2014: my favorite shots

On the road, as we often are around Christmas and New Year’s, there aren’t many recipes. Nor is there much time, if I’m honest, for the kind of deep reflections that the blog universe generally expects/requires/suggests. I often wrangle with this issue, promising myself (and sometimes you) grandiose schemes about What I’ve Learned and What Comes Next. This year I thought I’d do something a little different.

In addition to expanding my cooking abilities and repertoire, one of the goals I have for myself with this little virtual space is to improve my photography. Therefore, I’d like to take a look back through my visual work this year and give you a few of my favorite food photographs from 2014, with a little explanation of why I like them so much. I hope you enjoy.

Food Blog September 2014-0545When I think about my food photographs from this year, this one tops the list. It seems like an odd choice – it’s just olive oil on bread, a simple shot and a simple idea. But that’s part of what I like about it. It shows a beginning: something good about to develop. Additionally, I love the glistening look of the olive oil spilling over those slices, and I love how apparent the holes in the ciabatta are. Finally, I like that I took this photo myself – only one hand on the shutter button, hoping for steady fingers as I poured olive oil with the other.

July Food Blog 2014-4003Here, I love the perfect cup of my coworker’s hands around the spring roll she was so delighted to wrap. The focus on the roll itself, though you can still see clearly the lines and prints of her hands, shows your eye exactly where to look. I’m not always a huge fan of centering the main event in a photo (it can get expected and even boring after a while), but here it was the right thing to do.

Food Blog February 2014-3213This one is all about the angle. Often I like to shoot dishes from an angle level with or just above the table they sit on – it makes for a clear image of their size, texture, and composition. But this one, as I stood on a chair bending over the dish, captured just the right glow from a nearby window, and showed off the ragged edges of the scoops in such a pleasing way.

Food Blog Photo Fridays 2014-3510More and more, I’m excited about texture in a photograph, whether it’s the ridges of a leaf in a heap of salad greens or of the beautiful creases around someone’s eyes showing how hard they are laughing. Here, the way the strands of dough stretched and tore as they baked draw me in, and I’m delighted, as usual, with my trusty Nikon’s ability to capture such fine detail.

Food blog July 2014-0364This one is all about the light. I took this on my kitchen counter, mid-morning, and the light spilling in is from the window above my sink. I love the shadows of the bowl and of the apricots, and the way you can see where the frame of the window cuts off that spill of sunlight. The hazy, unsteady pillar of steam rising off the just-boiled fruits is a nice touch too.

Food Blog September 2014-0587Okay, this isn’t food. But I can’t resist an excuse to reprise a shot of my most faithful kitchen helper, bashfully refusing to address the camera despite the promise of one of her favorite crunchy treats. The encroaching white on her muzzle sometimes alarms me a bit, but the photographer in me admits the contrast it provides against her fox red fur is lovely.

I’ll let Lucy close out this little annotated slideshow, and content myself by hoping your new year was happy and that you got to kiss someone you loved whether there was mistletoe or not. Welcome to 2015. My fingers are resolutely crossed for a good one.

Reflecting

The Bittman project is done.  I did it!  I took a list of 101 side dishes conceived to accompany a Thanksgiving turkey, whittled it down a bit into dishes N. and I would actually eat (this left us with a total of 82) and, over the course of two years, made and ate each one.  Before moving on to my next project, I wanted to stop and consider a bit.  This project was valuable in many ways and I don’t think it should be pushed aside like a last gasping bite before launching into the next thing.  I learned a lot about cooking, I think, both from the mistakes I made and from the little triumphs and successes I achieved.

 

The Mistakes:

Measuring is important.  If you don’t measure, if you don’t have the correct ratios, things don’t bake up the way they are supposed to.

Follow directions.  Roasting can’t happen with waterlogged ingredients, and adding items in the wrong order produces unintended results.  Of course, this is challenging with Bittman’s suggestions because they don’t always have exact directives.  But it has taught me a lot about how a recipe fits together, and how to organize and present information in a way that works – at least for me.

Pairings matter.  Learning how to cook a dish is one thing.  But you’re probably always going to be serving it to someone (or multiple someones) as part of a meal.  Crossing flavors in strange ways – Italian sausage with soy-glazed vegetables, Southwestern spices with Middle Eastern preparations, too much sweet with too little savory – doesn’t produce a very satisfying eating experience.

I just don’t like yellow curry.  I can tolerate it, but I’d much rather have garam masala, or tumeric, or cumin, or just straight black pepper.

Give yourself time.  Charging headfirst into an unfamiliar recipe with only twenty minutes until dinnertime is almost always going to lead to frustration, mistakes, and unsatisfying results.  This sounds very preachy, but read the recipe beforehand, make sure you understand what it is asking, and budget your time accordingly.

WRITE THINGS DOWN!  This isn’t the first – or the only – time I will make this mistake.  But I’m trying.  If you don’t write it down, chances are good you won’t remember it.  And then that perfect amount of nutmeg, or salt, or the temperature you used, is lost.  And that makes it unrepeatable.

