BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Smoke and Mirrors

ISO 100, f/3.5 @ 1/125 second

Canon Digital Rebel XTi
Canon EF50mm f/1.2L USM
Calumet Genesis 200 strobe with rectangular softbox

Steam rising from a dish tells a powerful and immediately understood story: This food is hot, freshly prepared, and waiting for you to dig in right away. Few elements can elicit an appetite response as readily, even when the viewer is far removed from the scene itself. Let’s not forget what an elegant, dreamlike quality it can add to an image, thinking of it purely as an artistic element. No wonder why the above image garnered so many comments and questions! Capturing that natural steam, rather than Photoshopping it in after the fact, is so difficult that most professionals don’t even attempt it. It’s simply easier and yields more consistent results to hire a post-processing genius and paint in a smokey plume exactly as desired. However for the creative photographer up for a challenge, it’s completely possible and well worth experimenting with.

There are a few key elements for successfully photographing something as elusive as steam:

  • Use a dark background so that the smoke or steam stands out. Sadly, you will never be successful with this technique shooting on white. Think high contrast, high drama!
  • Arrange the set so that you have a bright back light or side light. Don’t use too much fill light, because you’ll flatten out all the detail, rather than show off the textures.
  • Most critical of all, have everything on the set arranged as you want it before you start cooking, so that you don’t have to fiddle around with the composition when the food is ready. That also means getting the right exposure (or at least, dialing it in as closely as possible) so you can just pick up the camera and start shooting. That is very important because…
  • You must shoot the food IMMEDIATELY! Don’t give it a chance to cool, don’t fuss around styling it for ages; just plate it and shoot it. A more casual approach works well for most steam shots, because they look like “a slice of life,” being served just as you might see it at home.
  • Don’t over-think it, and don’t psych yourself out. Yes, you must work quickly, but that’s no reason to freak out. If it doesn’t work, you’ll still get delicious images, just without the steam.

Perhaps the biggest secret of all, though, is that the food or drink doesn’t actually have to be hot or steaming. Yep, it’s true, I did cheat on the above photo. That coffee was about room temperature through and through. The trouble with faking it is the risk that your results won’t look as natural, but it’s a fun technique worth playing with at least once. Now, you’ll have to suspend your doubts for a moment and listen with an open mind, because that steam that seems to be rising from the coffee cup? … It came from a tampon, nuked in the microwave.

An unused, brand new tampon, of course! Soaked in water for a minute and then microwaved for 60 – 90 seconds until steaming, I hid it as well as possible just behind the mug and snapped away. As I circled in white above, you can see the tiny shadow that I couldn’t quite avoid, and then what it looked like on the set. (I placed the tampon in a jar lid so that it didn’t get the decorative paper wet.)

Adding steam separately like this gives you the advantage of working with food prepared in advance, and shooting multiple times without reheating and over-cooking the food itself. Plus, you won’t get any condensation on the rim of bowls or glasses. Just be sure to hide that tampon very well- It might be somewhat tricky to explain to the casual viewer.

Spelling out the setup here: I used a large softbox for the key light to the back-left of the set, a white board to bounce light back into the side, and then sunlight was the main light that came in through the window at the back-right corner. No mirrors were used to avoid strange circular highlights on the glass.

Trust me, it’s not nearly as tricky or complicated as it may seem at first!  Have you successfully photographed steam? Do you think you’d try it now?


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Peanut Butter Jelly Time

ISO 100, f/7.1 @ 1/8 second

Canon Digital Rebel XTi
Canon EF50mm f/1.2L USM

Shot with only window light on a very sunny day; no mirrors, no nothing.

Created as a homework assignment to replicate an image of your choice as closely as possible. The creator of that image asked to remain unnamed and have the link to the original removed.


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A New Year, A New VegNews

One week of silence passes by with such ease in real life, each day barely even registering before the sun begins to recede once again. In blog years, it feels interminable, as if I’ve been a bad blog parent and terribly neglected my poor baby. Fully immersed in book writing, it’s hard to stumble out of my cave and into the blinding daylight, back into the usual routine. In my absence, 2011 has come to pass, and now we can only work to get the most out of this new year. The cycle begins anew. Top 10 lists or “best of” countdowns are not my cup of tea, so let’s dive right in, shall we? After all, you can’t move forward if you keep looking back [-Or else be prepared to walk smack into a wall sooner or later.]

Kicking off 2012 on a high note, the January/February issue of VegNews has got to be one of my favorites yet. I may not have contributed a column, but things came together beautifully from a design standpoint, featuring my photos in the best way possible. Focused on a fresh and clean theme, with sights set on a dietary fresh start for those who many have overindulged over the holidays, it’s exactly my speed. Bright, clean… And of course, undeniably mouthwatering compositions. Each recipe was a winner by all accounts, but here are just a few choice shots.

