Today I want to share with you some wise advice and some specific instructions on the correct preparation and use of garnishes for the dishes which come from your kitchen.
The source is a delightful book called Round the table: notes on cookery and plain recipes, with a selection of bills of fare for every month (Philadelphia, 1876,) written by Victor Chevally de Rivaz. The author is withering in his condemnation of the ubiquitous sprig of parsley applied to indiscriminately to English dishes, he but also disdains the widespread use of complex but inedible sculptures of coloured flour and lard, and for reasons he does not explain, he also scorns the use of flowers as a garnish.
I suspect you will not be sufficiently inspired by the ideas to cut your French beans into the shape of lozenges and manipulate each piece accurately into position with a larding needle, but please do let your inner artist out and learn the principles of choosing, cutting, carving and placing your garnishes. May your croutons always be perfectly regular, your aspic always brilliant, and your egg-white neatly shaped and trimmed.
The scientific branch of cookery comprises the devising of dishes and sauces. The artistic branch constitutes the art of garnishing, and this plays a most important part in the outcome of the kitchen, as, by means of it, dishes please the eye before they please the palate. First impressions go a great way, and when the one sense is captivated by an agreeable and inviting appearance, the dish must be bad indeed which fails to stand the more searching ordeal of taste. Besides, People who suffer from jaded appetites have a better chance of eating their dinner, when the dishes which are put before them are pleasant to the sight.
Art, however, is not a thing to be taught. You may show a man how to mix colours, but you cannot teach him how to use them. Neither will I pretend to teach the British cook how to garnish dishes. I will only attempt to explain that that which in cookery is meant by garnishing is not the traditional parsley of the British cook: and I will describe what cooks, properly so called, mean by garnishing; of what garnishes are made; and how the different materials are prepared for the purpose.
The combinations of these things are too infinite to allow of more than a very general exposition. They wholly depend upon the talent, skill, and taste of the operator. The one and great thing to avoid, as much as possible, is the using for purposes of garnishing, things which are not eatable.
‘Garniture,’ which is rendered into English by ‘garnish,’ may be defined as all that is added to the chief material which constitutes the dish. Thus tomato sauce, in a dish of cutlets, or fried potatoes round a steak are garnishes.
These things fall naturally under two great heads. The hot garnishes, which accompany every savoury dish, and the cold garnishes, which go with cold meats, salads, mayonnaises, &c.
Vegetables are the chief materials of hot garnishes. By judicious combinations they will produce very pretty effects of colour. To instance only a few: turnips, potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, cauliflowers, celery, and vegetable marrows will give whites; carrots, tomatoes, beetroot, supply the reds; truffles and mushrooms the blacks; and then there are the endless shades of green given by French beans, peas, Brussels sprouts, cucumbers, asparagus, &c. To be so used, all such vegetables as will admit of it must be cut into uniform shapes with what are called vegetable-cutters, the successful use of which requires some practice. They may also be cut, with a knife, into the shape of a ‘quarter’ of an orange, or again, into little oblong slabs a quarter of an inch thick, and one inch by three-quarters, with all the edges slightly chamfered. This way is very good for carrots, when the middle part begins to harden, and is not fit to eat. Some vegetables can be sliced, and pieces can then be stamped out of them. French beans should be cut into lozenges, or they may be cut in the shape of peas with a stamp. Cauliflowers should be picked out into little bunches the size of a penny at the top. Vegetables are usually cut before cooking, and each kind should be cooked separately. Great care is necessary to ensure that, when sent up to table, they are all ‘cuits à point’ and hot.
Here is a simple example of purely vegetable garnish. Suppose that a piece of beef be stewed according to art, and put in a dish on a tasteful and velvety gravy. Having all your vegetables ready cooked at hand, you proceed to place four little heaps of cauliflowers at equal distances from each other; then you flank each with carrot cut in slabs on one side, and French beans cut into lozenges on the other; and lastly you fill in the remaining spaces, i.e., between the beans and the carrots, with potatoes cut to the shape and size of Spanish olives, and fried a very light colour in butter. I should here observe that, once cooked, these things should not be touched with the hand, but put into position by means of a larding needle and a teaspoon, or some other instrument. I may also state, for the benefit of those who look to economy before all things, that all this cutting and stamping out of vegetables need not cause the slightest waste. The trimmings of carrots, turnips, &c., should go into the stock pot, those of potatoes make mashed potatoes, and purées can be made with most if not all, of the remnants. In fact, a purée composed of a combination of vegetables is no bad thing, either as a soup or as a garnish for cutlets, &c. For purposes of garnishing, potatoes are also mashed, and then shaped into various forms, and they are likewise made into croquets, and fried a golden colour, in which latter case eggs and spices should enter into their composition.
Bread sippets — which are used to garnish many dishes — should be invariably fried in butter. They ought to be cut out of stale bread, and should be of the same thickness and of uniform shape, which, with the help of paste cutters, can be varied ad infinitum.
Forcemeat, quenelles, tongue, eggs (hard boiled), olives, &c., are used in garnishing. Parsley should only be used in a fried form: a hot dish garnished with raw sprigs of parsley is ridiculous. The only cold things which may enter into the garnishes of hot dishes are lemons with some fish, and water cresses or garden cress with some kinds of game and poultry.
In the matter of the garnishing of cold dishes there is a wider scope for artistic feeling. Cold meats should always be ornamented with aspic jelly, and, instead of parsley, with the curled garden cress, which, while it resembles parsley closely, has the advantage of being eatable when raw. But it is in salads, mayonnaises, and the like that the artistic feeling of a cook can come out. I will describe the materials she has at hand for ornamentation. First is the aspic, which when well made should rival the finest topaz in brilliancy, and can be so shaded as to approach the deeper tint of the ruby. Then come the white and yolk of hard-boiled eggs, which are both used finely minced, but the former can yield any number of fanciful devices, which are thus arrived at. Several whites of egg are put into a tin previously slightly buttered, and then are made to set in a bain-marie; when turned out they will give you a slab of hard-boiled white of egg out of which you may cut and stamp what you like. Beetroot will furnish similar devices in red, and so will tongue; olives (stoned), truffles, capers, anchovies, gherkins, lobster coral, &c., will give other colours and shapes. It will readily be seen that many very pretty combinations of many colours can be made with these things. A fair average taste and some patience are the chief requisites.
Flowers (cut out of raw turnips), crayfish, which are not to be eaten, designs wrought in flour and lard coloured in various ways, and such like matters which appertain to what is called grand cookery, belong to the category of shams, and cannot meet with the approval of any true artist.
As the recipe for the day, I give you some instructions for an item which would probably make the author of the above book blanch in horror; but here it is anyway:-
Auntie Nellie's Hyacinths
2 ozs. minced ham.
1 dessertspoonful thick horse-radish sauce.
Waffles 1 inch in diameter and 1 ¼ inches in depth.
Small green gherkins.
Equal quantities green peas and white bread-crumbs.
Whipped cream, to which has been added a little cream cheese.
Mix together the ham and sauce and fill the cases with the mixture. Cut gherkins lengthwise in four quarters, then each quarter in two almost to the end. Now stick two of these well into the centre of each case, having the uncut ends downwards, and with a small rose-pipe, force some cream in centre of pieces, bringing it a little higher than the gherkin and thus making an imitation of a hyacinth. Having mixed the crumbs and peas and passed them through a sieve, place round the hyacinth in imitation of moss.
Serve cold, garnished with parsley.
Sufficient for 8 savouries.
Artistic Savouries (London, 1922?) by E. Sheridan.