Adventures in Cookbook Photography

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Well, it appears it’s time for my bi-annual blog post! What can I say? I guess I’ll say this: Follow me on Instagram if you want to keep a little more apprised of my day-to-day world than this venue provides. However, I do like to bloviate on rare occasions when I have the time, so here goes…

This fall marked the publication of the fourth cookbook I’ve done the photography for (with two more on the way next year!). Adventures in Comfort Food by Cafe Miranda’s Kerry Altiero and co-author Kate Gaudet is a wide-ranging mix of creative twists on classic comfort food and Maine fare, interspersed with ethnic-inspired dishes. The restaurant’s slogan “Because We Can” will give you a pretty good idea of the wackiness factor here. And Kathleen Pierce of the Bangor Daily News has done a great job of conveying the vibe and mindset behind Cafe Miranda and the cookbook here and here.

This is not a book I thought I would end up working on, despite already being a fan of the kitschy, mammoth-menued restaurant in Rockland, Maine, that inspired the recipe collection. I was skeptical about the photogenic properties of “comfort food,” especially comfort food that would be prepared without a professional food/prop stylist on site, and I was leery of chef-driven projects. But, not one to immediately close doors without due diligence, I agreed to meet with Kerry to discuss the project one day last August. I walked into the cafe at the end of a stressful day of shooting. I was badly in need of a drink, a nourishing meal and a laugh…not necessarily in that order. Kerry delivered on all fronts. I left the restaurant in high spirits, with a full belly and ready to tackle a book I had almost talked myself out of. I knew right away—no matter what happened in the course of making this book—he would keep me laughing. That, and the constant flow of cappuccinos and nourishing food that he provided from his farmhouse kitchen during several winter weekend shoots, made a challenging project fun. It was like working on a book with an Italian grandmother who has a really twisted sense of humor. And there’s a reason for that: Constance Altiero, Kerry’s Italian grandmother, was a big influence on him.

Another crucial element to this book’s success was Kate Gaudet, a friend of Kerry’s with top-notch organizational and word-smith skills who helped dream up this project. Luckily for me, she also turned out to have an innate sense for food styling and was a diligent, thoughtful and amiable companion and assistant throughout the process. Her many talents included lightening fast ironing and expert pierogie poofing (see page 137). I literally could not have done this work without her.

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Oven-Roasted Fish Tacos

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Green Beans in Yellow Curry

Sleeper Pizza is an unusual combination of pastrami, artichokes and red onion.

Sleeper Pizza is an unusual combination of pastrami, artichokes and red onion.

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Squash Risotto with Roasted Kale

The three of us compiled our various collections of dishes, cookware, silverware, linens and background surfaces from which to create 50 unique recipe shots, some that have the stamp of Kerry’s unique brand of humor, and others that have my signature austere/authentic look (including the ones pictured here). We  contemplated at length the feel we wanted to convey for each shot. There are so many elements to consider: vessels, backgrounds, color schemes, not to mention the placement and appearance of the food! And on top of that, of course, are those pesky little photographic things like angles and lighting.

Overall, I think the images tell the story of the food well: an eclectic mix that offers something for everyone. And I really mean that. As a non-meat, low-gluten, overall healthy eater I have already dog-eared about a dozen recipes in the book, so if you’re of a similar persuasion don’t be thrown off by the term “comfort food.” Two that will be on regular rotation in our house are No Excuses, a coconut-curry broth packed with veggies, rice noodles and tofu, and Oven-Roasted Kale, which is accented with mushrooms, feta and red onion. For a dinner party this weekend, I’m leaning toward the Squash Risotto with Roasted Kale. (Fresh veggies figure prominently in Cafe Miranda fare thanks to Kerry’s farm, which is meticulously managed by Anne Perkins.)

And hey, look at that, it’s December and I’ve just given you a great gift idea for the adventuresome cooks in your life, especially the ones who will appreciate a side of humor with their polenta pizza casserole. You can order signed copies at CafeMiranda.com or sans garnish from elsewhere.

