Category Archives: food

Jam Session

concord grapes from Hannah Holmes

An acquaintance who lives one street over posted this notice on Facebook last month: “Neighbors: We have a few hundred pounds of organic, free-range, native, sustainably pollinated Concord grapes fixing to fall off the vines and make a righteous mess. Want?” My answer was, more or less, “I’ll be right over!” First, I have a hard time turning down fresh, free food growing in someone’s yard. Secondly, I’d long thought bunches of wild, deep indigo Concord grapes would be a fantastic photo subject. Thirdly, I seem to have a masochistic desire to complete recipes that involve ridiculously time-consuming, tedious steps, but that result in a very satisfying or unusual end product. So, yes, I basically spent the better part of two days picking and then photographing grapes in various stages of undress, making the jam, and then shooting the pretty purple spread.

concord grape jam from Hannah Holmes' grapes
Hannah
was not kidding when she said they had a few hundred pounds of grapes. The smell immediately hit me when I arrived in her driveway. It was so intense it almost seemed artificial, like grape Kool-Aid scent wafting through the air. The vines stretch from her garage all the way down a fence that extends at least 50 feet along the length of her backyard. When you’re surrounded by these plump, purple orbs, it’s hard not to pop one in your mouth, so, of course, I did. Hannah, knowing what I was in for, waited for my reaction with a bemused smile. The tartness immediately made my lips pucker and my eyes grow wide. Wow! That is some seriously intense grape flavor.

concord grape jam from Hannah Holmes' grapes
I spent a couple hours arranging and shooting grape clusters and vines in numerous set ups on a metal background, and then began the process of skinning the grapes. This isn’t as hard as it sounds, but it does take a while…especially when you’re skinning 5 pounds of grapes! When they’re ripe, you can just squeeze one end of the fruit between your thumb and forefinger, and it pops right out of its protective coating. The skins and naked fruit were so cool looking that another round of photos ensued. Eventually, I got back to the jam making itself. I used this recipe, though as is my standard practice when making jam, put in half the amount of sugar the recipe calls for. And for a second batch, I used honey instead of sugar, and I much prefer how that tastes. The jam thickened nicely without pectin after about 45 minutes of simmering. The grape flavor is still incredibly intense in jam form, so one does not need much to satisfy the desire for a hint of sweet, tart fruit flavor. A dollop on top of goat cheese on a cracker or a thin schmear on some whole grain toast is about all you need.

concord grape jam from Hannah Holmes' grapes

If a friend or neighbor has a surplus of these blue-black beauties, or you see them growing on the side of the road, I recommend you run right over and get yourself some antioxidant-rich grape goodness. If a labor-intensive jam isn’t in the cards, try making something simple like juice that could be added to seltzer to make a refreshing homemade grape soda.

Growing Faithful


Every year I fret over our small garden and think nothing is going to survive, let alone prosper. It is still a revelation to me after several years of growing food that you put seeds or tiny seedlings in the ground, they get bigger, blossom and produce beautiful vegetables! It really is satisfying. And, of course, it’s not quite that simple. I weed, add compost and other organic fertilizer to the soil and the plants, water, use organic pest sprays, etc., but inevitably I get busy with other things and my attention wanes as the season goes on. Despite this, we had and have loads of things to harvest, even beans and brassicas that seemed to be getting ravaged by some pest or another early on bounced back formidably and continue to produce glorious green goodies. (Naturally, not everything thrives. For some reason, despite two successive plantings of carrot seeds, we ended up with a grand total of three carrots!)

This year, for the first time, I started some seeds (kale, eggplant, tomatoes, nasturtiums, and a new hybrid of kale and brussel sprouts called flower sprouts) indoors under a small grow light. I seriously doubted these fragile little plants could endure the torrential downpours that have become the norm, and the occasional cold or hot spells we had this spring and summer, not to mention what seems like an absurdly short growing season. But they did! And that experience was even more satisfying because I was nurturing plants from their birth through to their adult stage, and because we ended up with so much more food than we would have if we had been buying all seedlings, which can get to be expensive. Below are some of the results of these efforts (or lack thereof), which, in case you couldn’t tell, I’m quite proud of! Next year, I promise to have a little more faith in the resiliency of a loved-just-enough garden.

