Thursday, July 29, 2010

Food Photography. Flipping Heck, it's a Faff

show us your pips

cauliflower cuplprit

Talking to Sheila Dillon on the Radio 4 Food Programme recently, Nigel Slater explained that the aim of food photography used to be perfection and the process labour intensive. (Nice chap, Nige. I know a woman who keeps a photograph of his house in her handbag.) Then in the mid 90s the French sexed it up. Food had to move, to writhe, to shimmer, to arch its back in ecstasy and let you, the viewer, catch it's sensual exhalation of flavour and texture and do with it what you will, you brute. Hopefully you are doing it in a dark room with the door tightly closed and a clean tea-towel to hand. Loose-flan bottoms are the new up-skirt shots, the motion of whisking to stiff peaks the new money-shots.

Then there are the endless books filled with roccoco tableaux, the Carvaggio still-life that sells Tessa Kiros.

Marcella Hazan got by on pen and ink line drawings, the austere simplicity of which did not divert millions from trying the best-ever recipe for chocolate mousse or roast chicken with lemons (available on request - just to see if anyone is reading this). Her foolproof and straightforward methods and notes on how to choose ingredients are supported only by utter confidence in her craft and generations of successful dishes. This gives the reader space to choose and does not presume their palate is so jaded and cloyed that they need ever-increasing kinkery to tickle their tastebuds.The illustrations show method not product. A bit like Alex Comfort. But without that creepy bearded chap.

As an amateur it is hard not to produce Readers' Wives style pictures. I mean, you remember Audrey? Similarly too much apricot glaze on a frangipane tart has much the same effect as lipgloss on a 5 year old American pageant contestant.

Of course, some dishes are simply unphotographable.
Robert Carrier, can you explain this? Is it not something the cat produced?
Robert had to fill 20 fabulous Cookery Cards for each pack of the series in 1968. They are, on the whole wonderful. But very occasionally ill-advised.
Orginal blog man James Lileks collated and venerated this kind of food photography.


I had two simple goals: a) to recreate in homage the cover of
the first edition of the seminal part-work The Cordon Bleu Monthly Cookery Course first published in 1968. This merits a whole article itself. I use it constantly. This picture tripped my wires as a kid and was very possibly the reason why I took to cooking b) to make a simple dish look stylish, attractive and tasty.

For both these goals I enlisted the help and the kitchen of my friend Allison, art teacher and interior designer. She has recreated, without an ounce of up-herself-ness, a French Provincial Kitchen in the Perth Suburbs complete with chandeliers, eathernware honey jars and a kitchen garden in which she keeps bees. She should know a thing or two.

Fortunately the food did not require too much fluffing. The caramelised oranges are completely gorgeous as they are, and indeed the making process yielded some of the most sensous images I shall ever take. Here are some from my private collection.

The Carbonade of beef had the right kind of unctuous exterior and depth of tone to wing it. Yet when it came to the photographing, who knew that putting brilliant white globes of cauliflower in the foreground would eclipse the meat? I just didn't think of it. Below you can see my friend Alison's beautiful dining setting but not much of the dish, nice composition but dreadful lighting

And that's what gave me the idea for this piece. This is where a professional with Leichas and light reflectors and meters and fundamentally basic knowledge would have flicked the lime-light stealing brassica from the dish and replaced it with a nice dense... well who know it may have been a tiny pair of purple patent leather mary-jane shoes or a cow's snout, it would just depend on the directions of the art-director and the market for the piece.

No, it was not the food itself that had us foxed, but a) the background and b) the props. Who knew that there are two competing shades of orange in a terracotta pot and sliced glazed carrots with thyme and honey? And who knew that the pyramid of cream-filled brandysnaps and the formless yet stable mass of oranges would defy any logically shaped background prop and always look mad? Ow, my eyes, take away the sunflowers and those jars are just plain crazy.

The answers are: The professionals. They know. They get paid to know. They plan and position and practise.

In future I shall stick to visually accurate, spontaneous and heartfelt images rather than acrobatically enticing or visually cleverer than I actually am images, (a motto many of us could well take on board in other rooms of the house, I'll warrant). Unless I'm getting paid. (Ditto)Any images I can capture of the process along the may which a)do not steam the lense of my camera or b) show my navvy/skivvy man-hands.

