Friday, March 26, 2010

food photography

My blogger friend over at Designs by Gollum is conducting a food photography contest right now, and thinking about my own entry has made me a bit reminiscent for the days when I didn't know how to take pictures of food...4 months ago.  Remember this?

The best buttermilk pancakes in the world, and I have to show them off like's like I had pushed the plate as far away from me as if it was plutonium and not my favorite breakfast of all time.  What was I thinking??? 

I've learned a lot since that blog post.  So in light of Gollum's theme of photography tips, here's my own collection...

Get close to your subject!  This has to be the number one lesson I've learned.  If I treated these sweet potatoes like I had treated my pancakes, you'd miss out on all of their delicious beauty.

Get the optimal mix of colors in your photo.  I seriously fluffed this dish with a fork for about 10 minutes until I had just the right mix of cranberry, carrot, celery, and couscous showing through.  If it had been a sea of couscous with one sad little cranberry sticking up...well, you would have just felt sorry for the lonely cranberry...

Food with delightful insides always looks better with the insides showing.  Forget taking pictures of the outsides of wraps, burritos, and turnovers - break them open!  Invite your guests to just smell the apple and see the flakes of the crust after you've broken it...hmmmm! 

Same principle goes for bread...slice it up!  Show it's functionality (this bread makes great sandwiches) as well as its beautiful outer crust. 

More is better.  I've learned never to showcase just one piece of food unless it's worth getting really up close (like my sweet potato).  In many cases, it's best just to show the whole this pita.  This picture brings back those feelings that I used to have as a kid when I'd look at a play area full of those little balls....I just want to dive right on in!

When showcasing a soup, highlight the food and not the broth.  A picture of a bowl of broth...not appetizing.  But, if you drain a bit of the broth out and get the yummy goodness that is the heart of the soup...well, now that's a meal worth photographing!

Put it on your plate.  While some meals look good in their original just-been-pulled-from-the-oven state, most look best after they've been served.  Take this chicken pot pie - in it's original dish, all you could see was a crust.  The crust was lovely, Pioneer Woman would just doesn't make my skirt fly up.  Put it on a plate, though...

Go for a little bokeh.  Bokeh is a photography term that refers to the fact that part of the picture is in focus and part of it is out of focus.  This is a great technique for food!  In this photo, the piece of vegetable tart in the foreground is in focus, but you can still see the rest of the slightly out-of-focus behind it.  It's a way to artistically get all of your food into one photo.  My favorite thing about it - it draws the eye to what's this case, to that flaky crust-filled goodness!

So, that's what I've learned.  I'm no professional photographer.  In fact, I'm not even sure you could call me advanced...or intermediate.  Many of my pictures are still when you can see my shadow on top of the food I'm photographing...

Does my shadow make me look fat???

Nevermind that.  :-)  And good luck on all of your own food photography!  I encourage everyone to check out Design by Gollum's food photography tips (and her lovely food photos...don't view while starving).  The Pioneer Woman also has some great resources, where you can learn all about bokeh, among other things. 

Until then, I'll leave you with one last tip: if a food is delicious, the picture probably will be too...

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

simply delicious pot roast

 There are lots of recipes out there for pot roast.  I've tried many of them.  And yet...I keep coming back to this one.  For one, it's my mother's recipe.  But there's other appeals as well - it's got only 5 ingredients, takes less than five minutes to prepare, goes in a slow cooker, and tastes so amazing that my husband put the barbecue sauce back in the refrigerator without ever having to use it.  For him to choose no barbecue sauce...well, let me just tell you, it had better be good meat.

First, you spray the inside of a slow cooker with cooking spray...get it nice and coated.

Then add a lean cut of roast beef, first making a cut in the thickest part of the meat.  The size of beef you choose will depend on the size of your slow cooker - obviously, you want it to fit inside.  I generally choose anything inexpensive that has "loin" in its name.  Those work really well for pot roasts.

Add 1/4 cup water... envelope of onion soup mix... onion, cut into large chunks...

...and a can of cream of mushroom soup.

A note about the cream of mushroom soup - if you are going dairy free (or just don't have a can of soup lying around), do what I did.  Make your own!  I found a great recipe for "cream-of-something soup" on Tasty Kitchen.  For this pot roast, I used beef broth and didn't add any mushrooms at only took me 3 minutes, and it worked great! 

At this point, put the lid on and set your slow cooker to high.  After one hour, switch the setting to low and cook for an additional 7 hours (so 8 hours of total cooking time).  When you open the lid for dinner, here's what you'll see:

Hmmmmm....that is one tasty gravy!

