This time of year, food can get heavy, and flavors meld together from longer cooking times and cooking methods that take longer since we don’t mind the extra heat from a pot simmering on the stovetop or in the oven or in your crock- or instant-pot. Winter is the prime time of year to come home to a hot meal when it is cold outside.
These types of foods are the perfect recipient for a little extra love and attention in the form of a fresh garnish. Garnishes are not a necessary component, but they elevate the flavor of a dish by adding complexity and will show off your cooking skills.
The two rules of garnishing plates are that they should complement the food in the dish, and it should be edible. The generic sprinkling of chopped parsley on top of every plate “to give it color” does not do much for flavor and don’t even get me started on garnishing with a sprig of rosemary, which will just be pushed aside to eat the real food. There is a difference between decoration and garnish. Decoration is about appearance and presentation; a true garnish is about the flavor of the dish.
Garnishing can be as simple as sliced green onions on top of a bowl of chili or gumbo. The freshness of the raw scallions helps to balance out the richness of the dish and the simple touch makes a significant difference to the eater. A squeeze of lemon juice or a dollop of sour cream adds acidity and brings out the flavors. Or even a grind of fresh cracked pepper at the table can be a garnish.
Taking this garnish to the next level would include a Gremolata.
Gremolata is an Italian condiment that is the traditional accompaniment to Ossobuco alla Milanese, a braised veal shank. But, don’t let this pair limit the versatility of parsley, garlic, and lemon, the traditional Gremolata ingredients.
Gremolata is an ideal way to brighten the flavors of any recipe for soup, beans, rice, roasted vegetables, or grilled meat. The three ingredients are ubiquitous across most European and American dishes, so they enhance the elements already in the meal.
To make the gremolata go with other types of cuisine, you can substitute the parsley with another fresh herb like cilantro, basil or tarragon and feel free to leave out the lemon if it doesn’t suit the dish that you have or your tastes.
To make Gremolata, you need, one bunch parsley, 2–4 cloves garlic, 1–2 lemons, for the zest only. Adjust the quantities based on your taste and the size of the produce. It bothers me that recipes never talk about the fact that fruits and vegetables come in different sizes, especially garlic cloves. (If you don’t use the lemons right away store them in the fridge once you have removed the outer rind.)
To start, pick the parsley leaves from the large stems. Make sure they are as dry as possible and chop finely. Using a fine grater, like a Microplane, but other brands work just as well, grate the garlic completely and then follow grating the two lemons removing only the yellow zest (be careful not to remove the white pith). Next, on your cutting board, combine the parsley, garlic, and lemon zest by chopping all together.
Gremolata can be made ahead and stored in the fridge for a week and used for different meals. It will make any dish fresh and aromatic, giving a fresh twist to soup, stew, or even as simple as a grilled chicken breast or steamed vegetables.
Take your cooking to the next level by adding a garnish to complete your dish.
Julie Moreno is a chef and writer, now trying to get more people to cook their own food and understand where it comes from. She lives in the middle of California, where she’s learning to landscape with fruits and vegetables. Find her blog at The Wooden Cutting Board on Twitter @juliehouse and Facebook @thewoodencuttingboard