Category Archives for Cooking

Recipe: Southern Fried Green Tomatoes with Buttermilk Crema

Stack of fried green tomatoes

Maybe you’re excited about your early green tomatoes. Or maybe it’s fall, right before first frost, and the plants have a few green tomatoes left. Or, maybe like us, your summer tomatoes come down with disease right after they set loads of fruit, and you have to rip them all out and burn them. Whatever the reason, if you find yourself with a basket of green tomatoes, this is the classic solution.

Basket of unripe tomatoesSouthern fried green tomatoes were created to take advantage of summer’s most favored vegetable, even if it’s not ripe. They are soft inside with a crispy cornmeal coating. Iggy keeps his simple with a pinch of cayenne and garlic, and drizzles of tangy Buttermilk Crema. These are thick and meaty, robust enough to anchor a summer vegetable plate. Serve them with tangy sides like a green bean salad, or watermelon and feta

Southern Fried Green Tomatoes

Personalize these by mixing your favorite spice blend into the cornmeal mixture. Don’t be tempted to cook them in a deep fryer, the movement of the oil tends to shake off the batter. Fried green tomatoes are best when cooked in a cast iron skillet. Serves 4.


4 medium green (unripe) tomatoes

1/2 cup cornmeal

1/2 cup flour, divided in half

1/2 teaspoon cayenne

1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup buttermilk

2 eggs

Corn or canola oil for cooking

Garden fresh herbs for garnish

For the Buttermilk Crema

1/2 cup buttermilk

2 tablespoons sour cream

2 teaspoons vinegar

1 teaspoon ground mustard

1/2 teaspoon salt

splash hot sauce (optional)


Make the crema by combining all ingredients (can be made a day ahead).

Cut off the stem end of the tomatoes, then cut tomatoes into 1/4″ slices. Set aside. Whisk eggs and buttermilk together in a medium-sized bowl and set aside. Blend together cornmeal, 1/4 cup of the flour, cayenne, salt and garlic and put into a shallow bowl or dish. Put remaining 1/4 cup flour in a separate shallow bowl or dish.

In a large cast iron skillet, add 1/4″ to 1/2″ of cooking oil and heat to 350 degrees. Line up the flour, egg mixture and cornmeal. Dredge each tomato slice first in the flour, then the egg mixture, then the cornmeal, and immediately add to the skillet. Do not crowd the pan or the temperature will drop. Fry for about 2 minutes on each side – until they are golden brown. Remove to a rack to drain and serve immediately.

To serve

Overlap 3-4 tomato slices on each plate and drizzle with Buttermilk Crema. Garnish with chives, basil or micro arugula. Serve Southern Fried Green tomatoes as hot as possible, although they’re not bad room temperature. You can make fried green tomato BLTs with any leftovers.


If You Like Greek Yogurt, You’ll Love Homemade Ricotta

draining homemade ricotta

Homemade ricotta is much softer and smoother than the grocery store brands. Since Chef Iggy has started making it every week or so, we’ve found lots of new uses for it – from a pasta garnish to desserts. The texture of homemade ricotta is close to yogurt, and we often substitute it for Greek yogurt in recipes.

It’s the easiest cheese to make. Try it yourself and you’ll never go back to the hard, rubbery stuff from the grocery store.

Homemade Ricotta

As you drain the ricotta, the watery whey separates out. Whey has a mild tangy flavor similar to buttermilk, but the texture isn’t as thick. Don’t let it go to waste! Save the whey and use it to cook collards, or marinate pork or chicken. We even use it in baking.

boiling milk for homemade ricotta

Bring the milk and cream just to the boil.


4 cups whole milk

2 cups heavy cream

1 1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice

1 1/2 teaspoon white vinegar

1 teaspoon salt


In a medium saucepan, simmer the milk and cream until they almost reach boil. Add salt, lemon juice and vinegar, then stir. Remove from heat and let sit for 30 minutes to curdle.