Okay, I are probably wondering where all the veggies are.  Don't most pot roasts have veggies?  If you feel the need to put carrots and potatoes in the crock pot with the meat, go right ahead.  Just make sure you put them underneath the meat (carrots on the bottom).  I don't do it because my slow cooker isn't all that big and because I like keeping the meat separate - that way I can use it for sandwiches later on.

I did, however, roast some veggies in the oven for this particular meal.  I mixed some carrots and potatoes in a bowl with a smidgen of olive oil and a few shakes of herbs.

I spread these on a lined cookie sheet and baked at 350 degrees, stirring every so often to keep them from sticking.

And so there you have it.  Tonight's dinner.  And it was soooo easy!

Don't won't need the barbecue sauce.

Simply Delicious Pot Roast

Lean cut of beef (anything that has "loin" in its name)
1/4 cup water
1 envelope onion soup mix
1 onion, cut in large chunks
1 can cream of mushroom soup

Spray crock pot with cooking spray.  Make a cut in the thickest part of the meat and place it in the crock pot.  Add the rest of the ingredients in the order listed.  Cook on high for one hour.  Cook on low for an additional seven hours.

Monday, March 15, 2010

blueberry-lime jam

If cooking is an art, canning is a science.

It's true!  You can be creative with cooking.  But canning...well, you don't want to mess with that ingredient list.  In order to preserve anything safely, you have to follow the directions to a T.  I'm guessing that's why canning is intimidating to so many people.

Let me state here and now that canning is fun...canning is rewarding...and canning is very do-able.  You can do it!  I promise!

This is going to be a rather long blog post because canning is...well...complicated.  Not hard...just complicated.  If you've never canned before, I suggest doing it with someone for your first time so that you can get the hang of it.  If you know me, let this be an invitation to come and invade my kitchen.  If not, I'd love to meet you!

Before you even think about canning, there are some things you need.  I'm talking about supplies...

You'll also want some tried and true recipes.  I tend to trust those published by the canning companies over those that were invented by somebody's grandmother in the 1920s.  Scientists have verified the safeness of Ball's canning recipes.  I'm not so sure they've done the same for grandma's.

These are my favorite canning books.  There's so many recipes featured, you won't even miss grandma's creation!

I've discovered that the key to successful canning (besides having the equipment and following the recipe to the T) is getting everything prepared before cooking a thing.  So, I get my big water canner and fill it up with enough water to cover the tops of whatever jar I'm using by at least an inch.  Place it over high heat - you want to get it close to boiling by the time you are ready to put your jars in, and it takes quite a while to heat up.

Then I wash everything else.  It doesn't matter if you washed it before you put it in the box one month earlier.  It doesn't matter if you just got it out of the shrink wrap.  You must freshly wash it.

What's all that stuff in the above picture, you ask?  Well, I'm hoping you are familiar with jars (those glass things on the right).  I always prepare one more jar than my recipe says I'll need (just in case).  To the left of the jars, we have the lids (the ones with the brand names on them) and caps (these ring-shaped items go over the lids to keep them in place).  To the right of the lids is a blue funnel, for pouring your food into the jars.  At the bottom of the picture are two more blue items - a magnet and a quasi-measuring stick.  I'll demonstrate those in a minute.

Put your jars into a large saucepan and cover with water.  Turn on the heat and bring the water to a simmer (not a boil).  You want the jars to be hot when you pour your hot food in or they might crack.  If you can't fit all the jars in at once, that's okay.  You can rotate more in during the process.

Do the same thing with your lids and caps...remember, you don't want to boil them!  Just get them warm.

Then you are going to want to prepare your counter-top with the following items: a trivet (to put your hot saucepan of food on), your funnel, your magnet, your quasi-measuring stick, tongs (to get the jars out of the hot water), and finally a washcloth.  The washcloth should be dry with one dampened me.

Now it's time to start cooking!  I made blueberry-lime jam from Ball's Blue Book of Preserving.  My husband loves blueberries, and this recipe sounded just weird enough to try.

Pull out all of the ingredients and get them prepared (remember - this is science, not a time for creative experimentation).  Most jam recipes are pretty basic - this one called for sugar, lime juice, lime zest, pectin, and, of course, blueberries.

 I went ahead and zested the lime and measured out the sugar...

The next step was crushing blueberries.  The recipe says to crush the blueberries one layer at a time.  So I put a layer of blueberries in a glass dish and got out my potato masher.

As you can see, that didn't work too well for me...

My blueberries are hardly crushed.  I suppose I could have gone at it for a little longer, but I resorted to an easy trick my mother taught me...the Salad Shooter (or food processor, if you have one).

Whole blueberries in, crushed blueberries out.  It worked quite nicely and very quickly.

The next step is to combine the crushed blueberries and the box of pectin together in a large saucepan.

Bring this mixture to a boil (stirring constantly), and then add your sugar.  Aren't you glad you pre-measured your sugar?

