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Illustration by Cindy Couling

Gratuitous Garnishes

Is plate decoration a substitute for a romp in the sack? Will edible geranium leaves put your tiramisu over the top?

By Christina Waters

IT BEGAN WITH parsley. But it didn't stop there. Garnishing, that baffling obsession of insecure cooks, is completely out of control. Anxious over the reception of a dish, the culinarily challenged fling gastronomic baubles at the plate--festoons of fennel, confetti of red bell peppers--to add what the experts call "eye appeal." Lighting votive candles and sacrificing a chicken might have better results. Either the dish is well made or it isn't. And if I'd wanted an orange twist with my bacon and eggs, I would have asked for one.

What follows is a modest diatribe, with a twist of history, on the subject of garnishing. Laying my cards directly in front of the reader, let me reveal that I find garnishes gratuitous--with exceptions identified below. Annoying as well as gratuitous. They are at best, superfluous. On the whole, they are silly. All those edible flowers enjoying an oleaginous resurgence on expensive plates. Do we need another pansy on our crème brûlée? If that mango gelato torte can't make it all on its own, will it get any better thanks to a single sprig of mint? I bloody well doubt it.

DOING OUR electronic homework, we read with horror that surveys have actually been taken, and people actually do tend to prefer plates with extra little doodads on them. Surely this points to the correctness of many Freudian insights.

There lurks in many cooks--and consumers--a fear of undecorated surfaces. I offer as evidence the phenomenon that is Martha Stewart. A plate containing only a piece of fresh grilled salmon and a mixed stir-fry of vegetables still has a good two or three square inches that cry out for adornment.

Garnishing panders to the need to smother, the mania to fill and be filled--the compulsion to cram the bejesus out of every millimeter of porcelain open space. Surely these needs flirt with the borders of pathology. And yet one glance at any respectable citrus association website would have us believe that it is not only uncreative, but un-American not to garnish.

A longing to conceal emptiness, the belief that without more and more clutter something might be missing--it all suggests deficient breast-feeding. Visually, garnishes satisfy subliminal longings for, well, need we actually spell it out? Whether edible flowers and spun daikon radishes are the heroin of hostesses I leave for others to explore.

Nonetheless, the mind boggles before the compulsion to carve radish roses, tomato twists, pepper palm trees with carrot trunks and pineapple bases, fluted mushrooms, cucumber fans, lemon nests, chive feathers, carrot bundles, citrus baskets and, God help us, melon balls. Not to mention that most pointless of mega-garnishes: the ice sculpture. Surely those who perpetrate these perky indicators of intellectual vacancy have no actual lives of their own.

In the cyber domains of food catering, there are enough mindless garnishing "tips" to stiffen even the limpest celery stalk. Here we learn that we can make bacon curls simply by wrapping a hot piece of fried bacon around a fork and holding it there until it cools. Discover how to use that vegetable peeler to make carrot strips, then curl them into tight little balls and fasten them with wooden toothpicks. (Try that after a few margaritas.) Place the carrot curls in ice water; to garnish the plate, just remove the toothpick.

We can thank Martha Stewart for leading the charge back to garnishing greatness. Taking time off from rewriting the Catholic mass and coaching Olympic volleyball, Martha informs us that we too can make every dish look appetizing simply by paying $146 for a French grater called a mandoline, which will allow us to "turn out waffle-cut potatoes, Vichy carrots, matchstick potatoes and other exquisitely cut vegetables quickly and easily."

One woman's "quickly and easily" is another woman's "not if you held a gun to my head." Cruising the web, I also discover that for a mere $98 I can purchase a Japanese Vegetable Shaver, one of those hand-cranked jobs that transforms a boring carrot into an endless froth of orange ribbon. This froth can then be placed next to a grilled steak and ignored by almost anyone diving into the beef. Is the orange froth harmless? Probably. Will it be eaten? Not unless Courtney Love runs off with the Pope next week on Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?

BLAMING THE ANCIENT Romans, among other culinary culprits, is easy. But complicated. What has become nonfunctional--that tired piece of parsley that still graces restaurant entrees--was once actually useful. Parsley, in additional to containing vitamins A and C, is a known breath freshener as well as digestive. Is it any wonder that emperors and soothsayers chewed it with every meal?

In fact the lovely fresh herbs that, unlike ornamental kale, actually do add to a meal originated long ago on distant shores. Pickled ginger accentuates the joys of sushi, as well as guarding against the effects of questionable raw fish consumption. Perfuming the plate with its pungent aroma, fresh rosemary was famed in the Middle Ages as a medical panacea and a cure for digestive disorders before it found favor as a garnish for roasts, lamb and game. Like parsley, fresh mint was also believed to stimulate the appetite--hence its functional as well as pleasing presence on the plate. The Romans considered basil sacred, as well as sensually enhancing.

Could we talk about ornamental kale? Everybody who has actually eaten the stuff, please raise your hand. See? That's really part of the problem. Technically those nasturtium blossoms, mounds of dill and clouds of purple cabbage are edible without causing gastric distress. But they are not really part of the program. They are the nosy usher who keeps asking if you're enjoying the concert. You just want them to shut up and go away.

And while I'm on the kale issue, I would like the person who first flung handfuls of petals and paprika all over the edges of the plate to sign up for recreational root canal. Is it schizophrenia or just performance anxiety? Maybe the whole garnishing thing is about getting the attention of today's jaded diners.

In that case I would like to see true garnish consciousness come out of the closet. Stop tiptoeing around with those idiotic zucchini boats filled with piquant pickle passengers and get serious.

How about a Thomas Kinkade village made entirely of Gummi bears and tofu? Wouldn't it be rad to create celebrity garnishes--Pam Anderson buns with Bing cherries on top, or spun-sugar loose cannons sprinkled with Jack Daniels in honor of George W. Bush? A Jesse Ventura fetish of round white turnips wearing little licorice wrestling belts. Go beyond postmodern and put adorable little wasabi rabbits in tomatillo cups. Live a little!

My suggestion is that we all sober up and calm down. If the garnish contributes, go ahead if you must. A branch of rosemary next to a slice of roast chicken will perfume the whole plate. It's tantalizing and enhances the whole dish. Ask yourself whether the world will be a better place if you spend six hours dressing up carrots in little arugula negligees. I think you know the answer.

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From the August 2-9, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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