Ladle the curd mixture into a fine strainer (a chinois or a cheesecloth-lined colander) and let sit over a bowl for 5-10 minutes to drain off the whey. homemade ricotta

To serve

Use homemade ricotta any way you would store-bought ricotta. It is delicious layered in lasagna, and has enough moisture content that you can use dried noodles. A spoonful makes a creamy topping for pasta bolognese or our sweet potato gnocchi. Dab ricotta on pizza, or spread it on bruschetta and top with fresh tomatoes and basil. Or add sugar, shaved chocolate and vanilla to stuff into cannoli.

Warm Up to Easy Cream of Tomato Fennel Soup

cream of tomato fennel soup

Are you craving the fresh taste of garden tomatoes in winter? This tomato fennel soup is a creative and flavorful way to use frozen or canned tomatoes. When you’re tired of tomato sauce, make this hearty soup for a warming winter lunch or dinner. This recipe can work with either paste tomatoes or sandwich/slicing tomatoes (see note below about processing). Do not use cherry tomatoes, as they are too much work to skin and seed, and they produce too little pulp.

We love this recipe because it’s tasty, and only takes about half an hour to make.

Cream of Tomato Fennel Soup Recipe

Use your frozen garden tomato sauce or crushed tomatoes for this hearty soup. Or you can use canned crushed tomatoes, or fresh tomatoes. If fresh, cut an X in the bottom of each tomato and blanch them in boiling water for a few seconds. Let them cool and slip off the skins. Cut open and remove the seeds by squeezing the tomatoes into a strainer (save the liquid for the soup). Chop the tomatoes finely. Serves 8.


1 large onion, diced

2 ribs celery, diced

½ bulb fennel, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced or crushed

1 teaspoon black pepper

2 teaspoons salt

6 cups crushed tomatoes (skinless, seedless, chopped)

1 cup dry white wine or vermouth

2 cups heavy cream

Chopped fennel fronds and olive oil for garnish


In a large saucepan, saute the onion, celery, fennel and garlic over medium heat until the vegetable soften and start to smell good. Add salt and pepper, tomato and wine. If it’s too thick add a little water. Simmer until the flavors come together, maybe half an hour. Tomato fennel soup can be made ahead and reheated.

To Serve

Taste and correct the seasoning. Garnish with a sprinkling of fennel tips and a drizzle of olive oil. Serve with a grilled cheese sandwich, or a slice of crusty sourdough bread.

Need help deciding which tomatoes to grow? Check out our article comparing determinates to indeterminates. 

Hearty Kimchi Stew Will Get You Through Winter

kimchi stew

Called “Kimchi-jjigae” in Korean, this spicy kimchi stew will clear out your sinuses without setting your mouth on fire. The broth tastes similar to hot and sour soup, with the same mouth-watering vinegar-ish flavor. Soft pork belly is the perfect counterpoint to the tangy kimchi, amping up the rich flavor. Got a snow day ahead of you? Make this hearty stew and stay warm.

“Kimchi” is a verb – basically it’s Korean for “to pickle.” For this stew, we make our own kimchi cabbage (you can adapt this sauerkraut recipe). If you buy kimchi, look for kimchi’d cabbage, Napa cabbage or bok choi.

Kimchi Stew

Feel free to tweak this to your taste – it’s delicious with tofu in addition to (or instead of) the pork belly. Use tofu and vegetable stock for a vegetarian meal. Serves 8.


1 pound uncured pork belly, cut into half-inch cubes

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon fish sauce

1/2 tablespoon sesame oil

1 tablespoon fresh garlic, crushed or minced

1 tablespooon fresh ginger, grated

1 cup onion, chopped

2 tablespoons gochujang (Korean spice paste – we use this brand)

4 cups beef or chicken stock

1 cup kimchi, with liquid, cut into bite-sized pieces

1 tablespoon cooking oil

Sliced scallion for garnish


Mix together the soy sauce, fish sauce, sesame oil, garlic and ginger. Pour the mixture over the pork pieces and marinate while finishing prep, 5-10 minutes.