Shooting Raw

Why, yes, it has been an extremely long time since I have put up a new post here. I won’t make any excuses about how crazy my life is and how I don’t have time for this or that. Everyone’s life is crazy so really I don’t think anyone needs to make a big deal out of it, okay? Okay. Glad that’s settled.

But (you knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you), I will take this opportunity to mention that some of the reason for my absence from this blog is my involvement over the past year in doing the photography for three cookbooks, which, on top of my other assignments, has kept me more than a little occupied! Two are still in progress. One just came out this month. It is called Plant Food and features innovative raw, vegan recipes. Published by Gibbs Smith, it is a colorful volume holding much inspiration within, no matter what your dietary preferences.

My work on this book took place on both coasts. While Belfast, Maine, and Santa Monica, Cal., are worlds apart, the book has a consistently fresh, vibrant and artistic tone. The chef at M.A.K.E. in Santa Monica, Scott Winegard, made my job much easier by turning every dish into a meticulously crafted work of art. Early on it was clear that simple props and subtle lighting would be the best way to approach his creations so as to let the food shine.

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Some of my favorite photos in the book are the chapter openers. When I discovered the authors were breaking the book into 13 chapters that described either the process used to create the recipes in each section or their contents, I realized it would be helpful to have a photo for each chapter that was representative of what lay within. While this was not part of the original scope of work, I knew it would make for a better book. I created many of them on the spur of the moment or, in some cases, culled appropriate images from my archive.

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While raw food practitioners will not be strangers to concepts like dehydrating, smoking and sous vide, these methods are not in my repertoire, nor do I have plans to rush out and buy the necessary equipment to partake in them, but I am curious about adapting some of these recipes for my own style of cooking. I’m betting the fennel crisps and coriander toast recipes, among others, could be easily adapted for an oven.

I’ll certainly be trying the mushroom pate which involves no special gizmos and contains ingredients usually found in my kitchen. I’m also eager to attempt the tree nut “cheeses,” which are little more than nuts blitzed with water and left to age (photo above in the “aged” chapter opener). And I will look forward to simple, but unique combinations like avocado, radish, nori, and sunflower seeds with miso lime dressing, as well as snap peas and pea shoots with mint and lemon hazelnut dressing when early summer produce finally arrives here! Whether you follow the recipes, adapt them to fit your own diet, or use them as inspiration to make up your own healthful dishes, give Plant Food a try. Failing all else, get it just to look at the pretty pictures.

(Check out the table section of my web site to view more images from the book.)

One of a Kind

Maine has a way of capturing the hearts and minds of creative types. The landscape, the serenity, the slower pace and the friendly people all conspire together to convince artists to do crazy things like quit their day jobs, throw caution to the wind and start a new life pursuing what they truly love to do. Now the state has caught one more talented creator in its clutches: Elephant Ceramics‘ Michele Michael. While having summered here for many years, Michele and her husband left Brooklyn behind last year and made the bold move to full-time residents of a small Midcoast town.

I had met Michele in a prior life, when a college friend had come to visit her here one summer. At the time she was a freelance prop stylist, but had not yet ventured into the world of ceramics. In fact, one reason she started making her own tableware was because she recognized a void in the sort of props she was looking for to do her job. In recent years, I’d noticed Michele’s pieces in high profile national magazines without knowing they were hers. The unique, imperfect shapes, captivating textures and rich, nature-inspired glazes caught my eye immediately. As I’m always on the lookout for unique pieces to shoot food on, and Michele only sells her work through occasional sales in her online store, I signed up on the Elephant Ceramics mailing list early this year. Next thing I know I had a message from Michele reminding me that we had actually met long ago. (She also said “I see your photography all the time.” While that might be a bit hyperbolic, it made me feel momentarily important!) In need of some updated photos for her web site, she inquired whether I’d be interested in taking some images of her at work and some finished pieces in her new studio space on their property overlooking the Eastern River. YES, please!

Elephant Ceramics' workspace.

