BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Viva Vida Vegan!


Photo by Liz Crowe

Talk about a whirlwind trip. With so much good food, inspiring information, and of course, lovely people, all crammed into the space of a long weekend, it was stimulation overload for an introvert like myself. It may take me twice as long to fully recover, easing back into the normal routine, but that disruption was more than worth making time for, to say the least.

Until I can gather my thoughts on Portland at large and the amazing eateries I managed to visit, I wanted to share some details from my workshop on food styling. Thank you so much to everyone who made it into the room! I’m sad to have suggested a cap on attendance, having heard so many people were turned away, but that’s one mistake I won’t make again. In case you missed out or managed to sneak in but couldn’t get a handout, here’s the list of the tools that go into my kit. Print at will and use it well!

It was a bit crazed, compressing so much information into just 45 minutes, although I did go over a bit (Sorry, Isa!) which is why I’m very grateful that Liz managed to get a nice shot of my fully styled Pad Thai. To recap, a few of the tips that went into converting that mountain of noodles from sad leftovers into the above blog-worthy plate are as follows…

  • Put dots of sauce on the plate (or pour a bit into a small, separate dipping bowl for a less fancy presentation) if you’d like it to really stand out from the dish. Apply this with an eyedropper for better control.
  • Deconstruct your dish and pick out the key elements. I really homed in on the baked tofu cubes here, since that seemed like the most interesting ingredient in the mixture. As you build the plate, strategically weave them back in so that they’re front and center, without looking as if you specifically placed them there.
  • Dab soy sauce onto foods with a paintbrush (never used on paint) for a darker golden-brown hue.
  • Toss noodles with oil so that they glisten and pick up eye-catching highlights.
  • Add color- Reach for bold, contrasting colors to brighten up a drab dish. Fresh herbs and vegetables are always a good route to go down. (I used scallions, purple cabbage, and microgreens in this case.) Make sure it makes sense, too! Don’t just add ingredients for the sake of design, if they have discordant flavors with your dish.
  • To make a citrus zest spiral, pare away a long, thin strip of zest from any citrus and trim the sides so that they’re even. Wrap the strip around a plastic straw in a spiral, securing the top and bottom each with a straight pin. Let it sit in the freezer for at least 15 minutes and then use it quickly! It will uncoil as it thaws. Since I didn’t have a freezer handy here, I simply went with a little lime twist on the side. For that, cut a thin round out of the widest part of the lime (or any citrus) and then cut a slit at the bottom, between two segments, stopping at the center. Twist the cut edges in opposite directions and set it on the plate.
  • Remember, food styling is about controlled chaos. When adding cashew halves on top, I let them fall where they may to keep it looking realistic. Make a plate look too perfect and it won’t have the same appetite appeal.
  • Add the most perishable ingredients last. That meant the microgreens here, which I did add one by one for equal distribution.
  • On that note, be patient! Build each plate carefully and deliberately.

Thank you to everyone who saw it happen in person! I couldn’t have hoped for a more gracious, engaged audience. It was your feedback that has encouraged me to seek out future demo opportunities in the future, so you certainly haven’t seen the last of me yet.


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Coming Soon to a Mailbox or Newsstand Near You…

Typically, sharing about the latest and greatest issue of VegNews is a big waiting game. Rarely does my own copy arrive before I spill the beans, but I can usually resist the urge to post about it at least until the designated month on the cover. Needless to say, that’s not the case for the incoming November/December issue. As soon as I learned that at least one copy was out in the wild, that signaled that it was fair game. This collection of articles and recipes is so enticing, so irresistible, that hopefully my impatience is pardonable this time around.

Returning with another column of My Sweet Vegan, I’m thrilled to share what may very well become the holiday dessert that everyone talks about for years to come: Black Forest Parfaits. The classic Christmas cake has been broken down into its essential components to be reassembled in delicate layers of chocolate cake, vanilla creme, and a lightly boozy drunken Morello cherry sauce. Not only does this presentation allow each element to shine, visible through clear glass walls, but it means individual servings can be prepared in advance and served without any messy slicing or scooping. Easier on the cook and tastier on the palate; can you say, “win-win”?

After coming down from my cake-induced sugar high, I was thrilled to photograph a deeply satisfying, warming soup as well. Effortless to whip up, the depth of flavor that Jesse Miner managed to create in his Smoky Tomato and Kale Soup is astonishing. Spiked with chili and rounded out by hearty potatoes and quinoa, this is not your average pallid tomato water. More like a stew than a modest soup, it could easily pass as a main course, rather than merely a humble side.

