by: REVIEW PHOTO: BARB RANDALL - Barb Randall had the Lakewood Center Associates create garnishes like this tomato rose and lime basket. The garnishes add a little wow to an otherwise ordinary plate. Last week I had the pleasure of being the guest speaker at the Lakewood Center Associates’ monthly meeting. This is a volunteer organization whose mission it is to promote the welfare and serve the needs of the Lakewood Center of the Arts.

Member Nancy Jones and I had been communicating for several months and the topic we settled on for my address was “How to put more wow on your plate.” My intention was to give tips on how to turn ordinary meals into extraordinary events. It was great fun for me to share some tips, so much so that I am sharing some of the tips today in this column.

Unfortunately you will miss out on the hands-on portion of the presentation. I talked the ladies through transforming vegetables and fruits into works of art. They made roses out of tomatoes, baskets out of limes, brushes and bowties from green onions, rose buds from radishes, flowers out of chili peppers and fans out of cucumbers. It was great fun and the women were successful right off the bat.

Here are a few of the pearls of wisdom I shared with the group:

We eat dinner 365 days a year but most of us have a repertoire of about seven favorite dinners that we serve over and over again. These are meals that you know everyone will eat, can be prepared in a minimum of time and the ingredients for which you generally have on hand. We need those convenient meals; life gets pretty busy and we don’t need to add anything more to our plates, pardon the pun. But those seven meals don’t have to be ho-hum.

The first place to add a scoop of wow is the invitation. As the family heads off to work or school, tell them you have something very special planned for dinner. They will get to anticipate your special treat all day long, and that is certain to put smiles on faces. The secret is you don’t have to prepare anything different from what you would ordinarily serve, but you are doing to present it in a different manner.

Turn off the TV. Turn on music, light candles, set the table using the good dishes and cloth napkins and plan fun topics for dinner conversation, or perhaps consider an after-dinner game.

Second place to add wow: Prepare the meal with intention. Think of those who will eat and how the food will feed them, body and soul. Appreciate the beauty of the ingredients —the colors of the fruits and vegetables, the aromas and textures of the foods. Cook with appreciation and your guests will notice. Try it, I guarantee you will be able to taste that love.

Third scoop of wow: Add a little whimsy. Themed dinners are adventures. For St. Patrick’s Day, serving all green foods with green plates and napkins and coming to the table dressed in your best green outfit just heightens the fun. At the LCA meeting we brainstormed ideas for theme dinners and one suggestion was to serve the meal backwards on April Fool’s Day — start with dessert first!

Wow scoop No. 4: Use special dishes. I have very fond memories of drinking from dainty glass flutes at my grandparent’s house. I have heirloom hand painted fish-shaped plates that I hope my family and friends treasure eating from.

Wow scoop No. 5: Involve your guests in the preparation of the meal. Making from scratch pasta, tamales, sushi, etc., all take a little time, but many hands make for light work and a delicious dinner. Invite your friends and family to help make the foods and then feast on the results of your labor. You will be making memories as well as food.

Wow scoop No. 6: Change up locations. Who said dinner had to be served in the dining room? We haven’t had many power outages of late, but I can remember taking advantage of outages to serve dinner picnic style by candlelight, cuddled up in front of the fireplace. We love eating dinner at my husband Mark’s Luscher Farm garden spot. One LCA member said she throws dinner parties in her garage, much to the delight of her guests.

The final scoop of wow comes from an impressive presentation. We eat with our eyes first, so make your dishes look as pretty as possible. A dusting of paprika can elevate mac and cheese to gourmet fare. Garnishes are a simple way to add wow to any dish or serving platter and take just minutes to create. Eating ice cream from a dish made of an orange or serving soup from a pumpkin tureen add a very special touch to a meal.

Try one or more of these tips and see if those you feed are a bit more interested in getting to the table on time. If nothing else, you will enjoy a change in the routine of meal preparation.

By the way, LCA runs the Re-Runs Shop, a non-profit consignment shop and gift shop selling furniture, jewelry, antiques and house wares. Mark your calendar for the annual clothing sale, April 11 through the 13. I hear they have 35 gently used wedding dresses in the sale.

Bon Appetit! Eat something wonderful!

Crispy Tofu with Noodles

Serves 4

7 ounces dried udon noodles

1/2 cup plus 1 teaspoon canola oil

1 cup panko (Japanese bread crumbs)

6 ounces firm tofu, cut into 1-inch squares

1 egg yolk

3/4 pounds mushrooms (your choice of a mixture of cremini, buttons, oysters, hen-of-the-woods, stemmed shiitake) thickly sliced

1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger

1 garlic clove, minced

3/4 pound baby bok choy, cut into 3/4 inch pieces

2 tablespoons oyster sauce

1 1/2 tablespoons hoisin sauce

Bring a saucepan of water to a boil. Add the udon and cook until tender, about 5 minutes; drain. Toss with 1 teaspoon of the canola oil.

Meanwhile put the panko in a large, resealable plastic bag and crush into fine crumbs. In a shallow bowl, gently toss the tofu with the egg yolk. Transfer the tofu to the bag and coat with the panko.

Heat the remaining 1/2 cup of the oil in a wok until just smoking. Add the tofu and stir fry over high heat until crisp, 2 to 3 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a paper towel-lined plate.

Pour off all but 1/4 cup of the oil ad return the wok to high heat. Add the mushrooms and stir fry until lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Add the ginger, garlic and boy choy and stir fry for 5 minutes. Add the udon and oyster and hoisin sauces and stir fry for 2 minutes. Add the tofu and toss. Transfer to a bowl and serve.

From Food & Wine’s Chef Recipes Made Easy

Randall welcomes your food questions and research suggestions. She can be reached at 503-636-1281, ext. 101 or by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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