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Garnishing Primer

Garnishes brighten, enliven and decorate food presentations. This being said, however, garnish-ing should mean more than glamorous looks. In its fullest sense, a garnish enhances flavor as well as appearance, becoming an edible addition that makes good food look better and more inviting. An effective garnish contrasts and combines with the food it enhances and adds to the gustatory experience.

Combining knife skills with a decorative eye, garnishing is an art that takes imagination, a certain amount of planning, sensitive fingers, and a sense of pride in presenting an attractive display. Throwing something on a plate by a person who has neither the inclination nor the desire for garnishing will not do a dish justice. Garnishes must be arranged with a light-handed touch.

The following points will provide insight into creating effective garnishes:

Nine Garnishing Essentials:
  • Color
  • Flavor
  • Texture
  • Shape
  • Size
  • Spontaneity
  • Arrangement
  • Temperature
  • Theme/Heritage

  • Generally, a light sprinkle of chopped parsley or other herb is a minimalistic but effective way to brighten a dish while enhancing its flavor
  • Use colors that brighten; red outstrips all others
  • Take care to avoid too many colors; they will ultimately take focus away from the dish
  • Use light garnishes on dark food, dark garnishes on light food
  • Color can be brought into play in many different ways:
    • Lemon wedge side dredged through minced parsley or paprika
    • A colorful salsa on grilled meat or seafood
    • Tomato wedge with chives or basil
    • Rolling fruit in minced fresh mint or chopped nuts
    • Diced hard-boiled egg and dill mixture over smoked salmon
    • A small amount of red currants in a puff of whipped cream
    • A dendrobium on Hawaiian roast pork
    • Sliced sun-dried tomato and crumbled feta over grilled asparagus

  • Choose garnishes that round out and complement the food:
    • Sweet garnish for desserts (caramelized lemon zest on cheesecake)
    • Piquant garnish for salads (pepperoncini on a Greek salad)
    • Savory garnish for soups and entrées (crumbled bacon on corn chowder)
    • Acidic garnish for fatty foods (lemon wedge with salmon with a dill cream sauce)
    • The most successful garnish suggests its ingredients:
      • Whole strawberry with strawberry soup
      • Key lime crescent with key lime pie
      • Wedge of cheese with quiche
      • A shrimp with shrimp bisque
      • Duck cracklings on Cassoulet

  • The garnish can be underneath:
    • Banana leaf-lined plate for Cuban roast pork
    • Rock salt for Oysters Rockefeller
    • Blanched seaweed for Maine lobster
  • Contrast crisp garnishes with soft foods (or vice-versa)
    • Water chestnuts with chicken salad
    • Pecans with chocolate cream pie
    • Crisp croutons with cream soup
    • Chocolate curls with chocolate mousse
    • Fried tortilla strips on Southwestern Caesar salad
    • Whipped cream dollop on pecan pie

  • Cut garnishes into neat, evenly shaped pieces
  • When arranging a display, use more than one shape
  • Many items lend themselves to variation (tomatoes, lemons, melons, etc.)
  • Fancy shapes can be cut from pimento, aspic, truffles, etc. (small cutters are available)
  • Carrot or cucumber flowers also make effective "scoops" for the dip on crudité trays

  • Keep the size in scale with the dish it is garnishing
  • The garnish should draw attention to the dish, not become the center of attraction
  • The garnish should emphasize the size of the portion

  • Cold garnishes ? cold food, hot garnishes ? hot food
    • Certain exceptions to the rule:
      • Hot apple pie a la mode, hot fudge on ice cream, etc.
  • Ice is used as a base when it imparts a cool, fresh look to foods that taste best cold
    • Shrimp cocktail, cold soup, ceviche, etc.

  • Using swirls and splashes of flavored oils achieves a free-form, spontaneous effect
  • Dusting plates/rims with cracked pepper, cocoa, chopped nuts, fennel pollen, lavender flowers, etc., add both flavor and texture in addition to a visual effect
  • The most attractive garnishes look fresh, natural and simple
  • Most garnishes can be prepared well in advance without losing their bloom
    • Refrigerated, in ice water, or covered with damp towels

  • Placement of the garnish is important to achieve the most artistic effect
  • Center, top or border underneath; asymmetry works best
    • Avoid even-numbered protein portions
  • Patterns ? thin slices of items such as cucumber and radish can be arranged into a flower

  • Consider garnishes that evoke the season or special events/observances when appropriate
    • Candy canes on Christmas desserts
    • Heart-shaped spinach custard or molded gelée for Valentine's Day
    • Grilled baby pumpkin slices in the fall harvest season
  • The appropriate garnishes should accompany the traditional foods of a given heritage
    • Sour cream dollop and chopped chives on latkes or pierogies
    • Sliced radishes with Yucatan cuisine
    • Grated Parmiggiano-Reggiano with Italian dishes
    • Pico de Gallo with Mexican/Central-American food
    • Preserved lemons with Moroccan dishes

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Garnish Recipes:

Roasted Chestnuts

The best ways to cook chestnuts are roasting and boiling. Before doing either, cut a shallow X in the flat side of each shell so the chestnuts won't explode as they cook. (Or cut about ¼ inch off the tip end of each) Roast: Place in a single layer in a baking dish. Bake at 350°F for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the shells start to split and the nuts smell fragrant.
Boil: Place in a saucepan, cover with water, and boil 20 minutes or until tender (test one before draining the rest).

Try some of these delicious uses for your cooked chestnuts:
Top a baked or microwaved butternut squash with chopped chestnuts and a little brown sugar.

Chop a few chestnuts and add to chicken noodle soup.

Combine whole chestnuts, steamed Brussels sprouts, and 2 or 3 Tbsp. chicken broth in a skillet. Bring to a boil; cover; cook 5 minutes.

Stir chopped chestnuts into your favorite stuffing. Chestnuts complement an apple-and-turkey-sausage stuffing especially well.

Chop chestnuts and use them in cookie batter in place of high-fat peanuts or macadamias.

Sprinkle chopped pieces over ice cream or apple pie for a tasty dessert.

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At AJ's
Mint Julep
An American Tradition

Whether you enjoy it on the rocks, in a mint julep or a whiskey sour, visit AJís for the finest Kentucky Bourbons.

Recipe for Mint Julep

Recipe for Muddled Mint Julep

Recipe for Whiskey Sour

AJ's Recipes
Tips for Cooking the perfect Standing Rib Roast from AJ's Butchers.
AJ's Recipes

Cooking with Olives from AJ's Olive Bar
Try these recipes from 4 local chefs featuring olives.

Roasted Tomato and Caastlevatrano Bruchetta
Olive and Garlic Roasted Chicken
Panzanella Salad
Summer Pasta