As you may remember, I’m purposefully working my way through Louis Eguaras’s “eight ways to make a plate look better,” which is tip #39 in his clever little tome, 101 Things I Learned in Culinary School. Today’s post features way #1: use negative space. By this, Eguaras instructs, “Group food to create an illusion of abundance, but don’t crowd the plate. Create a wide border by centering or offsetting the food.”
I’m not sure that I like the term “negative space.” It gives the sense of an unpleasant, pessimistic, even antagonistic area, and that’s certainly not something we want to associate with our food, right? I think what Eguaras is getting at is to make the unused part of the plate (i.e., the part not directly touching the food) a distinct contributor to the overall “canvas,” in order to make the food that is there stand out.
And if you think about it, this is exactly why, when you eat at fancy restaurants, they bring you your food on a white plate with a nice wide rim, and it appears that you are being served an obscenely small portion. But the negative space trick worked, right? Your attention was drawn to the beautiful – if small – morsel in the middle (or slightly off-center) of your plate.
Here’s what I came up with in a recent meal of Oven-Fried Breaded Chicken and Green Beans and Mushrooms Lyonnaise:
What do you think? Granted, my plates are not all white, so this floral border kind of throws off the total non-use of the negative space. Still, the plate feels abundant, don’t you think? Imagine that the floral border wasn’t there and instead a wide, flat rim encircling the plate… Anyway, I noticed, too, that in order to scrunch all the food into the middle of the plate, I had to go vertical by layering the foods on top of each other, which instantly created more visual interest (and allowed me to practice “#2: Avoid flatness” again).
By the way, the veg here were killer! How did I not know until now that sauteed vegetables such as green beans taste so much richer if you add a splash of white wine vinegar just at the end of cooking? Try it! It really brightens the flavor and makes the veggies taste like even better versions of themselves (which, can’t hurt anything, especially if the plate is going to be all “Negative Nancy” on us).
Green Beans and Mushrooms Lyonnaise
1. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add a couple handfuls of fresh green beans (prep by rinsing the beans, snapping off the ends, and cutting in half). Boil for 8-10 minutes uncovered, then drain and rinse with cold water. Dry the beans and set aside.
2. Prep the mushrooms: Thinly slice 8-10 cremini, baby bella, or button mushrooms. Lightly salt them and set in a bowl to stand by. While you’re at it, peel and thinly slice about half of a medium onion.
3. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a large saute pan over medium-high heat. Add the onions. When they start to soften, add the beans and mushrooms. Season with salt and pepper. Saute briskly until the beans and mushrooms are slightly browned.
4. At the last moment just before serving, sprinkle in 1-2 teaspoons of white wine vinegar. Toss the veg around and then serve.