Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Fig Walnut and Goat Cheese Salad

When I was a kid we lived in a house that had a fig tree in the backyard. I'm not sure anyone else ate any of the figs, but I loved them and would secretly gorge myself on them when they ripened.

Though we never had a fig salad when I was a kid, this dish brought back a lot of memories.

Fig, Walnut & Goat Cheese Salad

The Food (Jhan)

I was at the farmers market recently looking for seasonal fruit and noticed that there were stalls full of beautiful ripe figs - the aroma was lovely. I scooped some up and, figs in hand, scooted home to find a recipe that would do them justice.

I came across everything from fig pizza (eds. note: Fig pizza?!? You never told me about this! Why didn't we have that??) to recipes for breakfast dishes that could only be intended for old people with fragile digestive systems.

Since I wanted a dish that would show off the fruits' sweetness and color as well as being savory and satisfying, I was delighted to find a salad recipe that incorporated the figs with a creamy goat cheese, toasted walnuts and a flavorful vinaigrette. This sounded so good that I popped for the pricey walnut oil and sherry vinegar ($10.99 and $8.99 - who buys this stuff??). But the cost was well worth it. The salad had a nice mix of sweet figs, spicy dressing, soft cheese, toastey, crunchy nuts and pungent arugula.

I tweaked this recipe somewhat so here's my version:

1 cup cleaned and sorted arugula
1/3 -1/2 cup walnut halves, toasted, broken into chunks
2 oz peppered goat cheese
3-4 ripe figs,quartered

Dressing (prepare earlier to allow flavors to blend )
1clove garlic, minced
1 small shallot,minced
1 tsp good quality Dijon mustard
kosher salt
ground pepper
3tbsp sherry vinegar
1/4 cup walnut oil

Mix vinegar, garlic, shallot, salt , pepper and mustard. Wisk in oil. Drizzle over salad.
This recipe make a lot of dressing - save the remainder to use for mixed green salads or over tropical fruit.

Original recipe found at

Fig, Walnut & Goat Cheese Salad

The Plating

This was yet another case where I had no clue what to do with the dish. Jhan has her ideas of how the dish should look, but it's a rare instance when I can actually understand - much less implement - what she envisions. I'm not sure why that is, but I think she's trying to use some form of telepathy to communicate - a form that (as a male) I'm unable to receive.

As a result, I had to sort of make it up as I went along. Fortunately, it worked out OK.

We had barely enough arugula to lay on the plate, so I put it down in a circular bed to make it look a bit bigger and to hide the stems under the rest of the dish. I cut the figs in quarters and arranged them in a rosette and put a blob of goat cheese in the center with the walnuts and dressing on top. Very simple, but it came out looking very appealing.

Fig, Walnut & Goat Cheese Salad

The Lighting and Photography

Fig, Walnut & Goat Cheese Salad Lighting
I tried a few shots with two lights, but quickly realized that the rosette of fig quarters was going to have pretty deep shadows on one side or another unless it was lit from all sides.

As a result, I ended up with a fairly typical 'surround sound' lighting set up. The key light was placed to the left-rear and bounced off a sheet for extra softness (sounds like a toilet paper ad). The main fill was placed to the rear and shot through a reflector. And finally, I used a third light, dropped a couple of stops and shot through a reflector to fill in some of the shadows on the front side of the salad. I also placed a reflector to the left of the dish to give a bit of fill on that side as well.

I used bit of PS levels adjustments to bring up the shadows a bit more in processing.

Overall, I think it came out pretty well.

Fig, Walnut & Goat Cheese Salad

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


Mmmmmmmmmmmm.... nachos. Nachos used to be a staple for me before I got married. Nachos, beer and a bad sci-fi movie: the perfect recipe for a perfect evening.


Now that I'm married, I don't get to watch too many bad sci-fi movies. But every once and a while we do make nachos (not often enough).

I tried playing with the lighting on this shoot, using some gels I had just got. It isn't the most successful shoot I've done, but I need to get out of the rut I've been in and start experimenting!

The Food (Jhan)

I admit that we don't have Nachos too often and I know that Tony would probably eat them night after night if it wasn't for his pesky wife always worrying about his cholesterol or something silly like that. I love Nachos too, but I don't think they're particularly healthy, so I rarely make them.

When I do make nachos I usually make them with ground turkey or shredded roasted chicken instead of ground beef - that lightens them up a bit. I also add a lot of fresh veggies and herbs to the meat mix - green onion, chopped tomatoes, handfuls of chopped cilantro, peppers, etc. The added veggies cut down on the need for a lot of cheese.

And while I'm always thinking about cutting calories out of a dish, I'm also rather addicted to guacamole so I can't have Nachos without guacamole (and don't forget the sour cream!). I guess everything's a trade off.