Heat a medium saucepan on med-high heat and add the cooking oil. Sauté pork belly for a few minutes, just to crisp up the outside of the pieces and render a bit of the fat.

Add chopped onion and gochujong. Stir and simmer the mixture, blending in the gochujong well, until the onions soften. Stir in the stock and kimchi. Bring back up to simmer and cook the stew gently for half an hour.

To Serve

Garnish each bowl with a generous handful of fresh scallions (we like to slice those on the diagonal so they look pretty). This stew stands up pretty well on its own for lunch or a light dinner. If you want to add a side, it would go well with scallion pancakes or maybe a hearty sourdough bread.

Cooking by Feel with Virginia Chef Edna Lewis

Virginia chef Edna Lewis cookbook

Chef Edna Lewis is having a bit of a moment – finally. And we can still learn a lot about Southern cooking from her. Top Chef recently paid homage to the Virginia-born chef when contestants had to cook a dish inspired by her Southern recipes.

Growing up in the South, I knew of the great Edna Lewis. We were a foodie family. My grandmother was a Julia Child devotee, and my father had all the trendy Southern cookbooks. Edna Lewis defined the Southern cooking food movement in the 1970s, inspiring chefs like Nathalie Dupree and Lee Bailey to spread the Southern cuisine gospel (one of the first baking recipes I ever made was Lee Bailey’s beaten biscuits).

Her book, The Taste of Country Cooking: 30th Anniversary Edition was recently re-released on its 30th anniversary. When I cracked it open, I rediscovered a wonderful thing about an Edna Lewis recipe: She cooks by feel.

The Julia Child Effect

Chef Edna Lewis isn’t really from the Julia Child school of cooking. Julia made it her life’s work to completely codify all those lovely French recipes. She wanted exact measurements and times. When her writing partner, Simone Beck, would say something like, “Blanch the green beans in boiling water,” Julia would roll her eyes and start taking notes. What sized pot? How much water? How many minutes?

She recognized and respected that generations of French chefs were pretty much cooking by osmosis. French cooks grew up feeling the pastry dough, not measuring it. They cooked from the senses – feeling, tasting, smelling and looking. They baked the cookies until they smelled done, cooked the fish until it felt firm, simmered the sauce until it tasted rich and browned the chicken until it had just the right caramelized color.

Julia changed all that.

Julia Child put numbers on everything. This helped American cooks like herself, who hadn’t grown up in kitchens redolent with thyme and butter. With numbers like hers, anyone could cook like an experienced French chef.

I say this as someone who adores Julia Child. I grew up watching her television show with my grandmother. It was a sacrosanct hour, during a time without recording technology. No matter what we were doing or who was visiting, everything in the household stopped and we had a snack in the den with Julia. She taught my grandmother, who taught my father, who taught me. Julia showed Americans that we could actually make and enjoy good, fresh food.

But, back to Edna.

The Edna Lewis Groove

Last summer, our annual food festival in Richmond, Virginia, held a luncheon to honor Edna Lewis in the 100th year of her birth. Several chefs came together to prepare some of her key recipes, and we watched a moving documentary about Miss Lewis’s background. The food was stunning. I filled my plate with buttermilk biscuits, lima beans with cream, brisket, chicken and dumplings, slow-cooked green beans, braised cabbage with kale and sweet potato pie. After I put down my fork, I picked up my phone and ordered the 30th anniversary edition of The Taste of Country Cooking.

recipes from Virginia chef Edna Lewis

A classic Southern brunch from Virginia chef Edna Lewis recipes.

When it arrived a few days later, I recognized the cover from my childhood. But I had forgotten about the recipes. Inside, Edna Lewis cooks just the way that all great chefs do: By feel. Rediscovering this, after Julia, was a revelation.

Lewis’s recipes usually include precise measurements for ingredients, but when it comes to directions, she serves up a paragraph or two of some storytelling. For example, she describes in detail how biscuit dough should feel, “the dough will be very soft in the beginning but will stiffen in 2 or 3 minutes.” Chef Lewis emphasizes feel, giving us times just as a guideline, not a rule. Our senses define the rules.

