When people think of garnishing a meal, they might imagine complex knife skills carving up detailed vegetable roses. Or they might imagine a delicate foam pouf a la Alinea or a swoosh of a bright red gel sauce to the side of a small bite of food.
I’m here to tell you that garnishes do not have to be fussy. They can be, but they don’t have to be. If you’re cooking at home, you want to find creative ways to dress up your meals without extra effort.
Garnishing can be a complex art. For home cooks, it can be a simple way to brighten up a dish and add a subtle finishing flavor to your meal. Of course, you can add a basil chiffonade to your baked rigatoni when you serve it up, but what about shelf-stable, long-lasting garnishes that you can grab straight from your pantry? We can’t help but love adding flair to our dishes without having to lift a knife.
Without further ado, here are the five food garnishes we love right now:
- Fennel pollen
- Aleppo pepper
- Shichimi tōgarashi
- Crispy shallots
- Dried parsley and chives
Fennel pollen is likely the most expensive pantry garnish on the list. Starting at around $30 per ounce, it’s just under half the price of saffron but about ten times more expensive than dried parsley. A little goes a long way with fennel pollen, and it can be an incredible way to add a very subtle anise flavor to your dish.
So, what is fennel pollen? As the name suggests, it is the dusty pollen from the flowers of the fennel plant. Like saffron, fennel pollen must be harvested by hand. Indigenous to the Mediterranean region and used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, it was, for quite some time, a well-kept secret. It has since grown in popularity in the West, in part likely because of the accolades from its “positively transformative” experience written about in Peggy Knickerbocker’s 2000 essay from Saveur, “Pollen Pleasure.”
Her poetic article is not an understatement though—fennel pollen is nothing short of magical. Garnishing your dish with fennel pollen will elevate whatever you’ve cooked. Imagine you’ve made a simple pan-seared salmon with roasted potatoes. Sprinkle a touch of fennel pollen on top to create a finish of citrus and herbaceous undertones that might not otherwise be there. Try it on a simple modified caprese salad in the summertime. Or pair it with fresh herbs in a gremolata with chicken. Fennel pollen is an easy way to add a complex finish to whatever you’ve made.
Throw it on pasta, on chicken, on top of soup. Wherever you use it, it will make itself right at home and elevate the flavors of your dish. Fennel seeds are an ingredient in Chinese Five Spice powder, so fennel pollen makes an excellent finish on Chinese dishes, as it pairs well with star anise and Sichuan peppercorns.
You can attempt to substitute it with its closest relative, fennel seeds (which, as the name implies, are the seeds of the flowery part of the fennel). Because fennel pollen and fennel seeds both come from the same plant, they will have similarities in flavor, but they are not the same. Toast and grind the fennel seeds before sprinkling on a dish.
Named after the Syrian city of Aleppo, these coarsely ground chili flakes are now primarily sourced from Turkey due to the ongoing conflicts in Syria. Aleppo pepper is produced from the Halaby pepper and is typically found coarsely ground. Unlike crushed red pepper, Aleppo pepper is created from semi-dried peppers, which gives it a different texture than the fully dried crushed red pepper. Contributing to this unique texture is the very high oil content of the Halaby pepper.
These days, you can easily find Aleppo pepper (or its sibling substitute, Silk Chili) online, in your local Middle Eastern store, or even in your local supermarket. It wasn’t always so widely accessible outside of Turkish, Syrian, and Armenian immigrants in Europe and the United States, however. One source cites Paula Wolfert’s 1994 book, The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean, as the catalyst for the pepper’s rise in popularity among European and American audiences.
Aleppo pepper is traditionally used as a condiment, so it’s perfect for a garnish on nearly any dish where a smoky, tangy, fruity finish is desired. The Halaby pepper is moderately spicy at 10,000 Scoville Heat Units (SHU). For reference, a jalapeño can be anywhere from 2,500 to 5,000 SHUs.
What makes Aleppo pepper so utterly delightful is its complex flavor profile. If you want a pop of color and a unique finish to your dish, Aleppo pepper is the way to go. Sprinkle it on grilled meat, cream-based soups, pasta, or cheesy dishes. This is the workhorse of pepper flakes. It’s not so spicy that it imparts an inedible level of heat, but the heat, the smokiness, and the fruitiness are undeniably there. The beautiful, red color will make a simple dish soar to new heights in both flavor and appearance.
As we mentioned above, the ongoing conflicts in Syria can make genuine “Aleppo” pepper difficult to source, but Silk Chili is botanically identical and works as a perfect substitute. If you want to try another Turkish pepper, look to Urfa biber. It is much darker, smokier, and hotter than Aleppo pepper, but the flavor is unquestionably delicious, and it will add a deep, dark color to any dish.
Shichimi tōgarashi, sometimes called shichimi, is a spice condiment originating in Japan. The word Shichimi translates to seven flavors and tōgarashi translates to chili pepper. In short, it is a spicy pepper blend that has seven flavors that all work harmoniously. If you pick up a bottle of shichimi, it will contain these key ingredients: chili flakes, sesame seeds, and seaweed (nori). As for the remaining ingredients, that depends on the producer. The base of chili flakes, sesame, and seaweed creates a spicy, nutty, umami blend unlike any other spice blend you will ever try.