I thought that Tony did a great job of styling these nachos. Even though I knew that they would be delicious no matter how they looked, he made them look very appealing.


The Plating

Normally when you make nachos you just toss some chips on a plate, pile with cheese, olives and salsa and then repeat as many times as you want. Unfortunately, in a purely visual sense, that's not necessarily very appealing. A plate of nachos can tend to look a bit 'pre-digested', if you get my drift.

So for this dish, I actually spent a fair amount of time trying to make the nachos look appealing. I started by going through the bag of chips chip by chip, anally selecting only perfectly whole and unbroken chips for the plate. Then I carefully arranged each chip to make two perfect rings upon which I carefully spooned out meat and salsa. I sprinkled cheese on top of that and individually placed each olive. A sprinkle of cilantro, and voila! - it looked just as messy as if I had just tossed everything on the plate. Oh well. I tried!


The Lighting and Photography

Nachos Lighting
The day we made nachos was also the day I received my Rosco Strobist gel set (cool!) and figured I'd give them a shot right away.

I decided to go with a 23 orange filter to create a strong colored background. I put the filter on my 420EX, which I set on an overturned trashcan under the table I pointed it at the backdrop and hoped for the best.

The key and main fills were to the left and right of the dish, shot through reflectors. They both needed flags to prevent their white light from spilling onto the geled backdrop.

Overall, this worked OK, but only OK. I certainly got a colored background, but I'm not sure that orange was the best color. Also, I had a hard time getting the white balance on the images right when I converted the RAW files, and I was never really happy with the color of the food.


Monday, September 28, 2009

A Fine Wine Detour

OK, I know this blog is supposed to be about food and food photography, but today's post is going to have precious little of either. This post is going to be about wine tasting.

I apologize in advance for the photos; I never even thought to take a 'real' camera, so these were shot with Jhan's point and shoot.

Some of the wines we tasted
Some of the wines we tasted at Renaissance Winery

Jhan and I both love wine, and back when we could really afford it, we used to buy and drink a lot of really good wine. In fact, I was the wine columnist for a local paper for a couple of years. You can still read my  columns on my old wine blog.

But now, we've fallen on lean times and rarely get the pleasure of doing wine tasting or even drinking decent wine. But Jhan recently got a small wad of unexpected cash (bank robbery FTW!), and we decided to spurge by going out wine tasting. And boy howdy, did we!

Our typical haunts include the Sierra foothill wineries in Eldorado, Amador and Calaveras counties, but this time we decided to visit a couple of obscure but notable wineries closer to home: Clos Saron and Renaissance wineries. Never heard of them? Well, now you have.

Both actually have the same wine maker, Gideon Beinstock, who has been making wine for Renaissance Winery since 1992 and for himself under the Clos Saron label since about 1999.

We first encountered Gideon's wines several years ago at Red Tavern restaurant in Chico - a truly stunning 2003 Black Pearl. So, though we've known of his wines for awhile, this weekend was the first time we visited either winery. And was it ever worth it!

Visits to Clos Saron are by appointment only, so we called Gideon on Friday and he graciously agreed to meet us the next day, even though he was heading off to do a tasting in Grass Valley.

I'm not going to give tasting notes on the wines that we tasted (this isn't my old wine column after all) other than to say that he's growing Pinot Noir in the Sierra foothills - Pinot that probably won't won't hit it's peak for another five to ten years. Big stuff. His syrah is pure and massive. And the Black Pearl, well, it's a monumental wine. All have the potential to age ten years or more.

Gideon himself is a very soft spoken but nonetheless passionate wine maker. His home facility for Clos Saron is tiny and littered with cases of wine stacked to the ceiling, but his love for what he's doing clearly comes through.

His philosophy of winemaking is very traditionally French and naturalistic. He's not one of those wine makers who try to control and manipulate every second of the wine making process. Instead he believes in letting the process take its natural course with minimum intervention. He doesn't inoculate his wines, nor filter, fine or rack them. But rather than turning out rough or brutish, his wines have an unexpected purity and honesty.

That said, they clearly aren't for everyone, as was reaffirmed when we moved a half mile down the road to Renaissance Winery.

Renaissance is part of a huge property run by the Fellowship of Friends, either a spiritual development group or cult, depending upon your point of view. Their teachings are supposedly based on the Fourth Way, taught by George Gurdjieff and P. D. Ouspensky. But other than seeing a very large and well maintained property, there were no odd vibes. Personally, I would ignore everything other than the fact that it's a winery.

Renaissance Winery
In front of the Renaissance Tasting room

The day we were there they were holding a vertical tasting of Cabernets back to 1983 - yes, that's not a typo. We expected the place to be packed, but other than one other couple from Sacramento, we were amazingly the only people there. As a result, we got the full attention of the wonderfully hospitable and knowledgeable tasting room manager, Lana Sladkova. We spent over two hours tasting and discussing a wide range of Renaissance wines. It was heavenly!

