by Lynn Siprelle
ooking is an art. It may not always feel like it, when you're turning out three meals a day every single day like a lot of home cooks! But the more you treat it as a creative endeavor, the easier it gets to face that kitchen. At some point, though, even folks who have a great time cooking realize that their plates lack a certain something, but they aren't sure exactly what--no matter how great the food tastes.
That something is what the pros call presentation. You don't have to go to cooking school to turn out great dishes and to be able to make food that people enjoy, both in taste and appearance. It doesn't take a lot of effort or training to garnish your everyday meals in a way that will make your family sit up and take notice, and take a chore into the realm of creativity.
Decorative, inedible elements come in a variety of forms. The plate itself can be a garnish, simply with the patterns that are already painted on it. But that doesn't mean that fancy plates are preferable. For many chefs, the plate is the base of all their garnish art, and so they prefer a plain single-colored plate, usually black or white, to be a canvas of sorts. Sauce bowls, hollowed out marrow bones, and fluted paper cups may also be used occasionally to present small portions of food separately on one plate.
Be sure to keep the rims and sides of your plates and bowls clean of drips and spills. Nothing ruins a presentation more than food sloppily put on the plate or in the bowl. Keep a clean kitchen towel on hand to tidy up the edges.
Edible food garnishes are an art form all their own. Garnishes like a lime slice or an orange wedge on the edge of a plate, or a sprig of parsley atop the rice, are simple but pretty. And there are plenty of other great ideas that really don't take that long to do. For example, you can make some very elegant carrot curls by just using your vegetable peeler to make long thin strips; drop the strips into ice water for 5 or 10 minutes. They curl right up and can be arranged around the edge of a plate or used to decorate a salad.
The Japanese are masters of presentation. If you have an Asian food store near you, look in the kitchenwares section for little cookie-like cutters that will turn slices of carrot and turnip into shapes with a simple push. (If you're really getting fancy, you can use those cutters to make pats of butter, too. Great for children's tea parties. Make sure your butter's really cold!) The Japanese often tie presentations to the seasons, so if it's spring, they might float a few flower shapes in soup, or arrange greens or noodles to look like a nest complete with an egg. In the fall perhaps leaf shapes would be added to the soup instead of flowers. Asian groceries are a great place to find all kinds of inspiration and tools for your garnishes.
Add a sprinkle of chopped or slivered nuts or seeds to add both texture and color. In the fall, pomegranate seeds are beautiful sprinkled over a dish and add an unexpected tang to meat dishes.
Last, but not least, a squirt bottle filled with a sauce or herb-infused oil (to give it color) can be the cook's best friend in the art of garnishing. Just swirl or dot the colored liquid around the plate, before or after the food has been arranged. Elegant zig-zags or simple wavy lines add a whole new dimension to the food as well as lightly seasoning it. If you have unexpected guests for dessert, you can take a simple scoop of ice cream and make it special with just a tic-tac-toe drizzle of raspberry sauce, for instance.
Garnishing is fun! It spices up your kitchen life and is great fun for the people you feed as well. Once your family has seen a plate with a drizzle of green chive oil around the edge and a sprig of basil in the center, they will be more than happy to eat what you have made! So go ahead and try adding some art to your dishes tonight.