Haphazard cook that I am, I feel compelled at intervals to assess whether the cookery itself is laggardly or it’s only that the presentation needs to be spiffed up a touch. I can’t be an impartial judge of the former, since besides being nearly omnivorous I’m also just lazy and frugal enough to eat almost anything I throw together, and I certainly haven’t the refined or experienced palate of a genuine culinary sophisticate, let alone a food critic. But I’ll allow myself the status of having enough visual experience and training to justify my evaluations of what the stuff I eat looks like and how it’s presented.
So when I get into one of my momentary fits of attempted good posture, whether it’s as a maker of ostensibly edible things or as the artiste plating them and arranging them on the table, I do at least attempt to pay better attention. The other day’s breakfast of broth-and-cheddar rice topped with eggs was, as planned, satisfying, filling, and comfortable, but I’ll admit that it would win no prizes for glamor. It’s not that I believe serving breakfast out of a vintage Hermès handbag would improve either the food or my spiritual character—never mind that I’d have to sell my car and a couple of major appliances to afford it—however, a tiny thing like adding a ribbon of sriracha or a sprig of fresh dill and a few capers would not only boost the actual flavor of the rice-cheese-egg combination to far greater heights but get me halfway there before I took the first bite, thanks to improved appearance and, then, scent. The aphorism about ‘eating with our eyes‘ is true, even if it gives me a case of the comedic creeps in my visually-literalist imagination.
Sometimes the things I’m preparing to eat, whether they’re main courses or side dishes or garnishes themselves, are simply rather homely ingredients that don’t look especially pretty or inviting as they are, and I think it can be fun to fiddle around with them a little to lift the presentation of the whole. A quick pickle à la japonaise is a refreshing add-on when one wants a bit of salutary salivary stimulation, especially with fried or heavily sauced Asian foods. But if you’ve seen one sliced cucumber, you’ve seen them all. So when I make my side of cucumbers, I may score the cucumber’s peel with fork tines before slicing and chilling it in a very light mixture of plain rice vinegar, toasted sesame oil, black pepper, and sugar. Adding whole sesame seeds (plain, toasted, and/or black), ribbons of sushi gari (pickled ginger, natural or pink), crushed red chile peppers can enhance the flavor in so many ways as well as adding color and texture to the meal. And further possible flavoring additions that work deliciously with this kind of instant ‘pickle’ are also attractive visually: thinly shaved red or white onion or thinly sliced carrot flowers or unpeeled Granny Smith apples. Of course, if you go far enough with all of these companionable treats, you’ve strayed far from the realm of pickle garnish and into a full-blown salad bowl, and that’s perfectly acceptable, too.
Salads are, after all, commonly the main entrée in many homes, including ours. An easy way to make them more visually interesting just happens to be a better way to serve them to a picky eater or a group with widely varied tastes or needs, and that is to either plate the dish mostly as a composition or a deconstructed assemblage. The ingredients shine in their individuality. They don’t touch each other as much. I hear loud huzzahs of approval from my spouse and all his kindred out there, and I know that for many this is still not enough. The offending ingredient, if there is such, can at least be discreetly scooted to the side of your plate nearest to the person you know who loves it, and his or her fork, without the loss of any of the parts you like. And the salad doesn’t fit the snarky description infamous in our house on presentation-failure occasions, “are ya gonna eat that, or didja?”
But in seriousness on this topic, the best is always to let each diner serve his or her own meal, because the food-not-touching is an incredibly, truly sensitive, emotional, and even sometimes, ethical or life-and-death issue for more people than anyone can safely guess. I am not constrained by any such inhibitions, loving sweet and savory together, textural mixes, contrasts, and all kinds of things that others might find appalling combined, but then I do consider ingredients’ compatibility in taste before I do in looks, and therein lies the need for me to step back like this occasionally. In the meantime, I’ll say that I’m sorry that others can’t enjoy a melange of ingredients as the symphonic experience I find in them, and just hope that most at least delight in a good solo when they eat their meals one item on one plate at a time.
As for salads, since you know I make our household’s standard version of coleslaw very regularly, they’re not likely to look wildly different, let alone inspiring or exciting, unless I take the time to alter an ingredient or garnish or two. Or, as I did with our good friends coming for dinner the other day, serve it as a composed salad garnished with the starring variants on top and the dressing on the side. Everybody gets the proportions they like of the different components of the salad, and as much or little dressing as preferred. Yes, I did ask them what they could or would eat beforehand. And I’m far more willing to make my friends and guests do some of the work to make their own best choices than to give them something that only a few at table will like or can eat just as it’s served. Most of our friends end up milling around the living and dining rooms and kitchen with glass or dish in hand at some point anyway, so if they choose what they’re carrying, they’re more likely to want to eat it before it drops on the floor.
The latter being, of course, not at the top of my list of food presentation styles, but hey, if spilled food is really artfully splashed and smashed, I can always make an exciting photo out of it for later inspiration.