Elephant Ceramics

The barn where Michele and her equally talented husband, Patrick, who is a woodworker, have adjoining work spaces, is built from hand-hewn lumber thinned from the woods behind their home. The exposed timber frame adds an earthy, organic feel to the contemporary structure as light filters through the surrounding trees into the skylights and large windows. It is the sort of space you walk into and think “oh, yes, now this is a place in which to make beautiful things!” This feeling is confirmed with the presence of Michele’s gorgeous pieces, which mimic the space in which they are created: a winning combination of rustic, handmade forms with a modern flare.

Elephant Ceramics

Elephant Ceramics

Elephant Ceramics

Elephant Ceramics

Be they farmers, chefs or artists, I love documenting people at work with their hands. All of Michele’s work is hand shaped, that is created without a potter’s wheel. It was intriguing to watch the process: the removing of air pockets from the clay, the rolling out, the adding of texture by rolling linen into the clay, the cutting of the shape, the molding over the form. I remarked that it seemed somewhat similar to making a pie crust, and Michele noted that, interestingly, making pies is the only kind of baking she likes.

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Following process shots and some portraits of both Michele and her loyal sidekick Chichi, the Best Chihuahua Ever, we moved on to product shots. The term “product shot” has been known to make me cringe as it often connotes “sterile” and “boring” (to me, anyway), but these were not they in the traditional sense of the word, as you can see from her site. First, because Michele is the former owner of a prop rental shop in New York, she naturally has amazing surfaces on which to place her pieces. Second, I needed to approximate the lighting of the other shots on her site, which just so happen to be done with the kind of dramatic, contrasty, heavy-on-the-shadow kind of light I most like. So we set about combining her pieces with appropriate backgrounds and covering up all but one light source in the room (a challenge to be sure!). Working with someone with a similar aesthetic to your own is always an added bonus, and this instance was no exception. We were both so pleased with the results.

Elephant Ceramics

Elephant Ceramics

And one further bonus: I am now the proud (and boastful) owner of several Elephant Ceramics’ originals, much to the envy of dinner guests and creative directors. Her pieces are so beautiful that they transcend mere tableware though. I’ll admit it, sometimes I just like to stare at them sitting on the shelf in the endearing off-kilter way that only handcrafted goods can, and drink in their glorious hues.

To become a lucky member of the Elephant Ceramics owners’ club, be sure to sign up for the mailing list so you will learn about upcoming online sales. Be forewarned, these one-of-a-kind pieces sell out in a matter of minutes!

Horse Power

cedarmountainfarm_0279sDrop me off on a farm with a camera and come back in eight hours; chances are I’ll be occupied and supremely content the whole time. After all, I am a country girl at heart. When the subject matter is something I am particularly drawn to, I can get completely lost in what I’m doing, enamored by all that is going on around me and hesitant to take that one final frame even after a full day of shooting. Such was the case at Cedar Mountain Farm in Hartland, Vermont, in late April. Twenty-one of the resulting images appeared in Anne Raver’s excellent story about the farm’s horse-powered component in the Home & Garden section of The New York Times recently.

Read the article for the back story on Stephen Leslie’s fascinating trajectory from artist to monk to organic farmer and horse whisperer. His calm, gentle, yet assured manner in dealing with the Norwegian Fjord horses was a wonder to witness. The 1,000-pound animals were decidedly non-threatening and obedient. After seeing him in action, I have no doubt his new book from Chelsea Green The New Horse-Powered Farm: Tools and Systems for the Small-Scale Sustainable Market Grower is bound to become the definitive book on the subject.

Having recently spent time in an intense environment where people are connected to the point of distraction—and getting sucked into it myself as a recent iPhone convert—I particularly appreciate Stephen’s desire to delve into the spiritual element of working so closely with these animals. In the article he says, “I think people are hungering for a kind of unplugged reality. That leads to a deeper self-understanding.” Coincidentally, I just read “The Art of Paying Attention” by James Fallows in this month’s The Atlantic about continuous partial attention and how to focus in this hyperconnected world. Linda Stone, the tech executive Fallows interviews, conjectures that “the generation that has been tethered to devices serves as a cautionary example to the next generation, which may decide this is not a satisfying way to live.” Let it be so. Below are some outtakes from this environment of “relaxed presence” where the only tethering is that of the horses to the plow, and where, as Stone says, “Mind and body are in the same place at the same time”—something we could all benefit from striving toward.