The book also includes a sense of place and history. Lewis links each dish to a part of her childhood, spent gardening, fishing, raising animals and putting food by. Her respect and love for ingredients seeps into every recipe. You find yourself making friends with your collard greens, understanding where they came from, how they like to be cooked, how they should smell and look.

Cooking by Feel

Lewis isn’t the only chef to cook by feel. In fact, all great chefs do. And home cooks who aspire to be great need to learn the technique. Anyone who cooks by feel can take a loosely defined list of ingredients and cook from it. Someone who cooks by feel can recreate Grandmother’s corn pudding just by knowing what’s in it – proportions optional.

I have seen this, repeatedly, from the chefs I’ve interviewed for stories. Skilled chefs speak “food” the way others speak English. And we home cooks can learn from that.

The recipes that Chef Iggy puts on Kitchen Plot have an element of cooking by feel. Times and temperatures are secondary once you understand an ingredient and where you are going with it. Try it yourself. Read the instructions, lay out your mise en place, and then have at it. Smell the sizzle, look at the browning, feel the smoothness or roughness. Put these senses in your physical memory, and you’ll never need to write a step-by-step recipe again.

Miss Lewis would be so proud.

Visit Amazon to order your copy of  The Taste of Country Cooking: 30th Anniversary Edition

Try Shrimp and Grits with Heirloom Corn

shrimp and grits

Shrimp and grits originated in South Carolina, but this dish is beloved throughout the South and Mid-Atlantic. In South Carolina, shrimp season is closed from mid-December through the end of April, so this is a spring/summer dinner.

Chef Iggy makes shrimp and grits with 21-24 count shrimp, which means there are 21-24 shrimp per pound. So two pounds of shrimp means about 12 shrimp per person. You can serve larger shrimp – if so, leave the tails on for a convenient handle.

Southern Heirloom Shrimp and Grits

We make these shrimp and grits with grits ground from heirloom Bloody Butcher corn. The grits have a reddish color and toothy texture that modern grits don’t always have. For the best flavor and “grits-ness,” look for stone-ground varieties of grits from local mills. If you can’t find it locally, you can also mail order from Woodson’s Mill in rural Roseland, Virginia.

This recipe serves 4.bloody butcher grits


1 cup stone ground grits

4 cups water

2 cups whole milk, or combination of skim milk and cream

1 onion, diced

1 bell pepper, diced

1/2 cup celery, diced

8 ounces Tasso ham or Andouille sausage, diced

2 tablespoons olive oil or butter, divided

1/4 white wine

1 tablespooon cornstarch dissolved in 1 tablespoon water

1 clove garlic, minced

2 pounds shrimp, 21-25 count, shells removed

salt and pepper to taste

chopped fresh parsley or chili threads for garnish


Bring 4c water to boil in a large saucepan. Sprinkle in the grits and stir briskly with a whisk to break up any lumps. When water is simmering again, turn heat to low. Cook slowly over low heat, stirring frequently, until the grits are thickened to the consistency of cooked oatmeal. This can take half an hour or more – don’t rush it.

Once the grits are thick, add the milk one cup at a time, stirring. This is basically like making risotto, in that you want the grits to absorb the extra liquid slowly.

After all the grits are added and have thickened again, taste them and add quite a bit of salt (up to 2 teaspoons). It might seem like a lot but grits are bland.

If the grits are still hard in the center, add a bit more water and cook slowly. Cook until they are soft and creamy – an hour or more in total time. When they are done, turn off the heat and cover the pan. The grits can sit for up to half an hour. Just add more water and reheat if they get too thick while sitting.

For the shrimp: In a medium saucepan, heat the oil and add the sausage or ham. Cook until warmed and then add onions, pepper and celery. Season lightly with salt and pepper, and cook until the vegetables have softened.

Deglaze the pan with the 1/4 cup wine, and then add 1 cup water. Simmer until the sauce thickens slightly. Then add the cornstarch/water liquid and stir. Turn off heat and hold to serve.

Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the remaining oil and garlic, then sautée  briefly. Add shrimp with a pinch of salt and stir or toss until pink.

To Serve

Spoon warm grits into a shallow bowl or soup plate. Top with 10-12 shrimp, then sauce with the gravy. Make sure each plate gets plenty of ham and vegetables. Garnish with chili threads or fresh parsley.

The perfect Southern side dish for shrimp and grits is a cooked green, like braised kale or sautéed spinach.

Rosemary Perks Up These Butter Cookies

rosemary butter cookies

Rosemary makes these butter cookies memorable. The piney crispness of the rosemary combined with a sugary butter dough creates a savory/sweet tea cookie that works for an afternoon snack or a light dessert. Give these cookies as a holiday hostess gift.

A word about rosemary: Do not use dried rosemary in these cookies! In fact, don’t use dried rosemary anywhere, except perhaps in a floral wreath or tablescape. Grow rosemary and keep it all year! Plants will winter over in warmer gardening zones, and they thrive indoors in colder climates. Dried rosemary has a dusty flavor and the texture of pointy dried pine needles. If you can’t find fresh rosemary and you still want to make herbal butter cookies, try these thyme and cornmeal tea cookies instead.

If you can’t find sanding sugar, then skip the final step before baking. Sanding sugar is a coarse, clear sugar that doesn’t melt in the oven. It gives finished cookies a bit of sparkle and sugary crunch. Regular sugar will just melt into the cookie, which isn’t worth the trouble of sprinkling it on top.

Rosemary for Remembrance Butter Cookies

This recipe makes about 5 dozen cookies.


2 sticks unsalted butter, softened

3/4 cup sugar

1 large egg, lightly beaten

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour

1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, finely chopped

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup sanding sugar to finish (optional)


Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, rosemary and salt. Set aside.

Beat butter and sugar in an electric mixer until light and fluffy, 2-3 minutes. Add egg and vanilla and mix well at medium speed. On low speed, add the flour mixture and mix until just combined.

Divide dough in half. On a floured board, roll each half into a log about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Roll up each log in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm (dough can be made ahead and held overnight).

Slice each log into 1/4″ thick cookies and lay them on the cookie sheet about an inch apart. Sprinkle each cookie with a pinch of sanding sugar.

Bake until lightly golden, about 20 minutes, turning the cookie sheets halfway through cooking. Cool and store in airtight container. Cookies will keep for 1-2 weeks.

To Serve

These cookies make a memorable hostess or holiday gift from the garden. Package them as a stack in cellophane or a pretty tin lined with wax paper. Tie the package with ribbon and a sprig of rosemary to hint at these butter cookies’ herbaceous nature.

Use Fresh Sage for Tasty Sausage Stuffing

sausage stuffing recipe

Image (c) Shell B Royster

Like most families, we have stuffing every Thanksgiving. Why not have it more often? The truth is that stuffing is a delicious side for more than just holiday meals. Use your fresh garden sage and serve this sausage stuffing with grilled pork, roasted chicken or other fowl.

Most stuffing is actually “dressing.” The difference is that stuffing is cooked inside a bird, while dressing is cooked in its own pan. Chef Iggy bakes his dressing in a pan because to be fully cooked it must reach a temperature of 165 degrees. If you try to hit that goal with a stuffed turkey or chicken, you’ll overcook it. Plus, using a big casserole dish means you can make as much dressing as you like.

Before you get wiggy about the packaged stuffing cubes, just know that we tried this recipe one time with an artisanal sourdough loaf, lovingly torn into tiny stuffing-sized bits and toasted in the oven. It was gloppy and yucky. The cubes are better.

Sage and Sausage Stuffing

This recipe will serve about 8 hungry people, 6 if you want to have leftovers.


