Just Gotta Garnish

grilled lamb pita
Lamb patties with their multiple garnishes

The Grill-Meister is my best taste tester for my new recipes.  He can dissect the ingredients I’ve assembled into what I think is a masterpiece and hit on the one thing that could be improved, which I really like.  I listen to his feedback and my recipes get better.  He said something that struck me earlier this week when I served the Spiced Middle Eastern Lamb Patties from Epicurious:

What I really love is all that stuff on the side; the condiments and the garnishes just make the dishes you serve.

That got me thinking about my cooking and how I believe that a dish really does get completed by its accompaniments.  All of my favorite meals include sauces, dips, condiments and garnishes, even if it’s just a sprinkling of herbs or chopped nuts.  And I always feel pampered and pleased when someone else has prepared the meal and included the “little something extra” (lagniappe, as the French would say).

Garnishes and condiments are a supporting cast that add color and texture and provide complementary or contrasting flavors that highlight the main dish and make it a star.  And they are so visually appealing:  the food looks like artwork when it has been adorned.

So – just gotta garnish!

Garnish

A tray of garnishes for Turkey Cevap, a recipe to be published next week

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Black Bean Salad can be a garnish or a side dish
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Drinks like the Myra Hot Toddy look so much more drinkable with a garnish
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The parsley and scallions on the Mashed Potato Pancake add color and crunch, while the cheese and sour cream provide contrasting texture
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A Smorgasbord is all about the garnishes and condiments
Glover Gardens Chili
Glover Gardens Chili is a work of art in its bright blue dish with colorful peppers and onions
Smoked Salmon Spread
Capers and fire-engine red tomatoes brighten up Smoked Salmon Spread
Pulled Pork Tacos and Guacamole
Quick Guacamole is the perfect compliment for pulled pork tacos, along with Pico de Gallo.
Spring Greens and Green Apple Salad
The Spring Greens and Green Apple Salad sparkles on the plate with its cheese shavings and walnuts
Pico de Galla and ingredients
Pico de Gallo is my all-time favorite garnish and one of my top ten foods

 

Setting a Beautiful Table – Whimsical Christmas

Our 1920 cottage in Old Sugar Land.
Our cottage in Old Sugar Land was built in 1920.

A decade ago, I lived in a tiny wood frame house in a charming old neighborhood where time seemed to stand still: neighbors all knew each other, children rode their bikes in the street, and the baseball and football fields, elementary school and three churches were within a 5-minute walk.  My house was built in 1920 on a pier-and-beam frame and had hardwood floors and other charming old-house features.  It was really fun to dress the old girl up for the holidays, with Christmas being the uber-holiday.

Some of the table-setting tricks I’ve learned over the years are illustrated by the photos below.  They were taken before a special holiday dinner in 2006 when my parents met my inlaws-to-be for the first time.

  • Mix your glassware and china – different sizes, styles and colors can look great together.  Below I have a set of white china Christmas dishes, Waterford champagne glasses, magenta Italian crystal water glasses, and inexpensive crystal wine glasses, and somehow, it all works.
  • Dress up your table with inexpensive chargers.
  • Use place cards to design the optimum seating arrangements; they also make people feel special.
  • These little place card holders help set the stage for a fun evening
    These little place card holders help set the stage for a fun evening

    Embrace whimsy – the place card holders on this holiday table are a mix of tiny characters, and there’s a variety of Christmas-themed salt and pepper shakers, including a pair of dogs wearing Christmas wreaths.

  • Make things – the centerpiece was assembled from handmade bows, pine cones from my yard, faux greenery, and a few silk flowers and decorative berries from Hobby Lobby.
  • Use ribbons in place of napkin rings for a soft, elegant-yet-fun look.
Tie decorative holiday ribbons around your napkins to create a bright, festive look.
Tie decorative holiday ribbons around your napkins to create a bright, festive look.
Somehow, the mix of different glassware and china works.
Somehow, the mix of different glassware and china works.
Decorating not just the table, but the whole dining room, increases the holiday mood.
Decorating not just the table, but the whole dining room, increases the holiday mood.
Setting a Beautiful Christmas Table2
The Christmas dogs salt-and-pepper shakers and holiday toy-themed place cards add just the right amount of whimsy. The wreath centerpiece was less than $15 to make and includes pine cones and pecans from our yard.  I still have it almost a decade later. Nestled inside the wreath are inexpensive red glass candle holders.
Almost every surface in the little cottage was bedecked with Christmas finery
Almost every surface in the little cottage was bedecked with Christmas finery.  The larger Santa mug missing almost all its paint is a relic from my early childhood.

Countdown to Thanksgiving

For me, decorating the Thanksgiving table is a real pleasure.  I like starting from a blank slate and creating a sense of bountiful harvest and plenty in my dining room.  I think about Thanksgivings past, going way back to childhood holidays spent at my grandmother’s house in Sweetwater, Texas.

