There are good garnishes and there are terrible garnishes. And there are right and wrong ways to spoon sauce on your main course. Before dishing up guests’ food at your next dinner party, make sure you know the basics. Here are CHOW’s four rules of plating.

DO: Serve bright, contrasting colors
A plate with only white or brown foods (chicken, potatoes, rice, roast) looks unappetizing. An easy way to add color is to sprinkle chopped parsley or chives over the dish. Colors on opposite sides of the color wheel (yellow and purple, red and green) are particularly dynamic together. Rather than whipped cream or crème anglaise, consider making a fruit sauce for your dessert—for example, a blueberry compote to accompany a lemon pudding cake. Mix chives into your cream cheese to give it a green hue that makes it visually pop when served with sliced tomatoes and bagels.

DON’T: Put an even number of items on a plate
Having an odd number of foods (three is best) on a plate gives the dish visual tension, making it exciting to look at. Even numbers look too geometrically static and staid. So, five scallops rather than four. Steak, mashed potatoes, and green beans, with a separate plate for the salad.

DON’T: Hide your main course in sauce
You want the texture and color of your main course to be visible, not covered by sauce. If you’re serving a drier or chunkier sauce, like salsa, chutney, or pesto, put a dollop on top. If it’s wet, like cream sauce or gravy, try pouring a line across the food that can even extend over the other dishes to unify the plate. Caveat: Put sauce underneath your main course if it’s something that could get soggy, like tempura or sautéed fish with a crispy skin. Also, no sauce on top if the food has grill marks, as sauce would ruin the look.

DO: Use garnishes you’ll actually eat
Those random orange slices and parsley sprigs are a terrible idea for restaurant garnishes, and do no better at home. Garnishes should be two of these three things: pretty, delicious, or functional. They should add a new flavor, texture, or glow to the dish—for example, roasted pumpkin seeds on top of a puréed soup (crunch and toasty flavor), or nasturtiums in a salad (color and pepperiness).

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