Jet Set Pets

Long before emotional support peacocks or squirrels started making headlines, everyday folks have been taking their pets with them on sky-high adventures without causing a scene. As we approach the Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas, the height of travel season, the issue of how to reunite the whole family is top of mind. Dog mamas and daddies understand that inviting their four-legged baby is a given, and for those with a considerable distance to go, that means negotiating the barrage of challenges that’s included with airfare.

Before you start dreaming about walking in a winter wonderland with fido and well before you book your tickets, check the rules of your chosen carrier. Every airline has different regulations, and while the general guidelines for having a trained, well-behaved pup won’t vary, some require specific forms or documentation submitted far in advance of your flight. If you can’t play by the rules, you will be denied boarding, and that would really put a damper on plans.

Generally speaking, your pup must be small enough to fit in a carry-on approved bag that fits beneath the seat in front of you to fly on board. Thus, a proper carrier is a must. Have a soft sided model with a rigid base so it will be supportive while in use, but easily pressed down to fit into awkward spaces. More windows are better because no one liked to feel trapped in a tiny space all by themselves. When your dog can see you, they’re more likely to remain calm because they know they’re not alone. Take the fear of the unknown out of the equation by doing a few “dress rehearsals,” covering shorter distances, before the big event. Bring them around town in the carrier to get then accustomed to process, and leave it out and accessible when you’re home. Periodically toss treats into it to associate it with positive experiences. My little Luka was initially terrified of becoming airborne in this crazy contraption, but has come to regard his carrier as an enclosed safe haven, and at home, second bed!

Speaking of calm, even the most even tempered animal (humans included) have been known to lose their cool in these stressful situations. Try clothing your little guy in a thunder shirt, which is a very snug garment that simulates the feeling of a constant hug. It’s surprisingly effective and great to have on hand for other unwelcome stimulation, like fireworks or trick-or-treaters at the door.

Treat well and treat often. Any journey should be a vacation, sprinkled with little luxuries along the way. Bring plenty of bonuses for yourself and your dog, doling them out slowly, as needed. CBD-infused dog biscuits like Treatibles have been an absolute GODSEND; I wouldn’t dream of taking Luka anywhere without them. One before leaving the house, one before takeoff, and he’s as chill as can be. Options are still limited in this burgeoning category, which makes Treatibles even more noteworthy for their two entirely vegan flavors. They come in small and large sizes for easy dosing, but there’s no psychoactive component (no THC) so it’s impossible to overdose. For a calming supplement you can both enjoy, I’ve frequently packed pure CBD oil (3.4 ounces or less, don’t forget!) that’s specifically labeled as safe for dogs, cats, and humans alike.

Don’t feed them a full meal before departing to reduce the need for potty breaks, or potential accidents. Instead, bring it with you and dole out a few morsels at a time to keep them satiated, not stuffed. Same goes for water. Proper hydration is essential, but possibly problematic depending on the length of your flight. Bring a collapsible bowl, filling it with a few good slurps every few hours. If your pup is not reliably housebroken, consider subjecting them to the indignity of doggie diapers for this limited time. Promise them that the photos will never make it out on social media if they’re inconsolably embarrassed.

To manage both bathroom needs and excess energy, take them on as long a walk as possible before departing. A tired pup will just want to hunker down and rest, which makes it infinitely more easy to deal with inactive time in transit.

Keep a variety of toys to keep them entertained. Just like human children, they need something to do during those hours up in the air. Give them just one at a time, rotating them out if they start to get bored or fussy, switching between hard chews and soft plushies. For the love of your fellow traveler though, please refrain from packing anything with an audible squeaker!

As soon as you land, your priority is not camping out in a prime spot at baggage claim or securing your Uber. Head straight to the nearest pet relief area available. Know where to go by scoping out airport maps in advance to prevent any frantic scrambles through a maze of disoriented passengers just barely verticality upon arrival.

