Not all meals are born beautiful. It’s an uncomfortable fact. I could slave away for hours on a dish, caramelizing onions, stewing meat, cleaning turnips, chopping carrots (and maybe a bit of my pinky), and for what? Sure, it tastes delicious, my friends and family will sing my praises but there was a slight pause before they dug in to my masterpiece. They saw my mangled rump roast, and the thought crossed their mind, “Possum surprise?” Or maybe they were eyeing my black eyed-pea soup, admittedly grotesque in appearance and a general look of malaise passed over their face and started to think about all the evil things they had done to me, weighing it, thinking, “Was it worth poisoning me over?” I love scaring my family as much as the next kid, but that’s not exactly the effect I was going for.
My food was ugly. Just because it was my food didn’t mean I was oblivious to the facts. Ugly food isn’t like an ugly duckling. Saying a meal is unattractive doesn’t just mean it is “unappealing to the eye.” We put that stuff in our bodies. Would you want to eat the ugly duckling? Swallow its grayish lumpy mass and let it just, you know, sit in your stomach? Even if it wasn’t a beloved fairy tale character, I think it would make you sick.
When I work myself to the bone on a meal, I have expectations for that meal. The first of which being: it will taste good. The second: that it will not appear like two-week old horseflesh. Over the years, I have turned out some real eyesores. The kind of food that strangers would refuse to eat but family is forced to try, which is unfair to my ridiculously delicious food. As a result, I’ve learned a few tricks over the years on how to “pretty-up” slop. These are good tools for cooking to impress. Even if you’re not in it for the glory, your dinner guests will thank you for edible-looking food.
1. Put an Egg On It
I cannot tell you what this does for pasta, for burgers, for rice, for greens. Poached, fried or hard boiled, it makes everything better. And it’s pretty too. If you’ve just pulled out a pasta dish that’s looking like a wet noodle (forgive me), top it with a fried egg, grated parmesan and cracked pepper. The taste will remain phenomenal, and suddenly, your dish will look a five-star meal.
2. Top with Cherry Tomatoes
Scientific fact: Cherry tomatoes are adorable and delicious. You could even say they are joyful. Another redeeming quality: they give casseroles some much-needed class. There are few meals less glamorous than a casserole. So, your leftover casserole surprise needs all the help it can get from outside color. Before popping the dish into the oven, slice several cherry tomatoes and arrange on top. When you pull it out, it may still look like a casserole. But now it’s a casserole with class.
3. The Green Garnish
Some people think garnishes serve no purpose but to add color to a dish. Whatever. They probably just give birth to beautiful food every ten minutes and obviously don’t have my problems. For people like me, the final herb snipping is a godsend. Garnishes are like cover-up—blocking out some of the more unsightly pieces of my food. And I happen to think they enhance the flavor too. Depending on your recipe, add parsley, mint, cilantro or basil to the top of your dish, snipping with scissors or tearing by hand. Put as much as you need to cover the ugly. You’ll know you’ve gone too far when your family tells you, “The salad looks nice!”
4. A Trail of Breadcrumbs
Did you know that croutons are easy to make? Take a piece of old stale bread and tear it up into little pieces. Season it with salt and pepper, toss in olive oil, spritz with lemon juice, toss under broil, ten minutes max—BOOM lemony croutons that you should probably put on everything. I put it on top of a soupy, creamed chard once and it instantly became edible-looking. This is a particularly good topper for marinated greens or a piece of fish that came out gnarly. Pat it down with breadcrumbs and, just like that, you’ve made a crust.
5. The Cheese Mask
Have you ever thought that Mexican food doesn’t really look all that appetizing? No, this has probably never occurred to you. Because Mexican food looks delicious. Because it’s covered in cheese. I’ve never met a dish that wouldn’t look better with a little sprinkling of cheese (crumbled or melted) on top. Cheese also allows for the food to be shrouded in mystery. People don’t always need to know what’s in the stuffing. If you can’t taste the tofu, why would I tell you that it’s there?