Banh Mi, by Robin Robertson, is sure to please aficionados of this popular Vietnamese sandwich. Strikingly simple and fresh in flavor, it definitely has the edge on the competition, skillfully blending contrasting elements into a perfect harmony. “Spicy and sweet, soft and crunchy,” but let’s not forget simple in preparation and complex in flavor!

Raw Pad Thai, by Gena Hamshaw. My first time ever working with kelp noodles, I was pleasantly surprised by how easy they were to work with, and enjoyable to eat. A bit more toothsome than the typically wheat-based pasta, they do soften quite nicely after a few minutes of marinating in any acidic sauce. Though I feared it would be a nightmare to style this odd, translucent strands, they impressed me from start to finish.

Dark Chocolate Truffle Tart, by Beverly Lynn Bennett. A sure-fire hit with any audience, this dessert pulls out all the stops without any effort. Versatile to a fault, it’s a snap to dress it up with any accompanying flavor you fancy, too. Peanut butter, mint, or orange; Any pairing is pretty much fool-proof.

Based on the initial evidence, there’s no doubt in my mind that this is gonna be a good year.


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Giveaway Winner and Happy News

Competition was fierce, with comments pouring in furiously throughout the whole giveaway period, but it’s all over and now is the time to announce the lucky winner of a $25 gift certificate to Allison’s Gourmet! After consulting the wise and all-knowing random number generator, I’m pleased to announce that the person who’s soon to have a very happy sweet tooth is…

Marika! Congratulations, and get ready to enjoy your truffles, peanut butter cups, and/or peppermint bark, as you’ll be hearing from Allison with the details shortly.

If today wasn’t your lucky day, don’t despair- You have a second chance to get some sweet winnings thanks to another Allison’s Gourmet giveaway being held at C’est La Vegan, until December 15th. Hurry on over and give it another go!

In unrelated, but perhaps similarly joyous news, I’m happy to announce that The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Gluten-Free Vegan Cooking by Julieanna Hever and Beverly Lynn Bennett has officially been released! An immeasurably useful guide to all things both free of gluten and animal products, it’s a book that deserves some prime real estate on your bookshelf. However, the main reason for my excitement is admittedly a bit selfish…

Because I shot the cover photo!

I couldn’t have been more thrilled when Beverly and Julieanna asked me for my assistance, and that delight only doubled once I tasted the finished raspberry chocolate chip cake. Never before had I ever made a gluten-free cake with such a flawless crumb and full-bodied chocolate flavor. No one could believe there wasn’t a tablespoon of wheat to be found, and I wouldn’t hesitate to serve it to any sort of crowd. Honestly, that one recipe alone is worth the price of the book, so you can’t lose with a fool-proof purchase like this.

Not to leave you hanging, but you’ll just have to check out the book for the rest of those winning recipes, not to mention the sound health advice!


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Cover-Worthy

Upon spying the November/December issue of VegNews, I couldn’t help but beam when I saw my photos on the cover! Yes, they are rather miniscule, but they’re still front and center all the same, and such a place of honor should mean a whole lot to any budding photographer.

Above image borrowed from Vegnews.Com

Some of my favorite shots from this issue include…

The surprisingly savory Dill Waffles with Beet Compote, by chef Jesse Miner, whom I finally had the pleasure of meeting a few months back. Let me tell you, this nontraditional breakfast or brunch offering will really cause a stir with early morning guests- I couldn’t stop eating them! Though I typically make big batches of waffles in advance and freeze them for later, these babies barely had a chance to even cool down before they were all devoured.

Gena Hamshaw brings the raw goodies as per usual, this time in the form of crunchy Almond Crackers and a very unique Orange Carrot Dip. The best part about this recipe is that it’s all-inclusive, providing an alternate low-temperature baking method in addition to the standard dehydrator approach. Both easy and elegant, they make for an excellent appetizer before a festive meal, or just a satisfying snack to tide you over on a busy day.

The real show-stopper recipe for this round was the Lasagna by Allison Samson, hands down. Layers of rich, homemade vegan ricotta and Parmesan, smothered with lovingly slow-simmered tomato sauce and all assembled in a towering noodle construction, it was a sight to behold. Though lasagna is one of my photo styling nemeses due to its often messy, unruly nature, this was a dream to capture, slicing beautifully, and showing off each layer with pride. This is the sort of recipe that would make anyone thrilled to eat lasagna instead of a grand roast on Christmas, even.

