Picture-perfect
Make your holiday parties and treats sparkle, using the finishing touches the professionals do

By JOHN CARAFOLI 
CONTRIBUTING WRITER

In addition to writing my monthly column, "Cooking with Carafoli," and developing recipes for a wide range of clients, I also work as a food stylist.

Many people ask me what this means. It's an exciting and creative (but also very demanding) career focused on preparing picture-perfect foods for photography.

As a food stylist, I work with large companies and advertising agencies to select, make and design products to be photographed. The goal of a food stylist working with a photographer is to make the subject appealing, appetizing and natural looking.

The scrumptious glazed donut with a steaming cup of coffee or a frosty, tempting soft drink you see on billboards all have been carefully styled by a food stylist, as has that perfect swirl of whipped cream depicted on the dessert package.

Sometimes there's action, too, which can require many takes before we get it just right. I have poured countless cups of coffee until we have captured the perfect splash of the rich liquid as it encounters the rim of a large paper coffee cup. I have squeezed dozens of tangy lemons until we achieve the one faultless drop caught by the camera at precisely the right moment.

The delectable plates of food you see in magazines also have been carefully styled to tempt you, the consumer. This takes an artistic eye, a well-rounded knowledge of food, and thinking fast on one's feet.

Many people assume that the food depicted in commercials and magazines is artificial. It's not. In order to abide by truth in advertising, we must use the client's real product. For me, the biggest challenge is making even the most unappetizing food look tempting and mouthwatering. It's also a constant challenge to come up with fresh and original ways of presenting food.

Looking good at home

Although my focus is primarily on professional food styling, there is much the home cook can do to present food attractively. It isn't complicated to serve food in an appetizing and creative way, like pictures in the magazines. All you need to know are a few simple cooking and preparation techniques. Add a nice table setting, including a few special plates, to create the ambiance.

You'll find holiday recipes here that you, the home cook, can prepare to surprise family and friends. I've offered suggestions on how to style and present picture-perfect food. Enjoy!

Tip: Hors d'oeuvres and appetizers are both intended to take the edge off diners' hunger and excite the appetite for the next course. Serve one or the other, not both. You don't want your guests to feel full before the main course is presented.

 

Styling and presentation suggestions for Salmon and Chilled Citron Vodka

Start off with hors d'oeuvres to greet your guests. I do this every Christmas before dinner. In front of my couch I place a small white marble table set with salad plates, cloth napkins and a few votive candles to help create an intimate mood. I bring out gravlax, artfully arranged on a white platter sprinkled with dill, garnished with lemon wedges and a small tray of toast points. I pass around several crocks of accouterments to top the salmon: sour cream sprinkled with a few chopped chives for contrast, chopped egg, and minced scallions.

Chilled glasses are brought out last, with the homemade citron vodka encased in a beautiful block of decorative ice. (See photo and recipe.) You may buy citron vodka but the taste of homemade is amazingly different. Once you learn how to make your own flavored vodka, you will never buy a commercial brand again. You can prepare this recipe using lime or orange as well.

 

Citron Vodka

1 750 ml bottle of good quality vodka

Zest of one lemon. (The zest is the outermost skin of the lemon, which has been removed with a vegetable peeler. Make sure no white is used.)

1/4 teaspoon superfine sugar

 

Add the lemon zest and sugar to the vodka. Shake it and place it in a cool place. It will be ready in two to three days. Any unused vodka can be placed in the freezer.

 

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For an exciting and original holiday presentation, try the following decorative ice block. You will need:

An empty, clean one-quart milk carton, top removed

An assortment of greens and colorful flowers (for example, roses, sprigs of evergreens like spruce, juniper with berries, holly with berries, or bittersweet. Or create your own mix.)

 

Place the vodka in the carton. Arrange the flowers or greens around the bottle, fill with cold water and set upright in the freezer overnight. When ready to serve, remove the ice from carton to reveal a beautiful and unique block of colorful ice. Place on a plate. Pour vodka into chilled glasses. Serve with salmon.

 

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Styling and presentation suggestions for Polenta with Gorgonzola Sauce

When I teach classes in plating and presentation, I use this appetizer to illustrate one of the big challenges for presenting a totally monochromatic dish. You will need a dish that will contrast the white sauce with the light yellow polenta. One way to do this is to spoon the sauce on the plate, arranging one or two small (less than three inches) pieces of polenta on the sauce. A garnish of flat-leaf parsley placed on the polenta adds color or mince the parsley and sprinkle it around the dish. Doing this will break up the whiteness of the sauce.

 

Polenta with Gorgonzola Sauce

Polenta

 

1 3/4 cups yellow cornmeal

2 cups cold water

1 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons olive oil

4 cups water for boiling

 

In a bowl combine the cornmeal, cold water and salt; mix and set aside. In a large pot bring the water to a boil. Add the oil and stir in the cornmeal. With an electric or hand beater, beat the cornmeal until it thickens (about 3 to 4 minutes). This will keep the polenta smooth and free of lumps. Cook it over medium heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, for 20 to 30 minutes. Cover the pot and leave it on the heat for 3 minutes more without stirring. Shake the pot a little. This will allow some steam to get under the polenta so it will detach itself from the bottom of the pot easily. Lightly oil an 8-by-10-inch sheet pan, turn out the polenta and spread it evenly over the pan. Cover with a lightly oiled piece of waxed paper (this can be done the day before). The polenta should be allowed to set and become firm enough to cut with a 3-inch cookie cutter. Be creative, the cookie cutter could be scalloped or you may cut the polenta into triangles.