Lana - Renaissance Winery
Lana Sladkova, Tasting room manager at Renaissance

The wines here bore the unmistakable character of their winemaker: monumentally structured wines with incredible longevity. We were quite stunned with the complexity and quality of these wines. But the Cabernets in particular were notable. We tasted five cabs, from 2001, 1999, 1997, 1995, and 1983 (the only non-Gideon wine we tasted).

1983 Cabernet at Renaissance Winery
Some of the cabs we tastes, including the 1983

Each had its own character, but shared a massiveness that was impressive, but probably not appealing to a lot of wine drinkers. People who love fruity fruit bomb wines would not be happy with these wines. These wines would knock them down, beat them up, and take their lunch money. But to me, that was a lot of the appeal - virtually no one is making wines like this any more.

Gideon's makes wine in an old world, old school style - built to age and mature, to slowly come into their own as their towering tannins slowly mellow. They are not meant for immediate gratification. And the fact that the 2001 Cabernet is the current vintage at Renaissance reflects this philosophy.

In the end, we had a wonderful, wonderful day. We tasted over a dozen wines at Clos Saron and Renaissance combined, we were subjected to incredibly graceful hospitality at both places. For me at least, it was the best wine tasting experience I've had.

We will be pairing some of these wines with food over the coming months, and hopefully, we'll be able to work more wine into the blog as we go along.

Wines tasted at Renaissance Winery
The tasting bar at Renaissance - with some of the wines we tasted

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Dutch Baby

"I know; let's make a dutch baby for breakfast tomorrow!"
"I love eating small children as much as the next guy, but I'm not sure what's so special about kids from the Netherlands."
"No, silly, a dutch baby is like a fluffy, eggy pancake!"

That pretty sums up our first discussion of dutch babies. I'd never had one or even heard of them. Turns out that they have nothing to do with either the Dutch or babies. Who knew?

But Jhan insisted on making this cannibalistic curiosity. As promised, the dutch baby was eggy and fluffy and went great with fresh fruit and warm syrup. I still don't know why anyone would make such a thing, much less name it after newborns from Amsterdam, but it was really good.

Dutch Baby

The Food (Jhan)

When my son was a toddler I used to make this puffy pancake for Sunday breakfasts. As he got older I got busier and had little time to make special weekend breakfasts. The tradition has been revived though - the Dutch Baby is a favorite with my daughter-in-laws' family and she now makes it regularly as a treat for my two grandsons.

These eggy pancakes are very versatile and can be served with fruit or maple syrup for breakfast, with a savory creamed chicken or scrambled eggs and cheese for a light dinner or filled with ice cream, chocolate sauce and whipped cream for dessert.

Use a Preheated iron skillet to bake the pancake.
  1. 1Preheat the oven and the skillet to 425 degrees
  2. In the blender mix just until smooth :
    1/4 tsp salt
    1/2 cup milk
    1/2 cup flour
  3. Pull skillet out of the oven and melt 6 tbsp butter in hot skillet, swirl melted butter to coat bottom and sides of skillet
  4. Add to batter in blender: 3 eggs
    Pulse to a count of 6 -just to thoroughly blend eggs into the batter (do not over mix)
  5. Pour batter into skillet over melted butter
  6. Bake for about 18-22 minutes until puffed and golden brown
Serve immediately, filled with your favorite filling, or sprinkled with powdered sugar and a squeeze of lemon juice.

Dutch Baby

The Plating

OK, this thing was in an iron skillet in the oven, so you can imagine how hot it was. Also, a dutch baby is delicate like a souffle, and cutting it or taking it out of the skillet might cause it to collapse. With all that in mind, I went for the simplest possible thing: leave it in the pan and put it on a cutting board.

Lighting and Photography

Dutch Baby Lighting
because of the size and depth of the skillet, I didn't want any strong shadows on this shoot, so a used a 'surround sound' lighting approach, with lights on three sides of the food. Most of  the photos were taken with the key light to the rear of the skillet, with fill lights to the right rear and left front.

Over all, this lighting worked pretty well for the subject, and avoided any deep shadows.

Dutch Baby

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Coconut Shrimp Curry

In some ways this shoot was the opposite of the Kefta shoot. There, the food was great and the plating and lighting were bad. Here, the plating and lighting were great, but the food, though good, wasn't quite to my taste.

Spicy Shrimp Curry

It isn't that I don't like curry - I love curry. It's just that I don't like sweet curries, and this one definitely had some sweetness to it.

One thing I'm learning in this process is that the tastiest meals aren't always the prettiest, and the prettiest meals aren't always the tastiest. Some you win, and some you lose.

