Yes. Put simply, when it comes to food, looks matter. Greying mushy peas are never going to win a fight with a charred, juicy steak, dripping its pink juices liberally over a stack of golden french fries. Anyone to whom sticky off-white rice pudding with a wrinkled film of skin seems more appealing than a toffee-coloured chocolate brownie, piled with fat blushing raspberries and a dusting of icing sugar, ought not to be trusted. Not every meal can, or should, be an obstacle course for the senses, but they all start with the eyes; get the first impressions right and you’ll usually have a dish to remember.
That’s not to say that your food should be flashy. What is more important is serving up your dish in a style that ties together all of its elements, that suits its origins and intentions, and adds to its overall character. In order to demonstrate what I mean, I have prepared three different versions of the same dish: fresh and delicious tuna tartare. Each dish has different flavours and garnishes and the presentation is intended to reflect its individual style.
Case Study: Tuna Tartare
This dish is elegant and classy. Whilst a definitive original tartare recipe doesn’t exist, I think this one is pretty authentic; it is certainly the most paired down of the three, with the fewest ingredients. Diced tuna is mixed with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, some finely diced shallot and chervil or dill. As an optional extra squeeze in a small amount of lemon juice just before serving (too soon and you denature the fish, effectively ‘cooking’ the surface of the diced cubes, meaning they are no longer the desirable vibrant and fleshy pink). The flavours are very clean and simple, allowing the natural sweetness of the tuna to shine through. For this reason it is very important to use the highest quality, freshest tuna you can get your hands on – everything from colour to texture and flavour depends on this (see tip below). For added elegance top with a quenelle of caviar and a very thin, toasted bread crisp. I served this tartare on a round, white plate, to offset the colours and maintain the classic, unfussy feel. Dress with a fine drizzle of good olive oil and a little syrupy balsamic before serving this dish as a classic dinner party starter.
Classic Tuna Tartare, Caviar, Bread Crisp
When buying an expensive item like tuna steak, it’s important to look for quality. The flesh should be firm and springy in texture, and deep pinky red in colour. Most importantly, the meat shouldn’t have any kind of ‘fishy’ odour, but should simply smell almost salty, and of the sea. For the best results when dicing, place the fish into the freezer for about half an hour to firm up. This will make slicing into the muscle much easier, and prevent tearing or other damage. The result will be visually and texturally better, as the cubes will be neater and more uniform.
A dry white wine, such as a minerally Pouilly-Fumé from the Loire Valley, is perfect for this classic dish. Its flinty and citrus aromas will compliment the clean, sweet fish perfectly.
This tartare is bolder, and more rustic than the last. It’s strong flavours include dijon mustard, cornichons, capers, shallots, chives and lemon, as well as rich and silky egg yolk, to temper some of that acidity. The flavours being so bold, the presentation calls for a totally different style from the classic elegance of the previous dish. For this reason I opted to ‘deconstruct’ the tartare, which, although it sounds fancy, is hugely simple, as well as fun to eat. Simply dice all your ingredients finely and heap them in little piles around a mound of glistening fresh tuna, dressed simply in a little olive oil. The chunky, rustic look is best offset by a wooden serving board, which matches the bold and unapologetic flavours. I served this alongside some mini bruschetta-style toasts in order to allow people to pile their chosen flavours high. If serving as a starter, opt for a quail’s egg yolk; if a main, go for a hen’s egg. If you don’t like the idea of serving them raw, separate the yolks from the whites and poach for 30 seconds in gently simmering water, and allow to cool slightly before serving.
Deconstructed Tuna Tartare
(Clockwise from top – capers, quail’s egg yolk, lemon, bruschette, dijon mustard, salt and pepper, chives, shallots, cornichons)
The strong flavours of this tartare can stand up to a bit more depth. Look for a strong dry rosé (often the Spanish ‘Rosados’ have more body than their French counterparts and are kinder to a budget) for example one of the Garnacha wines from Navarra, which are both fruity and tangy. Or, if you prefer red, you could even opt for a light Loire red such as a Chinon.
This last tartare is fresh and zingy. Bright asian flavours, which are a classic match for tuna (think lime, coriander, chilli, ginger, sesame etc) and even brighter colours make this a feast for eyes and tongue. The tartare is sitting on a ring of cucumber carpaccio (unfortunately the picture doesn’t show this very well), over a smear of lime and avocado purée. I served this dish on a rectangular, black glass plate, which acted a bit like a mirror. The presentation was more modern, and more structural (the tuna was pressed in a ring mold to make a neat cylinder), with two chive stems used as a garnish, as well as black sesame seeds which matched the plate nicely. Next time I might use a piping bag for the avocado, to create a more interesting pattern.
Modern, Asian Tuna Tartare
For this dish, the avocado needs to be perfectly ripe in order to create the exact bright green to offset the tuna. In order to check for ripeness when buying, don’t squeeze avocados. Everyone else has been doing this, and may have damaged the outside flesh making it feel ‘squidgier’ than it is. Instead, lift the brown nub at the top of the fruit. If it comes away easily and the dip underneath is bright green, it is ripe. If it is brown it is over ripe. If it won’t come out or is white underneath, it is not yet ready.
As a purely personal preference, coriander, lime and ginger put me more in the mood for searingly cold lager, but if you’re going for wine, stick with white to complement the freshness of the dish. The flavours are bold and can stand up to a little more complexity than the first dish, so look for something with deeper, fruitier notes, such as an oaked Sauvignon Blanc, or if you’re feeling more adventurous (which seems appropriate here) a dry Riesling.
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