many types of garnishes. All are edible and should appropriately complement the specific dish being presented.
My favorite garnishes are fresh herbs. I always have a small, sharp scissor handy for snipping them. An indoor windowsill garden with small pots of herbs is not only handy but can be maintained through the winter. Our house has no extended windowsills, so in early September, most of the herbs in the little garden that abuts our house are in decline. Before that, the summer months allow me to utilize my herbs to the utmost.
Julienned basil leaves adorn tomato salads, pasta dishes and gazpacho.
Snipped, faintly oniony chives work well on egg dishes, goat cheese appetizers on crostini, a baked potato with or without a dollop of sour cream, smoked fish spreads and cold cucumber soup.
Mint sprigs are perfect on fruit salads, chocolate pudding and other desserts, not to mention cocktails.
Flat-leaf Italian parsley is a versatile garnish for anything from grilled vegetables to chicken, pork and beef entrees.
Cilantro, a staple in Indian, Thai, Chinese and Mexican cuisines, is an herb I am never without. It adds a spark to guacamole; fresh tomato salsa; corn, black bean and cherry tomato salads; and quesadillas. I always finish the Chinese rice porridge soup, congee, with both cilantro and thinly sliced scallions.
Dill weed is wonderful on beet salads and pairs particularly well with all types of seafood. I like it on smoked salmon, or it can be stirred into cream cheese or the Greek yogurt and cucumber sauce called tzatziki. Tzatziki is great on lamb meatballs or chicken skewers, or simply eaten with warm pita triangles. Dill weed gives it the zip it needs to transform the yogurt and cucumber sauce.
During the cold months of fall and winter, I turn to the dried spice cabinet for gracing my dishes with both color and flavor. I sprinkle toasted ground cumin on hummus; paprika on my baked artichoke dip; chili flakes or powder on pasta, pizza and stir-fries for a little blast of heat; and mixed Italian herb seasoning on meatballs, fish, chicken and pasta dishes.
There are plenty of other interesting garnishes to use the rest of the year. When I make rice to accompany a meal, I like to add dried cranberries and chopped, toasted walnuts or pecans atop the grain. The cranberries add a pop of color and the nuts texture. Slivered, toasted almonds add a nice crunch to fresh fruit salads, cold zucchini soup and Moroccan tajines (a form of stew). And Thai cellophane noodle salad recipes call for a handful of chopped peanuts dropped on top just before the dish is served.
Orange, lime and lemon zest, or wedges of the fruit, add a bright note to chicken and fish dishes, and I like them on oven-roasted vegetables such as broccoli and asparagus. Grated parmesan cheese, preferably aged Parmigiano-Reggiano, is a must on spaghetti and meatballs, chicken or eggplant parmesan, stuffed and baked zucchini, and Caesar salad.
Interestingly, heavy cream can be used as a garnish, most successfully on soups such as carrot and pumpkin, particularly when they are made a little spicy with the use of curry powder. A drizzle or swirls of fresh cream can not only add an appealing visual effect, but can also cool down the heat of spiced soups. Dark leafy green salads benefit visually (and taste-wise) from colorful vegetable garnishes, such as julienned carrot sticks, very thinly sliced radishes or a shower of chopped scallions.
Toasted sesame seeds, both white and the more dramatic black, can be found in Asian grocery stores or online. I sprinkle them on Thai and Japanese dishes, such as both nations’ cucumber salads. My sticky Asian chicken wings always get a smattering of the seeds, as do rice and noodles dishes from that continent.
Finally, there is no more beautiful enhancement than edible flowers to jazz up a dish. These include pansies, calendula, certain types of marigolds; and for a subtle, lemony zing, verbena. My favorite, though, are the flowers from nasturtiums, with their spicy flavor and gorgeous variety of colors, from mustardy yellow to deep orange to bright red. Edible flowers can be used to decorate desserts, such as cupcakes or ice cream. They look lovely atop salads or on a cheese platter. Another idea is to freeze them into ice cubes and float them in a cocktail or a pitcher of white sangria.
So, keep in mind that garnishing provides a positive, visual element that gives food a finishing touch. It’s not necessary to carve a radish or tomato into a rose. Garnishing simply pulls the dish together and makes any dish look more appealing. It takes only a moment or two to add this final element. Bon appétit!
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