It’s the start of chag season, and over the next few months our tables will be filled with food and surrounded by friends and family. But some of the classic dishes (you know the ones – think brisket, sweet and sour meatballs, and honey cake) can look drab, even when prepared by the most skilled home cooks. As comforting and delicious as Bubby’s cooking is, sometimes it can all get a little, well, brown. This year we turned to food styling pros for some holiday table tips.
Before you even get to the food, you set the mood when you set the table. For a formal feel, break out the good china, but also don’t be afraid to let your personality shine through here. Tori Avey of the popular food blog The Shiksa in the Kitchen says, “I enjoy seeing color on the table, so I tend to use very colorful place settings. I like hand painted vintage dishes, Moroccan-style plates and glasses, and wood serving platters and utensils.” Feel free to forgo conventional wisdom and mix and match for a fun and whimsical look.
Besides dressing up the centerpiece, having a variety of foods in different colors on the table can make the whole presentation look more inviting. “I’ve been to plenty of holidays where the food on the table is all beige and brown — not pretty or appealing,” says Food stylist Lisa Homa. To combat this, “try adding some dishes of varying colors. Beets, greens, yellow and orange squash are all in season. Try to vary color and texture anywhere that you can. It makes the dining experience so much more pleasurable and exciting!”
When it comes to plating your meal, don’t go overboard. “Keeping your plate simple is the first step to a beautiful presentation,” instructs Denise Vivaldo, culinary consultant and author of “The Food Stylist’s Handbook”. “Too much food on the plate and your guests won’t know what they’re looking at.”
Also be conscious of the size of your plates. Just as an overly large plate can look comical, Israeli-based food stylist Deanna Linder of Matkonation warns, “Make sure the plate is large enough for the roast. Don’t try to cram it onto a small plate.”
Color is the key to an enticing presentation, but be thoughtful about your garnishes. For one, Vivaldo warns, “all garnishes should be edible because there is always someone who will eat it.” She also suggests making garnishes relevant to the dish. “If your dish has lime juice in it, then use lime slices, wedges, or zests as a garnish… If there is an herb in your recipe (fresh or dried) then a fresh sprig of that herb makes a beautiful garnish.” Edible flowers are a great touch as well. In addition to looking beautiful, they add great flavor and aroma to your serving platter.
Homa echoes this suggestion and adds that roasted carrots and onions along with those herbs not only make a great flavor pairing, but also “the appearance of that roasted caramelization just makes your mouth water. In the business, we call it adding ‘appetite appeal.’” She also recommends adding “a contrasting color or texture that will not only look good but will enhance or add an additional layer of flavor to the dish.” For example, try putting “diced carrot in the sauté for kasha varnishkes or sparkling pomegranate seeds in a salad.” In the same vein, Avey adds: “Those little touches are so simple, but they add a lot to the overall presentation.”
The way you arrange everything on the plate makes a difference as well. Allison Parks-Whitfield author of Food Styling and Photography for Dummies recommends placing a few lettuce leaves or herb sprigs “just to the side of the brisket.” Also, “arrange them at varying angles on the plate right before serving.”
There are two schools of thought when it comes to making roasts look their best. Cookbook author, stylist, and photographer Cara Hobday says that “roasts are best served whole and surrounded by larger seasonal vegetables, such as roasted potatoes, onions, and a leafy vegetable such as broccoli.” Linder, on the other hand, says “Slice the roast to your desired thickness just prior to serving, and slightly fan out the slices.”
Gravy often poses a visual challenge, but can be easily beautified. Hobday advises, “I would suggest garnishing towards the end of cooking, [especially] if the cooking liquid is to be served as a sauce with the brisket. The color could be [enhanced] all over with the addition of chopped parsley to the sauce, or some freshly chopped herb.” And for an adorable serving suggestion, Homa likes to serve the au jus in a pretty teapot instead of a gravy boat. “It has both a lid and a spout [so it] keeps the juices warm, is easy to pour and looks delightful on the table.”
Even desserts need some dressing up too sometimes. Parks-Whitfield says, “to highlight the appearance of a delicious honey cake, try some fresh citrus fruit with almonds and a nice honey drizzle.” Pomegranate seeds, a dusting of powdered sugar, or a drizzle of fruit syrup can all work wonders as well.