And that’s not the end of it, but before I go ahead and post the photos for the entire magazine, you’ll just have to check out a copy to see the rest. Don’t miss the holiday candy feature in particular! Though the photos came out looking fairly simple, it was quite a journey to get there. A highly worthwhile effort, I’d say!


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Plate to Pixel

Like awaking suddenly from a deep sleep, disoriented but instantly frantic to pop out of bed and get started, I find myself smack-dab in the middle of fall festivities and obligations, with a workload heavy enough to topple the Tower of Pisa once and for all. It’s a strange time of year, where the end of summer always comes far earlier than the calendar states, further confused by the influx of winter holiday articles and photos requested for future publication. Regardless, vacation is over, school is back in session, and it’s back to the daily grind; Homework done, I’m ready to present to the class a report on my summer reading.

Plate to Pixel: Digital Food Photography & Styling by friend and inspiration, Helene Dujardin, is quite frankly a must-read for any budding food photographer. Especially applicable to the food blogger but also general photo enthusiast, there are few options on the market with this specialized knowledge in such an approachable and easily digested format. Consider it a cookbook for concocting the most delectable pictures possible, including all of the critical ingredients in a successful shot, and thorough instructions on how to bring that scene to life in a still image.

Needless to say, the photos are plentiful and every last one stunning, illustrating each point eloquently. Helen writes in a friendly, personable tone, that makes each lesson feel more like chatting with a friend than taking a class on photography. She covers not only the technical basics including f/stops, white balance, plus lighting considerations and so forth, but also dives into composition and styling, explaining why some photos just work, while others miss the mark. Everything that goes into one of Helen’s highly sought after photos is detailed here, almost like a cheat sheet for the rest of us still figuring out the art. Not just for the beginner either, Helen lays it all out on the table, including EXIF data for each image and advice on improving workflow.

In short, Plate to Pixel is a reference book that won’t spend too much time on your shelf, because you’ll want to look back over it time and again. In fact, it’s such a helpful tool to anyone passionate on the subject, I made sure I requested a second copy from the publisher to give out to one lucky reader. If you’d like a chance at winning this book, just leave me one comment below with accurate contact information filled out for your email address, and tell me: What kind of camera do you use? Be sure to enter before Monday, September 19th, Midnight EST, at which point a winner will be drawn at random.


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Food Styling 101: Burritos

When I put out the call for your food styling stumbling blocks after a quick primer on ugly foods, the responses were greatly varied, but a few particular dishes stood out from the pack.  Burritos caught my eye first, as more than one or two people named them as particularly uncooperative photography subjects. For good reason, these tortilla torpedoes are notoriously difficult to photograph in an appealing light; Packed with generally brown, red, and maybe yellow components, they’re not exactly bright rainbows of fresh ingredients. It’s easy for them to look tired, droopy, sloppy, or just plain greasy.

The good news is, there’s no need for them to ever appear that way through the lens! Although I would never suggest that I compose burritos like this for an everyday meal, special considerations do need to be made when they’re the “hero” of a shot.

As I was styling and photographing this particular specimen, I tried to think of tips and tricks that helped bring it into the world looking like a glamorous movie star, and not a second rate stand-in. Here’s what I came up with so that others might be able to fix their burrito blemishes…

  • Bear in mind which side you want to be “up” as you build a burrito. If you want the top to be smooth tortilla, then What you lay down first will end up on top. If you don’t mind a “flap” from the tortilla edges on top, then you can build it right-side up.
  • Try to keep mushier components to the bottom, so that when you slice it, they don’t smear through all of the following layers. This means guacamole, re-fried beans, hummus, and the like are better placed near the base of your assembly.
  • Include a good number of greatly varied layers, but don’t go overboard. 4 – 5 different things is about the maximum before it starts to just look like a mess of everything you had leftover in the fridge.
  • Be generous, but don’t over-stuff. A burrito blow out is never attractive.
  • Make sure you include something green, somewhere. Herbs, grilled zucchini, avocado chunks, anything! Green evokes the feeling of freshness, which helps to prevent the burrito from looking like a sad, reheated gas station offering. It also adds pops of contrasting color to create interest.
  • Strain salsa and other “wet” condiments to prevent a watery, mushy mess. Likewise, dab sliced tomatoes on a paper towel to remove some of the excess liquid before adding them to a burrito (or sandwich, for that matter.)
  • Save small amounts of every ingredient, to “fluff up” filling later. This is most noticeable in the beans- I like to show half of the sliced pieces to give it a more realistic look, but add in a few more whole ones to give it more texture and variety. Be sure to toss those whole beans in just a dab of oil to keep them shiny, or brush on a very thin layer with a clean paintbrush once they’re in place.
  • Use toothpicks to keep the roll intact. I usually start with one at each end, and break off the excess so that they’re not sticking out and visible. Then, as I cut and rearrange the pieces, I may add more in as needed. Just don’t forget that they’re there when you go to eat it later!
  • To cut your burrito, use a sharp knife, and apply gentle pressure while using a sawing motion. Don’t just smash the blade down and crush the fragile ingredients within.

