Creative plating: How to create snap-worthy food

September 7, 2018

It’s difficult to go out to eat these days without noticing diners at the tables around you taking photographs of their food. I’m not sure if they’re documenting a special occasion, collecting images for social media or (my excuse) capturing the clever way the food has been plated.

When we eat at home, I fall back on the traditions of my childhood when picky eaters in our family insisted none of the food items could touch each other. As a result, I usually organize the food on our plates as if it was going into a compartmentalized TV-dinner tray: protein in the middle, starch on one side, vegetable on the other, salad on a separate dish.

By contrast, the seared tuna in the photo is an example of creative plating. The sesame-crusted fish has been sliced in half  diagonally, nestled on a bed of rice and then topped with micro greens. Pickled ginger and seaweed add flowing texture and color interest at the front. Although the plate is rectangular, the chef sets the various components at angles, including the small dish of dipping sauce in the lower right.

Sometimes, there’s a bit too much on the plate. For example, in this photo, the tomatoes seem a random addition for the sake of color, and the scattering of chopped cilantro bits feels distracting. But it’s much more attractive than the last plate of grilled tuna I served at home.

The way your food appears on your plate definitely affects your perception. If the color of the plate is similar to the color of the food, most people believe there’s less of it  than if the plate is a contrasting color. This is also why most chefs choose white plates to provide a completely neutral background to showcase their skills.

Most restaurants plate their foods decoratively layered in the center (often called “high and tight”) or arranged in an arc across the plate with a flourish of garnish. Of course, if your restaurant dinner is a pile of steamed crabs, the notion of plating is irrelevant. You’re not going to mind that the cole slaw is pre-packaged in a plastic cup instead of arranged in the shape of a flower.

You can often get a sense of the chef’s skills just by observing how your meal has been plated. When you order a side dish of meatballs, are they served in a small bowl, drowning in red sauce? Or, are they arranged in a tidy row on a thin layer of sauce garnished with parsley and grated Parmesan? You’ve probably seen many examples.

Giving guests the ability to recognize the various components in a dish is another aspect of skillful plating. If you’re serving a salad of sliced tomato, basil and mozzarella cheese, resist the temptation to pour on the Balsamic vinaigrette. Instead, spoon  small puddles of the dressing around the plate so you can appreciate the color and texture of the ingredients.

I’ve included a recipe for the seared tuna in the photo. While it may be tempting to substitute another cooking oil, be sure to use grapeseed oil; you’ll need its higher smoke point. Olive oil and canola oil can not be heated enough for the quick sear. You can find fresh seaweed salad and jars of pickled ginger at most groceries.

If you want to make your own quick-pickled ginger, look for tender, young ginger root (which is pink under the skin) for a mild flavor. Now all you have to do is plate your dish in style.

Sesame Seared Tuna

1/4 C black sesame seeds
1/2 C white sesame seeds
4 ahi tuna steaks*
salt & pepper
2 T grapeseed oil

Mix the sesame seeds in a shallow dish. Season the tuna steaks with salt and pepper on both sides. Dredge the tuna in the sesame seed mixture, thoroughly covering all sides. Place the grapeseed oil in a pan over high heat.

When the oil starts to smoke slightly, add the tuna in a single layer. Cook until the white sesame seeds begin to turn golden, about 1 to 2 minutes. Turn the tuna and cook another minute or so. Transfer tuna to a cutting board and slice each steak in half on the diagonal. Arrange on a bed of rice. Serve with dipping sauce, seaweed salad and pickled ginger. Yield: 4 servings.

*Note: make sure steaks are highest-grade ahi tuna, about 5 ounces each, 1-inch thick.

Dipping Sauce

1/4 C soy sauce
1 t honey
1 T rice wine vinegar
1 pressed garlic clove
Whisk ingredients together and serve in a small, shallow bowl for dipping.
Quick Pickled Ginger*
4-inch piece of ginger root
1 t sea salt
3/4 C rice wine vinegar
1/4 C water
1 t honey
1/2 t coriander seeds

Peel the skin from the ginger with a vegetable peeler or the edge of a spoon. Cut ginger into paper-thin slices using a mandolin. Place ginger in a bowl; sprinkle with salt and toss gently. Allow ginger to sit for 30 minutes. Combine vinegar, water and honey in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring to combine and dissolve the honey. Remove pan from heat and stir in coriander. After 30 minutes, lightly squeeze the ginger to release excess moisture. Combine ginger and pickling liquid in a sealed container, making sure to submerge the ginger entirely. Refrigerate for up to 1 month. *Note: tender, young ginger root is best for this preparation.