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Prettying Up the Table

by Elizabeth Skipper December 19th, 2012 | Techniques, Tools, and Tips
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It’s that festive time of the year, when glitter, bows, stars, and all pretty things prevail. Some folks just love to gussy up the house and the dinner table. Alas, I’m not one of them. It’s not that I don’t like the look – it’s just that I don’t have much patience. When it comes to dinner, I’m more concerned that the food is properly prepared, tasty, that what should be cold is cold, and what should be hot is hot. But everything should also look festive… what to do?

Keep it simple. Simplicity does not mean a lack of elegance. Here are some of the things I do to pretty things up without a lot of expense or fuss.

Natural, reusable, and recyclable are good. A wooden bowl of lemons with some greens tucked in here and there makes a nice centerpiece. The greens can be composted and the lemons used in the kitchen later, a bit of recycling and re-use I like. Pine cones and other fruits are also nice. A glass container filled with bright Christmas ornaments adds sparkle. Just remember to keep a centerpiece low, so it doesn’t interfere with conversation.

Pretty holiday cloth napkins and placemats dress up the table and can be washed and saved for next year. Their appearance each year becomes a tradition, a herald of good things to come. I have plaid ones in Christmas-y colors which I use up until Christmas day, and fancier ones for the day itself. Get napkins that are “good” on both sides, and then a good job for one of the children is to fold them decoratively. That was my daughter’s job growing up, and I still ask her to do it.

The year someone burned a hole in my red tablecloth was the year I came up with another tradition. A gold star strategically placed over the hole hid that eyesore, and many more scattered around the entire table created a lovely effect. Now I do it every year. My “gold” stars are brass, but you can also get inexpensive mylar confetti ones. (One year I mixed brass with mylar and spent too much time later separating them out. I only did that once!)

But what about the food? Again, little efforts can pay off big. Start with appetizers. A small bunch of herbs, some attractively sliced lemons, an edible flower, a sprinkle of paprika strategically placed make a big difference. Serving something like nuts or olives? Instead of one large bowl, group three small ones together. A large bowl that’s almost empty or a serving platter that’s picked over looks sad; smaller ones can be refreshed more frequently and look more appetizing.

What about the main meal? When you’re planning the menu, think about textures and colors. If you’re serving a cream soup, avoid pureed vegetables or creamy desserts. If roast beef and potatoes are a given, be sure the vegetables add contrast and color. Carrots will be out of the ordinary if you julienne them or slice them on the diagonal. Serve green beans whole rather than cut up.

If you put the food out in serving bowls and platters, make sure they’re warmed, and garnish the platters. If you serve in the kitchen, as I do, it’s easy to plate the food attractively and garnish it quickly before sending it out. Have the garnishes all ready to go. Do you have a lot of people to feed? Press someone into assistance so you can get the food out fast before it cools.

Rather than slapping a large slab of meat on the plate, slice it thinly and fan it out. Amazingly, it not only looks nicer, it tastes better, too. Line up the green beans or asparagus rather than putting them on helter-skelter. Take a second to shore up the mashed potatoes or puréed squash so it’s in a neat little mound.

Some simple garnishes include a sprig or stem of herb (parsley sprig or stem of thyme), a little minced herb like tarragon on a vegetable it will enhance, a twist of orange or lemon peel, chopped nuts, a drizzle of sauce rather than a pour (serve extra in a sauce boat at table.) Micro greens are popular now; a few on the plate add flavor and textural interest, especially if lightly dressed with a little vinaigrette. And if you have someone who needs a job, have them make some butter curls to set out in a bowl rather than putting out a stick of butter, even if the butter dish is decorative.

These efforts take very little money and only a little time; they make your holiday meal more special. Take a breath, pause, and enjoy the sight. Your family and guests will, too.

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