Salad Days

Summer is in full swing in Maine, something that doesn’t tend to happen until the 4th of July holiday. Then we all scramble to make the most of our two months of warmth and long days of sunshine. Along with warmth and sun comes vigorous garden growth—at least of the things that don’t get devoured by critters and pests who are just as happy about the new greenery as the gardeners are. (Can you tell that I’m just a wee bit angry that my brassicas are getting munched on by tiny green worms?) A few things that have been productive so far in our garden this year are pictured below: purple-top turnips, sugar snap peas and mixed salad greens.

While I found the turnips incredibly photogenic, I was at a loss for something creative to do with them (no, roasting with olive oil and salt does not count). So I requested ideas from Facebook friends, which, much to my delight, was a good move. Turns out FB is good for something besides wasting time! From roasting with garam marsala to grating and putting in a slaw or frittata, there were several excellent suggestions. The one that captured my imagination the most, though, was from Ellen Strickler at Willow Hill Springs Farm. She suggested slicing them thin and drizzling with plum vinegar and sesame oil. I loved the idea of eating them raw and the dressing sounded divine, but I also love turning a salad into a meal in the summer. So with other items I had on hand, I made a salad comprised of our mixed greens (which include lots of lovely Asian greens like tatsoi and pac choi grown from Johnny’s Seeds premium greens mix), the purple-top turnips and Green Spark Farm’s scarlet salad turnips grated, toasted sesame seeds and farm fresh hard-boiled eggs, topped off with the sesame oil plum vinegar dressing. Having grated veggies in a salad completely changes the texture and feel of it, and in a good way I think. I also really like the Asian elements of this dish (daikon would be a great turnip substitute). It makes it just enough different from your standard summer salad that you’ll want to have it over and over again until that pile of purple-top turnips is all gone! And then you’ll mourn their absence.

Renewal


It’s a typical spring in Southern Maine, which is to say foggy, wet and chilly. But that’s okay. I’ve learned to concentrate on things I have control over. Or at least I’m trying to be more aware of not focusing on things I don’t have any control over! Plus, I love the eeriness of the fog. And all the moisture makes vegetation gorgeously green and promotes growth, as evidenced by Fishbowl Farm’s bounty at the farmers’ market last weekend.

fishbowlfarmmay2

fishbowlfarmmay
As spring is a time for growth and renewal, it seems an appropriate season to launch my new website. I’m really excited about the extra large images and the ease of navigation, among other things. I can also update it easily, which will mean new work will be added regularly. Check it out and let me know what you think!

Living the Good Life

I look forward to most of the assignments I get from The New York Times. Naturally, they do stories on interesting things and people and because I shoot primarily for the Dining & Wine and Home & Garden sections, I’m almost always guaranteed to get gigs I’m interested in. But sometimes one comes along that I’m not just interested in, but really, really excited about. When the picture editor for the Home & Garden section contacted me last fall about a story in Harborside, Maine, I knew right away who the subjects were before she even told me. “Sounds like it must be Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch,” I wrote. “That’s exactly who it is!” she replied. Well, almost everyone who has been gardening, especially in Maine, for any length of time, has heard of this organic gardening powerhouse couple. Damrosch’s Garden Primer, a grower’s bible, sits tattered and soil-stained on many a bookshelf, including mine. And Coleman’s recent books on extending the growing season into the winter have changed the landscape of growing in colder climates. His contributions to organic gardening go on and on; just flip through a Johnny’s Selected Seed catalog and see how many times his name is mentioned as a developer of ground-breaking (sometimes literally!) farming tools.

Coleman prepares a bed for seeding with one of the tools he invented, the tilther, which is powered by a rechargeable drill.

So, as an avid home gardener, and year-round supporter of organic farms, it was with great enthusiasm and anticipation that I drove down the long, windy road to Cape Rosier, about three hours northeast of Portland in early February to take the photos for this article on winter growing. This is storied territory; the legendary back-to-landers Helen and Scott Nearing lived here. Greatly influenced by their book Living the Good Life, Coleman sought them out in 1968 and purchased land from them on which to farm and live. Over the decades, what is now called Four Season Farm has grown into a tidy compound of greenhouses, barns, root cellars, a farmstand/art gallery and housing for Coleman, Damrosch and their seasonal workers.

