Great Garnish: The Crowning Touch

garnish-1Most Southern hostesses believe in going to great lengths to make their guests feel special. When entertaining, unless they are hosting a small group of very close friends, most hostesses will add a little extra color to their platters or plates to present food in its most favorable light. As we all know, even take-out can be dressed up with proper adornments!

At a cocktail party I recently attended, a friend and I were admiring the sumptuous buffet prepared by a quintessential Virginian. Not only was the assortment of food vast and varied, but the way in which it was presented was very appealing and pleasing to the eye. As Anne and I were commenting on the artful display, she remarked, “Garnish is like the wrappings on a present. It’s beautiful and tantalizing, which makes you eager to sample everything on the platter!”

Anne is on to something. A bland display of colorless items isn’t as appealing as food presented with added panache. Marlene Delledera, director of dining services at Virginia Episcopal School for Meriwether Godsey, Inc., views garniture as the perfect way to complement the food you’re eating. When she is selecting garnish for her dishes, she views the plates and platters as canvases upon which she creates pictures. “The food is the main subject and the garniture is the extra brush stroke—the crowning touch.”

Marlene offers these tips of the trade to create the perfect “portrait”:

  • Garniture is to highlight, not hide the food.
  • More is not better; simple elegance catches the eye better than a busy palette.
  • The platter or dish should be “pretty enough to eat.” However, the diner should not walk away feeling as though the best part of the dish was the presentation.
  • Deciding on what embellishments to use should be fun! Use seasonal ideas, a theme, or everyday items to complement the food. Be bold and experiment.

garnish-5You don’t need to look far to find items to add pizzazz to your display. Natural foods are vivid and abundant during the summer months. A trip to the farmer’s market will give you a cornucopia of fruits, herbs and vegetables to add color and texture to any display. Think creatively when shopping. Consider using hollowed bell peppers for dips on a vegetable platter, or placing a trimmed and washed pineapple top amongst cut fruit. Tie asparagus spears with the stem of a green onion and insert a sprig of fresh basil or oregano, or cut the pulp out of a ring of lemon and use that to tie the spears together. Almost any ingredient will do, as long as the flavors of the garniture and the food complement each other.

Other items which are plentiful and bright are citrus fruits (limes, lemons, and oranges) which can be made into curly strips or left intact for an easy addition to a plate or platter. Berries (strawberries, blueberries, blackberries) are gorgeous, but they are also very fragile. You’ll need to take great care in adding these items to a plate, as they will bleed and lose their shape when handled too much. Lettuce, herbs and herb flowers, and even drizzled chocolate and chopped nuts all spice up a boring plate. Mixing a few of these items will create an interesting look.

For a touch of extravagance, place edible flowers on your cuisine. Use caution, however, when adding these to your plate, as you don’t want pesticides or poisonous matter near your food. Your florist can order edible flowers for you, or you can do some research to find out what flowers are safe for consumption. Know the source of your edible flower, but when doubt, don’t use it, or avoid placing it in direct contact with the food.

garnish-3Kitchen tools such as mandolines and cookie cutters will add interesting textures and shapes to your plate. Even everyday kitchen items, such as the tines of a fork, can create contrast on an unpeeled cucumber. Melon ballers, paring knives, vegetable peelers and ice cube molds all add different shapes and textures to your food. Don’t be afraid to experiment; you can always start again if your creation doesn’t meet your vision.

Although most garniture is edible, everyday items also can be used to embellish platters; dollar store trinkets are true treasures! Add seashells for a more refined, tranquil look, or small toys (a bouncy ball for a beach ball with a paper umbrella on a cupcake for a beach party, or plastic insects like butterflies or worms coming out a small flowerpot of dirt pudding for a child’s party) for a whimsical and fun effect.

As my friend and I discovered at that wonderful cocktail buffet table, your guests will appreciate the extra time and effort you put into adorning your food. Take my word for it; the beauty comes from the details. Perhaps at your next gathering you will hear a guest admiring your display, and you will know that you are a true culinary artist!

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