1 pound breakfast sausage with sage

2 packages unseasoned stuffing cubes

1 cup onion, finely diced

3/4 cup celery, finely diced

1 Granny Smith (or other tart) apple, unpeeled and diced

2 teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons black pepper

1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, or 1/2 tablespoon dried

2 teaspoons fresh sage, chopped, or 1 teaspoon dried and crumbled

1 quart turkey or chicken stock

2 tablespoons butter


Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter a large, uncovered casserole dish.

In a large saucepan, brown the sausage. Add celery and onion, then sautee for a few minutes, until the vegetables are soft. Toss in the salt, pepper, apple, thyme and sage and sautee briefly to combine and warm. Add stuffing cubes, stock and butter. Mix well to combine. The sausage stuffing can be made ahead to this point.

Put stuffing into buttered casserole dish and cook uncovered for about 30 minutes, or until browned on top.

To Serve

For family-style meals, serve the sausage stuffing in a pretty casserole dish and let guests help themselves. If you prefer to plate the meal, pile a few spoonfuls of stuffing in the center of the plate. Top with nicely arranged sliced meats or pieces of roast chicken. Curve a few spoonfuls of side vegetables around part of the stuffing. Top with a few sprigs of fresh sage.

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7 Chef Tips for Mad Food Presentation Skilz

colorful food presentation for crab stack

You may be a great cook, but how are your food presentation skills? Chefs know that a pretty plate impresses diners. I’m a really decent cook, but when I met Chef Iggy he effortlessly blew me away on two pro-level skills: sauces and food presentation. I shouldn’t be surprised. While I was in school analyzing biblical references in William Blake’s poetry, Chef Iggy was studying Hollandaise and how to break down dead cows. In the kitchen, knife skills trump iambic pentameter.

Studying professionally plated food has taught me a few tricks. For example, the food can touch! What a radical thought! If you don’t follow any of these other tips, just letting some of your foods overlap each other on the plate will immediately improve your food presentation game. Like this tempting board of smoked fish and pickles from Perly’s Restaurant & Delicatessen. 

smoked fish board

Pile it on! This messy plate of smoked fish and pickles invites diners to dive right in.

If you want to push further, we’ve got you covered. We put together the top seven chef food presentation skills for impressing your family and guests, illustrated by plated examples from some of Virginia’s top professional chefs. Try a few of these and make your next meal more fancier.

1. Color It Up

One of the (many) tenets of Japanese bento is that the little lunch must contain five different food colors. As someone who made bento lunches for many years, I can testify as to how difficult this is. Can you think of five different-colored foods that you would prepare and eat for one meal? If not, no worries. At least try for, say, three.

Even that can be surprisingly difficult, as so much food is shades of brown, with the occasional green. Try to get some red in there! Or purple. Orange. We eat with our eyes first, and a pretty plate promises to be a tasty plate.

colorful crab stack

Colorful crab stack incorporates five different colors.

This remarkable crab stack from Chef Carlisle Bannister at Upper Shirley Vineyards actually manages to get five different colors on the plate – red, green, orange, white and even purple. The colors are vivid, not dull and washed out. It promises an equally vivid flavor, and diners can’t wait to dig in. Food presentation level 10+ on this one.

2. Get Some Garnishes

Here’s where a kitchen garden or even a small container garden comes in handy. Grow herbs and edible flowers and you’ll always have colorful, fresh garnishes! I know one professional chef who has a kitchen garden outside the restaurant simply to grow edible flower garnishes.

Important note: Food presentation 101 dictates that all garnishes must be edible! Never put anything on the plate that can’t be eaten (apart from normal bones or pits that diners would expect). Adding a garnish can be a way to cheat an extra color onto the plate. For example, top a plate of pasta with a sprig of fresh basil. Or top a small salad with a few blueberries and a sliced strawberry.


A simple garnish can perk up a plain dish.

For the simple sweet potato gnocchi pictured here, Chef Iggy garnished the plate with homemade ricotta and a sprig of fresh mint. The white and bright green spark up an otherwise pretty dull plate. They also add some zing that helps temper the rich ragu sauce.

3. Scale the Heights

Go vertical! This is a food presentation trend in professional restaurants that just isn’t going away.

