Photography by Ashlee Glen
One of the best parts about going out to a nice restaurant—aside from the fact that you just get to sit there and relax while your meal is prepared—is the way the dish looks when it slides in front of you.
Let’s be honest—we’ve all drooled a little bit.
“Whether you’re at a restaurant or a home dinner party, you want that ‘wow’ factor,” says Virginia-based Chef Mena Hughes. “We all visualize our meal before we taste it, so plate presentation is very important.”
For those looking to step up your game at your next dinner party, we asked Hughes to share of a few of her top tricks, along with three tasty recipes that will be sure to impress friends and family.
For those who dream about carrying out fancy, impressive dishes to their guests, organization is crucial. “There are a lot of extra details involved when plating special dinners. I would suggest you write down everything you want to do and when you should do it,” Hughes says. Translation: You don’t want to have hungry guests standing around while you slice up sprigs of green onion for a garnish—it needs to be ready to go when the food is hot.
When planning your meal, consider foods with different colors and textures, Hughes says. “If you decide to have grilled chicken, mashed potatoes and cabbage, that’s pretty blah,” she explains. Try carrots and something green to go along with your chicken instead.
To make the colors of your food really pop, Hughes suggests staying neutral with your plate color. “White plates are a great canvas,” she says. But “go crazy” with the shape. To add some interest to the table, consider incorporating square or even rectangular plates into your cupboard. Use a round plate for the main course and other shapes for salad and dessert.
There are also some tools you can have on hand to make adding those little “extras” much easier. Toothpicks help add larger garnishes. A piping bag can assist you when embellishing desserts. (If you don’t have one, a Ziploc bag with the tip cut off works just fine.) A plastic squeeze bottle can be used—and reused—for drizzling chocolate or fruit sauces. Mena also uses a pastry brush from time to time to brush sauces onto the plate. (Learn more under Accessorizing.)
Unless you have a very picky eater or food allergens to consider, Hughes says you want all of your main course ingredients to be very close to, if not touching, each other. “A lot of people make the mistake of spreading it all out,” Mena says. “But it’s much more pleasing to the eye to have everything arranged on the plate closely together.”
For example, start by spreading out your sauce or puree, put your protein down on top and then make sure your veggie or starch is close to or leaning up against your protein. Layering your food items also adds some height to the plate. “Visually interesting dishes are taller,” Hughes says.
Choosing the right ingredients will help you add height to your meal. For example, Hughes says a chopped salad presents well since it’s taller. She also likes a Mesclun mix because you can make it fluffier.
Another way to add height to your dish is to use fresh herbs as a garnish. “If you have some parsley or any kind of greenery that complements your dish, place a sprig of that on top of your protein or even your vegetable,” she says. “Fresh herbs just make the plate look finished.”
For those dishes that taste amazing but just don’t look as appealing (think: boeuf bourguignon) herbs can add a pop of color that those plates need. With boeuf bourguignon, adding a dollop of sour cream on top can give the dish a focal point. Then, sprinkle some herbs on top of the sour cream for an added pop of color.
Despite all of these, keep in mind that less is more. “You don’t want to overdo it. Because then the extras take away from the main event,” Hughes says. “You want your guests to be able to see what you made!”
Quick Tips to Dazzle Your Diners
- Use a pastry brush to swipe sauce onto your plate so that it’s thick on one end and thinner on the other. Then lay your protein on top of the sauce. It’s subtle but adds visual interest to the plate.
- If you are making pies and have a little leftover dough, use it to make shapes, such as leaves, and add them to the top of the pastry with egg wash.
- After using a squeeze bottle to drizzle chocolate sauce on a dessert, take a toothpick and run it through the sauce that’s on the plate. Have some fun making shapes or designs.
- When dressing up a salad, use your veggie peeler to peel cucumbers into long curly cues. This same technique can be used with carrots.
- Consider pulling one of the main ingredients from a dish to use as a garnish. For example, use a toothpick to add a whole shrimp and some herbs on top of jambalaya.
Recipes to Please Their Palates
French Onion Tart
By cutting onions into half moons and layering them with cheese and herbs, your guests will be impressed by the way this tart looks and tastes.
