Thursday, January 13, 2011

Potshots @ Food Shots

I have a love/hate relationship with food photography. 
Just to set the record straight from the beginning – I love food and I also love photography.  One of my favorite parts of studying graphic communications for 4 years was being able to take photographs, and developing and printing them.  I loved the whole process, and I loved to see other people’s photos.  I still enjoy and appreciate beautifully composted pictures of food.  Food magazines would be a bit depressing without that glamour shot of some expertly prepared dish on the cover.  And when I do crack open the occasional cook/recipe-book (a rare thing for me) I have to admit that well shot photos are both inspirational and educational.  Of course I, too, like taking pictures of the food I prepare, both as a personal journal of my culinary journey, and also to share with people.  Indeed, pictures and photography have been an important part of my life for a very long time.
Somewhere along the line I grew a sense of discernment, however.  I think it was some time when I was a wee lad, and my mother took me to a fast food restaurant.  As we sat at the table I couldn’t help but notice a vast difference between the carelessly assembled pieces of “meat” and “bread” that was served to us under the, perhaps laughable, moniker of ‘burgers, and the 6 foot tall brightly colored photographs on the windows - pictures of what could only be called the Platonic Ideal of hamburgers. Being a mere child I asked my mother why our food was not like that?  What had gone horribly wrong in the kitchen that we had to be served these soggy meat sandwiches, rather than the promised GOD among burgers?  Alright, I may not have used those exact words, but I was certainly smart enough to know the difference between the photographs and the real thing.  My mother explained to me that when they make those advertisements they have special chefs who make the über food, and in some cases the pictures aren’t even of real food.
Those frauds!  Charlatans! From that time forward I have always looked upon food advertisement with a certain amount of contempt for the mountebanks who would try to pull the wool over the eyes of the wise.  Oh, we’re onto your game, and we won’t be fooled by your photo-buggery!  Of course … when I find myself waiting in line for that order of chalupa and volcano nachos and think about how I ended up there, it’s usually because some commercial with flying tortillas, lettuce, and tomato set off a Pavlovian response and the next thing I know I’m back home eating low-grade Taco Bell Brand kangaroo meat, wishing I had remembered that discussion with my mother so many years before.  C’est la vie.
Yet, I have a level of respect for the photographers who make that kind of magic happen.  It’s a testament to how powerful a really good photo can be.  Really good photos are, a majority of the time, taken by really good photographers.  The kind of photographers I wanted to be like, when I was in high school.
Now-a-days my aspirations are a bit more subdued.  I only hope to take decent pictures of the food I make so when I tell people my stories I have interesting visuals to offer.  The pictures you’re going to find on this blog will probably never be spectacular, as long as I’m taking them.  In a way I don’t want them to be spectacular.  By no means do I want crappy pictures here, don’t get me wrong.  But I’m reminded of all the food blogs I’ve rifled through whose pictures are spectacular.  I don’t like that.  Those blogs who offer a paltry half-paragraph or two, a brief recipe, and a plethora of exquisitely plated food, professionally lit, and shot like a pro.  I hate those blogs.
I know, I sound curmudgeonly right about now, and I apologize.  First of all, those blogs are dishonest.  They aren’t about food.  They should be barely considered a food blog.  They’re a photography blog.  Photography blogs are excellent!  But a blogger should not be confused about what their own blog is about.  I think blogs like that should keep doing what they’re doing, but stop pretending to be about the food.  I’m convinced that most of the times the photo sessions take longer than it actually took to prepare the food.
This brings me to the second reason that these photo-centric food blogs have fallen into disfavor with me.  When the emphasis is on photography it seems to de-food-a-fy (like “dehumanize”, but for food – use it, credit me) the subject.  Which is fine by me if it’s a photography blog, because photography blogs are about photos.  But if you’re going to call yourself a food blog please give me more than pretty pictures.  Food is more than just light bouncing off the surface of a roast and being captured with a lens or a retina.
Did you ever notice that when you eat dinner you don’t just sit down at the table and look at the food from all sorts of angles with various exciting lighting?  Maybe some people do that, but for me dinner uses all the senses!  Tell me about cooking the food in those great photos, please!  What did it smell like?  Did it make any cool sounds as you sautéed it, or bit into that crust?  What made the flavors special?  Did it makes you think?  Maybe about a childhood memory?  Food encompasses all our senses, and even our thoughts.  Maybe I’m different, but those are the things I want to have more of in food blogs.  Keep the awesome photos, but if you want to be called a food blog, I’m of the opinion that you ought to give me more insight into food than just the sight of it.
I feel like I ought to add a bit of a disclaimer here:  I realize these opinions of mine might make it sound to some people like I am in some way opposed to food photography.  Not in the least.  Food photography is vitally important in the blog, magazine, and recipe-book worlds.  I appreciate, even if I dislike in a way, those publications whose modus operandi is to present excellent food photos with recipes and minimal commentary.  I just don’t like the fact that everyone feels the need to cater to the carnal lust for pretty pictures and shallow content.  Therefore it’s in that spirit that I decided to keep photographs out of this entry.  As a bit of an experiment, I’m curious if I’ll get nearly as many hits to this entry as I do to entries with pictures on it.  I’ll be sure to let you know the results.
So which do you prefer?  Long winded food blogs with depth and details, or pictures shows with photographic professionals?  Can there be a balance betwixt the two?