In one of three root cellars on Four Season Farm, Coleman holds a mangold, which is a giant beet that they use as feed for the chickens.

Although Mother Nature did not cooperate by providing the snow cover Maine is so often associated with in this season, there were plenty of scenic shots to be had. Greenhouses filled with leeks, onions, carrots, spinach and other greens were a sight for storage-vegetable-saturated eyes (and bellies). Coleman told me that even after all these years of winter growing, he is still filled with child-like excitement when he unfurls a row cover and sees green in the middle of winter. I know the feeling, though on a much smaller scale. My husband and I put some spinach seeds in a small, covered raised bed in late fall one year and the next spring opened up the cover to find big, beautiful spinach leaves. We were truly amazed as we didn’t really think anything could survive the Maine winter outdoors! Now it is our practice to plant spinach in October for an early spring harvest of sweet, green leaves.

A bed of spinach that was planted in the fall continues to grow through the winter in an unheated greenhouse on the farm.

Damrosch harvests tatsoi, a hardy Asian green that is growing in a glasshouse attached to their home.

Damrosch is an accomplished cook (with a cookbook coming out next year) and after a couple of hours roaming around the farm happily photographing the winter bounty, I was lucky enough to partake in a lunch she prepared that was filling enough for a farmer plowing fields all day long. The highlight was a platter of Four Season Farm beets, carrots and spinach thinnings. And what a treat it was just to sit at a table with these two stalwarts of organic growing, eating beautiful food and enjoying good conversation, their love of their lives and work—which are really one in the same—readily apparent. Not that they aren’t incredibly busy and I’m sure, at times, stressed out, but they seem to be possessed of an energy more often found in people decades younger.

Lunch fit for a farmer.

Damrosch and Coleman: clearly a couple that was meant to be!

After lunch, Eliot, who is 73, got right back to work preparing a row in one greenhouse for seeding carrots and then sowing the seed. Then dozens of eggs needed to be collected, washed and packaged for sale. In peak growing season, I can only imagine how much more there is to keep track of. I left feeling completely impressed and inspired by how hard these two work and all they have accomplished. How they live their lives is laudable, but even more noteworthy is how they’ve empowered others to live the good life too. Not everyone can have multiple acres to grow food on, nor the time to tend to it, but certainly incorporating small bits of what Damrosch and Coleman do into one’s own life is possible in many cases. Despite living on tenth-of-an-acre plots in suburban South Portland, after this article came out, a neighbor and I started discussing how and where we could build a little greenhouse to extend our short growing season. Maybe by next spring our tiny winter spinach-growing project will have blossomed into one that can keep at least four people in fresh organic greens through the winter!

Heading towards the barn at day’s end.

Isle au Chocolat

Picture this: a small, snow-covered island with a few dozen inhabitants off the coast of Maine in the middle of February. A frozen photographer with a cart full of props on a mailboat. An editor with a vision for a unique and luscious cookbook. An industrious couple who have discovered the secret to sustaining themselves on this island. The secret being chocolate. Lots of it. Combine all these things and you have a large part of the story behind the beautiful new Down East cookbook Desserted: Recipes and Tales from an Island Chocolatier, by Kate Shaffer of Black Dinah Chocolatiers.

Have props, will travel.

I spent two-and-a-half fabulous chocolate-filled days on Isle au Haut taking photos for this book last winter, and, okay, I’ll admit it, tasting every manner of chocolate-based dish put in front of me. I did this only to ensure that the recipes were perfect, though! And let me tell you, they are. I’ve made several since then, and each one is heavenly. Whether you want to learn the painstaking art of making hazelnut coffee truffles or are content with making your own Maine mint chip ice cream (me!) and flourless peanut butter chocolate chip blondies (me again!), you’ll find plenty to love in this book. Kate’s humorous and heart-felt stories of island life are sure to have you poring over the pages long after your desserts have been prepared.

Not such a bad place to be in the middle of a snowstorm, especially when you’re surrounded by chocolate!

Dotty, the 83-year-old post mistress, presides over the island’s postage-stamp-size post office.

