Garnish, perhaps not surprisingly, plays a part in the curriculum I teach at Le Cordon Bleu Culinary School. We discuss garnishes classic to contemporary. Students work on ideas and eventually receive grades on the use, style, and flavor of the garnishes they use.
When I cook at home, garnish plays no role at all, except, perhaps, in the rare event I cook for company. With the holidays approaching, and the aunts, uncles, friends, and in-laws preparing to descend upon us all, why not consider adding garnishes to the meal plans and prettying things up a bit? Here is a somewhat condensed version of the concepts we discuss at school for adding finishing touches to a dish.
Contemporary garnish must be edible and meant to be eaten—no kale leaves under a salad, or spices sprinkled around the outside of the plate, or stalks of rosemary plunged into mashed potatoes.
Garnish as Identifier
Use garnish to inform your diner about hidden ingredients or flavors. The novelist Thomas Pynchon got it right when he wrote, “there is something sadistic about recipes with ‘Surprise’ in the title.” Culinary surprises can be unpleasant, especially mid-bite, as the unexpected item hits your tongue and your mouth is forced to reconsider its plans. Carrot cakes might be mistaken for spice cakes, except for the silly looking fondant carrot decoration. Use ingredients otherwise hidden as a garnish to the dish. For raviolis stuffed with mushrooms, sauté some mushrooms and serve them as a garnish. Likewise, a turkey with chestnuts in the stuffing might do well to have some chestnuts toasted, chopped, and sprinkled on the final dish.
Similar to pairing wine with food, the garnish can be a counterpoint to flavors in the main body of the dish. Balance rich dishes with acidic garnish, sour with sweet, or spicy with salty or sour. The classic garnish for braised veal shanks osso buco, a hearty dish with fatty bone marrow, includes a bracing combination of parsley, garlic, and lemon zest called “gremolata.” Likewise, raspberries and citrus often help balance chocolate.
Dishes can be balanced by texture as well as flavor. Try adding garnish with contrasting texture –usually crispy. Think guacamole with chips or ice cream with chopped peanuts. Fried and raw garnishes add crunch. Try fried tortilla strips on soups or finely sliced vegetables, like carrots or radishes, on open-faced sandwich appetizers, or toasted whole spices, like cumin, on braised dishes.
Garnish as Centerpiece
Some ingredients, especially expensive ones, carry so much weight they become the main attraction, even as a garnish. Use these garnishes to wow the diner by finishing a dish with primo ingredients like truffles on a simple pasta or caviar on almost anything. Spice up simple tomato soup and grilled cheese by adding lobster to the cheese sandwich. Instead of an embellishment, these high-end ingredients steal the show.
Accentuate Subtle Flavors
Is there an underlying flavor in your dish? Pull the flavor forward by finishing the dish with an accent garnish. A little crushed coriander served with a stew, lightly scented with coriander, will force the spice to the front of the palate and carry that flavor through the dish. Also, try repeating an element in the dish prepared in different way, as garnish. For cream of celery soup, a little fresh celery slaw might add to the celery flavor of the soup.
Flavor trumps all, but if you are going to put something on top of a dish, right up front, make it attractive. Use good knife skills, make it clean, use the freshest herbs, and the best looking stuff you have—better unadorned than sloppy.
Hopefully this helps you come up with some ideas for an appropriately fancy holiday table. Be thoughtful, use garnish with purpose, and it can add another dimension to your meal without much extra effort.