by Leigh Abernathy (passioncook(at)aristotle.net)
A garnish can be as simple as a sprig of a fresh herb--the touch that sets off the food and tantalizes the eye. All it requires of the cook is a few minutes of time and a little imagination. Often, the simplest garnishes are the most elegant, and gardeners have a world of choices literally at their door.
When you choose a garnish, consider four things: color, texture, shape and taste.
For example, if you need a touch of green with a hearty pasta dish, basil may be a natural choice--it has a solid, shiny appearance, and a robust taste. With carrots, feathery dill has the flavor and texture that balances the weight of the carrots.
Another way to use garnishes is in the repetition of a theme: if you used fresh thyme in a dish, save a few sprigs to decorate the top.
Your garnishing arsenal is limited only by your imagination. Check out your garden or the the produce section of your grocery store with a open-minded eye and browse cooking magazines for inspiration.
The old standby of orange or lemon twists are available year-round, which helps to account for their popularity. For a twist on the traditional, use a knife to peel a lemon apple-style so that you end up with long, spiraling strips of peel. Use these to bundle asparagus spears and serve with broiled or poached fish.
Lemons are a natural with foods that need a tangy twist, like fish, but they're not the only option. Try cherry tomatoes--whole, quartered or sliced--or spruce up your broiled fish by topping with fresh chives anchored with a slice or two of lemon or tomato.
Citruses aren't the only fruits you can use: let seasonal fruits add sparkle to your meals. A slice of kiwi adds a delicate green and an interesting pattern. Try partnering it with grilled steak or chicken. Blackberries are a luscious deep purple and have an irresistible texture that makes them great with all kinds of desserts.
Strawberries are a natural garnish for anything chocolate, but don't neglect them with main dishes, too. They're perfect with breakfast entrees of omelets or pastries and also add a kick to quiches.
Vegetables, too are welcome garnishes, and they don't have to be carved by a master craftsman. Carrots, squash, zucchini, peppers of all shapes and heat levels, tomatoes, radishes, broccoli, cauliflower, beets--these can be sliced, julienned, grated, curled or left whole to provide color and accent on the plate.
Use a vegetable peeler to remove colorful strips from squash, carrots or zucchini and sprinkle them on a plain-looking entree.
To make carrot curls to float in a soup or top a casserole, slice a carrot lengthwise into thin slices with a a vegetable peeler. Steam the carrots with a tablespoon of water in the microwave for thirty seconds. They'll go limp and be easy to curl and drape on a plate or dish.
While fruit and vegetables can be colorful and exotic, the garnishes I turn to most often are made from herbs. I use thyme, sage, rosemary, chives, basil, dill, sorrel, salad burnet, chervil, oregano and mint as well as parsley.
How to use them? Tuck a sprig under vegetables or in a casserole. Top a platter or individual plates of pasta with leaves or bunches. Sprinkle chopped herbs on fish or meat or float them in soups.
Chives, for example, have an elegant form that complements simple meals. I like to lay two or three long leaves on the edge of a plate or platter or cross them on top of a dish. For a whimsical touch, use them to tie bundles of julienned carrots or green beans. Chopped, they grace soups, or you can just float an inch or so of the tips and add a dollop of cream to hide the base.
Nothing else tempts the eye like the dessert cart, yet it's often not the actual food that does the tempting. It's the decoration.
Consider a basic cheesecake. A plain, triangular slice is tasty but definitely lacks curb appeal. Add a raspberry sauce drizzled over the top and artfully spilling onto the plate and you're on your way. Throw in a few fresh blueberries and raspberries tumbling down the sides, tuck in a mint leaf or two and you've got something that is all but irresistible.
For dessert at home you may not want to go that far, but don't overlook the impact of a few berries or nuts adorning the plate of something even as simple as ice cream.
Edible flowers shine as dessert garnishes--make sure, of course, that no herbicides or pesticides have been used on or around any flower you plan to eat. Miniature roses or rose petals are the perfect companion for delicate desserts like mousses. Pansies add a touch of fanciful color to cakes and nasturtiums a peppery accent to fruit desserts.
If you have a houseful of guests, making a production of every meal leaves you with little time or energy to enjoy them. An assortment of danishes and muffins from the bakery become a special and hassle-free breakfast when they're served on a bed of fern fronds with a few berries sprinkled around the edges. You can prepare this the night before and let people serve themselves in the morning.
Just remember: you can have too much of a good thing. You don't have to surround the plate with a border of green; a sprig can have an equal, if not greater effect. Don't lose the beauty of the dish in an overabundance of ornamentation. Above all, let the food speak for itself.