Fun with Garnishes

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Something that annoys me about the food world is the notion of a dish or an ingredient being dated. “Sun-dried tomatoes are so 1986,” some pretentious food person might say. Really? Well I really love them, especially in Cavatappi with Sun-Dried Tomatoes which doesn’t taste like 1986 to me, it just tastes good. And I suppose there’s a similar notion that garnishes–big gestural ones–are passé. It’s a shame, though, because–as I’ve discovered recently–garnishes can be a lot of fun, especially when they enhance whatever dish you’re serving. Let me show you what I mean.

Last week, I had white Japanese sweet potatoes and parsnips in my CSA and I set about making a soup; a most wonderful soup, as it turns out. All I did was sauté some leeks in butter, add a tablespoon of grated fresh ginger, then big chunks of peeled parsnips and Japanese sweet potato and a big pinch of salt. When everything was coated, I added boiling water just to cover (chicken stock would’ve been better) and after 30 minutes of simmering, I blended everything. It was a study in white, that looked a lot like the parsnip soup I served recently at a dinner party:

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The flavor was right on-point—sweet and salty and earthy too–but visually, it was lacking pizazz. Enter GARNISHES.

I had some beautiful purple carrots (also from my CSA; at this point, it’s safe to assume most of my produce comes from my CSA) and so following a recipe that I found online, I shaved them with a peeler, tossed the strips with Canola oil, salt, and pepper and laid them on a parchment-lined baking sheet.

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Into a 425 oven they went and then, ummm, I clearly got distracted, ignoring the advice of the recipe I was following, which said “watch them, they’ll burn.” Turns out: that’s true!

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Yes, so this isn’t the most triumphant of garnish stories, but the funny thing is these burnt carrot strips actually tasted pretty good. Then I did what Melissa Clark told me to do when she makes similar mistakes; I pretended I did it on purpose and integrated it into the name: here’s Parsnip Japanese Sweet Potato Soup with Burnt-On-Purpose Carrot Chips (and a dusting of cayenne pepper).

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Weirdly, those burnt carrot chips worked wonders; they added a deep, charry note to the otherwise light, almost marshmallowy proceedings. The earthiness of the carrots echoed the earthiness of the soup. All in all, it was a major success (even if you don’t believe me).

If you want a real garnish success story, meet my friend Brian Glidewell. He came over to cook with me this past weekend and though our initial plans were to cook something ambitious (cassoulet was talked about) we ended up making one of my standard dinners of Caesar salad, baked ziti, and brownie sundaes. Here’s Brian sautéing onions for the baked ziti sauce:

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And here’s that baked ziti before hitting the oven (it really is a killer recipe; have you tried it? Click here):

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Because we chose a simple menu, we were actually finished pretty quickly, and had some time left to cook before friends came over. Enter GARNISHES.

“What if we made Parmesan crisps to put on top of the Caesar salad?” I said.

“Let’s do it!” said Brian.

Most recipes I’ve seen for Parmesan crisps require cooking them in a pan, but Brian found a recipe online from Giada DeLaurentis that made this seriously easy work. Step one: grate a bunch of Parmesan cheese (I used a food processor to just blend chunks of it like the Barefoot Contessa). Step two: make little piles of Parmesan on a Silpat-lined baking sheet.

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Step three: pop into a 400 degree oven and cook–5 minutes or more–until golden all over. Look how nice they came out!

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These were so easy to make I can’t believe I’d never made them before. And when it came time to serve the Caesar salad, a pretty standard dish in my house, placing one of these on top made it so much more delightful to look at. So much so, I totally forgot to take a picture, I was so entranced.

So ignore those naysayers who turn up their noses at garnishes. Modern chefs may serve their lilies plain, but I prefer mine gilded.

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