Pam gave her chips and salsa a makeover with a pepper flower and onion fan.

Article and Photos by Pam Vukelic

If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a hundred times: the trite saying “the eyes eat first.” But researchers are discovering there is a lot of truth to it. In fact, the appearance of your food—the first impression you have of your meal—is most likely the strongest determiner of your level of enjoyment. Aroma is second and taste comes in at third place.

Charles Spence, experimental psychologist at Oxford, has studied and written* about the importance of all the senses in food. His books are considered important textbooks for culinary students and valuable references for restauranteurs. He maintains the pleasures of food lie mostly in the mind, not the mouth.

I have a few suggestions for you in the food appearance arena. You may be thinking, “I’m doing a decent job of getting nutritious meals on the table; I have no time for frills. Please don’t ask me to make them pretty, too.” But you can dress up a dish or a plate in no time at all. It takes more forethought than it does effort. Just having food attractively arranged is a great first step.

When serving a tossed salad, group the cherry tomatoes separately from the radish and cucumber slices, and the jicama stars. Not only is it visually appealing, it allows guests to avoid ingredients that might not be high on their list of favorites. Adding some chopped fresh herbs (e.g., chives, cilantro, or mint) makes it prettier and tastier.

I recently heard Tyler Zent, culinary staff at Edgewood on Dominion in Bismarck, say they are focusing on making the food more attractive, and are not so interested in plunking a garnish on a plate. That makes sense! Imagine the difference it makes if you reserve some of the shredded cheese that would have gone into the cheddar broccoli soup and sprinkle it on top. Or set aside some small bright green broccoli flowerettes for a last minute addition to each bowl.

Spence has determined that your dinnerware makes a difference in your perceptions and responses to food, too. White round plates make foods seem sweeter. Black plates enhance the savory elements of a meal. And red plates result in us eating less. I’m thinking I should stock up on red dinnerware!

Hard-cook a couple extra eggs at breakfast time to slice and add to small pumpernickel toast slices topped with pea shoots for appetizers. Grab some edible flowers (e.g., pansies, nasturtiums, chive blossoms) to easily make an impression. Remember, not all flowers are edible. Press some into the top of a disc of Boursin cheese to take it from blah to amazing. Brush the pansies with sugared egg wash for crystalized flowers. Do the same with basil leaves.

1 large egg white
24 basil leaves
½ cup sugar (extra fine, if available)

Whisk egg white with 1 teaspoon water until frothy. Brush each leaf with egg wash. Quickly sprinkle with sugar. Let stand on wire rack until dry and firm (1 hour). Store in airtight container up to one day.

Speaking of sprinkling, a generous dose of sanding sugar atop muffins or scones adds a delightful touch. A small dose of sprinkles on frosting before the frosting sets up makes a pan of bars more interesting.

Also, remember that anything on a plate, even a garnish, must be edible. Don’t use a plastic red chili pepper to adorn your fabulous nacho platter. Grab a paring knife and cut a chile pepper into a flower for a lovely decoration. This needs to be done ahead of time as placing the cut pepper in cold water for awhile causes it to bloom. The same will happen with a green onion or celery stalk. Use your food decoration as a clue to the dish’s ingredients. Placing chopped peanuts atop your kale slaw suggests peanut butter is in the dressing.

Speaking of peanuts on top of salad, remember that aside from its visual appeal, a garnish will often add texture to your food. This is another desirable element. Take a couple of minutes to toast any nuts or seeds to bring out their flavor and give them a bit more color. Popcorn on top of beer cheese soup, wonton strips atop your Asian salad, and almond slices baked into the top of your Swedish almond cake all create additional appeal.

Make your food special at first sight, never mind first bite!   

*Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating – 2017 The Perfect Meal: The Multi-Sensory Science of Food and Dining – 2014

Pam Vukelic recently retired from more than two decades of teaching. She says this is a wonderful time of year to use great ingredients from farmers’ markets and gardens. Pam encourages you to take advantage of this to add appeal to your dishes.