— Attributed to Sophocles
Part of the pleasure of cooking for company is basking in the “oohs and aahs” that welcome a carefully presented plate as it’s placed on the table. Painting with food comes naturally to some people. Others are somewhat oblivious to the concept. I tend to fret over presentation even when eating alone. For the uninitiated, here’s a quick roadmap to presentation.
C 0 N C E P T U A L I Z AT I 0 N:. . After deciding what to serve, pause for a moment and let your mind’s eye focus on the plate. Think about the colors of the main food element as well as the vegetables, rice, etc. that will accompany it. Avoid mixing foods that are all the same color (i.e. several green vegetables). Think about how you might position the food on the plate. Then ask yourself, will this be visually pleasing? If the answer is no, think about using a different plate or garnish, or consider substituting a vegetable that will add color and pizzazz. God’s gift to the art of presentation is the full color spectrum in which He/She created vegetables. When shopping, look for brightly colored bell peppers, carrots, squash, string beans, etc. to accent other colors on the plate.
Before preparing the food, think of how each element will “sit” in relation to the others. For example, when serving carrots, will they look best sliced lengthwise, widthwise, or on an angle? Or should you cook them whole with a bit of the green top left intact (nouvelle carrot style)?
E X E C U T I 0 N:. . Instead of dishing out the meal’s components haphazardly, take a moment to artfully arrange them on the plate. Simple symmetric lines and circular patterns are the easiest to create and usually the most visually rewarding. Use color, texture, size, and shape to balance the grouping. It’s often easier to create a pattern by first designating how the plate will sit in front of the diner. This is especially useful when creating a fan-like pattern.
Check to see that all of the food is at its radiant best. A quick glaze of lemon or butter can add sparkle to vegetables. For some foods, such as pastas or salads, you can “cheat” the presentation by bringing the more colorful or delectable ingredients to the top.
Just before serving, wipe any sauce or drippings from the edge of the plate.
G A R N I S H I N G:. . Twenty years ago a garnish was a piece of parsley. A fancy garnish was a piece of watercress. Today, French and Californian cooking styles have made garnishing an art. Don’t be intimidated! Even Picasso had to start somewhere.
1) Choose colors that act as foils, accentuating the other colors on the plate.
2) Select garnishes that hint at the flavors in the meal (e.g. using basil leaves as a garnish for a pesto dish or fennel tops for a Pernod-flavored dish).
3) Add contrasting or exotic elements such as colorful fruits (cross sections of kiwis, star fruit, blood oranges, or papayas) or edible flowers.
4) Take advantage of the wide borders of oversized plates by framing the meal with a dusting of herbs or spices such as ground pepper, paprika, and/or finely chopped chives. Avoid “flavor leakage” by selecting from the existing pool of flavors and ingredients found in the dish.
5) Use chives to create patchwork patterns or to “bundle up” string beans or other thinly sliced vegetables.
S T E A L. .F R 0 M. .T H E. .B E S T:. . Take note of the presentation tricks used by chefs in the restaurants you patronize or magazines you read. Many presentation techniques explain themselves and are easily duplicated.
P R E V I E W I N G. .T H E. .M E A L:. . For Adventure Club members and cooking eccentrics only. Upon walking in the door, dinner guests generally head for either the bar or the kitchen. In situations where you are preparing the food with your guests present, heighten their anticipation by taking a minute before they arrive to artfully arrange the raw ingredients (known in France as mise en place) on your kitchen counter.