The way we present food influences the diner’s attitude to it enormously. However delicious a bought wrapped sandwich is, and however wholesome a bottle of fresh milk, neither looks too good plonked on a table just like that. The same milk in a glass jug, the same sandwich cut into quarters and put on a plate, crusts down and filling up, will immediately look more appealing. Presentation and decoration won’t do as a substitute for good cooking, but if the cook has got the taste right, it does seem a pity to stop there. Why not get the look right too!
Keep it simple
Over-garnished and elaborately decorated food rarely looks right. Even buffet pieces like a simply dressed salmon look more edible, less artificial and less ‘messed about’ than it would if covered with a deep layer of aspic, tomatoes cut into water lilies, radish roses, cucumber curls, etc.
Keep it fresh
Nothing looks more off-putting than tired food. If salad wilts when dressed in advance, if saute potatoes become dull and dry when kept warm for hours and whipped cream goes buttery in a warm room, don’t risk it. If the cook is organised – last-minute salad-tossing or dishing up is a price worth paying.
Keep it relevant
A spring of fresh watercress complements lamb cutlets nicely. The texture, taste and colour all do something for the lamb. But scratchy sprigs of parsley, though they might provide the colour, are unpleasant to eat.
There are, happily, some simple tricks to a good presentation. Of course, they are not hard and fast rules, but they allow the cook to confidently and speedily dish up food almost without thinking.
Dishes served on platters, such as meringues, profiteroles, or even a bean salad, are best given ‘centre height’ – arranged so the mound of food is in the middle with slides sloping down. Do not overload with food which makes dishing up difficult – an over-large pile of food looks unattractive.
Biscuits, petits fours, little cakes, cocktail canapes all look good if arranged in rows (each row consisting of one variety) rather than dotted about. Pay attention to contrasting colour, taking care not to put two rows of say, chocolate biscuits, side by side or two rows of white sandwiches.
Diamond shapes and diagonal lines are easier to achieve than straight ones. Somehow the eye is more conscious of unevenness in verticals, horizontals and rectangles.
Not too many colours
As with any design, it is easier to get a pleasing effect if the colours are controlled – say, just green and white or chocolate and coffee colours or even two shades of one colour. Coffee icing and hazelnuts give a cake an elegantly restrained look. There are exceptions of course a colourful salad Nicoise can be as pleasing to the eye.
Contrasting the simple and the elaborate
If the dish or bowl is elaborately decorated, contrastingly simple food tends to show it off better. A Victorian fruit dish with ornate stem and silver carving will look stunning filled with fresh strawberries. Conversely, a plain white plate sets off pretty food design to perfection.
As a rule, uneven numbers of say, rosettes of cream on a cake, baked apples in a long dish, or portions of meat on a platter look better than even numbers. This is especially true of small numbers. Five and three invariably look better than four.
A generous look
Tiny piped cream stars, or sparsely dotted nuts, or mean-looking chocolate curls (or caraque) on a cake look amateurish and rather stingy.
On the other hand, the temptation to cram the last spoon of rice into the bowl, or squeeze the last slice of pate onto the dish leads to a clumsy look and is rather daunting to the diner.
Chops, steaks, sliced meats, even rashers of bacon look best evenly overlapping. This way, more of them can be fitted comfortably on the serving dish than if placed side by side.
Best side uppermost
Usually, the side of a steak or a cutlet that is grilled or fried first looks the best and should be placed uppermost.
It is sometimes amusing and attractive, to produce food which raises a smile or intrigues the diner. The courgettes stuffed with carrots in the picture is an example, as are bowls of cold soup with names written on them.
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