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The Norwegian Fjord horse has many distinct physical attributes including this dorsal stripe handsomely displayed by Tristan.

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Grooming the copiously shedding horses is a daily ritual.

Making short work of a field where a cover crop will be planted.

Making short work of a field where a cover crop will be planted.

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Never one to miss out on a party, the youngest Fjord horse on Cedar Mountain Farm, Isolde, gallops to catch up to her friends already out to pasture.

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The horses are so calm that even Charlie the barn cat feels comfortable walking underneath them!

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Stephen leads his 6-year-old daughter, Maeve, onto the farm when she arrives home from school.

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Charlie keeps Maeve company in a corner of the milking parlor while her parents tend to the 20 jersey cows that need milking.

Maeve occupies herself while her parents work.

A curious cow observes Maeve as she colors.

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First in line for dinner!

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Stephen’s wife, Kerry Gawalt, feeds the farm’s cows prior to milking. The cows’ manure is composted and turned into the fields by the draft horses.

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In regard to not letting your own stress affect the horses, Stephen says, “That’s the Zen practice you have to work on yourself: Take some deep breaths, create some sense of calm.”

Consider the Mandoline (or something like it)

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I’m currently reading Bee Wilson’s fascinating book Consider the Fork, which is about historical changes in cooking implements and methods, and how they’ve affected what and how we eat, and, consequently, human health. She talks about kitchen gadgets that we love (she, too, is an aeropress devotee!), as well as those that get cast aside because they don’t prove useful enough, or because they actually create more work for the cook. We don’t have too much gadgetry in our kitchen, all things considered. I have to think long and hard about adding anything new as I’m loathe to clutter the cupboards any further. This is one reason that, despite pining for paper-thin veggies on occasion, I’d long avoided getting a mandoline. The other, of course, being the horror stories of people losing finger tips under its razor-sharp blade (including Wilson herself).

But after seeing mention of the Muji grater slicer set on a food blog, I was ready to take the plunge. I was sold on its price ($17.95!), ultra simple design and compact form. It has more than delivered in the three months that we’ve had it. If you have never had a similar gadget, you will want to start slicing every fruit and veggie in sight (and maybe some other things too). You will likely stare in wonder at the beauty of each new item you reduce to transparent sheets within seconds. And some of those sheets you will stack and finely slice lengthwise to easily and quickly produce piles of julienned goodies. Your salads and stir frys will be transformed by virtue of pleasing shapes and textures, and your friends will be saying in wide-eyed amazement, “How did you DO that?!”

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While it is clearly a dumbed-down mandoline (it doesn’t have an adjustable blade so you’re confined to one thickness), this gadget definitely earns the small amount of shelf space it occupies. It is a much faster and more uniform way of finely slicing vegetables than using a knife. But be wary: you can still hurt yourself as you would on a mandoline (I haven’t YET). Also, the grater attachment isn’t particularly useful unless you’re looking for more of a zester as it tends to pulverize or shred more than grate. I’m sure there are other slicers out there similar to the Muji that work just as well if not better. They may not be as cute and simple though!

Here’s a quick and versatile salad to get you started as you begin to explore the possibilities available to you with this meal-transforming tool! Does this sound like an infomercial yet?

Root Vegetable and Apple Slaw

2½ c. assorted root vegetables (such as carrots, beets, celeriac, fennel or radishes)
1 crisp apple

Dressing:
2 T. extra-virgin olive oil
1½ T. apple cider vinegar
1½ t. lemon juice
1 T. honey
salt and pepper to taste

Peel vegetables if needed. Cut those wider than the slicing blade in half. Core the apple and cut into quarters. Slice vegetables and apple using the Muji slicer or a mandoline. Stack larger slices and then cut them lengthwise into thin strips to produce matchsticks. Create a mixture of shapes for a more interesting taste and appearance. Whisk dressing ingredients together and toss with vegetables and fruit. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Voila!