There’s no one fool-proof approach to bringing puppies on an airplane. Just like people, some simply can’t tolerate the stress, so know their (and your) limits if it’s simply infeasible. Always have a plan B, with a loving, trustworthy dog sitter on speed dial in the worst case situation, but don’t shoot down the idea before giving it a try. Despite the sensational horror stories circulating online, it’s really not so hard to have a proper family reunion, no matter the distance. You might even find it’s a better experience for every on board; nothing brightens a trying day like the bright, loving face of man’s best friend at your side.

Advertisements

Can You Hack It?

The following text is an excerpt from my latest cookbook, Real Food, Really Fast. Get more speedy tips and tricks, along with over 100 delicious, lightning-fast recipes inside! Better yet, if you’re in the SoCal area this weekend, catch me at the California Vegetarian Food Festival on Saturday, September 29th, where I’ll be demonstrating my infamous Garlic Bread Soup. Come early to snag a seat, and come hungry for generous samples!

The single most important ingredient in any recipe can’t be measured in tablespoons or cups, nor can it be bought, borrowed, or stolen. That extra piece of the puzzle that most cookbooks fail to address is you, the intrepid cook, boldly venturing forth to explore new culinary territory. Anyone can read a recipe and it doesn’t take a classically trained chef to chop an onion, but there are certain steps that can be taken to speed through prep work in record time. To better prepare your vegetables, you must prepare yourself. Move with intention and a sense of urgency; know your next step before you get there to keep dancing through the routine with grace. That also means reading through each recipe from start to finish so there are no surprises halfway through the hustle.

Whether you’re a seasoned pro or a new cook, the following suggestions should help tune up your techniques to get food on the table faster than ever before.

  • Citrus: Always zest lemons, oranges, and limes first, before slicing or juicing. While they’re still whole you’ll have more surface area to work with, and a better base to hold so you’re less likely to grate your fingers at the same time. Then, to extract the most juice as possible, microwave for 10–15 seconds to gently warm, and roll them firmly against the counter to break down some of the cell walls before cutting in half and squeezing.
  • Garlic: Separate the cloves and give each one a sharp whack with the side of your knife to instantly loosen the skins. You should be able to pick the peel right off. Once cleaned, you can continue smashing and mashing them with the side of the knife, rather than the blade, to yield a quick, coarse paste that can be used instead of a fine mince.
  • Ginger: Don’t bother breaking out the peeler to remove the tough outer skin. Use a paring knife to shave away the exterior if needed, but better yet, buy very young, fresh ginger that doesn’t need to be peeled in the first place. In Japanese markets, this is referred to as “myoga.”
  • Cauliflower or Broccoli: Pare away the leaves and trim down the excess stem. Place the head in a large, clean plastic bag, and twist it closed. Bang the whole thing down on the counter repeatedly, stem-side first, to easily break it down into bite-sized florets.
  • Cherry Tomatoes: Instead of chasing around each tasty red marble and slicing them in half one by one, slash straight through a whole batch in one fell swoop. Place a generous handful between two plates and gently press down to keep them all stable and still. Use an exceptionally sharp knife to cut horizontally through the center to cleanly halve tomatoes.
  • Corn: Once cooked, shuck corn quickly by slicing off the bottom of the husk and simply pushing the ear out, leaving the messy silk behind.
  • Cherries (and Olives!): Don’t bother with a unitasking cherry pitter if you’re unlikely to use it more than once or twice a year. Place each cherry on top of an empty glass soda or beer bottle, and use a chopstick to poke out the pit, pushing it straight down into the bottle.
  • Non-Dairy Milk: Whip up an instant dairy-free beverage by simply combining 2 tablespoons of your favorite nut butter (almond and cashew are my favorite options, but sunflower, peanut, and pecan are also excellent alternatives) with 1 cup of water in your blender. Blend until smooth and use as is for savory cooking or baking, or add up to a tablespoon of sugar, agave, or maple syrup to sweeten it for drinking.

Why cut and chop with conventional techniques when you can hack your way to faster food prep? Some specific foods hold secret shortcuts that will leave traditional methods in the dust.

Flavor Your Life

It’s one of the most common cooking staples across the globe, found in even the most sparsely populated pantries and in the hands of extraordinarily reluctant cooks. Olive oil’s ubiquity is owed in large part to its accessibility, as a vast number of brands have become available in recent years. Such a vast range of options should immediately suggest that not all oils are created equal, yet few shoppers pause to think about the origin of those original fruits before popping a sleek new bottle into their carts. For such a beloved, indispensable ingredient, there sure is still an overwhelming amount of misinformation out there.

