Garnishes can make or break your soup, so it’s a subject worth discussing.  It might be as simple as a little sprinkle of chopped parsley on a cream soup, or something ambitious, like little foie gras-filled profiteroles floating in a bowl of consommè.

Here’s a quick story about my all-time favorite garnish.  I went to a banquet–I don’t even remember what the occasion was–and one of the items on the menu was a consommè.  “Big deal,” I thought.  The servers came around and put soup bowls in front of us, and each soup bowl had nothing but a mushroom cap resting on the bottom–no consommè yet.  It’s traditional, for some bizarre reason beyond my understanding, for servers to come around with a teapot of consommè and pour it into the empty bowl in front of you.  Our bowls weren’t empty, though–there was that mysterious mushroom cap.  When the guy came around and added the consommè, the mushroom cap floated up and little teeny-tiny perfect bits of diced red, green, yellow, purple, and orange peppers came out from under.  It was like fireworks in a bowl.  Now that’s a garnish.

By the way, if you cut something up into little perfect squares–maybe 1mm x 1mm, or a little bigger–it’s called a brunois.  Some people spell it brunoise; I’m not sure which is technically accurate.  Maybe both, depending on your usage.

My point is not that you should obsess over such things and get all revolutionary and über-creative, but that it does bear thinking about.  It can be very simple but still enough to change something forgettable into something memorable.  An attractive and appropriate garnish makes it clear that you’ve taken your task seriously and personally, and your guests will appreciate it.

I’m not saying that you should get all OCD and garnish every soup on earth–in my opinion, some soups have enough presentation value as-is that they don’t need a garnish; it would be gilding the lily.  On the other hand, if you garnish some beef broth with cooked barley and beef brunois, shazzam–you have a very elegant beef and barley soup, people will be impressed, and you can add five bucks to the price tag.

It’s just something to think about, something to be aware of.  That’s all I’m sayin’.

Now, some soups have traditonal, classic garnishes, and as I’ve said before, the classics are the classics for a good reason.  Consommè, for instance.

  • Consommè brunois has a garnish of blanched or sautéed brunois of turnips, leeks, celery, and/or onions
  • Consommè julienne is garnished with julienned carrots, turnips, leeks, celery, cabbage, and onions (also cooked)
  • Consommè paysanne is what it is thanks to cooked paysanne-cuts of turnips, leeks, carrots, celery, and taters (“paysanne” is related to “peasant” and “paisano“–rough and rustic chopping, nothing fussy)
  • Consommè bouquetière–whatever vegetables you happen to have lying around (again, of course, already blanched or sautéed)
  • Consommè royale is garnished with a brunois of custard–hubba hubba!
  • Angel’s hair consommè (I forget the French name for it) has angel hair pasta, or vermicelli
  • Consommè with profiteroles, which I mentioned earlier, is garnished with little tiny profiteroles filled with foie gras.  Double hubba hubba!  Profiteroles, by the way, are balls of baked pâte à choux, which is the same stuff you use to make cream puffs and éclairs.  Dang, that’s tasty.

There are lots and lots of other consommès defined by their garnishes, but that’s enough to give you an idea.  If you get bored, Google consommè madrilène.

In the long run, a garnish is limited only by your imagination and what ingredients you have at-hand.  There are a few thngs to bear in mind, though, in order to keep your garnish from being silly:

  1. It should be edible and attractive
  2. It should be uniformly cut into an appropriate and neat size and shape–especially important with clear soups, where the garnish is more visible.  The clarity of a consommè, for example, highlights the perfection (or the imperfection) of what you’ve done
  3. The flavor and texture of the garnish should complement the soup, whether by comparison or by contrast
  4. Cook the garnish separately from the soup, and add it on top at the last second
  5. Don’t approach the cooking of garnishes in a cavalier way just because they’re garnishes.  Proteins (meat, poultry, etc.) ought to be cooked through but not falling apart; vegetables, pasta, and rice should be al dente

When it comes to clear soups, you have all sorts of flexibility.  You can julienne whatever meat, poultry, fish, or veg is the main flavor of the soup and use that.  You can use almost any vegetable cut into a nice and uniform shape.  You can use pasta, gnocchi, quenelles, barley, dumplings, spaetzle, rice (white or wild), couscous, crêpes, tortillas, won tons–any number of things.

Cream soups, whether hot or cold, do well with a garnish of sour cream (or crème fraîche), toasted slivered almonds, croutons (of course), some grated cheese or little fleurons–tiny scalloped crescents–made out of puff pastry.  Creamed veg soups usually get garnished with bits of whatever the main ingredient is:  Cream of broccoli?  Broccoli florets.  The same is true with snazzy seafood soups.  Cream of crab ought to be garnished with crab meat, for instance.

Puréed soups are good with julienned chicken or ham, some sliced sausage, croutons, grated cheese, or crumbled bacon.  I’m thinking of split-pea while I write this, so I don’t think that this entry will last much longer because I’m getting hungry.

Any soup can be enhanced with finely chopped herbs, snipped chives, discrete and edible flowers, parsley, or watercress.