 

Gorgonzola Sauce

 

4 ounces gorgonzola, dolce (sweet)

1/2 cup milk

3 tablespoons butter

Salt and freshly ground white pepper

 

In a saucepan, combine all the ingredients and turn heat to low. With a wooden spoon mash the gorgonzola and stir to incorporate it into the milk and butter. Cook for 2 to 4 minutes until sauce has a dense, creamy consistency. Makes one cup.

 

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Styling and presentation suggestion for Vegetable Pate

This multi-colored pate makes a wonderful tasty appetizer any time, but is especially nice for the holidays. Because it is so colorful, a simple white or clear glass serving plate makes the best contrast. Spread the red pepper sauce evenly on the bottom of the dish. Arrange the pate on top. As a garnish, use something that is in the recipe, such as carrot curls and a few baby spinach leaves placed on the side of the dish.

 

Three-Layer Vegetable Pate with Roasted Red Pepper Sauce

Butter a 2-quart loaf pan and line with wax paper buttered on both sides.

 

Carrot Layer

 

1 pound carrots, chopped

2 eggs

1/4 cup heavy cream

1 tablespoon honey

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

1/2 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground pepper to taste

1/2 cup breadcrumbs

 

Steam or boil the carrots until very tender. Drain thoroughly and puree in a food processor or blender along with the eggs, cream, honey, coriander, salt and pepper until very smooth. Remove and place in a bowl. Stir in the bread crumbs, then spoon into the loaf pan and smooth over the top.

 

Leek layer

 

5 large leeks

2 tablespoons butter

2 eggs

1/4 cup breadcrumbs

1/4 cup heavy cream

l/2 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground pepper to taste

 

Cut off the roots and all but 1 inch of the top green part of the leeks. Split each one lengthwise almost all the way through to the other side. Open each leek and rinse thoroughly under cold running water to rid it of all dirt. Melt the butter in a large skillet and sauté the leeks for 10 to 12 minutes until tender. Cool slightly.

Beat the eggs in a medium-sized bowl; add the leeks, breadcrumbs, cream, salt and pepper, and mix well. Spoon this mixture over the carrot layer, smoothing the top.

 

Spinach layer

 

3 (10-ounce) packages of fresh spinach

2 eggs

1/4 cup breadcrumbs

1/4 cup heavy cream

1/4 cup Parmesan cheese

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground pepper to taste

 

Remove stems from spinach leaves. Rinse leaves several times in cold water to remove dirt. Place the spinach in a large pot with 1/4 cup of water and cook a few minutes until wilted Drain in a colander and let sit until cool enough to handle. Squeeze the spinach in your hands until all of the water is removed Place spinach in a food processor or blender along with the eggs, cream, breadcrumbs, Parmesan cheese, nutmeg, salt and pepper, and puree until smooth. Spoon this mixture over the leek mixture and smooth the top.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cover the top of the pate with a sheet of buttered waxed paper, covered with a sheet of foil. Place the loaf in a larger baking pan, and pour enough hot water to reach halfway up the sites of the loaf. Bake for 1 1/2 hour or until a knife inserted in the center of the pate comes out clean

Remove the loaf pan from the water bath, peel away the foil and wax paper. Cool on a wire rack for 1 hour.

To unmold, place a large platter over the pate and invert quickly. Remove the loaf pan, and then peel away the waxed paper. Let sit for 20 minutes at room temperature, then cover with plastic wrap and chill for at least two hours (or up to 24 hours) before serving.

 

Red pepper puree

 

4 tablespoons butter

5 large red peppers, seeded and sliced

1 large garlic clove, minced

1 cup water

1/4 cup vinegar

2 tablespoons tamari or soy sauce

Freshly ground pepper to taste

 

Melt butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the red peppers and garlic and sauté for 5 minutes. Add the water; cover and cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally until water evaporates. Transfer to a blender and add the vinegar and tamari or soy; puree until smooth. Makes about l 1/2 cups.

To serve: Spoon several spoonfuls of the pepper puree on to a small serving plate. Slice the pate into 3/4 inch-thick slices, arranging them on top of the puree.

 

For more information on styling, check out my book "Food Photography and Styling" and my web site www.carafoli.com.

John Carafoli, cooking expert and food stylist based on the Upper Cape, will answer readers' food questions in his column that appears the first Wednesday of each month. Send inquiries to "Cooking With Carafoli," care of, Cape Cod Times Food Editor Gwenn Friss, 319 Main St., Hyannis, MA 02601, or e-mail to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

(Published: December 3, 2003)