The Subtle Art of Finishing

A lot of the difference between what I (the average chef) do when serving a meal and what you (the average home cook) do can be summed up, at least in terms of presentation, as the subtle art of finishing.

It takes practically nothing but a little imagination to turn a dish from ordinary to inspired. Here’s a picture of some tortilla soup:

Looks reasonably good, right? And it tasted great! But now, here’s a picture of that same soup — finished with a couple tortilla chips, some sour cream, a handful of spicy pepitas and a sprinkling of ancho chili powder. It’s like one of those “See if you can spot the difference” things you used to play in “Highlights” while you were waiting in the dentist’s office.

Looks better, right? And couldn’t be easier. This, my friends, is an example of how you get all cheffy with your dishes. Try it at your next dinner party. You’ll smile knowingly to yourself as your friends “ooh” and “ahh” at your culinary skills. “I learned it on Skinny Girls & Mayonnaise,” you can say. Or you can keep that fact to yourself and just reply, “Oh, thanks… it’s nothing really.”

There are many things you can do to add drama or beauty to a dish before serving. Consider that diner and steakhouse classic, the curly wad of parsley. Or the leaf of kale. And we go from there. Do you know what sorts of edible flowers you have in your yard? Likely there are many. I often sprinkle a few purple garlic chive blossoms onto a soup, or some red sage petals onto a plate of sashimi. Try tucking a nasturtium into the corner of your pasta, or sprinkle some rose petals over your salad. You might want to buy one of those little bottles of balsamic glaze and let your inner Jackson Pollack out on the plate. How about some fragrant, brilliant yellow shavings of lemon zest on top of your fish? And to come full circle back to one of my personal favorites — that parsley I was talking about before… A little minced parsley sprinkled over soup, pasta, slices of steak, a fish fillet, just about anything communicates freshness and sophistication.

“Finishing” can also refer to flavors added just before serving. A sprinkling of flaky, crunchy Maldon salt just before serving brings complexity and dimension to a dish. A chunk of chilled butter folded into an otherwise routine sauce can elevate it to the sublime.

I don’t know if this simple Mexican soup is actually Sonoran. It just makes it sound more enticing than “tortilla soup,” doesn’t it? (Watch for an upcoming post on how what you call a dish affects how much your guests like it — that’s a form of “finishing,” too!)

*   *   *

Sonoran tortilla soup
serves 4 – 6

2 quarts homemade chicken stock (or good quality stock)
1 white onion, chopped
4 corn tortillas
8 tortilla chips
2 cups chopped white or golden swiss chard
1 tbsp. chopped cilantro
1 tsp. finely ground chili (pasilla or ancho, or chili powder)
1/4 cup cream
salt & pepper to taste

for finishing:

1 tsp. finely ground chili
4 tsp. sour cream
8 tortilla chips
1/2 cup spicy pepitas (click for recipe)

Heat chicken stock and onion in a large pan over medium heat until simmering. Add tortilla and tortilla chips. Cook for 5 minutes, then add swiss chard and cilantro. Continue cooking until chard is soft, about 10 minutes. Turn off heat and let cool. Once cooled, puree in a blender until smooth. Return to pan and heat, again over medium heat. Once soup is simmering, stir in cream and ground chili and turn off heat.

Ladle soup into 4-6 soup bowls. To finish, add a teaspoon of sour cream to the center of each. Using an toothpick or skewer, drag lines of the sour cream from the center to make a swirl pattern. Add a couple tortilla chips to each bowl, then sprinkle first the ground chili, and secondly the spicy pepitas. Serve.

6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Thelma Lee
    Sep 23, 2011 @ 00:55:15

    I think chefiness has more to do with how you use a knife! I bet your fingers fly so fast you can’t even see them….


  2. itsybitsybrianna
    Sep 23, 2011 @ 01:44:28


  3. Lisa Gaskin
    Sep 23, 2011 @ 04:30:37

    Tortilla soup is one of my favorite foods…will try this recipe…


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