Let’s not forget, this is also the issue where the annual Veggie Award winners are revealed, among many other exciting features. Who’s won favorite cookbook or blog author this year? Now, I wouldn’t spoil that surprise even if I knew!


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Mad Props

Prop shopping can often be the most fun, or the most frustrating, part of food styling. Endless accessories to match any style are out there, waiting to be discovered; the thrill of the hunt can turn any outing into an impromptu prop acquisition mission. Though the food will always be the star of the show, it still needs strong supporting actors to complete the production, so it pays to have a sharp eye for design and for deals. Expenses are what prevent these searches from being carefree, as any blogger knows well. While those hand-crafted, one-of-a-kind serving pieces are obvious budget busters, it’s surprising to see how badly plain linens can eat through any allotted funds. Yes, I’m talking about fabric napkins, props that rarely get the attention they deserve. Adding pops of color while softening the scene, giving it motion with an effortless drape or order with a tight fold, napkins often pull the whole image together. Problem is, most napkins come in sets, because what normal person wants just one or two of a hundred little scraps of fabric? Rarely will more than two even fit on my set, not to mention the inflated price tag that comes with those matching bundles.

Thank goodness for online shopping. Current blog sponsor Dot and Army provides the perfect solution, packaging fun, whimsical fabric napkins in every color and design you can dream up, instantly giving you dozens of different ways to dress up your food photography. Don’t see a ready-made set that strikes your fancy? Custom packages are also possible. It’s like having your very own personal prop shopper who has impeccable taste!

Just imagine this image without either napkin in place. While they may be overlooked as a stylistic element by the average viewer, they add tons of color to this otherwise plain white background, while reinforcing the concept of a dainty tea party. All I had to do was explain my needs, and these two examples were part of the bundle I got from Jennifer, the talent behind this treasure trove.

This one is even less prominent, but take a gander at the vintage checkerboard napkin way in back. When I asked Jennifer to simply surprise me, this was one of the patterns she picked out, and it has already become an important part of numerous photos. Even if they aren’t the main focus of a shot, or even in focus, it’s those subtle touches that turn a fine photo into a memorable one.

Now, do I have a treat in store for all you budding and established food stylists… Jennifer has very generously offered to give away some of her fabric finds to one lucky reader! The winner can pick any 2 sets of 12 napkins, or choose a customized set to match their kitchen. Enter by commenting about your current favorite prop shop, be it local or online. For two extra entries, like Dot and Army’s facebook page and/or pin your favorite item from the shop on a Pinterest board. Be sure to come back and leave separate comments for each action you take if you want to make them count! You have until Wednesday, October 10th at midnight EST to get your entries in, so make haste and start commenting!

If you simply can’t wait to dive into all the goodies on display (and I sure don’t blame you) go ahead and add those treasures to your cart. When you checkout, enter the code “bittersweet” for a 20% discount on any orders (excluding custom orders.)

UPDATE: The random number generator has spoken, and the winner is…

Lucky commenter #52, Amy! Check your email for info about collecting your winnings, Amy, and enjoy your stylish new fabric napkins!


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Food Styling 101: Soup

Nearly a full year (!) has elapsed since my last entry in this series, but it was never my intention to let it fall by the wayside. There are, of course, a million different foods with their own unique sets of photographic challenges, so it was never for a lack of material that the posts lagged. Without wasting any more time, let’s dive right back in… To a big bowl of hot soup.

Whether rich or wan, thick or brothy, soup is particularly difficult to style and capture in photos. The category is huge, spanning all cultures and ingredients imaginable, but there are a few guidelines to remember for documenting any liquid lunch.

Cook everything (or as much as possible) separately.
When cooking for myself, soups are a favorite one-pot meal, but stewing all of the ingredients together does not yield the most visually appealing results. Vegetables have different cooking times, and although it’s fine to eat a slightly overcooked, greyed pea, it’s not what you want to see in a photo. Keeping the components separate also gives you control over the exact amounts of everything in each bowl, and what is most prominently featured as well. If it’s a tofu soup, I want to see some tofu! The carrots might be in perfect dices and that’s all very nice, but those backup singers shouldn’t get the spotlight if the recipe is named after something else.

