Chefs may have an army of staff at their disposal, but Auckland food writer Ginny Grant says it’s not hard to learn to present simple food in an appealing way.
Australian cooking queen Donna Hay calls it “lickability” – the visual appeal of a plate of food that makes you want to stop and drool. The prevalence of food shows on TV may be making us all armchair experts on molecular gastronomy and macaroon towers, but few home cooks present their carefully prepared meals as well as they could.
Chefs may have armies of staff and armouries of equipment at their disposal, but Auckland food writer Ginny Grant says it’s not hard to learn to present simple food in a more appealing way.
“It’s got to look visually appealing, but you don’t need to overcomplicate things,” she says. “You don’t have to take it too seriously.”
Grant “fell into cooking” after university then spent nearly 15 years working in cafes and restaurants in New Zealand and London. She did a stint teaching cooking at Auckland’s Epicurean Workshop, then left the hospitality scene to have her children, now aged four and five.
“Then I got to know Ray McVinnie and then got involved with Cuisine, so I started food styling for editorial shoots from there,” she explains.
Now Cuisine’s deputy food editor, Grant regularly styles food for the magazine, along with the occasional commercial job.
In 2009, she won a Culinary Quill at the biennial New Zealand Foodwriter’s Guild Awards for her styling of a raspberry ripple semifreddo slider.
“When I was thinking about it, I wanted it to be really playful. I didn’t want it to look too serious. It’s really good food, but it’s fun. After all, you do have to want to eat it.”
Although the visual aspect of a dish is important, Grant favours simple styling techniques and says the provenance and taste of the ingredients is more important to her than how a dish looks.
Pan-fried Salmon, White Bean Puree and Salsa Verde This is a simple dish of three components that can be put together in less than 30 minutes.
Use the same plating technique when serving dishes such as mashed potato or soft polenta with a casserole, steak or piece of fish.
WHITE BEAN PUREE
2 cans white beans (such as butter or cannellini)
4 cloves garlic, peeled
1 sprig sage leaves
1 red chilli
1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt to taste
Drain the beans and rinse well. Place in a saucepan with two cups of water or stock, ensuring that the beans are just covered.
Add the garlic, sage leaves and red chilli. Bring to a boil, then gently simmer for 10-15 minutes until the garlic is tender.
Remove and discard the sage and red chilli. Drain and reserve the cooking liquid.
Place the beans and garlic in a food processor and add enough of the reserved cooking water (about 1/2 a cup) to make a smooth puree.
Add the olive oil to make it a little creamier, then season to taste with sea salt.
Set aside until ready.
If the puree thickens on standing, add a little more of the reserved cooking liquid to loosen it a little.
2 Tbsp capers
1 clove garlic, peeled
3 anchovy fillets
Pinch of chilli flakes
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1 Tbsp red wine vinegar
1 1/2 packed cups of a mix of green herbs such as parsley, mint, rocket
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
You can make this either by hand or in a food processor. If making by hand, finely chop the capers, garlic and anchovies to a paste. Put into a bowl and stir through the chilli flakes, Dijon and red wine vinegar.
Chop the herbs finely and add to the bowl. Add enough of the olive oil to make a loose sauce (you may not need the full quantity of oil). Set aside.
If using a food processor pulse the capers, garlic and anchovies. Add the chilli flakes, Dijon and red wine vinegar. Add the herbs and pulse until finely chopped.
Remove from the food processor and add enough oil to make a loose sauce (you may not need the full quantity of oil). Set aside.
4 x 120g to 150g salmon pieces, skin on, pin bones removed
Olive oil for frying
Rub a small amount of oil over the salmon. Season with salt. Put into a hot pan skin side down, lower the heat slightly and cook for 2 to 3 minutes until golden. Turn over and repeat. This makes for a medium rare piece of salmon. If you prefer your salmon cooked all the way through, cook for 4 to 5 minutes on each side.
Place a large spoonful of hot bean puree onto each warmed plate, put the salmon fillet on top, then spoon over a little of the salsa verde.
Serve with a side salad of bitter greens such as rocket and radicchio.
GINNY GRANT’S STYLE SECRETS
1. Keep it simple. Don’t have more than three components on the plate (eg, mash, lamb shank and sauce). If you really want to show off that famous vegetable side dish, take it to the table in its own separate dish.
2. Leave the mile-high food towers to the professionals. It’s a pretty dated look and unless you build them properly, they will be in danger of toppling.
3. When plating sliced meat such as duck or lamb, or even cheese like halloumi, odd numbers (such as three or five) look more balanced on the plate.
4. Make sure the meat is well rested before slicing. You don’t want bloody juices swimming on the plate.
5. Make sure the food portion is a suitable size for the serving plate or bowl. Don’t overfill it. You can always go back for seconds or put the remainder of the food on a serving platter for the table.
6. Make sure there is some colour on the plate, especially if you are serving a casserole or braise. Colour could come from vegetables in the dish, from an accompaniment or even from chopped herbs scattered on top.
7. Use an appropriate edible garnish. If you used parsley in the meal, then a sprig, leaves or chopped parsley would be good to use as a garnish. Current trends for garnishing are micro greens and edible flowers such as violets, nasturtiums and borage.
8. Add sauces and jus just before you take the plates to the table. Use a clean, damp napkin to remove fingerprints or stray splashes.
9. Put the food onto hot plates, because there is nothing worse than eating lukewarm food when it’s meant to be hot.
10. Plain white plates will help the colours of the dish to stand out. Otherwise, try to use a complementary colour.
~DomPost/Ginny Grant, NZGFW