The Food (Jhan)

Indeed, you win some and you lose some. I thought this curry was great but Tony was thrown by the sweetness of this dish, and even though he agreed that the flavor was good, he gave it a thumbs down overall.

Here's the deal - I prepared a coconut milk curry with shrimp. For sweetness and balance, this recipe called for the addition of one green apple. I thought the apple was fine and actually added to the dish, but Tony felt that the apple slices in the curry were just plain weird. Without the apple the curry would have been good anyway, and I think I could have substituted a potato and about a teaspoon of brown sugar to round out the flavors of the spices.

It's clearly a matter of personal taste but I will say that this recipe was easy and created a spicy yet smooth red curry sauce -perfect for shrimp or chicken. The curry was also very colorful and eye appealing with chopped tomatoes and frozen peas and carrots. This stuff is good! I will definitely prepare this dish again sans the apple.

Spicy Shrimp Curry

Here's the recipe for the sauce base, you can add raw shrimp,chicken pieces or seared firm tofu for protein and an apple or other fruit and whatever vegetables you like.

Sauce base:
1tbsp good quality curry powder
1 tsp coriander
1/2 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1 can coconut milk ( 14 oz.)
1 chopped onion
3-4 cloves minced garlic
2 tbsp grated ginger
vegetable oil
Heat oil in heavy skillet. Saute onions garlic and ginger until soft and slightly caramelized. Add spices, cook until fragrant. Next add vegetables of your choice (see below). Cook until tender. Add coconut milk stir and bring to a simmer. Add protein and cook through in simmering sauce. Top with chopped cilantro and serve over steaming hot rice.

1 thinly sliced potato or 1 sliced green apple
2-3 tomatoes seeded and chopped,
1 cup frozen peas and carrots
1 handful chopped cilantro
1 lb peeled whole shrimp or cubed chicken breast or cubed pan seared firm tofu
Above based on recipe from


This was a stewy curry, and I knew it would be, so I used a couple of nice square bowls for the curry (I've discovered that having two of your entree in the photo adds some depth and interest to the image). I put the rice in a nice round rice bowl, and put it all on a simple warm toned place mat. I carefully picked out the best shrimp and put them on top of the dish to act as the main attention point.

Spicy Shrimp Curry

Lighting and Photography

Spicy Shrimp Curry Lighting
I wanted a pretty soft light for this shoot, but I wanted a very bright background, so I bumped the key light (placed to the rear and shot through a reflector) up a stop or two over the fills. The front fill was too strong when shot directly through the reflector, so I turned it around and bounced it off the wall to soften it even more. I added a flash (bounced off a sheet) to the left of the dish and a reflector to the right for additional fill.

Spicy Shrimp Curry

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Middle Eastern Kefta

I love me some Middle Eastern food. Fortunately, Jhan does too, or there would be a problem. This was the first time that Jhan's made keftas, though we do Middle Eastern snacky dinners (hummus, pits, etc.) relatively often.

This was one of those shoots where the food tasted way better than I was able to make it look.

Middle Eastern Kefta

The Food (Jhan)

Once again, I found myself trying to satisfy my craving for Middle Eastern food with no cash to head out to the local falafel shop. I looked around the pantry and dove into the freezer and came out with enough ingredients to make a dinner of grilled kefta with flatbread, and homemade tzatziki and tahini sauces.

For the kefta, I added grated onion, a couple cloves of minced garlic, a handful of chopped parsley, salt, pepper and 2 tsps of ground cumin to a pound of ground beef and refrigerated the meat mixture over night. I shaped the burger mix into oval patties, brushed them with EVOO and then cooked them on a charcoal grill. They smelled great while they were cooking and overall they tasted good too. Next time, though, I'll add a little more cumin, garlic and parsley. (Tony and I really like strong spicey flavors.)

One of the surprise hits of the evening though was the tzatziki sauce. I tried a new recipe and it was amazing.
Here it is:
2 of those Persian cucumbers from Trader Joe's - the best cucumbers ever!
1 container of nonfat Greek yogurt
3-4 cloves of garlic minced
3 tbsp finely chopped mint leaves
1 tbsp lemon juice
mint and lemon zest for garnish

Scoop the seedy soft center out of the cucumbers, grate and place in a colander, salt lightly and drain for about 30 minutes.
Mix remaining ingredients together, set aside.
Later, rinse the cucumber and squeeze out water, combine with yogurt mixture and check seasoning. Garnish with mint and a bit of lemon zest

This stuff is thick, tangy, minty and refreshing. It can be paired with meat or veg dishes or served as a dip. The basic recipe is from The Essential Mediterranean Cookbook.

Middle Eastern Kefta

The Plating 

This was one of those shoots where I had no clue what I was doing right from the start. Before Jhan started cooking the keftas, I knew they were going to be very small, so I picked out the smallest square plates I had. But otherwise, I had no idea what to do with them. I was afraid I was going to be plating little brown lumps.

