Aida Mollenkamp is a California-based food expert, TV host, writer, and culinary curator. Over the years, she has authored more than 1,000 original recipes and continues to publish new recipes on her site, aidamollenkamp.com. Her first cookbook, Keys To The Kitchen, is a modern manual to the kitchen and was published in October 2012 through Chronicle Books. Through her work, she aims to inspire creativity in the meals you craft, the gatherings you design, and the food adventures you embark upon.
I’m on a mission to raise awareness about the power of pretty plating.
Chalk it up to working in food media where I’ve spent many a moment primping plates for everything from photos to parties. Plating may seem superfluous but we eat as much with our eyes as our mouths. And there’s the added bonus that many a cooking mistake can be overlooked if food is presented beautifully — a party planning insurance that even the best of cooks appreciate.
Here are a few plating pointers:
Spring produce is gorgeous with all the lovely light greens of asparagus and peas and the deep reds of rhubarb and strawberries so use that to your advantage. Something as simple as a platter of halved strawberries drizzled with cream is not just seasonal but looks phenomenal too.
Think about how you can take advantage of the natural beauty of the food. Case in point, with this salad, instead of chopping up the romaine, I halved the baby romaine hearts for a more impressive plating than the standard tossed salad.
Pick a Pretty Platter
There’s no point in slaving over the meal if you’re going to serve it on some cruddy plate. Though you don’t need heirloom porcelain pieces, pick platters that are good looking. When it doubt, keep platters monochromatic so that the food — not the platter — takes center stage.
Make It Pop
One of the simplest ways to make your food look fabulous is to plate it on a contrasting color, so, go on and consult that color wheel your high school art teacher blabbed on about. Ironically, the prettiest colors are often no color at all — white and black are always safe bets.
I have a friend who’s convinced everything’s prettier in miniature. While I’m not sold on that, it’s pretty much a truth when it comes to food like these mini goat cheese and caramelized fennel tartlets. Serving things in miniature allows the final platter to have an attractive pattern and it makes serving simpler since portion-sizes are pre-determined.
The other reason those Fennel Puff Pastry Bites are such lookers is because of the garnishes. The rules with garnishes are that you want to reiterate the ingredients of the dish and that they should be edible. I saved some of the fennel frond tops and topped the tartlets just before serving.
The longer I’ve worked in food photography, the more I think of plating like a still life painting. And much like those painting greats who could glorify a simple bowl of fruit, a well-considered composition makes food that much more appetizing.
Make Like a Flower Arranger
Always look for the visually interesting element in the food you’re serving and try to highlight that. Even a simple green salad can look stunning if you take a florist’s approach and consider symmetry and patterns. One of the easiest ways to serve a large salad is to put the greens in a large bowl then arrange all the other ingredients in concentric circles on top.
Mix and Match
Yes, you do want pretty platters, but every piece doesn’t need to match and they don’t even have to be serving pieces. I use cutting boards for anything sliceable from cheese to pâté, dessert bowls for nut mixes or candies, and a tiered tray is always a great way to add height and drama even if it’s just for serving raw vegetables and dip.
What other things do you do to dress up your food before you serve it?
Our Spring Gatherings guide has more expert tips on what to cook and how to cook it, being the host- or host-ess with the most-est and fun ideas for cooking with kids.
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(Images: Aida Mollenkamp)