I have a work colleague who recently had to take the afternoon off work to prepare for a dinner party (for six people). Whilst I think having a dinner party in the middle of the week is tantamount to deliberately treading on ball bearings that have been stored in grease, why should work dictate our private lives?
Her menu seemed simple enough:
Starter: Spring Rolls and Prawn Toast
Main: Chicken in a Honey/Lemon Marinade with 6 (6!!) different vegetables
Dessert: Homemade Apple Pie
To me, this menu didn’t really warrant an afternoon off work, bearing in mind that the starter was shop bought, marinated chicken is made several hours in advance and apple pie can be made the day beforehand. However. What I had forgotten was that my work colleague is a little bit insane. She insisted on garnishing the first two courses to within an inch of their lives: she painstakingly produced raw carrot baskets that each took her 10 minutes to prepare. So, 10 minutes each, four on a plate, 6 diners...that’s 240 minutes spent making a pointless garnish! But that’s not all. The main course, which at first glance seems simple, was garnished with, well, the vegetables. She cooked broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, carrots (yes, more carrots!), roast potatoes and Brussels sprouts, which were then reformed into a sort of vegetable brain montage in the centre of the table, resembling something from the Gallery of Regrettable Food (www.lileks.com).
She didn’t go so far as to describe the architectural pastry monument she prepared for dessert but my mind can only boggle endlessly at the permutations that could be open to someone so artistically minded.
The sad thing is, the food probably would have all tasted perfectly delicious had the rubix cube carrots been discarded and replaced with a simple bowl of dipping sauce on each plate instead. After all, simplicity is the key to most Asian cookery. And as for the vegetable display, who would have complained at warming bowls with each vegetable served individually?
People spend too much time worrying about making food look appetising. I remember eating at a local gourmet pub in the late 90s and every single course - from the Prawn Cocktail starter through to Tempura finishing up with Vanilla Ice cream – was garnished with a large sprig of redcurrants. Don’t get me wrong. Redcurrants are one of the fruit world’s most beautiful gifts and in the right place (a jelly or summer pudding perhaps) they are delicious. But to serve them with Prawn Cocktail, where raw redcurrants have no place or with a Deep Fried Oriental Dish, where redcurrants absolutely have no place whatsoever, is just pointless and wasteful. I can just about allow the garnish with vanilla ice cream as they did look very pretty. But I still didn’t eat them. Most garnishes end up pushed to the sides of the plate.
I’m not sure if it’s an old school mentality but my mother also insists on garnishing my creamy, pale risottos with quartered tomatoes when only a sprinkling of torn parsley is necessary. Anything pale-coloured (or ‘insipid’ as she calls it) is automatically made more ‘colourful’ and ‘appetising’ with a wedge of raw tomato. I suppose I can blame Fannie Craddock. She garnished everything to within an inch of their lives too. In the 70s and 80s, food was decorated with mint leaves, dustings of icing sugar/cocoa powder, tomatoes, lemons. But we don’t live in those days any longer. Food just has to be good to please, not pretty.
As for me, well, I’m going to stick to a sprinkling of chopped herbs if necessary and if not, well then, things go to the table plain but tasty. And that’s what matters.