Once the keftas were cooked, they indeed looked like little brown lumps on the plate. I tried putting some tahini sauce under them and sprinkled diced tomato and cucumber, along with some feta cheese on top.

Now they looked like lumps with diced tomato and cucumber, along with some feta cheese on top. I added a slice of flat bread to the plate in a last desperate attempt to draw attention away from the kefta's essential little-brown-lumpiness. Sadly, the flatbread was probably the best looking thing on the plate.

None of this is to say that it wasn't delicious - it was. But delicious doesn't equal photogenic, which is something that this dish - at least plated the way I did it - wasn't.

Middle Eastern Kefta

The Lighting and Photography

From bad plating to worse lighting - that was the theme of this shoot. I was so frustrated with the lighting for this shoot that I didn't even take a photo of it. The main problem? Even though I was using all four of my flashes (including the 550EX I had just purchased from KEH), every shot was coming out 2 stops underexposed. Only the magic of Photoshop saved the shoot from being a total disaster.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that I know nothing about flashes, flash metering or any of that. I put my 5D Mk II in manual mode, set the shutter speed to 1/00th and the aperture to something between f/2.8 and f/8, and let the camera, my flashes and my ST-E2 wire flash trigger figure out the right amount of light to put out. How it does all that is a dark and bloody mystery to me. And when it comes out wrong like it did in this shoot, I have no freakin' idea of how to fix it. 

I really wish I had a clue as to what I was doing.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Scallops in Orange Saffron Aioli

By now everyone knows that I'm not a huge fish fan (and if you don't, check out this post), but I do love other kinds of seafood - prawns, lobster, calamari and scallops are all favorites of mine. Fortunately, Jhan loves them too. If they weren't so expensive, we'd eat them a lot more often.

Scallops in Orange Saffron Aioli

I wish these were fresh scallops, but I'm not even sure where you would get them in town. I am sure, however, that we couldn't afford them if we did find them. These were frozen scallops we found at Costco that we managed to talk ourselves into buying...
"Ooo, frozen scallops! Yum!"
"We can't afford those!"
"This is probably the only way we'll ever eat scallops at home."
"Well, I suppose we could cook something for the blog with them."
"Only if you want to. They'd look very nice, I'm sure."
The scallops were divine (if stone cold from sitting there while I took pictures of them), but the orange saffron aioli was maybe perhaps possibly just a tiny bit less than the best thing I've ever eaten. Truth be told, it was very odd and reminded me a bit of latex paint - but only in the best possible way (if that's possible). It wasn't bad per se, but it was definitely too mayonnaisey for me, and it didn't seem to do a thing for the scallops. Fortunately, Jhan concurs, or else I'd have to sing the praises of this beautiful but odd sauce.

Scallops in Orange Saffron Aioli

The Food (Jhan)

I was so excited that we were having scallops for dinner and I wanted to find just the right recipe. I went through our shelves of cookbooks, moved on to our stacks of food magazines, and finally ended up on the Internet looking for a recipe that just said "amazingly delicious" to me.

I finally found it - or so I thought.

If you think about it, basic scallops are pretty easy: make sure they are dry, that the pan is sizzling hot, and don't overcook them. For me, it's the sauce and other fixings that make scallops truly amazing. So I found what I thought was the "perfect" recipe on the Food Network site: sea scallops with saffron aioli.

From experience I know that their recipes have been tested and are fairly reliable, so I went right to work preparing the side dishes to have everything ready just as the scallops finished their short sear. I prepared the aoili exactly according to directions, without changing anything... and it looked beautiful with that golden sunrise yellow color from the saffron and the orange juice.

Well... the scallops were great, perfectly cooked, sweet, nice crust, tender. But the aioli was not so hot! It wasn't terrible, but neither the flavor of the saffron nor the the flavor of the orange juice really came through it was just a mayonaisy sauce. Too bad, because the saffron really colored the sauce nicely. A pretty dish with good scallops, but not a recipe I care to share. I'd recommend that the next time you cook scallops you pan sear them and add a nice white wine, butter and herb sauce and just enjoy that "taste of the sea".

Scallops in Orange Saffron Aioli

The Plating
This is one of the few dishes that I have been able to really visualize in advance. I knew I wanted two scallops in the center of a small plate, surrounded by sauce. Something green for a garnish, and done. Period.

And that's exactly how it turned out: sauce spooned into the dish, large scallop stacked on a small scallop, a bit of orange zest grated on top, and then a few sprigs of chive (painstakingly selected) delicately placed on top. I was as happy with how this came out as I possibly could be.