It’s not often that I get to work collaboratively with people on creating photos. More often than not I get my marching orders and off I go, solo. Mostly I’m entrusted to just “do my thing.” There are advantages to this, of course, like doing things the way you want to do them without distracting, and possibly irritating, input. But if you have a team of like-minded people working together on something they enjoy, nothing beats the feeling of a successful collaborative project. Ideally, ideas complement each other or when one person is stuck another comes up with a brilliant solution, and the end result is something everyone is super satisfied with. Well, I’m happy to say this is how things went down with Desserted. I couldn’t have asked for a more good-natured, supportive and creative team than that of Kathleen Fleury and Mirik Jurek, the editor and designer, respectively, of the book at Down East, and Kate and Steve at Black Dinah.

I arrived on the island with a shot list and ideas for props and set ups, but despite my organization, was a bit terrified of having to shoot island landscapes, the chocolate making process, portraits of Kate, and 13 finished recipes all in two-and-a-half days. Thanks to Kate’s late-night and early morning prep work and her innate culinary talent, Steve’s coffee-making skills and good humor, and Kathleen’s schedule keeping and decisiveness, all went smoothly. There were certainly no opportunities to spend hours fine-tuning one shot, but sometimes that’s better I think. Often it seems the best shots are taken without too much fuss and over thinking. Some wonderful collaborative moments occurred when, pressed for time, a slew of spontaneous ideas from all those present concerning props, angles and lighting were combined to form winning shots. Other times, I would be struck by the beauty of totally unstyled moments, such as these three below.

An off-the-cuff shot of some parchment on which Kate had demonstrated how she decorates truffles was transformed into an elegant design that appears on the chapter title pages.

I couldn’t resist capturing the residue of the elderberry glaze that topped an equally vibrant pumpkin cheesecake.

Filo cigars fresh out of the fry pan draining on paper towels also caught my eye.

There are two shots that stick out in my mind as ones that we particularly celebrated at the time. The first was the Black Dinah tiramisu, a thing of utter beauty. I was dubious when Kate had encouraged us to shoot this recipe as I envisioned a gloppy, off-white blob. Kate’s take on this Italian classic, though, is unique and visually arresting (not to mention delicious!). I did some eye-level shots, two of which appear in the book, and then Kathleen suggested an overhead shot. I was initially skeptical, but all of us oohed and aahed when we saw it pop up on my laptop screen. Its graphic appeal won us over. The other shots were more stylistically in keeping with the rest of the book, however, so it makes sense that this one didn’t make it into print.

Black Dinah tiramisu

The other shot that had us saying “Cool!” was appropriately enough, ice cream. I had never shot ice cream before this cookbook and knew it was the stuff of food photographers’ nightmares, to the point where some use substitutes for the real thing. I never shoot artificial “food” so I knew I would have to work fast. I got the set ready and we took a couple quick test shots of the two sorbets and one ice cream unadorned. Then when Kate went to drizzle the black pepper sauce on the strawberry balsamic sorbet for the final shot, I instinctively snapped this photo. Unfortunately, it did not make it into the book either, probably because of the placement of the element that made it cool in the first place; the photo ran as a spread and the drip would have disappeared right into the book’s gutter. Just goes to show you sometimes the best shots won’t work for publication purposes!

Mexican chocolate sorbet, strawberry balsamic sorbet with chocolate black pepper sauce and Maine mint chip ice cream

If you want to get your fill of the photos that make Sandy Oliver “want to lick the page” and read all of Kate’s magical recipes and stories, comment on this post for a chance to win your very own copy of Desserted. As a special holiday treat, I’m giving away one copy of the book to a randomly selected person who leaves a comment. If you don’t win, rush right out to your local Maine bookstore to purchase copies for all your Maine-island-loving, chocolate-adoring friends and family members, or order here!

Falling Far from the Tree

Gorgeous organic specimens: Black Oxfords and Golden Russet

A few weeks ago, shortly after that late October storm pummeled parts of the Northeast, I headed northwest across the state and into the mountains of New Hampshire to take photos for this piece on organic apple growing that recently ran in The New York Times. I always love seeing parts of the state that I’ve never been in. Since much of my work takes me up and down the coast, I don’t get inland very often. The drive was so lovely that the three hours actually went by quite quickly. The thick fog melding with a light layer of snow and punctuated by the occasional tree still dressed in its fall colors soon gave way to a bright, sunny day. It was mid-morning by the time I reached Groveton, N.H., home of Michael Phillips’ Lost Nation Orchard, and luckily, most of the snow in the orchard had melted. Phillips is well known and respected among organic growers (at least based on my random sampling of those here in Maine). His new book, The Holistic Orchard, which will be published in December, will no doubt add to his acclaim in this field.