Would anyone like any of the recipes from this post? Do let me know.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Cold. Sticky Toffee Date Cake Cold

It's winter here. It's chilly. Perfect for this:

I'm afraid we were on to the second bottle of shiraz voigner when I took the pictures so they are slightly squiffy. Those aren't my hands

Yes, I know there are dozens of recipes and versions out there but this one works for me. It works so well I will take it to a secluded corner and eat it all from the tin if I'm alone. As I consequence I only make it when I have Company.

I first made this in November 1999 when I was obsessed with the Sainsbury's Magazine. It was all coriander and olives and puy lentils and a nascent Nigel Slater and a very posh Lorna Wing and adverts for Twinnings Fruit Teas. This recipe is by Sue Lawrence who won Masterchef in 1991. Back in the days of Lloyd Grossman and guests like Penelope Keith no-one shouted about it being Tough and Real and none of the contestants broke more than a few beads of polite persperation, even when the big green capsicum flashed on screen. sue lawrence titles Sue, it really is a winner of a recipe, thank you. Clearly they don't call you "The Queen of Scottish Baking" for nothing.

175g stoned dates, chopped
1 teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda
250ml boiling water
75g butter
1 teaspoon - can I start putting tsp in now as the abbreviation? Would we all be cool wit that? - vanilla extract
175g light brown or plain granulated sugar
1 egg beaten
175g plain flour sifted with
1 tsp baking powder
and for the sauce:
75g butter
150g brown sugar, the darker the better
120ml double cream.
pre-heat oven to 180 degrees

1. Line a 7 inch loose bottomed cake tine with a circle of baking parchment
2. Place dates and bicarb in a pan and pour on the boiling water and heat gently for 5 minutes.
3. Remove from the heat and stir in the butter until melted
4. Add the vanilla, sugar, egg, flour and baking powder and stir well.
5. Pour in to the lined tin and place on a baking sheet and then in to the oven. Bake for 20 minutes
6. Meanwhile make the sauce by heating all the ingredients together in a pan. Let them bubble for 3 minutes while stirring. Pour onto the cake and bake for a further 20 minutes. Do use a timer.
7. Leave to cool in the tin and serve when still slightly warm.
8. Prepare modest face for ensuing compliments.

To serve, best vanilla ice cream. In this picture I served a side of Butterscotch Angel Delight on account of wanting to share my culture with the Australians. They didn't get it.

Mandarines, dark chocolate and walnuts finish off the flavours well at the end of the meal, the main course of which was pork sausages, mash, kale and garlic and onion gravy.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Look What I grew. Butternut Squash

Well technically I grew both of them but it is only legal in this country to eat one of them.

Do I make soup with many rinds of German smoked ham? Scones? Or plainly roasted for hours in clarified butter and olive oil with sage and thyme and a dressing of bottled caesar salad and slivers of crispy proscuitto?

But not today. I am listening to my body and this is it wants. Acutally it wants to snap its fingers and be back at the very top of the Holloway Road eating Makani Dahl and Bombay Saag Alloo and listening to the carefully chosen Jazz tracks Raj will be playing at The Sitara - the best of the high-street Indians restaurants in North London and still going strong 15 years on. Good for them, you had a vision, Raj. Sitara Indian Restaurant 784 Holloway Road; London; N19 020 7281 0649; Hey, all those dishes are v..v...v..Vegetarian.

So, it's the first vegetarian dish on Crackling. And time for a medium length Aside:

I used to be one. It was 1985, I was at Poole Arts Centre with my mates at a Smiths Gig (James support IIRC) and between the guitar jangling and the plaintive wailings about Manchester and its environs Morrisey spoke directly to us. He told that Meat was Murder. However what he didn't fit in to his lyrics was that it is also an excellent source of iron, b vitamins and many minerals vital for the nutritional stores-houses of young girls and women.

So I "went veggie" Evangelical, wholier than though, awkward, righteous Vegetarian. There followed endless suppers of beans on wholewheat toast with cheese, snacks of wotsits and potato latkes, pyramids of cheese and onion pasties.*** What a donkey.
I since discovered from music engineers and producers who had worked with Morrisey in the south of France that he is somewhat idiosyncratic in his culinary dogma; he won't have garlic on the premises or butter. And no murdered animals either. They would sneak out for big macs and loaf around the studio with the reek of their forbidden lovers still on their clothes like adulterers just for fun. Also, my friend Nicole swears Morrisey used to come in to a certain Manchester sandwich bar she worked in for tuna melts. How's he doing these days since Swindon?