Puff pastry sheets, store bought
1 cup Gruyère cheese, shredded (4 ounces)
1½ teaspoons fresh thyme, minced
2 teaspoons fresh chives, minced
1/4 pound sweet onions peeled, halved and very thinly sliced into half moons (keep the moons intact, about 3 medium onions)
1 tablespoon heavy cream
3 tablespoon unsalted butter, diced
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Preheat oven to 400 degrees and line a sheet pan with parchment paper.
Roll the dough between two sheets of lightly floured wax paper, slightly larger than 10 x14 inches. Using a ruler and a small knife, trim the edges. Place the dough on the prepared sheet pan and refrigerate while you prepare the onions.
Sprinkle the rolled pastry with the cheese right to the edges.
Sprinkle with thyme and chives.
Place the onion half moons on the pastry in diagonal lines, just barely overlapping and brush lightly with cream.
Dot with butter and sprinkle with salt.
Bake for 40 minutes or until the tart is golden and browned. Cover the edges with foil if the tart is getting too brown during baking.
Let cool slightly and cut into squares to serve. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Lemon Crumb Seared Scallops with Lemon White Bean Purée
By using a layering technique and garnishing with sprigs of onion, this main course is an easy way to practice your food presentation skills. We recommend a rectangular shaped plate.
12 large sea scallops, cleaned (take foot off and patted dry)
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 tablespoons cold butter
1 bunch spring onions, sliced thinly at angle for garnish
Lemon White Bean Purée
1/2 cup melted butter
2 cups canned white beans, well rinsed
1/3 cup grated parmesan cheese
1 tablespoons olive oil
Grated zest of 2 lemons
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons melted butter (a little more if crumbs are too dry)
2 ounces fresh white breadcrumbs (about 2 slices bread, crusts removed)
1 lemon, zested
Salt to taste
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
Melt butter for the white bean purée in a saucepan. Add butter to blender with white beans, grated parmesan, olive oil, lemon zest and lemon juice, and blitz until smooth. If the mix is too thick, add water until desired consistency is reached. Place in saucepan and keep warm over low heat. This can be made a day ahead and reheated before service.
Pat scallops dry and season with salt. It is very important to have your protein (that includes beef, poultry, seafood, etc.) dry when you want to get a good sear. If it is wet or if you crowd the pan too much, it will steam and you won’t accomplish that nice brown sear. Sear scallops salt side down. After about 1 minute, flip scallops and add cold butter, thyme leaf and a lemon wedge (squeeze some of the juice). Take off heat. When plating, spoon some of the pan juice over the scallops.
Pour the melted butter in a separate skillet and toss in breadcrumbs. Sprinkle in salt and zest of lemon. When breadcrumbs are crispy (about 1 minute), add fresh parsley and toss.
To plate, place large scoop of bean purée on plate and with back of spoon spread it out the length of the plate. Place 3 scallops on top of the purée and top with lemon crumbs. Drizzle a little of scallop pan juice over all. Garnish with sliced spring onions.
Light and delicate choux pastry puffs filled with ice cream and covered with warm chocolate sauce. This dessert presents well with its height. You can also work on your presentation skills when drizzling the chocolate sauce.
1 cup water
1/2 cup butter
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
Ice cream flavor of your choice
1 cup heavy cream
9 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a medium saucepan, bring water to a boil. Stir in butter and salt until butter has melted; reduce heat to low. Vigorously stir in flour until no dry lumps remain and mixture leaves the sides of the pan and begins to form a stiff ball. Take off heat and stir in the eggs, one at a time, adding the next egg only after the last one has been completely incorporated. Drop the profiterole paste onto the prepared baking sheet in evenly spaced dollops.
Bake in preheated oven until pastries have puffed up and turned golden brown (25 to 30 minutes). Remove from baking sheet and cool on a wire rack to room temperature.
Bring 1 cup of heavy cream to a simmer in a small saucepan over medium heat. Remove from heat and stir in chocolate until melted and smooth.
To assemble, slice the puff (not all the way through), and scoop in ice cream. Place the filled profiteroles onto individual serving plates and top with the warm sauce. Leftover unfilled profiteroles may be stored sealed in an airtight container in the refrigerator up to five days.