Sneaking bits of mahogany-roasted turkey skin, sitting overlong at the table telling stories that have been told before but deserve the retelling, playing touch football in the back yard to work off the third piece of pie…Thanksgiving is redolent with tradition and memories.

I love Thanksgiving and that feeling of connectedness to others while sharing a meal and reflecting on our blessings. Another blogger described the special feeling of setting the Thanksgiving table perfectly in her post, Setting the Holiday Table.

About table-setting – I’ve learned over the years (the hard way) not to wait until Turkey Day to figure out the seating, set the table and do the decorating.  The first step is to get the table(s) and chairs figured out.  This year’s tally is only 11, so we can squeeze in at one table, dragging in chairs from the breakfast room and adding a card table at the end.  This was done on Monday.

Thanksgiving Table, Pre-Decoration
The blank slate of the Thanksgiving table, pre-decoration, supplemented with chairs from around the house and a card table.

 

Now it’s Wednesday morning, and the table-setting is well underway, minus the glasses and silverware.

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The chargers, plates and napkins are out, and the place cards indicate who sites where.  Next step:  glassware and silverware.

Don’t be shocked – I’m using paper plates (again) this year.  They look just fine atop gold chargers and paired with cloth napkins – and the clean-up process is accelerated exponentially. I love my china sets but using paper plates some years makes it more about the meal and less about the aftermath.  I like to think of the mix of paper plates with cloth napkins and crystal candlesticks as the “business casual” of table settings.

The turkey is brining, the assignments for side dishes have been distributed, and the next step is to make the dressing. Did I say I love Thanksgiving?

 

Thankful for…Bay Leaves and Family

We have a bay tree at Glover Gardens that’s growing like gangbusters and provides a plethora of bay leaves – way-way-way more than we need.  So many that we can use them as table decorations or place cards.

 

I saw an article in Good Housekeeping a few years ago which gave me another idea for using our excess bay leaves. Paper leaves were adorned with “thankful for” messages and attached to pears with florists’ wire to create a beautiful, unique and inexpensive centerpiece.

The pears in this centerpiece have paper "thankful for" leaves (photo from Good Housekeeping).
The pears in this centerpiece have paper “Thankful For” leaves (photo from Good Housekeeping).

We tried it out using sharpies to convey our gratitude on bay leaves and found that it not only looked great, but was a fun and even meaningful activity.  Teen-aged cousins crowded around the kitchen island having a great time talking about what they were grateful for while they got to work attaching their bay leaves to pears.  It was a wonderful Night Before Thanksgiving family bonding experience.

 

Grateful For Pears
The Thankful For pears, mid-assembly in the kitchen on the Night Before Thanksgiving in 2013. There was gratitude for Support, Laughter, Aunts, Grandparents, Brothers, Love and much more.

When they’re done, you can arrange the “Thankful For” pears in a bowl or platter, or simply scatter them down your Thanksgiving table.

Thankful Pears

We had a bigger Thanksgiving last year with the arrival of numerous relatives from New Mexico, and everyone really enjoyed making their “Thankful For” leaves.  We did it on Thanksgiving Day as family members arrived.

My grandmother was thankful for grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
My grandmother was thankful for grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

We ended up with so many that we added a new step, the creation of a “Thankful For” / Happy Thanksgiving tree.  This turned out to be a great group activity during the appetizer hour, when the turkeys were resting and then being carved.

Family members arranging gratitude-covered bay leaves during the appetizer hour.
Family members arranging gratitude-covered bay leaves during the appetizer hour.

We found ourselves gathered around the tree throughout the afternoon and evening, reading about each other’s gratitude and having meaningful conversations.

We’re going to do the “Thankful For” tree again this year.  What are you thankful for?

Make It Special, But Keep It Easy

This time of year brings welcome visits from far-away family, but we don’t always have time to make a big production out of special dinners.

We recently had a visiting relative, Uncle Jerry from Seattle, and wanted to serve him a simple but elegant meal.

We settled on filet mignon, baked potatoes and salad for the menu, classic and simple dishes that are easy to make but still make you feel like you’re getting a treat.  Dessert was scones and slices of a marvelous pear tart from a local bakery.  Easy-peasy.

Spending a half hour decorating the table made all the difference, along with the cloth napkins and bay leaf place cards.  Uncle Jerry validated the strategy when he arrived:  “Wow, this is fancy!”  (We didn’t tell him that it was quick ‘n easy.)

It was really nice to host Uncle Jerry and make him feel special without spending hours in the kitchen on what was an absolutely gorgeous fall day (see my recently posted ePostcard for the visuals). It’s amazing how setting a beautiful table creates a festive mood.