The Lighting and Photography

Scallops in Orange Saffron Aioli LightingI really wanted to try and duplicate (as close as I could) a relatively soft window lighting. So I went with three flashes to make as large a lit area as I could, based on the assumption that a big part of the softness of window light is the size of the opening that the light is coming through.

I pointed two lights at the white sheet hanging from the wall, and aimed one flash through a reflector. To add a bit of fill I used a piece of white foam core to the right of the food, and a copy of a book of my photographs (Five Assignments - it won an Honorable Mention in the Photography.Book.Now competition) that happened to have a white cover to the left of the food.

Amazingly, I was very happy with the results! The light was very high key overall, but showed a lot of detail in the scallops along with some nice highlights off the scallops, the sauce and the plate.

Scallops in Orange Saffron Aioli

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Pasta with Shredded Chicken and Rosemary

Ooo, we had "Pasta with Shredded Chicken and Rosemary" last night. Fancy.

Let's be real here, we had spaghetti with garlic bread. Seriously. Now, Jhan did fancy it up a bit, as she details below, but spaghetti is spaghetti. Judge for yourself. As they say, pictures don't lie:


The Food (Jhan)

Okay, it's Sunday night and no one feels like cooking. That's when I pull out whatever is in the fridge and try to create a decent meal from it.

You might have noticed that we love pasta, so I'm always trying to think of something to change up the usual white or red sauce. For this meal I shredded up some left over rotisserie chicken and chopped a couple tablespoonfuls of fresh rosemary. For the sauce base I sauteed three cloves of minced garlic, a sliced onion, and some of the rosemary until fragrant. Then I added a some sliced mushrooms, the chicken, some more rosemary and a fresh bay leaf. After a few minutes I added about a half cup of red wine and the spaghetti sauce, along with some dried Italian seasoning (crushed up), and a little water.

I really like the flavor of the rotisseried chicken with the fresh Rosemary with the fresh bay leaf, it is lively and has a strong chicken flavor. The texture of the shredded chicken pieces also works well with the softness of the mushrooms and the pasta.

For the salad, I chopped mixed greens, some radicchio, cucumber, cilantro and a little jack cheese. I added the cut up cherry tomatoes, a bit of pepper and salt, then chilled the salads before serving. Chopped salad is also good with fresh basil, bacon, salami or prosciutto bits.



I have problems with simple dishes, and what could be simpler than spaghetti? Of course, I have problems with complex dishes as well, so maybe I just have problems in general. I'm trying to work on my white on white lighting, so I selected a rectangular white plate, twirled a pile of spaghetti on the plate (which was much more difficult than it sounds and came out much messier than I wanted), topped with sauce and a sprinkle of finely chopped rosemary, and placed three slices of garlic bread at the other end of the plate. The ubiquitous sprig of fresh basil added a touch of color.

My main issues with the plating is that the pasta is messy and there is too much of it. Less is more in plating. Also, the bread tends to look a bit staged, and three slices overwhelms the pasta (which would be even worse with less pasta). In the end, less pasta with one slice of bread might have worked better.

Lighting and Photography

Spaghetti Lighting Set Up
Since I'm still struggling with white on white lighting, I decided to give it another try. This time I placed two flashes behind a reflector as the key light, and one flash on the opposite side of the food as the fill. The fill was set at -4 stops compared to the key lights.

Though I liked the lighting overall, I discovered very quickly that moving the food a few inches toward or away from the key lights made a huge difference in the quality of the light. I had no idea that a few inches could make so much of a difference.

Overall, though I'm not terribly happy with the plating, I'm reasonably happy with the lighting.


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Cheesburger Cupcakes

A couple of weekends ago, we had the grandkids over, and I was wracking my brain trying to figure out some new baking project to do with them - after all, we've made so many batches of brownies and cookies and cupcakes, that it's just not that fun anymore.

Bacon Cheeseburger Cupcakes

My son had suggested making cinnamon rolls but I know that the kids would get bored with the rising and kneading and rising again , etc. But I didn't have any better ideas until Tony remembered that he had seen some very cute cheeseburger cupcakes on Flickr and showed me the link. They were so cute, OMG, I knew we had to make them.

Cheeseburger Cupcakes

Tony and I went through the steps together. He went to the store to get the ingredients and I pulled out all of the kitchen equipment we would need and kid proofed the area. When the kids arrived we explained the plan for the day; mix up the cake batters, bake the cupcakes (the kids play Wii while baking), go to the movies while cupcakes are cooling, return home and assemble "cheeseburgers", and finally, eat them.

The kids were great, they pulled up their step stools and mixed the batter, licked the beaters, and peered through the glass in the oven door a zillion times until the cupcakes emerged.

Jackson showing off his cupcakes
Jackson showing off his cupcakes

By the time we were ready to turn the cupcakes into burgers the kids couldn't wait to get started. Although the boys decided to pile up huge helpings of red, yellow and green frosting (ketchup, mustard and lettuce) on their "buns" they really had a great time decorating the burger-cakes and the end result was some very realistic looking little sliders.

