The Garnish Debate: Call Me a Rebel

As a little kid I remember parsley garnishes mystifying me. Why did curly greens occupy so much space on my plate—and it’s not even Passover?

But the parsley garnish, for garnish sake, no longer visits our tables. Instead, garnishes spring from what’s in the dish, if a dish is garnished at all. Use cilantro in a sauce, use cilantro as a garnish. Use kumquat in a cupcake, use a kumquat slice as garnish.

David Rocco of Cooking Channel‘s Dolce Vita reiterated this fact in a recent episode, refusing to add a leafy green to top a pasta dish since the dish did not contain it. Instead he cracked fresh pepper on top, silently communicating his heavy usage of pepper in the dish.

Rocco’s commandment popped in my head as I decorated a sweet potato and lentil soup with black mustard seeds. The soup contained Asian and Indian flavors: miso paste, chili garlic sauce, grated ginger, turmeric, cumin, sesame oil, salt and pepper. Once pureed, I stirred in yogurt to add tang and cut the thickness of the soup, which was adapted from Alicia Silverstone‘s Sweet Potato-Lentil Stew from The Kind Diet (which is one of my favorite cookbooks, thanks, Cher).

For serving, I added more yogurt, enhancing both taste and look. I then reached for the pepper, as it’s usually what I use to spruce up a dish before serving, but decided to switch things up. I thought about cumin, but wouldn’t that just look like sand? I thought of the other ingredients I used, but none of them could convey the correct contrast against the bright yogurt.

I grabbed black mustard seeds. I threw a few in my mouth to check if the flavor would work. As I bit down, I realized that I never tried the seeds by themselves. It tasted bitter at first, and then a horseradish-type heat whispered through my mouth. The heat was faint, but lightly lingered. It reminded me of the heat found in those strong English mustards sitting on the tables of gastro-pubs.

So I went with it. I liked the textural element of the hard seeds against the dense soup. I liked the dots of color. I liked being a slight garnish rebel.

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  • dad gansie February 2, 2011  

    Yea among other rebellious things
    Nice dish too

  • Shirley @ gfe February 2, 2011  

    That garnish looks perfect! I’m tired of green stuff, too. Great post. :-)


  • kitchen geek February 5, 2011  

    Used to be right there with you on the parsley garnish; but I’ve mellowed a bit. I’m anti curly-parsley and bad parsley but I think fresh flat leaf has its place. Garnish breaks down just like ingredients in the recipe, complementing or contrasting. Your current recipe and Rocco’s example go with the complementing camp. I often use parsley and/or cilantro in dishes that have neither to provide a fresh herb contrast to whatever dish I’m serving. Think about osso bucco and tell me gremolata is out of place as a garnish cutting the richness of the dish.

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