We’ve all been there: You’re out for dinner, hungrily anticipating your entrée. You watch as the kitchen door swings open. Is that your food? What in the world is sticking out of it? Indeed, that is your entrée — the server stops at your table and sets down what someone surely thought of as a masterpiece of presentation. What is sticking out of your mashed potatoes is a giant sprig of rosemary. It’s practically 9 inches tall. Whoever finished off the dish — and it could be the person who cooked it, an expeditor, or even your server — is guilty of over-garnishing.
With the rise of food blogs and food reality shows and all that they entail, there are millions of food images floating around on the Internet and in the media. Some people even make a whole career out of food styling. And while it’s true we “eat with our eyes” before we taste anything, we eventually eat with our mouths, as well. So a garnish has to make sense.
In culinary school, we teach that what you garnish with must, first and foremost, be edible. That giant sprig of rosemary stuck in the mashed potatoes does not qualify.
Secondly, we teach that the garnish should, as often as possible, be an element of the dish. If your sauce is tarragon beurre blanc, have at it — that cute little bunch of tarragon leaves in the curl of a prawn’s tail is more than eye-candy, it’s also harmonious with the dish.
What about a cinnamon stick leaned rakishly against the whipped cream on top of a slice of apple pie? There’s bound to be cinnamon in the pie, of course, but (aside from one misguided child I once watched, horrified, as she ate a cinnamon stick from a coffee topping bar across a crowded banquet room) you dare not eat it. A sprinkle of ground cinnamon would be a better garnish candidate.
Speaking of dessert, we come to the ubiquitous mint leaf. This is perhaps one of the most difficult garnish sins to resist, as many delicious desserts — I’m looking at you, chocolate — are deceptively subdued in color. Whipped cream, pumpkin pie, caramel, spice cake, crème brûlée — so many desserts and dessert components are in the pale-to-brown spectrum, it’s very tempting to spruce them up with a jaunty green mint leaf or two. To be fair, if one is to go by what you see on the covers of cooking magazines and cookbooks in the grocery checkout lane, it seems like the whole world is garnishing every dessert with mint. I’ll admit I’ve done it myself, rationalizing that the mint leaf is a sort of after-dinner digestif, or a breath freshener, as was the original intent of a parsley sprig, the other universally abused garnish.
I once worked at a restaurant where the owner insisted that each and every entrée get a sprinkling of both chopped parsley and paprika on the rim of the plate. That made every dish I handed over the pass seem like a soul-sucking, Christmas-tinted, thumbprint-magnetic mess. Keep garnishes off the edge of the plate; as a matter of fact, keep everything off the plate rim, please — it makes for a far cleaner and more dramatic presentation.
I hope I’m not coming off as anti-garnish; I’m not. I love a good garnish, but it has to be good, it has to make sense, and it has to bring something to the party. Instead of garnishing with something “extra,” use some element of the dish itself as garnish, or make your garnish a component of the dish. For instance: Use shards of ginger snaps on top of eggnog mousse, or sanding sugar and chocolate curls rather than a mint leaf on top of that French silk pie. Stay away from fresh raw herbs that are too sturdy to comfortably eat, such as sage leaves and lemongrass. And as tempting as it may be to call the server over and tell him your rosemary sprig is underdone, in the spirit of the holidays, do your best to resist.
One final note: That gorgeous holly bush with the fat red berries in your front yard? It’s toxic; keep it off your plates and platters this holiday season.
Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro, and Café Lou Lou. She now works for her alma mater, Sullivan University, as sous chef of Juleps Catering.