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Ode to Snow

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With the spring equinox around the corner, I wanted to pay tribute to the white winter we’ve been having before the last vestiges of snow leave us. It seems like most people here in Maine either love the snow or hate it. I’m one of those who jumps for joy. Sometimes literally! It’s beautiful for photography, and it allows me to have outdoor winter adventures in remote places. A few snowfalls we had this winter really transformed the landscape. On a couple of occasions the trees looked like they had been assaulted by an overzealous cake decorator. On these mornings, I made it a point to go for walks on wooded trails not far from our house. It was hard not to wander around with mouth agape in awe. And then there were the 31 inches (yes, THIRTY ONE) that fell over the course of two days in early February. That may have been the one time I said “enough already!” Winter adventure highlights included a ski trip with friends into the 100-Mile Wilderness and the awesome Little Lyford Pond Camps, snowshoe hikes up two peaks in the White Mountains, and numerous nordic ski outings in Maine and New Hampshire. Here are a selection of some of the sights I saw in my various travels. And with that, I may almost be ready to bid this most peaceful of seasons good-bye. Almost.

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great pond

cliff house beach

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view from mount meader

100-mile wilderness

Make the Basics Part IV: Goat Cheese

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I’ve written before about how easy it is to make goat cheese, but it is worth another post, especially one with pretty pictures! For a few years now, I’ve made goat cheese to give as holiday gifts to close friends. After getting rave reviews from recent recipients, I was reminded again that people should know just how incredibly easy this is to do. It may sound and look impressive (and maybe I should keep people in the dark so they continue to think I’m amazing!), but really, a monkey could do this.

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The biggest hurdle (and it’s not very big) is getting the main ingredients: goat’s milk and the chèvre culture. Other materials you will need are a thermometer, colander, slotted spoon and butter muslin (or cheesecloth). If you’re lucky like me and live in Maine, you can likely get fresh unpasteurized goat’s milk at your local farmers’ market (I get mine from Mainely Poultry for $5 per 1/2 gallon) or possibly a health food store/co-op/purveyor of local foods. Culture can come from a number of different sources. I use New England Cheese Making Supply. It works well to start a batch before going to bed at night and then letting it drain over the course of the next day. By that evening, it’s ready to eat! Just so you can see how easy it is, here are instructions based on those from New England Cheese Making Supply (I’m not sure why they left out the “let your spoiled cat lap up the leftover milk” step):

1) Heat 1 gallon of goat’s milk to 86° F.

2) Add 1 packet C20G (the culture) and stir.

3) Cover and let set at 72° F (it will still come out fine if it’s a bit cooler than this) for 12 hours.

4) Ladle curd gently into a butter muslin (or cheese cloth) lined colander.

5) Hang and drain for 6 to 12 hours (depending on desired consistency).

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goat cheese draining
goat cheese draining

Yup, that’s all there is to it. Once the cheese has drained, you’ll want to mix in a teaspoon or two of sea or kosher salt per gallon of milk to bring out the flavor (and slow the growth of bacteria), and you can add other herbs or spices too. For the holidays, I sprinkled rosemary and red pepper flakes on the surface of the rounds for a festive feel. If you’re giving them as gifts and want to get all Martha Stewarty, you can create a cute label and package too!

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Probably because it’s so much fresher than what you would buy from the store, the taste is remarkable. And if you find a reasonably priced source of goat’s milk, it’s definitely financially worth it to make your own…especially when you have a bit of a cheese addiction. Not that I’m speaking from experience or anything. A gallon usually makes 5 or 6 rounds about 2½ inches in diameter. I doubt it will still be sitting in anybody’s fridge for very long, but it seems to hold up very well even 10 days later. Give it a try! It’s easy and satisfying, and you’ll impress the hell out of your friends.