Garnishes and Presentations
Presenting...Bowls and Tureens: Clothes make the soup
Urbain DuBois, French chef of the 1870s, in his Ecole des Cuisiniere, had a lot to say about soup containers:
"At dinners where there are a number of guests, the vessel, containing the soup, that is to say, the tureen, does not appear at all, upon the table. It is placed on the dining room buffet; the soup is served to the family in soup-bowls by servants
At family dinners, the tureen is placed before the person doing the honors for him to serve the guests, but the first is the usual method, and for all that, preferable.
For the formal as well as the informal dinner, soup should be prepared with the greatest care; for, served at the beginning of the meal, it inevitably influences opinion about the meal which it precedes: soup should always be served hot."
It's a pretty sure bet in today's world that someone who stands in the kitchen making the soup doesn't have--and maybe doesn't even care to have--servants to serve it. Lots of us don't even have buffets in our small modern dining rooms. And what was all that about the "him" doing the "honors" anyway? But we all have a choice on the way we want to present our food, whether to suspicious children or demanding gourmands.
Tureens--even the copper kettle the soup was cooked in--are nice and can make a spectacular presentation, especially if they're covered with a browned puff pastry crust that you've just rolled out from the pre-made package you bought in the frozen food section of your supermarket. But tureens can also leave you with broth and vegetables all over the table as you try to serve from them. Then, even if you surmount this obstacle, you usually end up by drowning the garnish in the individual bowls.
As a rule, I prefer a modified Urbain DuBois approach: serve individual portions and have the other members of the family--who I hope are setting the table anyway--serve the soup and sit down.
Which takes us to the question of bowls:
Consomme cups, flat soup bowls, crocks, cereal bowls, antique finger bowls--the shapes and sizes are endless--and definitely affect the presentation.
You can make your own choice, depending on the soup and its purpose. I would only suggest that you have flat soup bowls on hand, for they are as all purpose as you can get; they are easy to eat from; and they display the soups and its garnish with a breathtaking clarity.
For an impassioned plea for black lacquer bowls, consider Japanese novelist Tanizaki's observations in "In Praise of Shadows" (contributed by Helen Herlocker, Washington, DC):
In the cuisine of any country efforts no doubt are made to have the food harmonize with the tableware and the walls, but with Japanese food, a brightly lighted room and shining tableware cut the appetite in half. The dark miso soup that we eat every morning is one dish from the dimly lit houses of the past. I was once invited to a tea ceremony where miso was served. And when I saw the muddy, claylike color, quiet in a black lacquer bowl beneath the faint light of a candle, this soup that I usually take without a second thought seemed somehow to acquire a real depth, and to become infinitely more appetizing as well...."
Soup garnishes serve a variety of purposes. They can add color, texture, and contrast. They can add piquancy. They can identify the soup--a carrot round notched into a flower shape can let everyone know that the blob of pale orange puree in front of them started out as carrots.
Garnishes can also create a design that is visually exquisite: one need only think of Japanese broths artfully enhanced by lines of chives and a single, paper thin mushroom silhouette to appreciate the powers of display. Splashes of avocado cream in a tomato soup can recreate a Miro painting. Long chives can be made into geometric shapes by sticking their pointed ends into their cut bottoms--or can tie together delicate bundles of garnish. An unusual--and not to my taste--garnish is dollops of whipped egg whites, left over from using their egg yolks to thicken the soup. It is a largely French custom for cuisine de famille, but I have also found it in Jenny Lind Soup, about which Leopold Bloom fantasizes in James Joyce's Ulysses.
In general, heavy and thick soups can take heavy garnishes:
- Slices of cucumber or tomato or thin onion rings sprinkled with herbs.
- Toasted bread slices slathered with melting cheese.
- Vegetable cut outs, strips, and shreds.
- Fried dumplings.
Creamed and pureed soups, on the other hand, take more kindly to lighter garnishes:
- Sprinkles of fresh herbs, either chopped or floated gently as whole leaves. You can also dip herb sprigs in cold water, then dip them lightly in powdered spices like paprika or tumeric--refrigerated for a bit to dry, they look great floated in a soup or topping a dollop of sour cream.
- Pureed vegetables of contrasting colors--splashed or swirled in patterns.
- Croutons, plain or flavored--or cut out in a shape.
- Vegetables cut paper thin and perhaps sauteed to crispness (garlic crisps--wow!).
Clear broths and consommes, finally, take the lightest hand of all:
- Long strips of chives or finely shredded herbs.
- Delicate peels or gratings of colorful vegetables.
- Chiffonades of herbs and greens, stacked and rolled into cigar shapes, then cut finely crosswise into delicate ribbons of color and flavor.
- Fried tortilla strips or Chinese noodles.
- Fried bread squares, or Crostini, made by frying 1/2 inch squares of bread fried in a half-inch of heated olive oil til golden, then draining on paper towels.
- Spectacular custard cut outs, which are a little bit of a pain to make, but float like bathing beauties and secure your fame as a fabulous cook. Here's a recipe:
Custard Royale Cut Outs
- 1 egg and 1 egg yolk
- 2 Tablespoons milk
- 1/4 tsp. salt and a pinch of white pepper
- 1/4 tsp. grated nutmeg
Beat and egg and egg yolk in a small bowl, then add milk and seasonings. Pour mixture into a greased 9" x 5" loaf pan--so that the custard is about 1/8 to 1/4 inch deep. Set the pan into a larger pan of hot water and bake in a 300 degree oven for about 25 minutes, until the custard is set. Cool, then cut out in fancy shapes with tiny truffle or cookie cutters. When you are ready to serve the soup, put the cut out in the bowl first, then ladle the soup over it. It will float to the top.
Then there are really special categories, like cold fruit soups. One adorable and practical refinement is to puree the fruit--or a contrasting (taste and color) one--thin with a little water, then freeze in small candy or ice cube molds. Keeps the soup ice cold and can be counted on to cause a sensation.