This may mean deviating from the given recipe slightly, so be aware of what can and can’t be removed from the main procedure. In general, the main body of a soup should remain intact (especially if it involves caramelizing or stewing anything thoroughly) but all mix-ins should stay out of the pool until the end. Noodles in particular need special attention, and must be rinsed in cold water once they’re cooked through to prevent them from becoming mushy. Fresh herbs must remain far away from all that heat until the very moment you’re turning on your camera and beginning to focus the lens. They wilt in mere seconds, so be prepared to switch out droopy herbs if you need a second or third take.

Build your bowl from bottom to top. Assemble your “hero” dish like a layer cake. Put the nice looking, but not gorgeous solid ingredients at the bottom, and be more meticulous about arranging the best examples on top. Once you have the body or “meat” of the soup in place, very carefully pour broth on top. Readjust the filling as needed, and only then can you add garnishes.

Choosing where to build your bowl of soup is an issue that even I struggle with often. It’s a fine line to walk; wanting a generous portion of liquid, but not wanting to spill it while moving the dish to the set. I’m notoriously clumsy about these things, so I often style the base of the soup off set, adding just a small splash of the soup itself. Once it’s safely in place where it will be photographed, only then do I top it off (Very carefully!) with a final ladle full of broth.

Go heavy on the veg, light on broth to prevent it from looking watery. The same concept is applicable to thick, creamy soups as well. If you’ve only got a few of the goodies floating around in there, it’s gonna look skimpy no matter how lavishly you decorate the set. However, maybe you want just a plain, chunk-less creamy soup, and that’s perfectly fine, too! Just stick with one or the other; a spare soup is no fun to eat or look at.

Enhance broth with just a touch of turmeric to make it look richer. A tiny pinch goes a long way, but evokes that classic look of a long-simmered stock, bursting with flavor. Since you can’t actually offer viewers a taste, give them a hand with that visual cue to say “this is a deeply savory, well-seasoned, and delicious dish.”

Finish with a flourish. For perfectly smooth soups, add something exciting either to the side or in the center, to prevent it from looking too plain. A dollop or swirl of vegan yogurt is always a favorite, since it adds such great contrast and motion all in one swoop. Fresh herbs are a classic addition, as is a tiny drizzle of oil. More than one garnish is perfectly acceptable, but don’t go too crazy. Remember that simplicity is best.

Mind the glare. Think about each bowlful of soup as a giant mirror, and you’ll be two steps ahead of the game. Know where your light source is, and check in the viewfinder to see how and where it’s reflecting. If you want to show off all those lovely components you just spent so much time preparing, a steeper downward angle is better for capturing them. A little bit of shine and highlight is necessary (not to mention, unavoidable) but you generally want to avoid having a glare across the entire surface of the soup. When you shoot at a steeper angle (say, 45 degrees or so) you’ll pick up more of that reflection, and bear in mind that if you have more than one light source, you’ll have many more hot spots to keep in check. This would be a handy time to break out a black bounce card or gobo to cut down on those overly shiny areas.

Don’t forget about adding steam, too! Demonstrating that the soup is piping hot does wonders to evoke hunger, since it looks like it’s ready to be devoured right at that very second.

Speaking of which, what styling tips are you hungry for next? If you want to see more of this series, I need your suggestions!


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Early Bird Special

Rumor has it that the May/June 2012 issue of VegNews has already been spotted in the wild, so I can’t wait a moment longer to share my photographic contributions. This particular volume has been dubbed the “media issue,” addressing the explosion of veganism in the public eye, but for me, as always, it was all about the food.

Beverly Lynn Bennett shares a fool-proof method for Chocolate Chia Pudding so delicious, you’ll renounce all things tapioca with one spoonful. Okay, so there’s room enough for both treats in a vegan’s life, but this healthy snack is a delightful (and healthier) change of pace. For everyone who became addicted to the stuff at Vegan Vida Con, here’s the magic formula to reinvent this wonder seed in a more chocolaty format.

Another simple yet sublime offering, Allison Rivers Samson pulls out another stunning replica of a typically non-vegan classic, this time being Caesar Salad. I’ll admit, I wasn’t exactly jumping up and down at the idea of another leafy green salad, but this one packs in the flavor like none other. For such a basic combination of romaine, croutons, and vinaigrette, this Caesar really knocks it out of the park. I’m not the least bit ashamed to admit that I chomped my way through the whole recipe’s worth after this shoot was done.

It seems as though those printing presses never stop rolling over there, which is a good thing! That means it’s almost time to embark yet again on the next set of tempting VegNews recipes, and I can’t wait to share another visual feast when they finally make it on paper, too.

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