Instead of putting foods next to each other, professional chefs look for ways to put them on top of each other, building little edible skyscrapers. A flat plate is usually boring. A tall plate creates drama and interest. Probably because we are wondering if it will fall (and sometimes it does). That’s exciting.

pound cake

Tilt a piece of pound cake to go vertical.

To go vertical, you don’t need to get architectural about it. For the fruit and cake dessert pictured here, Chef Walter Bundy at Shagbark simply turned the triangle of Old Virginia Buttermilk Poundcake on its side. This creates a tiny cake pyramid amid the fruit garden. It’s simple, and adorable. You want to eat it now, don’t you?

Simply look for opportunities to prop something up, or put something on its side instead of its back. For example, Chef Iggy will often pile a starchy side, like grits or mashed potatoes, in the center of the plate and then top it with a chicken thigh or sliced pork loin.

pimento cheese

Vertical snack: Pimento cheese and crackers.

You don’t need to wait for a fancy dish to try this food plating trick. Check out this picture of Chef Ian Boden’s plate of pimento cheese and crackers at The Shack in Staunton. Just piling up the cheese dip and leaning the crackers against it creates vertical interest.

4. Cut the Plate

Warning: This is an advanced food presentation skill and can be difficult plating with a full dinner to serve. I leave that to the pros, and I prefer plating this way with appetizers or snacks. It works like this: Using either large-ish plates or small servings, just use part of the plate.

You can create fancy arcs and swirls of food around the outside edge of the plate. Or just plop one perfectly centered small treat in the middle. Think of this as “framing” the food by the deep rim of the plate.


Mad food presentation skills on this salmon dish

The salmon in this picture is a perfect example. Chef Trevor Knotts at East Coast Provisions is doing so much right for this dish – color, garnishes – that I hate to call it out for just one single food presentation example. But what’s really brilliant here is that he’s only using half the plate.

This hand-thrown plate is pretty large, and most home cooks would be desperately trying to fill it up. Or use it as a serving platter. Instead, think about building a little work of art on the plate, showcasing both the food and the lovely dish.

5. Try New Servers

Hand-thrown pottery (like the plate in the above example) in natural colors is trending in professional dining rooms these days. But home cooks can’t always afford to update an entire dining set. Instead, mix and match a few dishes using a pretty or unusual plate.

cast iron serving dish

Cute serving dishes enhance food presentation.

This trick works well if your food presentation skills are still coming up to speed. If you have some unusual or beautiful dishes, you can get away with just tossing food on them. Also consider serving food in the actual cooking dishes, as Chef Craig Perkinson did when he used the tiny cast-iron baker for this roasted duck, brussels sprouts and apple dish at Southbound.

More and more professional chefs are using large bowls to serve entire courses, which is a good strategy to try at home. Use large, flat bowls (sometimes called “soup plates”) for the best effect, and pile the food together or stack it up. Again, so it’s actually touching.

6. Smear the Sauce

Sauces separate the real chefs from the home cooks. Not only can professional chefs create the perfect sauce that marries disparate elements of a dish, but they know how to present it. Chefs don’t just pour sauce on top of food. They drizzle it, draw with it and smear it.

Here’s a cheffy secret: Sauces are often better under the food instead of on top of it. On top they can make a crisp entree soggy. A sauce can also obscure an otherwise visually lovely entree.

plated scallop

Artistic sauce drawings and smear perk up this scallop.

Another secret: Put the sauce in a squeeze bottle and you have an instant sauce pencil. You can dot, swirl, spatter and draw. If you have two or three different colored sauces, you can really get artistic. For this seared scallop topped with a cube of lemon gelee, Chef William Price at The Berkeley Hotel used two sauces in contrasting colors to add artistic appeal to the large plate. This is a combination of squeeze-bottle dots and spatters, plus the smear.

The smear is very easy sauce trick, no squeeze bottles required. Drop a spoonful of sauce on the plate. Then, with the back of the spoon, press it into the blob of sauce and quickly pull the spoon in the direction you want the smear to go.

charcuterie plate

The smear amid the charcuterie.

