The Perfect Plate

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A Local Pro Shares Food Presentation Tips that Will Please the Pupils and the Palate

ne of the best parts about going out to a nice restaurant—aside from the fact that you just get to sit there and relax while your meal is prepared—is the way the dish looks when it slides in front of you.

Let’s be honest—we’ve all drooled a little bit.

“Whether you’re at a restaurant or a home dinner party, you want that ‘wow’ factor,” says Mena Hughes, Culinary Arts Program Director at Central Virginia Community College (CVCC). “What I tell my students is we all visualize our meal before we taste it, so plate presentation is very important.”

It’s so important that Hughes incorporates lessons about presentation into her curriculum. She wants to make sure students know how to make meals that taste good… and look good, too. (You can find out more about CVCC’s Culinary Arts Program in our This City department on page 35.)

For those of you who want to step up your game at your next dinner party, we asked Mena to share a few of her top tricks, along with three tasty recipes that will be sure to impress your friends and family.

Prepping
For those who dream about carrying out fancy, impressive dishes to their guests, organization is crucial. “There are a lot of extra details involved when plating special dinners. I would suggest you write down everything you want to do and when you should do it,” Mena says. Translation: You don’t want to have hungry guests standing around while you slice up sprigs of green onion for a garnish—it needs to be ready to go when the food is hot.

When planning your meal, consider foods with different colors and textures, Mena says. “If you decide to have grilled chicken, mashed potatoes and cabbage, that’s pretty blah,” she explains. Try carrots and something green to go along with your chicken instead.

To make the colors of your food really pop, Mena suggests staying neutral with your plate color. “White plates are a great canvas,” she says. But “go crazy” with the shape. To add some interest to the table, consider incorporating square or even rectangular plates into your cupboard.

Use a round plate for the main course and other shapes for salad and dessert.

There are also some tools you can have on hand to make adding those little “extras” much easier. Toothpicks help with larger garnishes. A piping bag can assist you when embellishing desserts. (If you don’t have one, a Ziploc bag with the tip cut off works just fine.) A plastic squeeze bottle can be used—and reused—for drizzling chocolate or fruit sauces. Mena also uses a pastry brush from time to time to brush sauces onto the plate. (Learn more under Accessorizing.)

Assembling
Unless you have a very picky eater, Mena says you want all of your main course ingredients to be very close to, if not touching, each other. “A lot of people make the mistake of spreading it all out,” Mena says. “But it’s much more pleasing to the eye have everything arranged on the plate closely together.”

For example, start by spreading out your sauce or puree, put your protein down on top, and then make sure your veggie or starch is close to or leaning up against your protein. Layering your food items also adds some height to the plate, which you want to do. “Visually interesting dishes are taller,” Mena says.

Choosing the right ingredients will help you add height to your meal. For example, Mena says a chopped salad presents well since it’s taller. She also likes a Mesclun mix because you can make it fluffier.

Accessorizing
Another way to add height to your dish is to use fresh herbs as a garnish. “If you have some parsley or any kind of greenery that complements your dish, place a sprig of that on top of your protein or even your vegetable,” she says. “Fresh herbs just make the plate look finished.”

For those dishes that taste amazing but just don’t look as appealing (think: boeuf bourguignon) herbs can add a pop of color that those plates need. With boeuf bourguignon, adding a dollop of sour cream on top can give the dish a focal point.

Then, sprinkle some herbs on top of the sour cream for an added pop of color.


CHEF’S TIPS: Accessorizing

Keep in mind that less is more. “You don’t want to overdo it. Because then the extras take away from the main event,” Mena says. “You want your guests to be able to see what you made!”

Here are a few more ideas:
Use a pastry brush to swipe sauce onto your plate so that it’s thick on one end and thinner on the other. Then lay your protein on top of the sauce. Mena says it’s subtle but adds visual interest to the plate.

If you are making pies and have a little leftover dough, use it to make shapes, such as leaves, and add them to the top of the pastry with egg wash.
After using a squeeze bottle to drizzle chocolate sauce on a dessert, take a toothpick and run it through the sauce that’s on the plate. Have some fun making shapes or designs.

When dressing up a salad, use your veggie peeler to peel cucumbers into long curly ques. This same technique can be used with carrots.
Consider pulling one of the main ingredients from a dish to use as a garnish. For example, use a toothpick to add a whole shrimp and some herbs on top of jambalaya.


French Onion Tart
By cutting onions into half moons and layering them with cheese and herbs, your guests will be impressed by the effort you put into this tasty tart.

Ingredients
Pastry
Puff pastry sheets, store bought

Onion Topping
1 cup gruyere cheese, shredded (4 oz.)
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh thyme, minced
2 teaspoons fresh chives, minced
1/4 lbs. sweet onions peeled, halved, and very thinly sliced into half moons (keep the moons intact, about 3 medium onions)
1 tablespoon heavy cream
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, diced
1 teaspoon kosher salt

Instructions
Preheat oven to 400 degrees and line a sheet pan with parchment paper.

Roll the dough between two sheets of lightly floured wax paper, slightly larger than 10 x 14 inches. Using a ruler and a small knife, trim the edges. Place the dough on the prepared sheet pan and refrigerate while you prepare the onions.

Sprinkle the rolled pastry with the cheese right to the edges.

Sprinkle with thyme and chives.

Place the onion half moons on the pastry in diagonal lines, just barely overlapping and brush lightly with cream.

Dot with butter and sprinkle with salt.

Bake for 40 minutes or until the tart is golden and browned. Cover the edges with foil if the tart is getting too brown during baking.

Let cool slightly and cut into squares to serve. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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