Tuesday, September 7, 2010

California Apples

2010_0827_254When I'm not doing this food blog, I'm often working for agricultural clients. I few weeks back I had a shoot for the California Apple Commission shooting apple packing facilities in the Central Valley.

I know, I know... California produces apples? Indeed we do, and I was able to see more apples in a single day than most people will see in a lifetime. I love these kinds of shoots because these packing facilities are fascinating places. They handle unimaginable quantities of fruit, and do it very quickly and efficiently.

2010_0827_307At Prima Frutta packing facility (pictured), the apples are floated in water through the bulk of the processing process. This minimizes the handling and potential damage to the fruit, and keeps it clean. And gravity does most of the work of moving the apples through the facility. Pretty smart.

Part of the shoot included getting some 'beauty shots' of the apples, so we took a few boxes of Fuji and gala apples to a corner of the kitchen and set up some lights (see below). It was quick set up, quick shoot, quick tear down, but I think the results were excellent and show off the color and texture of our local apples.

Top quality gala apples

Fresh Fuji apples

Hey Trader Joe's: Your Doing it Wrong

The day after this shoot, I went into  our local Trader Joe's and noticed that they were selling gala and Fuji apples from Chile and New Zealand! 

Man was I unhappy and disappointed! First, because Trader Joe's positions themselves as a 'green' company, with their reusable shopping bags and granola-crunching clientèle. And second, obviously, because we were harvesting fresh California grown gala and Fuji apples less than a hundred miles away.

They could have been selling fresh-picked, locally grown (and even organic) apples instead of apples that were harvested last February, stored for six months and then shipped literally halfway around the planet! Those Chilean and New Zealand apples weren't fresh, environmentally sustainable, or economically responsible (given how the US and California economies are struggling).

I wish that retailers and consumers would be more aware of where their food comes from and would focus more on buying locally. Here in California, the fate of the agricultural economy is the fate of the state's economy. We have to support our own producers - large and small - if we want to keep our own jobs.

California-grown organic gala apples


I brought along three speedlights, lightstands and umbrellas for this shoot, which was conducted in an office at one location, and in a corner of the kitchen at the other location. This allowed for quick set up and take down and provided good lighting for 'beauty shot' closeups of the product.

For the most part I used a three light setup, with the key to the rear and a main fill to the left (1-1.5 stops below the key) and an additional fill to the right, either bounced off the wall or shot through an umbrella (2-3 stops below the key).

This gave me warm, soft lighting, but still provided some nice highlights, particularly on the waxed Fuji apples. I went with three lights because there were a lot of deep shadows between the apples in the trays, and I wanted to get at least a bit of light in there from as many angles as I could.


Overall, it was a fun and productive shoot!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Zucchini Pesto with Spicy Turkey Meatballs

This is probably the eleventy-seventh time we've done pasta for this blog, but I'm OK with that. I could eat pasta every day.

Zucchini Pesto with Spiky Turkey Meatballs

The Food (Jhan)

Over the years Tony has regaled me with his stories of living on a commune in southern California. During that period he grew most of his own food and became quite inventive at finding ways to use his bounty of zucchini. I have always heard so much about the wonderful zucchini pesto he made and canned that I had to make up my own version of this interesting dish.

After a little experimenting I came up with the following recipe for the pesto. Later, I decided that the creaminess of the pesto combined with the al dente pasta could be enhanced by adding spicy meatballs with a crispy outer coating (something for a little crunch) so I made some mini turkey meatballs rolled in panko to add texture to the overall dish. The entire combination created a good combination of flavors and texture.

Zucchini Pesto
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • 2 large cloves garlic crushed and peeled
  • 2-3 regular zucchini chopped
  • ¾ cup fresh basil
  • ½ cup (heaping) toasted walnuts
  • Salt to taste
  • Pasta water as needed to make creamy
  1. Blend garlic, nuts and basil well in food processor or blender
  2. Add zucchini and blend all well – mixture may be a little dry.
  3. Add olive oil in batches to combine all; add salt to taste
  4. In warm skillet combine pesto and ¼ cup pasta water until well blended. 
  5. Add cooked pasta and mix to coat noodles with pesto sauce. 
  6. Add additional pasta water if needed to make a moist and slightly creamy sauce. 
  7. Sprinkle with grated Parmesan if desired.
Spicy Turkey Meatballs
  • ½ lb. ground turkey
  • 1 egg
  • 1-2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano (This is what really adds the spice to these meatballs)
  • 1-2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
  • ½ tbsp. dried Italian seasoning
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 large clove garlic
  • ¼- 1/3 cup chopped or grated onion
  • 1/3 cup panko bread crumbs + more for rolling meatballs
  1. Mix all well but don’t over mix.
  2. Form meatballs and roll each in panko to cover all sides. 
  3. Spray meatballs with a little olive oil to help them brown. 
  4. Bake at 425 until internal temp of 165 degrees when measured with an instant read thermometer – about 15-20 min, remove from oven – do not overcook or they will be dry.
Serve the pesto pasta with 3-4 meatballs alongside and a sprinkle of grated Parmesan on top.


Zucchini Pesto with Spiky Turkey Meatballs

The Plating

I bought this black plate at TJ Maxx and have been eager to use it. I love square plates and I love black plates, and I love the pattern on this plate, so I've been trying to use it every chance I get. I used it for the panzanella salad a couple of weeks back and it really wasn't the right plate for such a rustic dish.

Well, it turns out that pasta isn't much different. Although this looks OK, once again, I don't think this plate matches the food very well. Still, it's a really nice plate - I just need to find the right dish to use it with. The plate is severe, stylish and modern, and it clashes with simple rustic dishes. When Jhan does some fancy sushi we'll use this plate.

Zucchini Pesto with Spiky Turkey Meatballs

The Lighting and Photography

Zucchini Pesto with Spiky Turkey Meatballs Lighting I used lighting very similar to the panzanella salad for this shoot, the only difference being that I removed the fill light bounced off the sheet and only have the key light, shot through the reflector and the soft fill, bounced off the wall and ceiling.

When the dish is backlit (as in the first photo), the focus is on highlights (in this case, off the plate). When side lit, the focus is on textures, since the side lighting brings out the play of light and shadow in  the dish.

Overall, this lighting is OK, but a bit harsh for the dish, which probably would have done better with softer lighting and brighter plating.

Lessons Learned

Repeat after me: match the plate to the food. Rustic plates for rustic dishes. Also, this dish was actually relatively dark with the pesto, so a light colored dish might have worked better.