Organic-apple-growing guru Michael Phillips

Only a few trees in the orchard still had apples on them at this late date, including this lovely GoldRush variety.

Growing fruit organically is still rare enough that a sign seen recently at my local farmers’ market next to a bin of sad, beat-up looking apples read “as close to organic as you’re going to get.” Well, it turns out, this is not the case! There are organic apples out there and they are not only gorgeous, but out-of-this-world delicious (and I mean so tasty that you can easily envision being totally satisfied having one for dessert). However, you have to work hard to find them. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if this was not the case? Apples routinely top the list of pesticide-tainted fruits and vegetables, and while most apples tested are below the EPA’s levels of concern, call me crazy, but I have a hard time imagining that consuming trace amounts of pesticides is good for you (not to mention what they do to the environment). You can help encourage more orchards to grow organically with your purchasing power. Seek out organically grown apples whenever possible. (There’s a good list of orchards who emphasize health in their farming practices here). Trust me, you won’t be sorry.

As part of the process of organically nourishing his apple trees, Michael Phillips lightly spreads a compost of manure and deciduous wood chips under the drip line of the tree (the circular area at the outer ends of the branches) each fall.

I had the pleasure of seeing the loving care Phillips puts into his trees, as well as tasting a selection of the more than 80 varieties of organic apples he grows. I have honestly never tasted such incredible apples. They all had such distinctive flavors, but my favorite on this day was also possibly the most beautiful one—the Black Oxford. At once sweet and tart, this dramatic purpley-black fruit is satisfyingly crisp. As if that weren’t enough to make it my new favorite apple, I then learned it originated in West Paris, Maine, in the late 1700s! Oh, if only I had a stockpile of these for the winter, I’d be one happy organic apple convert.

Among the 80 varieties of organic apples that Michael Phillips grows are (clockwise from upper left) Golden Russet, Erwin Bauer, Rhode Island Greening, Cox’s Orange Pippin, and Black Oxford.

GoldRush apples are considered a great holiday dessert and cider apple because of their high sugar content.

Taking Stock

I usually wait until I’m sure the last of the warmish days are gone to really embrace fall produce. It’s not that I don’t love apples, squash, parsnips, beets and other rooty things that store well, but I know I’ll burn out on them come February! I’ve done a good job of putting them off this year as it’s been quite warm and veggies like fennel, cauliflower, broccoli and collard greens are still relatively plentiful at the farmers’ markets. Despite the unseasonal warmth, I recently gave in and started cooking with the late fall goodies. Here are some photos of them in all their glory and some of the treats they get turned into.

I’ll also take this opportunity to announce that a selection of my stock food images, including this brussel sprouts image and the pie image below, are now available for licensing via StockFood. You can find my portfolio, which includes many images of food and dishes from my own garden and kitchen, here. Images will be added regularly. Come on, I know you’re in desperate need of a high-resolution photo of black radishes for your company’s annual report! Seriously though, knowing that someone somewhere may be able to make use of my food photos has been further incentive to keep making compelling images of the incredible local food we have available to us. I mean, really, how can you resist all this beauty? Buy local. Eat local.

Treasure Hunting

Don't go anywhere without your basket; you never know when you might need it!

I’ve written about foraging before, and my interest in it has heightened this year. It’s hard to describe the satisfaction of stumbling upon a bevy of beautiful blackberries, a carpet of brilliant orangey-red chanterelles popping out of brown leaf litter or a miniature forest of almost-camouflaged, apricot-scented black trumpets. While finding edible treasures is easily more than half the fun, the resulting culinary creations are all the more satisfying for having found the ingredients yourself for FREE in the WILD! Foraging is also an excuse to be outside paying close attention to nature in all its glory and learning more about the myriad plant life around us. Plus, eating foraged food is apparently all the rage now, as demonstrated by the international acclaim bestowed upon the Scandinavian restaurants Noma and Faviken, which have become trend setters in serving dishes centered on food found in their backyards. Further proof of the interest in this trend appears in an article in the October issue of Outside magazine profiling the Maine forager who supplies restaurants such as Momofuku.