Both of the boys came up with their own touches to make the cupcakes more realistic. The youngest loved the idea of the candy bacon and made several bacon cheeseburgers. The oldest went for making Big Mac style double decker burgers (although the burgers adorned with blue condiments were for "aliens"). I think the adults had as much fun as the kids making these, we all took a turn trying to create the most realistic burgers.

Gibby Showing off his Cupcakes
Gibby showing off his cupcakes

And of course the best part was eating them. My oldest grandson pronounced them the best cupcakes he had ever eaten and the youngest proceeded to chow his way through a couple before we had to take the plate away from him.

This was a great project and the kids were so involved in perfecting their creations that they didn't fuss about sharing frosting tubes or who had better whatever, it was just great fun and good to eat too .  

P.S. don't leave out the sesame seeds for the buns - those really make the burger-cakes look realistic.

The Plating

Not much to say about the plates... we grabbed what we had at hand, so there's a lot of Fiestaware.

I was a bit disappointed with how the burgers came out. The yellow cupcakes didn't rise enough to have really rounded tops like real burger buns. On the other hand, the yellow and pink fruit leather that I found in the grocery store made for a truly excellent bacon cheeseburger cupcake! 

Bacon Cheeseburger Cupcakes

The Lighting and Photography

Salmon Lighting

I didn't take a photo of the lighting for this shoot, but I think it was very similar to the salmon shoot, so I used the photo of the lighting set up for that shot.

Key light behind and to the right, fill bounced off wall to the rear.

Cheeseburger Cupcakes

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Seven Spice Rubbed Chicken Breast with Couscous

This dish gets titled "Seven Spice Rubbed Chicken Breast with Couscous" instead of "Moroccan Chicken with Couscous" because I used the word "Moroccan" in the title of a previous dish that apparently wasn't Moroccan at all. Well, what do I know? I'm just the photographer. The chicken was dry too, but again, what do I know?

Moroccan Chicken Breast & Couscous

The Food (Jhan)

Cumin, coriander, and cinnamon are three of my favorite spices. These three mix well to add great flavor to a variety of dishes and meats.I have successfully used the combination for lamb, beef, chicken, ground meats and with eggplant and tofu dishes.

In our house we often eat boneless, skinless chicken breasts (partly because they are low in fat, but also because they are versatile and cook fairly quickly). The biggest problem with chicken breasts is that they can be bland and dry if overcooked.

For these chicken breasts I created a rub of finely chopped shallots, garlic, a little minced onion, a handful of chopped cilantro, some cumin, coriander, cayenne, cinnamon, paprika, salt and pepper and 1/2 tsp brown sugar. You can mix the ingredients in a food processor or just mash together to create a chunky paste. Brush the breasts with oil and rub the paste all over them, allow to sit overnight. If the chicken breasts are fairly thick you may want to slice them into thinner pieces and coat them with the rub - these will soak up more of the rub's flavor and will cook more quickly.

Bake covered in a 400 degree oven for about 20-25 minutes until cooked through but still juicy, uncover for last 5 minutes of baking. Cover with foil to keep warm and let sit about 10 minutes for juices to settle.

Prepare the couscous using basic directions on the package but use chicken or vegetable stock instead of water. Add some cumin, cinnamon, cracked pepper and a little kosher salt to the broth before cooking, plus a clove of minced garlic and a little olive oil. When the couscous is ready, stir in a handful of chopped green onions and 2 tablespoons of finely chopped sun-dried tomatoes. You may also want to add some chopped toasted almonds or pine nuts for flavor and crunch.

Serve the chicken on top of a bed of couscous and spoon meat juices over all. If meat juices are sparse add a little stock to the pan and a dash of tamari, scrape up any browned bits in the pan, stir and simmer on medium heat to blend flavors. Sprigs of cilantro or chopped cilantro over the top of the chicken make a good garnish for the dish.


This was a plating disaster. I've had a lot of plates go wrong but still turn out OK, but this one was bad from the beginning.

I'm not completely sure what I expected this dish to look like, but when I came out to the kitchen, the last thing that I expected was to find each breast basically cut in half. That ragged gash looked hideous, like each breast had been attacked by some psychopathic serial slasher. I didn't really know what to do, so I grabbed a big handful of cilantro and stuffed it into the gaping stab wound.

I had another problem in that the plate I had chosen for this dish was way too large. Rather than waste precious time fiddling about trying to find a better plate, I just tossed the assaulted chicken on the couscous and sliced some Roma tomato onto the plate. Yuck. Winner of the ugliest plate ever award. I'm not proud of this one.

