I have nothing against ugly food. In fact, some ugly food is the most delicious. But if you’re pot lucking, dinner partying, or sharing photos, sometimes it’s nice to make things a little bit pretty (and incidentally more delicious) and the best garnishes are the ones that last weeks without going bad, have multiple uses, and don’t demand too much from your wallet.
Lemons and Limes
At any given moment, your produce drawer should be stocked with a few of these citrus fruits. A squeeze of juice from either adds flavourful brightness to both sweet and savoury foods, but the zest imparts a headier, more nuanced citrus aroma (thanks to the oils), while also bringing some visual brightness to the plate.
Lemon and lime zest can be used on roasted chicken, salads, grilled vegetables (especially corn) and pretty much any dessert (try a little lemon zest on dark chocolate chip cookies, or use it to temper the sweetness of frosting).
Photo-wise, a spent citrus wedge always looks inviting, and if you really want to get fancy, you can grill some lemon halves to serve alongside seafood, chicken, or a big bowl of pasta. Just brush the halves with a little oil, and throw ‘em directly on the grates.
Green onions are more than a garnish, but they are the easiest way to add a hit of green to your meal. They’re super cheap (much cheaper than the delicate, precious chives), and can hang out in your crisper for a week or two — just wrap the ends in a damp paper towel before tossing them in a plastic bag. You can chop them big or super fine (thin slivers look especially nice on ramen), or you can roast or grill them whole to bring rustic charm to any supper.
Red pepper flakes
These things never go bad and they add a pop of red, one of my favourite colours. They also add a fair amount of heat (duh) so sprinkle with a slight sense of caution. I particularly enjoy red pepper flakes on monochromatic, mayo-heavy picnic salads, as they provide contrast to a dish that can otherwise read as gloppy and one-note (visually and taste-wise).
Herbs that come in little plastic clamshells are usually much more expensive than they need to be, or come in a much larger quantity than you require. Bulk fresh herb stations let you mix and match a few sprigs of whatever you need, so you don’t end up wasting any pricey leaves. To elongate their lifespan, store in a slightly damp paper towel.
Also, don’t forget about parsley or coriander here. They might be a little less fancy than chervil and savoury, but they’re available for very little money in large bunches.
Due to its milder flavour, parsley is a little more versatile than coriander and can be chopped and sprinkled on literally any savoury dish. Coriander can be more polarising, but if it doesn’t taste like soap to you, it’s extremely good on Thai food, Mexican food, in breakfast scrambles or even in cocktails with a lot of citrus (and tequila). Both herbs are easily stored. Just stick ‘em, stem-side down, in a glass of water, and stick that glass in the fridge.