Vegetarianism, as Anthony Bourdain proselytises, is very much a first world luxury - to pick and choose one's protein sources is a privilege. In the early 90s when Mr Wong and I traveled round Malaysia we would trek to a restaurant famed for Ayam Soto Beef Kway Tow, Char Siew or go out to dinner with the many cousins for house-specialities of venison tendon and river flounder and I would sit with with nose turned up and a sanctimonious demeanour prissily picking at pack choi (no oyster sauce). I doubt my actions saved a single bivalve. One day they gave me a taste of my own medicine and took me to the Bhuddist restaurant for a chow-down on mock-duck. Shudder. That'd shoulda oughta taught me.

Vegetarianism in the 80s and 90s, did call attention to the recklessly dangerous standards of animal-husbandry. Many of us spent valuable physical resources denouncing factory-farming and when the headlines were hit with BSE and the charmingly-named Scrapie for sheep, the standards and scales started to change. Plus old breeds re-appeard at the butchers - ah Freemans of Crouch End and your sublime Tamworth Bangers - and latterly the supermarkets.
I still cooked meat for work though, the irony of standing in Leadenhall Market with a 2k bag of best end of lamb neck one winter's day was not lost on me.

I saw sense in January 2002 after an anaemia-induced spin-out in Toys R Us Colney Hatch and made Mr Wong take me directly to Gaucho, the Argentinian Steak House in Hampstead for lunch (actually it was Uraguayan Fillet steak that day as there was some kind of Latin American Anglo Trade Embargo going on) I have never looked back. At all. And if at all it was to see if there were anymore fibres I could possibly gnaw off a rib bone dropped under the table. And the last time we were in Malaysia with the cousins they had to fight me for a mere sniff of the deep-fried pork hock.

I have friends who are vegetarians for health and karmic reasons. They get on with it calmly and wisely, perhaps having learned from the misadventures of buffoons like myself that there is little or no merit in heckling one's dining companions. I am still evangelical about eating meat: Eat a little of the best you can afford which has been reared and slaughtered in the best possible circumstances.

So finally I present the recipe for

Oh this one is Malaysian, it has curry leaves which are optional, in fact this is really about technique - amalgamating the first ingredients to a fragrant paste.

500g peeled cubed butternut squash, hitherto known as BNSq
20ml oil
half a red onion finely chopped
one clove of garlice minced
a can of chopped tomatoes, drained
I used this mix of spices because it was what I had to hand but you, of course could use your own favourite blend or even a teaspoon or two of pre-made curry paste - the important thing is how one cooks them to release the flavour and turns the whole thing in to a paste: ground cumin, chinese five spice, tumeric and allspice because it really brings out the sweetness of the BNSq
15g of butter or ghee
150ml each of stock and coconut milk
half a can of chickpeas drained
curry leaves
coriander leaves to serve

1. heat the oil and fry the onions until translucent and just starting to brown at the edges.
2. add the garlic and the tomato flesh and cook on low heat for 5 minutes stirring well
3. push this mixture to one side and turn up the heat slightly and sizzle the butter or ghee and throw in the spices. You want to toast them properly to release the aromas and if you're careful you shouldn't burn them so cook them for at least 60 seconds***
4. stir well to blend it all and cook for 2 minutes then add the BNSq coat with the mixture.
5. add the remaining ingredients, cover and simmer until tender - at least 20 minutes.
6. check seasoning and serve or leave for an hour so the flavours develop and serve luke warm but don't tell the health inspector.

I am going to serve mine with cauliflower, wilted spinach and lime pickle. If I could face the sheer drudgery of cleaning up my kitchen again today (I am very messy) I would make wholewheat roti to mop up the gravy properly. Perhaps another day.

*** prolific cookery author Rafi Fernandez gives this tip for the faint hearted fryer: Addition of spices when cooking: "always reduce the heat before adding any ground spices as they burn easily which will give a bitter flavour to your dish. I mix mine with a little water and fry them gently until the water has evaporated and the oil separated"
Rafi has dozens and dozens of titles Rafi Fernandez titles. I wonder why she is so much less-known that Madhur Jaffrey or Charmaine Solomon? What can have gone on behind the scenes?

** actually, whilst I depreciated my iron stocks I did appreciate my stock of original recipes. I do have some absolutely corking Vegetarian Recipes which I will throw in to Crackling as and when the mood takes me. Why, here's one now!
with the remaining half a can of chickpeas and the tomato juice I whizzed up a hybrid-hummous with olive oil, tahini, salt, roasted garlic and for the necessary zing I fried a teaspoon each of garam masala in oil and poured it in, a techinque Rafi Fernandez calls "tarka".