Inspired by the Flavor Your Life campaign, supported by the European Union, Unaprol, and the Italian Ministry of Agriculture, the goal of debunking common misconceptions resonated with me in a powerful way. Moms Meet provided a bottle of Zucchi Extra Virgin Olive Oil to demonstrate the difference, but I’ve long been a devotee of quality European olive oils even without that delicious perk.

Let’s not beat around the olive tree, and get down to business. It’s time to talk about the top olive oil myths that need to be put to rest, once and for all:

You can’t fry with it.

Contrary to the single most frequently perpetuated false fact, olive oil has a 400-degree smoke point and can hold up beautifully (and tastefully) to the task of deep frying. Raising the heat beyond that temperature will only result in burnt food no matter the carrier, so keep a thermometer clipped to the pot, tend it carefully, and your taste buds will be rewarded.

Only extra-virgin will work in dressings.

Though there is a drop of truth in that statement, extra-virgin is merely a title bestowed to the very top grade of oil, cold pressed; extracted without heat or chemicals. That isn’t to say that other grades are of any lower quality. If anything, their flavor has a lower impact, which might actually be a welcome quality if your vinaigrette has bold seasonings that would otherwise obliterate the delicate nuances of a top grade oil. On the reverse side of the spectrum, this more neutral palate could be a benefit for baked goods where you don’t want such a savory note to shine though.

Kept in a dark, cool place, it should keep pretty much indefinitely.

Those volatile oils would beg to differ! Like any other fresh food, it should be refrigerated, and for no more than 6 – 8 months, ideally. It does go rancid at room temperature, although most people are so accustomed to using sub-par varieties, they may not realize the truly superlative, ephemeral nature of the genuine article.

Terroir is only for wine.

Extra-virgin is top shelf quality, but bottles bearing that designation manifest that grade through a wide spectrum of flavors. The greatest contributors to taste are the types of olive trees (cultivar), the region (which affects climate and soil) and time of harvest. Early in the harvest season, under-ripe fruits produce oils that are greener, more bitter and pungent. By contrast, olives harvested towards the end of season are over-ripe, resulting in a more mild, sweet, and buttery character. Other variables can yield oils that skew more nutty, peppery, grassy, floral, and beyond.

Considering the incredibly varied range of options being produced in all corners of the European continent, this is just the tip of the iceberg. A full education on this essential ingredient can be gleaned with just a dash of culinary curiosity, and a pinch of knowledge from the Flavor Your Life campaign. Eating better starts with cooking better, and there’s no substitute for quality components.

Illuminating Secrets to Mouth-Watering Photography

Contrary to popular belief, the key factor in achieving enticing images of food is not the camera you use and how many megapixels it has, but how you choose to light the scene.  For many professional photographers, this means buying numerous pricey studio lights, not to mention the never ending list of accessories, tools, and toys needed to properly manipulate the quality of that light. As more hobbyists have discovered a passion for food photography and food blogs became ubiquitous, however, this industry standard is rapidly changing. Preferring a softer, more “realistic” look as you might find the food in your own home, natural light is frequently the best choice for creating the most appealing shots, and one that I typically go with as well, despite easy access strobe lights. Knowing a few tips and tricks, put to use with plenty of practice, can enable anyone to capture luscious food photos worth drooling over.

The list of essential equipment is very short: A serviceable digital camera or camera phone, a dish you’d like to capture, and light are the only absolutely essential ingredients. For best effect, it’s highly recommended that you save your photo sessions for bright, sunny days, and aim to start shooting any time from late morning until sunset, for the best intensity of light to work with. Taking photos at different times of the day will yield varying results and some interesting, more atmospheric or moody effects, due to the higher or lower positions of the sun, so don’t be afraid to try different hours to see which you like best.

