Weekly Column_120 / August 16, 2012

Diet Detective’s Food-Styling Healthier Food to Taste Better

By Charles Platkin, PhD

Another study, conducted by Gil Morrot and colleagues and reported in the journal Brain and Language, set up a wine tasting for 54 undergraduates from the faculty of Oenology of the University of Bordeaux. When the researchers artificially colored white wine with an odorless dye to look red, the panel of soon-to-be wine connoisseurs described its aroma as that of red wine.

And finally, a study in the Journal of Consumer Research found that the color of a drink can influence how you think it tastes. In fact, the researchers found that color had more of an influence on perception of taste than either quality or price information. When presented with two cups of the same Tropicana orange juice, one of which had been darkened with food coloring, the members of the researcher’s sample group perceived differences in taste that did not exist. However, when given two cups of orange juice that were the same color, one of which had been sweetened with sugar, the same people failed to perceive taste differences.

The problem is that when most people start to cook healthier, the food looks bland — and if a food looks uninteresting there is a high likelihood that it will be perceived as tasting uninteresting. Here are a few tips from top food stylists for making healthier foods look more appealing.

Garnish:  Here are some garnishing suggestions from Sarah Thompson, food stylist for the Taste of Home Cookbook, Cooks who Care Edition.

Bundle matchstick-cut veggies such as carrots, red and yellow peppers and zucchini together; wrap them with a strip of green onion and carefully tie it into a knot. Then steam the bundles in a skillet with a little chicken broth, water or wine.

Sprinkle pomegranate seeds over salad greens (savory) or yogurt (sweet) for a great shot of color and added sweet-tartness. Fresh currants offer a delicate touch and a pop of color, and bright orange kumquats, whole or cut in half, make a nice garnish for both entrées and desserts.

Fresh herbs are a garnishing staple. In sprigs or minced, for either sweet or savory recipes, herbs are a go-to garnish that makes everything look more presentable. Celery leaves are a quick and economical garnish when you’re in a time crunch! Once you’ve chopped the stalks, keep the leaves in a small bowl of water in the fridge.

Add Color:  When planning your meal think about the colors of the various components. When the food on your plate is all one color — particularly if it’s white or beige — it will look a lot less appealing. Add a punch of eye-popping color with red, yellow and green peppers, red and orange beets, or yellow and green winter and summer squashes. Carrots also come in yellow, purple and orange, and string beans can be purple, yellow or green. Tomatoes come in a variety of shapes, colors and sizes. All of these enhance the visual palette of the plate, says Jean Galton, a Seattle chef and food stylist. Also, use a sprig of fresh dill or parsley on your plate. Or hollow out a sweet red, green, yellow or orange bell pepper as a container for a veggie dip.

When steaming/blanching vegetables, it is always important to undercook them slightly, and plunge them into ice cold water to stop the cooking process and keep the beautiful, natural color of the vegetable intact. Overcooked vegetables will be gray, dull and soggy looking, says Pam Sorin, a food stylist and recipe developer located in New York.

Shape and Texture:  Consider the textures and colors of various grains and beans (polenta, farro, buckwheat, quinoa and the entire variety of dried beans), as well as seeds (sesame, poppy, pumpkin, flax). Try rice and soba noodles, and don’t forget whole-grain pastas extruded in interesting shapes. Make sure to add these to your plate, says Galton. When there’s more than one texture and/or color on the plate, the food looks more interesting and inviting.

Plating:  You often hear chefs talk about the importance of how they “plate” their food. Don’t just throw your food on a plate and serve it. Even if you’re eating alone, arrange your plate attractively, and never use paper plates. Even if you’re having a frozen dinner, make sure to put the food on a plate.

Plain white china makes food look more attractive, because the colors of the food aren’t fighting with the pattern on the plate.

When serving chicken or turkey breasts or boneless pork chops, cut them at a slight angle into an odd number of slices and fan them out on a serving platter or individual plates, says Thompson. By doing this you fill the plate, making the portion look larger so that you feel you’re getting more food.

Make it Flat:  Flattening boneless, skinless chicken breasts makes them larger, making you feel like you’re eating a heartier portion when you’re not, says Thompson. It also makes them thinner, which reduces cooking time. Filled chicken breasts, when sliced and arranged on your dinner plate, make for an elegant presentation, she adds.

Give it a Spray:  Food stylists often brush food with oil before shooting to make it look juicier. However, too much oil adds calories, so give your food a little spritz of cooking spray instead.

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