Then, when it comes to capturing your burrito masterpiece…

  • Think about the “meal” as a whole to fill out the rest of the set. Consider including a beverage, sliced citrus, chips, dip, fresh herb garnish, and other simple, colorful, or graphic elements to add interest surrounding the subject.
  • Keep the colors light, bright, and clean. A burrito tends to look heavy by nature, so you want to balance that out with contrasting elements.
  • Use a mirror to direct a “spotlight” right onto the filling. Since I prefer a back light for most of my photos (just place the plate in front of the window, easy as that), the cut sides have a tendency to go dark unless otherwise highlighted.
  • Shoot from a low angle so you can see all of that glorious filling!

That concludes this class on burrito styling. Are there any more questions before we move on to the next? Raise your hand, speak up, and I’d be happy to go on! Don’t be afraid to suggest the next subject either, because if everyone enjoyed this, you can count on the Food Styling 101 series to become a regular feature here!


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All the News That’s Fit to Veg

No longer hot off the presses but still just as pertinent, I’m only just flipping through to the final pages of the May/June 2011 issue of VegNews. So thickly layered with juicy tidbits about vegan weddings, travels, and newsworthy items, along with the usual enticement of new recipes, this is not one to rush through. If you did, you would risk missing such ideal summer party nibbles as the Sardinian-Inspired Crostini:

Or perhaps that spicy little Asian-fusion number, the Korean Tacos with Pear-Cilantro Slaw:

Which I can testify, are every bit as distinctively delicious as they look.

In light of the recent VegNews stock photo scandal, I feel that it’s necessary for me to clarify a few things here. I for one am glad that issue was brought to light, because things will only get better from here. Mistakes were made, acknowledged, and hopefully corrected. Moving forward, VegNews has pledged to use only vegan photos, and always accurate photos for the recipes published, so it sounds like a win-win situation if there ever was one. Better yet, you can rest assured that many of those recipe photos, such as those above, will be coming from my kitchen and my camera, so you can feel confident that you’re getting the real deal- no bull.

And of course, you can still expect my column every other issue, so prepare yourself for a serious sugar rush in the upcoming July/August issue… It’s gonna be a scream!


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Kosher Cooking with Levana

Every day is a different job, making it rather difficult to explain exactly what I do when meeting new people. Truth is, I’m not quite sure I have the whole story straight myself- Am I a student? Photographer? Author? Restaurant cook? Blogger? Well, to make matters more confusing, it seems I’m about to add another descriptor to the list: Food stylist.

Food styling is something that is par for the course for food bloggers, but in the world of professional photography, the person wielding the camera is rarely, if ever, directly involved in plating and arranging that delicious subject seen through the viewfinder. The ability to artfully display edibles comes naturally to most food enthusiasts, or anyone who spends enough time eating out and seeing how the experts do it, but it’s not a job that one stumbles into with little real experience… Unless you’re me, apparently. Never had I flattered myself by assuming it was something I could do beyond my own kitchen- Most jobs clearly state that the stylist have a solid culinary background, a degree from an esteemed cooking school, and experience up the wazoo. So getting that last minute call from my publisher, saying that a kind woman in Brooklyn would love my assistance, was quite the shock.

And can I tell you something? I had a blast. Challenging at times and a definite learning experience all the way, but thankfully, Levana Kirschenbaum was every bit as warm and welcoming as promised, and we hit it off immediately. Two long days of fussing with greens, swabbing plates obsessively with q-tips, and a just one minor pâté fiasco later, and we had dozens of beautiful images (thanks to the camera work of Meir Pliskin) to add into her upcoming cookbook, The Whole Foods Kitchen. [Please note, though this isn't a vegan cookbook, there are many vegan options.] I still couldn’t help but pick up my camera a few times, though bear in mind that these are not the images going into the book. Just a few of my favorites, and a little sneak preview to whet your appetite!

Steel-Cut Oat Soup

Lemon Pudding

Steamed Dumplings

Pasta Salad

Roasted Fennel and Endive

Chocolate Steel-Cut Oats Pudding

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