I recall one of my earliest encounters with an upscale eatery. I was a very young man, barely out of adolescence. I was brazen and brash, (believe it or not, even more than I am now), and knew absolutely nothing about food. A group of us ventured to this very fancy restaurant to celebrate some occasion. The prices were high, the food was hoity-toity and the servers were paramount professionals, clad in tuxedos and sporting an equally formal demeanor. My beer-guzzling buddy at the time ordered the lamb chops. When dinner arrived his lamb was accompanied by a small container filled with a bright green, gel-like substance. I impetuously blurted out: “What’s the green stuff?” Our waiter, never breaking stride, never lifting an eyebrow, and steadfastly maintaining his reserved manner calmly replied: “The green stuff is mint jelly.” Quite frankly, the “S” word used was not “stuff” but you get the picture.
The green stuff in my sophomoric example was not only mint jelly, it was a garnish. A garnish is quite simply a food that serves as an accompaniment to another food, the latter being the primary feature of a dish. The archetypal garnish is the done-to-death sprig of parsley; the garnish of choice for diners everywhere. What’s the point of a garnish? Well that depends on a number of factors, not the least of which is whether you’re sitting in your local greasy spoon or not.
Garnishes run the gamut from that simple, stereotypical sprig of parsley, to elaborate concoctions that take as long to make as the primary dish. Assuming you’d like to do more than just throw some green stuff on a plate, let’s peruse the professional culinary guidelines for garnishes.
Beginning with the most superficial, the first function of a garnish is aesthetic. A garnish is used to bring visual interest to the plate. This can be done by providing a contrast of color. Start with a plate of mixed green salad. Make a thickened beet dressing or sauce, fill a squeeze bottle, and decoratively dispense dots of the red beet dressing around the salad. Or use the dressing to form a decorative border on the plate between the salad and yet another garnish. Similar procedures are followed with chocolate sauces and light-colored desserts. Either way, the visual contrast is alluring to our eyes. The color appeal of a garnish is most striking when the main food item is rather bland in appearance and the plate beckons for some colorful intervention.
Aside from color, garnishes can add to a dish’s charm by enhancing other visual dimensions. For example, a garnish can accentuate the height of a dish as when a sprig of rosemary is inserted vertically into the center of the bone marrow in your osso buco. Or when a tortilla chip is wedged into your mound of sour cream or guacamole. These types of garnishes are only serviceable for the few seconds of visual delight between when you are first presented with the dish and when you begin to dig in. That sprig of rosemary is the first thing to go. So much for aesthetics.
The true quiddity of a garnish is to enhance the taste and overall gastronomic pleasure of the food. Indeed, the first and foremost rule my culinary professors espoused about garnishes was to never use any garnish that wasn’t edible. So at this extremely basic level that sprig of diner parsley is off to a good start. But we’re not even out of the gate yet.
The most important guideline when selecting a garnish is to ensure that it complements or augments the dish’s flavors. Most chefs seldom use a garnish for purely aesthetic purposes. So that dumb sprig of rosemary sticking out of the veal shank’s bone marrow is for all intents and purposes useless. The rosemary leaves would need to be stripped from their stem and chopped to be truly edible. Thus, a light sprinkling of the chopped rosemary on the bone marrow, while not as visually stunning, is far more in the spirit of why we’re dining in the first place.
Therefore, contemplate carefully before selecting a garnish. Does the flavor profile of the garnish and the main item mesh? The easiest way to achieve this is employing a garnish that was also used as an ingredient in the preparation of the main dish. For example: salmon topped with a sauce that contains capers, served with a garnish of fried capers. Or maybe the garnish wasn’t part of the main ingredient’s preparation but is a good match for it nonetheless, as in my introductory example of lamb chops and mint jelly.
Garnishes that capitalize on culinary contrasts also provide gustatory appeal: Croutons in soup, cold, crisp coleslaw with a hot moist burger, little chunks of smoked ham or pancetta in a creamy pea soup, a rich slab of unctuous meat rested on a bed of light greens, etc. I made chicken with a hot pepper sauce accompanied by pico de gallo, (a cold salsa-like salad) that also contained a fair share of chopped hot pepper. My dinner guest remarked how the contrast of the hot-hot paired well with the cold-hot, meaning the hot temperature spicy food with the cold temperature spicy food.
Garnishes that proficiently take advantage of culinary contrasts are not as contrary as they initially appear. You can’t just whimsically select opposites. There must be something that serves as a nexus between them. In my spicy chicken/spicy salad example it was the hot peppers. Other times the only link is that the opposites balance each other. A fatty slab of foie gras is paired with a fruit based sauce. The fatty, salty meat and the lighter, sweet fruit create an accord on the palate. Successful garnish contrasts must produce a harmony of flavors. Otherwise, what’s the green stuff?