“It's weird that photographers spend years or even a whole lifetime, trying to capture moments that added together, don't even amount to a couple of hours.”
- James Lalropui Keivom

Monday, January 3, 2011

Flour + Salt + Yeast + H2O = Awesome

     What is more universal than bread?  I haven't done any scientific research, but I would venture to say that every civilized society in the world makes and consumes bread.  Biblically speaking bread has all sorts of significance.  Jacob was such a fine baker that his older brother, Esau, sold him his birthright for some bread and lentils.  Let's not forget the meal which unites all the Church in all the world throughout all of time being centered on bread and wine.
     Aside from religious symbolism, many cultures, countries, and peoples have a bread which is special to them.  Taking it a step further you'll be sure to find that within those cultures you'll find families have their own special recipe for bread, which they hold dear.  For my family that is Grammy's Oatmeal Bread.  That's going to have to be an other entry, though.
     I'm still a very beginner baker, so I like to take the simple route, at least until I get more skillful, then I'll make more elaborate breads.  I know many people are the same as me, so this video is for them.  It's the popular Sullivan St. Bread, which is so simple a toddler could do it.  I figured this is the perfect time to be video blogging a wee bit, so watch the video, and enjoy!  Written recipe follows.

In a glass or stainless steel bowl put 17.5 oz. (4 cups) bread flour (easily found in any supermarket), along with 2.5 tsp kosher salt, and 1/2 tsp instant/rapid rise yeast.  Stir it up so you don't have a clump of yeast, then add 1.5 cups of room tempurature (70 degrees) water.  Use yours hands, or a spoon, or a fork, or spatula, or garden trowel (whatever works) to get all water absorbed by the flour and you've got one solid shaggy dough.  Plastic wrap the bowl and let rise at room temp for 8-24 hours, depending on temperature.  If it's summer where you are and you've got no A/C so your kitchen is 80 or 90+ degrees you could easily get away with the 8 hour rise, but if you're stuck in a 52 degree house like I am right now, go ahead and give it the full 24 hour treatment.

Punch it down and let it rest 15 minutes.

Sprinkle a silpat or a kitchen towel with corn meal (if you don't have corn meal I'm sure a heavy dose of flour would work well enough).  Form your dough into a ball by tucking the outer edge up under itself so the top of the ball has a clean round "skin" to it.  Let it rise, seam down and covered with another towel, on your silpat/towel for 2 hours.  About a half hour before the time is up put a 5-6 qt. cast iron dutch oven (or any oven proof pot with a lid) into the oven and preheat to 450 degrees.  When your 2 hours are up use your towel or silpat as a kind of "sling" to drop the bread into the pot, seam down, cover, and bake for 30 minutes.

Take the top off and bake 15 minutes more.

Rest the loaf on a rack for 1-2 hours before cutting.  Store wrapped in tin foil.  It'll keep a week, if you don't devour it all before then.

     I love this recipe!  First of all it's simple.  Second, it's very forgiving, so experimentation is encouraged.  Third, as a science geek I love that gluten shows up without kneading ... all it took was plenty of moisture and time. Fourth, it's just delicious bread.  My favorite things to do with it?  

  • Thick sliced, toasted, and topped with butter and honey with a big cup of loose leaf oolong or green tea.
  • Great with soups and pot roasts.
  • Top it with some over easy eggs and bacon, or sausage, for a hearty breakfast.  Strong coffee not  optional!
  • My favorite French toast in the world is to slice it up the night/day before and let it dry out uncovered all night, then apply your favorite French toast recipe.
  • Or if you find you somehow can't eat it all you can let it dry out even longer and process it into bread crumbs.  Store in a zip top baggy.  All-natural home-made bread crumbs are simply wonderful, and sadly it's rare these days.
     It's your bread, now, so have fun with it.  Enjoy it.  And be sure to get back to me so I can hear how it went.

(Special thanks to my wonderful wife @ Marriage Photography for filming <3  )

"If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink: For thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head, and the LORD shall reward thee."
Proverb of King Solomon