Stir the sugar until it's dissolved...

...then add the lime juice...

...and the lime zest.

Then return this mixture to a boil.  Don't settle for a mediocre know, a bubble here, a bubble there.  You want a full rolling boil.  By that I mean that you shouldn't be able to stir it should keep on boiling, no matter how hard you stir.  You need to hard boil this for one full minute, stirring the whole time.

At this point, your stove will look something like this...

Yes, it's true...canning will take over your whole kitchen.

Once your jam has boiled for one minute, you need to remove it from the heat.  Place it on that trivet that you prepared for this very occasion.

Then, you need to skim the foam off of the top and throw it away.  Now, I know, I seems like a waste.  But really, it's not.  The foam ruins the aesthetics of your jam in the jar, and it doesn't taste good anyway!  Don't believe me?  Try it...if you like it, you can always stick it in some tupperware and put it in the fridge.  But whatever you do, don't stick it in the jar.

Now grab your tongs and pull a jar out of its hot water bath.

Empty the water out of it (I would hope that would be an obvious step...).

And use your funnel to fill it up with jam.

Here's where the quasi-measuring stick comes in.  The recipe says to allow 1/4 inch headspace at the top of the jar.  Since we are following the recipe to a T, we need to measure.  And the stair-step looking side of the measuring stick has those measurements printed on it.  We find the right one and use it to help us get the exact headspace needed.

Then we turn the stick around and use the other side to get out air bubbles.  Simply run it down the edge of the jar on a few sides.

And now that we've made a mess, we're going to need our washcloth.  Take the dampened corner and very carefully clean the rim of the jar.  This is important - if there is anything on the rim, it might not seal (and that would not be safe).

Once you get the lid cleaned off, use your blue magnet to reach into the hot water and get out a lid...

...and place the lid on top of the jar.

Then use your magnet to reach back into the water to pull out a cap...

...and place it on top of the lid.

You'll be glad you had that magnet...those suckers are hot!

Speaking of hot...the jar will be hot by this point, too.  So, don't try to twist on the cap with your bare hands...that would be silly.  Instead, use that washcloth to help you out (that's why we only dampened a corner).  You only need to get it fingertip tight.

Using your tongs, place the jar into the hot water canner.

And repeat until you've filled all the jars.  Now let's say that you get down to the very last bit of jam and don't have enough to fill a jar.  No worries - just stick it in a tupperware dish and pop it in your fridge.  But never, ever process a jar without the amount of jam the recipe calls for.  Remember...this is science!

After you've got all your jars in the canner, put the lid on and bring it to a boil.

Once the water has reached a rolling boil, the processing can commence.  Each recipe is a little different - this one says to process for 15 minutes.  Some say 10.  Some say 20.  The important point is to do what the recipe says and don't start your timer until the water has reached a rolling boil.  That means you might have to lift up the lid and peek your head in to check...this is perfectly acceptable.

After you are done processing, use your tongs to lift each jar straight...I mean straight...out of the canner.  No waving it around.  Lift it straight.  Got it?

Continue to keep the jar upright...

And then set it upright on wire racks (or somewhere where it can breathe).

Leave about 2 inches between each jar as they cool.  And then leave them.  Don't worry about any water collected on the lid...leave it.  Don't turn it upside down to see what it looks like...leave it.

Leave them for a full 24 hours.  No cheating!  This is science!

The next day, you want to take the caps off and test your seal in two ways.  The first - press your finger on top of the lid.  If it doesn't pop, you are good (just like you test jars you buy from the store).

Second - put your fingers on either side of the lid and gently pull up.  If it doesn't come off, you're good.

The final step...write the name of the food and the date on the lid of the jar.  I always thought this was silly...I'd remember, right?  But then I didn't remember once.  I've learned my lesson.

If sealed properly, your jam can be stored in the cabinet indefinitely!  But don't forget to put at least one jar in the'll want some of this stuff for your tea and bread.  It was delicious! :-)

Blueberry-Lime Jam
From Ball's Blue Book of Preserving

4 1/2 cups blueberries
1 package powdered pectin
5 cups sugar
1 T. grated lime peel
1/3 cup lime juice

Crush blueberries one layer at a time.  Combine crushed blueberries and powdered pectin in a large saucepot.  Bring to a boil, stirring frequently.  Add sugar, stirring until dissolved.  Stir in grated lime peel and lime juice.  Return to a rolling boil.  Boil hard 1 minute, stirring constantly.  Remove from heat.  Skim foam if necessary.  Ladle hot jam into hot jars, leaving 1/4-inch headspace.  Adjust two-piece caps.  Process 15 minutes in a boiling-water canner.  Yields about 6 half-pints.

This recipe is linked to
Gooseberry Patch's Recipe Roundup!
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