Beautiful Food: Garnishes and Parsley Oil

I want to take this time now to discuss garnishes for food.  It’s interesting what we find appealing, but clearly our eyes not only play an important role, they play the first role.  Just like most of our perception of taste is based on smell, we find food appealing first and foremost with our eyes.  Then with our noses.  And lastly with our taste buds.  It’s like an interview or first date:  first impressions are key.

You’re reading this blog, which means you have, at some level, an interest in cooking.  Maybe you’re just looking at recipes, maybe you need something in particular, maybe you’re an aspiring professional, or maybe you just love to cook.  The point is, we all want to make to make our food better.  We want flavors to be better, techniques to be tighter, and the food to look better.  It’s the never ending quest.

In culinary school, we’re taught a few ‘basic’ principals about plate presentations.  First, keep your food away from the rim of the plate.  Second, try to assemble your plate in some sort of logical fashion.  And third, always remember to garnish your plate with some sort of edible garnish.  Traditional edible garnishes are as follows:

  • herbs (chopped mixed herbs or chopped single herbs, like parsley or chives)
  • fried garnish, like a thin slice of fried parsnip
  • small dice garnish, like peppers or tomatoes
  • second sauce garnish, like a spot or two of green oil or coulis
  • micro greens, like micro red amaranth or micro basil
These are all wonderful and heavily used garnishes, and I have used all of them, many times in combination, on several occasions.  Though I’m not a big fan of fried garnishes, they do have their place out there.  A garnish should make sense and should compliment your food (as opposed to putting something green on the plate for the sake of having something green).  A garnish should NEVER be inedible.  Never put a sprig of thyme or rosemary on a plate just because you think it looks good.  The first thing the diner will do is pick it up, remove it, and have to deal with it kicking around on the plate for the duration of the course. 
But, in the end, any garnish is better than none.  We eat with our eyes.  Food needs to look appealing.  A little sprinkle of something green on the plate adds a whole new dimension to your food.  Even if it’s freeze dried parsley sprinkled over spaghetti served with bottled sauce.  It still adds the element of class and care.  It still shows some attention to detail.  Without touching the flavors or techniques, it makes your food better.  
Of course, the rules change with dinner parties and buffets.  Garnishes can become almost like props.  What would a seafood/shellfish buffet be like without towers of lemons, faux lobster nets, hollowed out oyster shells and maybe an ice carving?  What would a dinner party be without flowers and lovely centerpieces.  What would a dessert be without the obligatory sprig of mint?  We eat with our eyes first.  Visual appeal is so important.  The next time you cook for others, keep the final product always in mind.  Consider your garnish just as important as your main ingredients.  
Parsley Oil
Prep time:  10 minutes
Cook time:  20 minutes
Yield:  approx 1 cup
Ingredients:  3 large bunches flat leaf parsley, well washed and completely dried, leaves only
1 1/2 cups grapeseed oil
Method:
Place half the parsley and 1 cup oil in a blender.  Run the blender until the parsley is pureed.  Keep adding parsley to the blender until it’s all in there.  If it gets too thick, add a little more oil.  The consistency should be that of a puree, almost like loose mashed potatoes.  
Transfer the mix to a heavy bottom sauce pot and cook over low heat for 30 minutes.  You will notice the color will chance from moderate green or extremely dark green.
Line a china cap with either a few layers of cheesecloth or a large coffee filter.  Pour the warm mix into the strainer and let strain over night.  Do not force the oil through.  
Discard the remains and transfer the oil to a squeeze bottle.  Use this oil as a garnish in conjunction with your edible garnishes.  
Enjoy.

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