You can place the food on top of the smear, or just let the smear speak for itself. In this charcutierie board from Metzger Bar & Butchery, Chef Brittanny Anderson breaks up a plate of blobs with an artistic smear of apple butter in the center. Also notice the slate tile she uses for food presentation – another example of using creative serving plates.

7. Spread the Fan

Fanning the food is a simple trick that looks oh-so-pro. Fan out crackers, cheese and meats for a simple snack, as Chef Will Longoria at The Rogue Gentlemen did here. Or get fancy with the main course.

fanning food presentation

Colorful fanned food prettifies a snack plate.

Chef Iggy usually slices and fans roasted meats like seared skirt steak, grilled pork loin or boneless chicken breast. Slicing and fanning them on the plate (atop a little pile of mashed potatoes) fancies up an otherwise plain dinner. Hit it with a sprig of parsley or basil and you’ve got One Fancy Dish.

There you have it! Wow your family and guests by applying a few of these food presentation skills to your next dinner plate. Keep practicing and you’ll find your own favorite methods for particular dishes. Then you’re well on your way to greater Cheffy-ness.

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Mix Up This Heirloom Corn Polenta Recipe

bloody butcher cornmeal for polenta recipe

We like to use Virginia’s Bloody Butcher heirloom corn for this polenta recipe. The dark reddish color makes a striking plate presentation, which is one reason professional chefs prize this heirloom corn.

bloody butcher cornmealLook for Bloody Butcher grits (coarse grind) and cornmeal (finer grind). We found ours at Woodson’s Mill, which specializes in milling local and heirloom grains. Anson Mills in Charleston also carries heirloom varieties. You can use the cornmeal to make either cornbread or polenta.

Italian polenta can be made one of two ways: Firm polenta is poured onto a sheet and cooled, then cut into shapes and pan fried to create a crispy outer coating. Soft polenta has the consistency of grits, or porridge, and can be used interchangably with grits in recipes.

To make polenta, you must cook a bit by feel. Cornmeal responds differently depending on factors like the moisture levels of the corn (those change depending on the type of corn and how long ago the cornmeal was ground). Humidity and cooking temperatures also affect texture.

Fortunately, there is a wide margin for error. Take your time and taste it as you go. Add more liquid and cook it longer if the polenta is still gritty at the end. Polenta can be made ahead and reheated.

Heirloom Corn Polenta

This polenta recipe has options for both soft and firm versions. Although we prefer Bloody Butcher corn when we can find it, you can make polenta with any cornmeal. This serves 4-6 people.


1 cup cornmeal

5 cups chicken stock or water for soft polenta

4 cups chicken stock or water for firm polenta

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup Parmesan cheese for soft polenta

Flour for dusting firm polenta


Bring the liquid to a boil, add salt. Turn heat down to low – below simmer.

While stirring with a whisk, slowly sprinkle in the cornmeal. Whisk it to break up any lumps. And now the fun begins!

Switch to a wooden spoon and stir the polenta frequently until it thickens and is no longer gritty. This takes roughly 45 minutes.

Making polenta is like making risotto, the grains must slowly absorb the moisture. The polenta will start to thicken after a few minutes, so it will look promising, but if you taste it you’ll find the insides are still gritty.

Cook patiently until the polenta is soft. For the firm polenta recipe the spoon should stand up in the mixture. For the soft polenta recipe the consistency should be more like a pudding. The soft polenta recipe can be made ahead to this point and then reheated (add a bit more liquid if necessary). Stir in the Parmesan cheese. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Serve warm.

For the firm polenta recipe, butter a rimmed cookie sheet or jellyroll pan. Pour polenta into the pan and let it cool (can be refrigerated). When completely cooled, cut into squares or biscuit-sized circles.

Dust the polenta shapes with flour and pan fry over high heat until both sides are slightly browned.

To Serve

Finish with a sprinkling of salt and serve hot. Top with a saucy main course that can be sopped up by the polenta.