Fast Finishing Touches

Meals can be more special when food looks as good as it tastes.

Try these color, texture, and presentation tips to make your dishes appeal to the eye and the palate.

Presentation

Soup can be garnished with chopped herbs or a sprinkling of the main ingredient, such as a few slivers of mushroom. Alternatively, spooning a little whipping cream into each soup bowl and swirling it in with a teaspoon adds a finishing touch.

Color is as important to a sauce as flavor, and should provide a striking contrast to the main ingredient. Quickly snipped sun-dried tomatoes or finely chopped black olives can give an instant visual lift to many pale sauces. A little crumbled blue cheese or a handful of chopped walnuts can look pretty scattered over fresh dark green salad leaves. You can also vary your method of presentation –sauces often look better if they are poured carefully onto the plate first and the meat or fish laid on top of them.

Choose accompanying vegetables to contrast or complement the colors of the main course — try combining crisp green broccoli with bright scarlet, tomato-based dishes; vivid orange carrots with rich green spinach dishes; and jewel-bright peppers with grain or meat dishes.

While you are cooking, reserve a few whole ingredients that have visual appeal. Save a few whole shrimps to garnish seafood, for instance, a few sprigs of fresh herbs to place beside grilled meat or fish, and a whole strawberry or a little sliced fresh fruit to decorate desserts.

A fine dusting of icing sugar (confectioners’ sugar) or cocoa sifted gently through a tea strainer is an elegant way to decorate a dessert. Because so little sugar is used, it will not oversweeten the dish, but icing sugar does melt quickly, so make sure you add it just before serving. Fresh fruit, such as sliced mango with a squeeze of lime, looks appetizing frosted lightly with icing sugar and dotted with some raspberries or thinly sliced strawberries, and a few leaves of fresh mint.

Last-Minute Salads

If you suddenly feel a dish needs a side salad but do not have any salad leaves to hand, green vegetables such as beans, zucchinis, or peas make a tasty substitute. Cook the chosen vegetable briefly so that it remains crunchy, refresh it under cold running water, and serve with mayonnaise or salad dressing and a sprinkling of fresh herbs.

Alternatively, make a salad from raw root vegetables such as carrots, turnips, and white or red cabbage, grated and tossed with a strongly flavored dressing, some caraway or mustard seeds and a pinch of curry powder or mixed spice.

If you have only a few salad leaves and you need to stretch them further, shred them finely and add other pantry items such as chopped hard-boiled eggs, crumbled cheese, and a handful of toasted flaked almonds, or some walnuts quickly fried with a tiny pinch of cayenne pepper.

Any three canned beans — kidney beans, white or green flageolet, fava beans or cannellini — will make a salad, tossed in a blue cheese or vinaigrette dressing with fresh herbs, crushed garlic, and a little coarse mustard, blended to a creamy texture.

Garnishes

COOKIES, NUTS, & CITRUS RIND all make an attractive topping for ice cream. Used crushed almond praline, peanut brittle, macaroons or any almond cookies, raisins soaked in hot rum, toasted nuts or the thinly cut rind of an orange, lemon or lime. Curls of dark chocolate shaved off with a vegetable peeler are also very effective.

BREADCRUMBS can be quickly fried in very little oil or butter until golden and used to top a vegetable or pasta dish, adding both flavor and color. They are easily made in a food processor.

CROUTONS can be made in minutes to add a crunch to soups or salads. Cut slightly stale bread into small cubes and fry them with a little olive oil and a few slivers of garlic for extra flavor.

NUTS AND SEEDS such as flaked almonds, pine nuts, or sesame seeds, dry fried or toasted for a few seconds until they turn golden, add a pretty speckle and rich flavor to many dishes, and they also provide a good helping of protein in vegetarian recipes.

ONIONS can be sliced and quickly deep fried to add intense flavor as a garnish over the top of rice or egg dishes. And bacon, fried until it is crisp and dry, can be crumbled over salads, grain dishes, and creamy soups.

ORANGE AND LEMON RIND, finely grated or take off with a zester, can add a splash of fast color to grills and fried meat, and looks pretty on creamy desserts. If you like, blanch the shreds, or put them in a sieve and pour boiling water over them, to make them less bitter.

WATERCRESS makes a bright, peppery garnish, and is more unusual than a sprig of parsley. A handful of watercress can take the place of a separate side salad, and tastes especially good with grilled meat as it blends with the juices on the plate but retains its crispness.