Whenever my mother has guests who stay overnight, they come downstairs the next morning to find our kitchen table sparkling with clear blue plates, long-stemmed glasses of orange juice, a basket of rolls or bagels, and a big bowl of fresh fruit salad. To this day, even after guests gasp in amazement time and again, she responds with "Oh—well, it’s really not hard at all to do."
Having watched her do this (mostly without helping) for nearly 21 years, I am beginning to realize that she’s serious. On our relatively modest budget, she has been creating beautiful, enticing food for as long as I can remember. To her, making food look gourmet without going bankrupt is a way of life, and has nothing to do with perfection. Here’s how it works.
[MAKE IT BEAUTIFUL]
In German, there is a saying: die Augen essen mit—the eyes eat too. Just as unpleasant smells make food taste bad, boring-looking colorless food is unappetizing. Color is key, and so is contrast. For example, a fruit salad consisting of apples, oranges and bananas is boring, not just because these are the least exotic fruits available, but because they’re all roughly the same color. Throw in just a handful of grapes, watermelon chunks, any kind of berry, a sliced kiwi—anything contrasting, and your salad will take on a whole new life. Same with the dishes: keep your eyes peeled for a good price on a set of solid-colored plates and bowls in strong, intense hues like ultramarine, teal or maroon (avoid busy patterns on dishes, they often distract from your food rather than showing it off). On a dark blue plate, a simple fried egg will look like five-star fare.
[USE THE REAL THING]
If buying a house is about three things, location, location and location, then making food look exciting is also about three things: presentation, presentation and presentation. Your glasses don’t need to be diamond-cut crystal, but nix the paper cups. Find glasses you like, try Target, garage or estate sales. A set of cheap wine or champagne glasses can make Safeway Select orange juice (from concentrate) look like liquid heaven. If you’re my age, check your family’s garage—in a little apartment you don’t need ten sets of everything, and that incomplete set of glasses, plates, even fancy silverware (who knows how those three forks got lost) might be just perfect for you. Using real, non-disposable table settings will not only completely change the atmosphere of your meal, it will also save landfill space and your bank account. No more throwaway plates and plastic silverware.
[IN ADDITION TO PLATES]
Pretty place mats and (if you really want to go all the way) a tablecloth and a set of real cloth napkins will make more of a difference than you might believe. You don’t want to do five loads of laundry per meal, so you might want to designate non-wipe white tablecloths as special-occasion-only. But place mats and napkins take much less room to wash. Save money by using cloth instead of buying paper napkins.
[IT’S ALL IN THE DETAILS]
Food, especially to those of us who are privileged to have it in such abundance, is about more than caloric intake. But even in countries where good nourishment is hard to come by, eating is for fellowship, for welcoming and being welcomed, for stilling hungers that go beyond our stomachs. There are few things that make people feel as looked out for as taking time to prepare them food. So take the time. And show that you took time by paying attention to the details. Keep colorful foods around for garnishing—oranges, lemons and limes, tomatoes, and any color of bell peppers. Don’t buy them in mass quantities, they’re not cheap and they go bad. But tomatoes or peppers in a salad, and lemon slices in water glasses or on the side of a plate will make a meal look immediately fancy. Keep some whipped topping (hide it in the back of your fridge so you don’t eat it all) and cinnamon or chocolate shavings: they’ll turn a bowl of canned peaches (or a cup of coffee) into a dessert worth remembering. Just add a dollop, sprinkle and serve.
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