Dress for success

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 November, 2009, 12:00am

Like the final dab of paint to the eyes that gives life to a portrait, a dish's garnish is the flourish that draws our attention to the meal at hand. When it comes to dressing dishes for a banquet or buffet, much has been made of traditional French and Chinese techniques; volumes have been written on how to make tomato roses, radish flowers, cucumber fans and carrot dragons.

At home, the simplest garnishes are usually the most elegant. A perfect chive stem and a delicate drizzle of oil can give a bowl of leek soup the wow factor it needs - no amazing knife skills and sculpture lessons required, just a little imagination.

Always consider the colour, texture, shape and taste when choosing your garnish.

For example, if you need a touch of green for a plate of red penne pomodoro, basil, with its deep colour and robust scent, would be a good choice.

For salads, because the main ingredients are already lush and airy, the garnish can be denser in texture and flavour. A scattering of lightly roasted pistachios or caramelised cashews adds life to any leafy salad, accentuating the crunchiness while balancing a tart dressing with a nutty sweetness. Deep-red dried Parma ham wafers make a nice topping, adding a salty edge to each bite of greens.

Citrus fruits are versatile and easy to use with foods like fish that need a tangy finish. Hearty meat dishes, such as a rich, winey oxtail stew, are enhanced with a refreshing layer of colour and fragrance when topped with lemon or orange zest.

Candied orange slices - blood oranges give the best colour - are a great garnish for ice creams and custard desserts. To make 12 to 15 pieces, soak a thinly sliced orange in sugar syrup, then lay the slices flat on a Silpat (silicon baking mat) and leave them in the oven on a low heat until they harden.

Fresh, seasonal berries are a no-brainer but you can also keep fruit sauces or coulis in squeezable bottles in the fridge. The artful swirl of raspberry or rhubarb sauce draws the eye to the prize, be it a chocolate tart or savoury dish such as pork chops, quail or a portion of foie gras, which would look lonely on the plate by itself.

While fruit and vegetables can be colourful and exotic, the garnishes I turn to most often are fresh herbs. I use thyme, sage, rosemary, dill, chives, basil, sorrel, salad burnet, chervil, oregano, mint and parsley.

Edible flowers - such as osmanthus fragrans (small, orange-yellow flowers), chrysanthemum, nasturtium (which has a nice peppery flavour) and rose - make wonderful garnishes for desserts and salads. Though, in Hong Kong, it is hard to find them table-ready and free of herbicides. Micro-greens, such as onion sprouts and shiso flowers are easier to locate and just as effective.

Lastly, remember: there's no need to overdo it. Ultimately, it's the food that should shine.