Pretty Food In a Pinch

Fixing food fast is our specialty, and we make sure it darn well tastes good. But when you're pressed for time in general, and you throw a dinner party into the mix, figuring out how to make the food look attractive can be a challenge. Here are some of our favorite simple garnishes for producing pretty food quickly and easily.

• Paprika: This is not a spice I use often in cooking, but it's one I use all the time on top of food. The trick is to lightly dust it over white or beige dishes like hummus or chicken salad so the color attracts the eye but doesn't dominate the flavor of the dish.

• Lemons: A simple yellow wedge or slice of lemon (seeds removed) alongside a mound of shrimp salad or a piece of fish is both elegant and flavor enhancing. But there is one other quick decoration requiring a knife that isn't difficult. Cut a roughly 1⁄4-inch-thick slice of lemon. Cut the slice through one side of the peel, continuing to cut through the center of the slice and stopping just before the other edge of peel. Take one side of the cut peel in each hand and bend the sides in opposite directions until you end up with a lemon slice curved into an attractive twist. Try this with limes and oranges, too.

• Cucumbers: This easy trick requires a sturdy dinner fork. Take the tines of the fork and, using enough pressure to cut through the peel, rake them down the side (top to bottom) of an unpeeled cucumber. Repeat, rotating the cucumber until you have ridges all the way around. It takes about a minute. Now slice the cuke crosswise for an artful effect. Use the slices to enhance a vegetable tray, or place a slice in the middle of a bowl of dip.

• Mexican-style dollops: There's a host of foods from South of the Border that can be dressed up with a dash of sour cream, guacamole, or salsa--then there are always canned sliced black olives. Don't like the atomic aftermath of cutting jalapenos? Use them whole to decorate the platter. They pack a wallop, but anyone who likes extra heat won't be shy about absconding with one.

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