Although the recipe will change slightly from brand to brand, the seven ingredients are generally as follows:
- Chili flakes
- Sesame seeds
- Orange peel
- Poppy seeds
- Hemp seeds
- Sansho (Japanese pepper)
Though, there are some variations of this base recipe depending on the manufacturer. For instance, S&B, one of two major Japanese food producers, uses ginger instead of hemp seeds. S&B also omits poppy seeds and counts black and white sesame seeds as two ingredients. The cardinal rule of shichimi is that it must be precisely seven ingredients.
Shichimi dates back to the 17th century and was produced by herb dealers in Edo, now known as Tokyo. The inventor was an herbalist at Yagenbori Herb Shop, located in the Higashi-Nihonbashi district of Tokyo. The mixture was sold in pharmacies because of its medicinal value and was sometimes referred to as Yagenbori as a tribute to the inventor. It soon soared in popularity and was sold at festivals and grew to become a staple in Japanese cuisine. Like salt and pepper in the West, it can be found on many Japanese kitchen tables.
There are still shops operating from the 17th and 18th centuries in Japan where you can buy the very same recipe that was originally sold to pharmacies. The Yagenbori shop is located in Asakusa, where you can buy the original, moderately spicy blend. This blend contains grilled dried pepper and Satsuma orange peel. The blend is sold in a variety of wooden containers, a take (tube), taru (barrel), or hyotan (gourd-shaped). You can also buy shichimi from Shichimiya Honpo or Yawataya Isogoro.
This combination of fiery, nutty, and slightly numbing is somehow still a little sweet with just a kick of umami, thanks to the orange and nori. Sprinkle this on top of your noodle bowls or on grilled yakitori. But really, throw this condiment on almost anything, and it will bring a delicious flavor and beautiful color to your dish. Try it on poached eggs or avocado toast, or sprinkle it on top of freshly sliced radishes as a crunchy side dish. Mix it with mayonnaise and a little lemon juice, and drizzle it on grilled corn. The options are endless.
Thinking of reaching for the French’s fried onions this year? I might implore you to scoot a few aisles over to your grocery store’s international section and pick up a jar of crispy shallots instead.
Shallots are small, elongated bulbs with a thin red paper casing, and you’ve likely cooked with them before. Their mild, aromatic flavor makes them an exceptional addition to salad dressings, like Dijon shallot vinaigrette. They have a sweet flavor: not as sweet as a Vidalia onion, but sweeter than a white or yellow cooking onion. They are also quite delicately flavored, which makes them an exceptional onion for eating raw on a salad.
Shallots likely originated in Central or Southeast Asia and then traveled to India and the eastern Mediterranean. Although they are, generally, more expensive per pound than most other onion varieties, they are still broadly used across the world.
In Southeast Asia, raw shallots in combination with garlic are considered a foundation of many dishes. Many countries in East and Southeast Asia have a wide variety of methods for shallots, including enhancing fried rice dishes, pickling them to use in other dishes, or using them as a base for a condiment, like in the sweet and spicy Filipino palapa.
Many of these Asian countries have a variety of fried shallots: In Indonesia, these crispy shallot chips are called bawang goreng; in Vietnam, cù hành phi; and in Thailand, hom daeng jiaw. Most U.S. grocery stores will likely carry the Viet Way brand of fried shallots or the Maesri Thai fried shallots. Many brands are switching from frying the shallot in palm oil to more sustainable options, like corn or soybean oil. If sustainability is important to you, be sure to check the ingredients before you buy them.
Crispy shallots make any excellent garnish to any dish that needs a crunchy finish with a lightly sweet, aromatic flavor. Sprinkle them on a spicy noodle soup or on fried rice. Serve over stir-fried green vegetables or even on mashed potatoes. The irregular shape and crispy texture will add a beautiful golden color to your dish that will just take it up a level or three.
Dried Parsley and Chives
These are perhaps the least exciting, least expensive way to add some flair to your food, but they have saved many a dish.
Some chefs will tell you not to even bother with dried parsley and chives, but I have found that good quality, freeze-dried parsley and chives are absolutely a necessity in my kitchen. Not only do I use them both in cooking, but I also use them as a garnish when I’m in a pinch to add color to my dish. Despite the fact that fresh chives and flat-leaf parsley are readily available year-round, it doesn’t mean I always have a fresh stock in my refrigerator.
While the dried parsley and chives certainly won’t have the same flavor as fresh, it will add an herbaceous finish to whatever you garnish with it.
If you’re using dried chives, be sure to soften them first. When using them as a garnish, I find that preparing an herb oil is the best way to go. Spoon a teaspoon each of dried chives and parsley into half a cup of extra virgin olive oil and add a sprinkle of salt and a touch of lemon zest and juice, if you have a lemon. Set aside, and allow the herbs to mingle in the oil as you prepare the rest of the dish. Spoon the garnish on right before serving. This would work fabulously on seared meat, like steak or pork chops, roasted chicken, or fish. Try it as a finish on soups or on pasta dishes.
While dried parsley and chives may not be haute cuisine, they can still serve to elevate your home-cooked recipes to new levels when used in creative ways.