Though you’re always looking to use bright sunlight, avoid placing the dish in direct sunlight, as this will cast harsh shadows and highlights, making it difficult to properly expose. Make sure that all indoor tungsten lights are turned off so that subject doesn’t cast two shadows, giving the scene a clearly staged, unnatural look. Additionally, be aware of any ambient lighting inside that might cast confusing colors or shadows over the set. Tungsten bulbs, the most common type found in household lamps, can give off a slightly yellow-tinted light, as they range from 2500 – 3500 degrees Kelvin, so they’re never a good choice when photographing food.

It’s generally a good idea to arrange your food with the window light shining in behind it, to act as a back light. This tends to be most flattering, as it gently showers soft shadows evenly over the front, from the angle which you’ll be capturing it. The sunlight can also work nicely at either side, but if the light is too bright, it will give the food an overly-dramatic feeling, much like split lighting for portrait photography. As a rule, I never place the food so that sunlight hits it from the front, for the same reason that I would suggest never using the flash built into your camera: It flattens out the subject, giving a “deer in headlights” appearance. Font-flash is as unflattering on inanimate objects as it is on people!

If you find that the shadows are too dark, there’s still no need to bring out a secondary source of light; carefully placed mirrors can be just as effective, not to mention the fact that they’re far more budget-friendly.  By adjusting the mirrors so that they bounce the sunlight back into the darkest areas of the subject, you’ll be able to keep the same natural, soft lighting all over, but bring out more detail in the textures that would otherwise become lost due to low light. In a pinch, you can fashion a close facsimile with aluminum foil covering a piece of cardboard, folded and propped up at your desired angle. The same technique can be used with white poster board, or even gold fabric reflectors, to lend a warmer hue to  the image.

On the other hand, should you find that your window light is too “hot,” meaning that it’s blowing out the detail in the highlights, you can very easily diffuse it with everyday household items. Taping a large sheet of white parchment paper over the entire window will soften the light very effectively, as long as you ensure that there are no gaps where the light can escape and create a dappled look on your subject.  If there’s just one small area of your food that’s too bright, you can use the opposite tack as you would with mirrors; Use a black card, or piece of cardboard covered in black construction paper, angled to block the offending highlights. These cards can be cut to any size needed, so they’re very versatile.

With experience, the proper lighting setup will become second nature. With just a bit of creativity and a willingness to experiment, you’ll be able to create food photos that look every bit as delicious as the pros. Once you learn to master the light already at your disposal, the only thing you’ll need is a sumptuous dish to feature, and you’ll be well on your way!

Flipping Over Pancakes

The greatest traditions of excess are born from their polar opposites, of fasts or famines, celebrating, repenting, or simply surviving. Shrove Tuesday carries that torch with unmatched enthusiasm, having evolved into an unrestrained eating and drinking bender, theoretically in preparation for the 40-day Lenten fast ahead. Pancakes are the star of the menu because historically, the fresh eggs and milk already on hand would spoil during that time of abstention, so the only reasonable thing to do would be to make massive amounts of flapjacks and throw a huge party, naturally. How this simple predisposition to thriftiness evolved into the revelry and debauchery of modern day Mardi Gras is a whole ‘nother story.

Those same concerns of preventing food waste certainly aren’t of primary concern for current festivities, but the universal love of pancakes has kept the practice alive. A simple sort of decadence, pancakes are as easy and uncomplicated as they come, making themselves right at home on the fanciest and unfussiest of tables alike. Regardless, it always feels like a special occasion when diving into a fluffy short stack, buttery and sticky with maple syrup. Despite their humble nature, countless cooks still find the prospect of flipping the perfect pancake rather daunting- Myself included. My own personal pancake disasters are too numerous to recount, but particularly infamous misadventures include scrambled pancakes, pancakes that are both raw and burnt at the same time, and pancakes flipped perfectly… Outside of the pan and literally into the fire.

For this Pancake Tuesday, I decided to seek advice from a master. Sitting myself down at Saturn Cafe with full view of the open kitchen, a few key elements for pancake perfection became clear.