When I tell people I’ve gotten into foraging, the response is either “Cool!” or, more often, “Aren’t you afraid of getting poisoned?” The short answer is “no.” I’m extremely careful. If I have any uncertainty, I either don’t eat the specimen or run it by people I consider to be experts. Of the seven or so edible mushrooms I feel totally comfortable in identifying now, even someone with a small amount of experience can, with a bit of close inspection, rule out whether they could possibly be something toxic. And none of them resemble any type that would be life-threatening.

Plump for the pickin'!

A friend recently said she even feels a little weird eating wild blackberries for fear they’ll somehow make her sick. I find this mindset ironic, but understandable. We’re so conditioned to buy our food in the seemingly sanitary environment of a grocery store, where it’s contained within a neat box sealed in plastic. And yet the chances of getting sick from cultivated food is so much higher than from the same food found in the wild where it hasn’t been sprayed with chemicals or touched by germ-ridden hands. In much of Europe, particularly Eastern Europe, foraging, and mushrooming in particular, doesn’t have this culture of fear associated with it. It’s been a family activity for centuries, with knowledge passed down from generation to generation. In his informative and entertaining book Chanterelle Dreams, Amanita Nightmares, Maine mycologist Greg Marley talks about the myths associated with mushroom hunting and counters those myths with useful facts like “there are more edible mushrooms than poisonous ones, and more still that are non-edible but not poisonous,” “handling a toxic mushroom will not make you sick” and “the vast majority of toxic species cause symptoms that are, while unpleasant, not life-threatening.” And perhaps most tellingly, “On average, one or two people die of mushroom poisoning in the U.S. each year.”

One of the most surprisingly wonderful things about black trumpets is that they smell distinctly of apricots.

This isn’t to say that you should go about foraging without a care in the world. If you’re thinking about mushroom hunting get several books (I find it useful to consult a variety of guides as the information and pictures they provide vary), study specimens carefully before even thinking about eating them and seek someone with mushrooming experience to take you on a guided walk. As Marley says, “Nothing can boost confidence better than seeing a mushroom in the hands of a knowledgeable person.” Starting with one or two easy-to-identify varieties is a good idea and then, if you like, you can try to expand your list each year.

Red chanterelles, a rare find in Maine, were a gleeful discovery this summer.

The foraging mindset becomes a bit addictive once you’ve hit a few jackpots. For a few years now, my husband and I have found chicken of the woods mushrooms, usually without even searching for them. They have a way of just bursting out of a tree into your line of vision. This year, I was hoping to expand on our repertoire of known edible fungi. That wish was granted when, in August, my husband, who frequently runs on trails, brought home a delicate, reddish-orange specimen that looked mightily like a red chanterelle as far as I could tell from my handy Peterson guide. We went back and gathered a mother lode of them from that spot and had their identity confirmed by fellow foragers much more knowledgeable than we. Our sources were slightly taken aback as apparently the red chanterelle is uncommon in Maine. Once that happened, we became junkies constantly on the lookout for our next fix. Our craving was satisfied on a mushroom walk with former mushroom exporter and current amazing cheesemaker, Barbara Skapa, organized by the Belgrade Lakes Conservation Alliance in late August. It was here that we learned with certainty what black trumpets, yellow-foot chanterelles, golden chanterelles and lobster mushrooms look like. And once we had the knowledge, they seemed to appear around every corner. Okay, not EVERY corner, but still, we had enough to feed ourselves and several friends many a meal. As of this week, we’ve also added hen of the woods (or maitake) to our “sure of” list.

Rose hip syrup made from the ubiquitous (in Maine anyway) rosa rugosa (or sea rose) is a versatile, Vitamin-C-filled additive.

While I find mushrooms among the most satisfying foraged foods to find given their relative scarcity, more abundant wild edibles like blackberries and rose hips are fun to collect as well. In his fantastic book Wild Garlic, Gooseberries…and MeDenis Cotter provides a number of wonderful recipes for foraged foods, including a tasty rose hip syrup that makes a pleasantly fruity base for salad dressing, a soothing, Vitamin-C-filled warm beverage or an earthy-sweet dessert topping. Before the snow falls, I hope to eke out the last of the edible treasures in our midst, but when the season is over, it’ll be that much sweeter for its brief reappearance six months hence.