 

The Triumphs:

Repurposing works.  If something doesn’t come out right – or to your liking – there is no sense in throwing it away if you can imagine transforming it into something better.  If that means adding booze and wrapping it in pie dough, then so be it!

Acid saves.  If your dish is missing something but you don’t want to add more salt and you’re not sure about upping the spice quotient, try a squeeze of lemon juice or a dash of red wine vinegar.  There’s something about the brightness and verve this brings to a dish that really changes it.  (Hell, it even tones down the overbearing sweetness of buttercream. )

I can, if I take my time and don’t freak out, make a successful dough.  It’s not pretty yet, and it’s not error-free, but it comes together and rolls out and tastes pretty good too.  That’s something.  That’s more than I expected.

Soup is easy.  I grew up on two kinds of soup: the overprocessed, condensed kind that came in cans, and the long-simmering stew and chili kind.  This led me to believe that homemade soup was a time consuming process.  Watching cooking shows that talk about extracting flavors from bones and babysitting a stock for hours furthered this assumption.  But since I’ve started making my own chicken stock from the carcasses of roast chickens, and since I realized that Bittman’s soup recipes mostly go the same way (sweat vegetables, add flavoring, add broth and heat through), soup became a quick and simple venture.  Onions, garlic, carrots, celery, and chicken broth, and you’re 75% there already.  During the year I even invented my own, which N. and I will be having again next week with the addition of ramen noodles.

 

The Favorites:

As seems inevitable with a project like this, there are some ingredient combinations N. and I will never have the desire to return to.  But there are some that we will crave again and again.  Some, in fact, have already graced our table on multiple occasions.  I just want to point out a few of these.

Sweet.  This combo of sweet potatoes and green onions, roasted until caramelized and perfectly salted, is an achingly beautiful side dish still in search of the perfect accompaniment.  But it dances solo just fine.  I’d have these for lunch any day.  I’d have them for dessert too.

Sausage, kale, and white beans (and cheddar cheese or Parmesan rind, too, if you really want to comfort it up) are a beautiful combination that deserve revisiting.  This soup is warm and satisfying and should be eaten at least once per winter.  Nicely spiced tempeh crumbles might make an adequate substitution for the sausage, if you aren’t into pig.

Herbed buttermilk biscuits, especially with the addition of lemon zest, are all I want in the biscuit world right now.  They are crisp and tender and have just the right crunch.  They are breakfast ready.  They would accept cream gravy.  They would mop up a savory sauce.  They would provide the perfect vehicle for jam or honey or sweetened goat cheese.  They freeze perfectly and, frozen solid and plopped onto parchment paper, require only a few extra minutes in the oven to cook.

Ginger-Apricot Chutney.  This spicy-sweet condiment would be a suitable topper for the Herbed Buttermilk Biscuits I just got weak-kneed over.  But it also pairs well with grilled or roasted chicken, and would probably be delectable as a fresh take on a Christmas ham glaze.  Or, you know, on sandwiches with lunchmeat or cream cheese, or as an interesting filling for chocolate truffles.  Now I want to make this again immediately.  I wonder if I have any ginger in the freezer…

Perhaps the crowning glory of the whole project, the beer-y cornbread stuffing laced with tomatoes, green onions, and corn kernels is a genius combination I have already revisited on multiple occasions.  My sister has used this as a Thanksgiving stuffing alternative for her celery-hating boyfriend (seriously, almost every stuffing I’ve ever made has a base of onions and celery.  Hit the shelves.  Look for one without that notorious stringy green stalk).  It’s yeasty and deep and golden and glorious, and it gives you an excuse to toast and taste a few cubes of cornbread along the way.  It is, even if you don’t like beer, not to be missed.

 

The News:

I have a few things planned for the year on which we’ve just embarked.  First, we need a new project.  I’ve decided.  It’s going to be bad for my waistline but good for my confidence in the kitchen.  I hope you’ll like it.  I’ll get to that next week.

Second, I think we need a new place to meet each week.  I started this blog intending to write about fancy things I’d made.  I didn’t know how much I would enjoy sharing even my mistakes.  I didn’t know how much I was going to learn about cooking and photography and writing about food.  “shornrapunzel,” a moniker picked up from my last days in college when I went from three feet of hair to less than one (I’m back in the three feet range now), was the username on my first blog – a livejournal I used as a writing exercise and an attempt to stay in touch with friends pre-Facebook.  Eventually, all I was posting there were long, drippy descriptions of food I had eaten or wanted to eat, and I decided to start this little venture as a more appropriate way of addressing this obsession.  So “shornrapunzel” was an easy name to saddle a url with because it was familiar and connected with me, but it never really had any relevance to this blog or its topics.  Blackberries, given their literary suggestions of adventure and unexpectedness, still seem to fit well the kind of cooking and sharing I’m doing here.  So they get to stay.  In this next week, I’m moving this little kitchen corner to a new domain for continued blackberrying.  I hope everything transfers over okay.  I’ve never done this before.  But then, that’s nothing new.

See you on the other side!