1. Consistency matters. This means two things, actually: The viscosity of the batter is essential for the right texture. Too runny and you’ll get crepes. Too thick and you’ll get doorstops. Your best bet is a ratio of approximately equal parts liquid to flour by weight. The other component to this concept is that you should be consistent in your delivery. Use a ladle or measuring cup to dose out the same amount of batter every time, and space them an equal distance apart. Don’t forget to allow sufficient space to flip!

2. Take it slow. Pancakes already cook quickly so there’s no need to rush things. Keep the heat closer to medium-low to prevent them from burning on the outside before cooked all the way through. Look for the surface to be covered in ruptured bubbles before proceeding.

3. Add in, don’t mix in. Goodies like nuts, fruits, and chocolate chips are often the spotlight ingredients of truly decadent pancakes, but like any celebrities, they should arrive fashionably late to the party. Mix-ins stirred directly into the batter with sink to the bottom, creating some scantily clad pancakes. Wait until they’re about halfway done cooking before sprinkling your starlets on top, keeping them evenly distributed and at the center of attention.

4. Keep it on the down-low. When it comes time for the dreaded flip, don’t try anything fancy. Don’t expect to toss those little flapjacks in the air like pizza dough and don’t pretend that you can flick the pan forward to succeed without a spatula. Check to make sure that they’re ready by peeking underneath first. If the bottom is evenly golden brown, you’re good to go. Make sure the spatula is completely underneath and supporting the cake and keep it as close to the pan as possible when you turn it over. Be firm but gentle. Don’t slap it down forcefully, unless you’d like to redecorate your kitchen walls with raw batter.

If you have flour in the pantry, you could have pancakes for breakfast. The most basic formulas need little more than that to yield ambrosial breakfast treats, to dress up or down as your heart desires. There’s no reason to wait until Fat Tuesday rolls around to break out the skillet, but while we’re all throwing caution to the wind and pouring the syrup on thick, you might as well take advantage of the celebration to indulge.

Background Information

Every single photo, be it simple or complex, novice or professional, must always start with two essential components: A subject and a background. Whether we’re talking about people, products, or skyscrapers, it’s the same story. Mercifully, greater control is bestowed upon the photographer lucky enough to work with food, effortlessly modifying textures, colors, and patterns to best highlight the dish du jour. Inevitably cast as the backup singer by definition, photographic backgrounds never get the praise they deserve for setting the scene. Few single components can lay claim to the same power when it comes to affecting the whole composition of a piece in one fell swoop. Such responsibility naturally comes with serious drawbacks, especially when you find your microscopic apartment studio bursting at the seams with huge wooden boards and slabs of worn ceramic tiles. Lest every image start looking the same, it becomes imperative to start diversifying your options, and fast.

Uber Gray Grunge From Ink and Elm Backdrops

For a number of years, I found moderate success using lengths of contact paper as one approach to expand my collection of backgrounds, but this approach has distinct limitations. Rarely do the most useful patterns come in a matte finish, leading to distracting reflections or harsh shiny spots under the glare of strobe lights, especially if there should ever be the smallest wrinkle in the roll.

It was a serendipitous moment of aimless online shopping when I stumbled across Ink and Elm Backdrops. Though clearly developed with the portrait photographer in mind, I immediately saw potential for my inanimate focal points, too. Made of high-quality vinyl, the big question would be how that texture would translate under the close scrutiny of a macro lens. Don’t expect deep wood grain or genuine stone surfaces, but happily, not a single image came out screaming “ARTIFICIAL PRINT BACK HERE! THIS IS ALL A FARCE!” Good news too, since I hate it when my props yell at me.

Heirloom Planks From Ink and Elm Backdrops

Best of all for food photography, these surfaces are highly washable. Go ahead, lay your greasiest potato chips right on top, splash around with cookies dunked in milk; nothing seems to shake these sturdy foundations.

Flexible sizing is another big benefit that traditional alternatives can’t boast. Small squares are available for your basic shoot, but if you want to create a whole Thanksgiving spread on a rustic oak table spanning a couple of feet in both directions, they’ve got you covered, too. Plus, each sheet easily rolls up for compact storage when it’s all said and done.

There is one very serious pitfall to ordering through Ink and Elm, however. Their expansive catalog is so extensive, it’s almost impossible to pick out just one or two patterns!