What you don't see is the lame excuse for a salad that we had. Jhan plated some salad fixings and I didn't like it, and rearranged everything... making worse than what she had done. I don't mind showing my mistakes, but that salad was beyond the pale.

Moroccan Chicken Breast & Couscous
I used a handful of cilantro to staunch the bleeding from the massive stab wound in the chicken.

Lighting and Photography

Moroccan Chicken Breast & Couscous Lighting
The lighting wasn't exactly a disaster on this dish, but it wasn't a success either. I'm not sure what I'm doing wrong with my lighting, but I swear I'm going to keep doing white on white set ups until I get them right.

For this dish, I placed two lights on the right, one toward the front, one toward the rear - both shot through a reflector. I also bounced a rear fill off a white sheet.

The light isn't hideous, it's just dull and uninteresting.

Moroccan Chicken Breast & Couscous

Monday, September 14, 2009

Feed your brain!

You can tell I didn't write the title for this post. "Fish is brain food! It makes you smart!" I hear that a lot.

Well, I don't particularly like fish, and I particularly don't like the implication that I'm stupid because of it. But Jhan loves fish, and would single-handedly drive every species of salmon to extinction given half the opportunity (and we know how smart that would be!). But I'm not totally opposed to fish. Prepared the right way (swimming in butter and bacon) I find it... tolerable.

Salmon and Asparagus

Actually, I like salmon and other non-fishy fish, just not too often. Once every couple of weeks is fine. I wouldn't want to get too smart.

The Food (Jhan)

Despite what Tony says, fish is "brain food". My father loved fish and ate it every chance he got and he was one of the smartest people I've ever known. Of course, most kids think their dad's are smart, but whenever I eat fish I just feel better and more aware of what I'm thinking and experiencing. So for me fish truly is "brain food".

I'd eat fish all of time if Tony stand for it. When I lived in Japan I ate sushi for lunch every day and I often had it for dinner too. And for many years I was a "fishaterian": I ate fish but no other type of flesh. Tony thinks that the only kind of fish I like is salmon, but in reality I like almost all fish; it's just that salmon and tuna are my favorites.

The other night I was just brain dead, numb, from dealing with every type of person and problem our halls of higher learning can conjure up so I made an executive decision and bought some salmon for dinner. I hate to see that sad puppy look I get when I announce that we're having fish for dinner so I broke it to Tony gently.

"Honey, I happened to pick up some salmon when I was at Costco getting gas and I'm going to make that and a baked potato with some asparagus for myself, but I'll cook you whatever you'd like if you don't want any salmon." "You're making a baked potato and asparagus? I like asparagus. I guess I could eat some salmon with a baked potato." He falls for the baked potato every time!

Salmon and Asparagus

This salmon was very moist and had a nicely browned crust on the outside. I pan-fried it in olive oil on high heat. Before cooking, I seasoned the fish on both sides with some Grillmates seasoning and a drizzle of EVOO. While the salmon was cooking, I squeezed some fresh orange juice over it - one to two large oranges should be plenty of juice.

Once the fish was mostly cooked through I turned off the heat and let the fish continue to cook through. At that point I threw a handful of herbs - cilantro, mint, parsley, chives, whatever I have on hand - into the food processor with a little EVOO, salt and pepper and a clove of garlic and pulsed until I had a smooth pesto. I added a few squeezes of orange juice just to make it pourable and added the sauce to the pan with the fish.

The fish ended up with a nice light orange flavor and a great citrus fragrance. Rice and roasted vegetables could also be a good accompaniment with this salmon.

The Plating

The plating for this dish started out as a disaster. Though I picked out some really nice plates, and put the salmon and asparagus down without any issues, the pesto was another matter. The herbs had not been blended enough for the orange juice to really bond with them, so when I put it on the fish, it was like plopping a soaking wet green toupee onto it. It just sat there dripping orange juice. Honestly, it looked like someone had spit a wad of green chewing tobacco on the fish. I was horrified.

Salmon and Asparagus

Fortunately, it wasn't totally ruined. I grabbed a bunch of paper towels and wiped off as much of the pesto as  I could. I also sopped up the pool of orange juice collecting around the fish. In the end, it looked great - bits of the herb pesto still clung to the salmon, adding nice specks of color, and the little bit of orange juice on the plate made the salmon appear extra juicy.

The Lighting and Photography

Salmon Lighting
With my Vivitar out of action, I was down to two lights, so I shot the key light through a reflector from behind and to the right of the dish, and bounced the fill light off a sheet behind it. I added a silver reflector to the left of the dish to fill in some of the shadows.

Overall it was a very simple, and very successful shoot. Placing the lights behind the food gave wonderful juicy highlights to the salmon. I also liked the the fact that repeated green bits from the pesto, asparagus and chives tie the photo together.

Salmon and Asparagus