Food & Dining: Step Up to the Plate, and Make It Snappy Food & Dining

Garnishes are to a dinner plate what accessories are to fashion models: They set off attributes to their best advantage. But making food look nice -- the "halo effect" of plate presentation -- doesn't require foam machines or truffle shavers. Here, a three-element plate gets a simple, effective makeover.

One caveat: Because we tried to show as many techniques as possible on one plate, this comes dangerously close to overdone. Learn to stop garnishing at the first moment of satisfaction -- or even before. -- David Hagedorn   (AUDIO GALLERY: Creating a Dinner Palette)

Select the plate: Go with plain white, and keep proportion in mind: For three components, a 10-inch plate with a 1 1/2 -inch rim and a slight well gives the food a little room to breathe. The well defines the space and keeps liquids from running. The rim frames food just as margins frame words on a page.

Watch dimension: A little piling goes a long way. Towers of food that topple with the first cut of a knife have gone the way of the '90s.

Use a kit: When having guests over for dinner, do what restaurant chefs do. Have some of the following items handy to choose from as the muse strikes, provided they make sense where you use them:

  • Chopped parsley.
  • Chopped and/or whole chives.
  • Chopped scallions.
  • Diced red bell p epper.
  • A bunch of clean greens or herbs (such as watercress, flat-leaf parsley, cilantro, basil, thyme or sage).
  • Black or white sesame seeds.
  • Toasted pine nuts, pecans, slivered almonds or other nuts.
  • Smoked paprika.
  • Edible flowers.
  • Make garnishes work: Too much color can look clownish, and everything should belong. On our makeover plate, the red pepper strips on the sugar snaps and black sesame seeds and scallions on the couscous set off the colors and enhance the foods' flavors instead of clashing with them.

    When it comes to greenery, keep in mind that parsley goes well with all savory dishes, but other herbs should be used only if they are already components in the dish. Basil would be fine on our makeover plate because it's in the sauce, but sage leaves would be inappropriate.

    Some of the most fashionable finishing touches are also the tastiest: varieties of coarse sea salts and freshly ground peppercorns.

GRAPHIC: David Hagedorn - The Washington Post; PHOTOS: Len Spoden - For The Washington Post

© 2007 The Washington Post Company