Monday, January 30, 2012

Food, Beautiful Food

Food.  Photography.  Two things I love and always want to learn more about. 

Today they came together during a four hour Food Photography Class at Pantry at Delancey.  The class, taught by Ashley, of the Not Without Salt cooking blog and her professional photographer husband Gabe Rodriguez.  This was exactly what I was looking for: something to help me learn a little more about how to use my camera and what to consider in photographing food (ingredients, cooking process, plated meals).  We got some instructions and tips on the basics (white balance, depth of field, ISO settings, lighting, composition and styling).  Then we were turned loose in Delancey's where some still lifes had been set up in front of the natural light from the window and two full artificial lighting set ups were waiting for us.  We also had free range of the classroom in the pantry where the decor offered many vignettes to practice with. 

I have so much to learn.  I wanted to shoot hundreds of shots while playing around with each of the topics covered.  I do best when I set things up and then just re-shoot the same shot adjusting the variable until I land on what is pleasing before bringing in the next element to play around with.  Alas, there was only so much time and there was too much to cover all at one session.  I chose to mostly focus on playing around with depth of field though tried to think about and play around with some of the other topics. 

After our hands-on time we gathered again in the classroom where we were served a delicious vegetable soup with hearty bread and buttery olive oil in which to dip it and an assortment of cured meats.  Also on the table were Sicilian olives which had been marinated in a wonderful Moroccan style with preserved lemons and cinnamon and maybe some fennel seeds.  (Will be writing Delancey's to see if they will share this recipe.  It was really unique and delicious.)  Sliced fresh pears and apples finished up the meal.  This was all served with a nice glass of red wine.  While we dined and sipped Ashley and Gabe went through some of the photos taken by brave students that were willing to share.  There were some very nicely done shots. 

In this post are some of my better shots.  None of have been post processed.  There's a whole nother world to dealing with the shots to further improve through application of software tricks.  You may see some of these again, down the line, cropped, sharpened, warmed up or some other adjustments.  I have so much to learn.  But for now, this is my show and tell.  I'm showing you I learned something.  I'm telling you this was a great class.  If you are interested in learning how to improve your food photography I highly recommend you look for a future offering.


Friday, January 27, 2012

Return of the Prodigal Daughter

Last night, once the chaos of greeting and hugging arrivals was done, wine glasses filled and plates dished up,I stood back and took it in.  I watched this eclectic collection of wonderful women gathered in my cottage; soaked in the laughter and chatter; witnessed the comforting through things going or gone wrong and felt fully blessed.  This is my Dinner Club.  Part of my Tribe.  This is my homecoming.

It must be now about seven years since our first dinner.  I showed up not knowing anyone in the initial group.  Coming with reservations (not the kind holding a table) to a meal in the apartment of a woman I did not know.  I had signed up (with huge angst I tell you) to attend this gathering to discuss potential for a follow up "support group" for women that had completed the Divorce Recovery Workshop hosted by my church.  Actually, it wasn't "my church" at that time.  Just a local church that hosted this program: this program that I had signed up for also with extreme angst and embarrassment but turned out to be a step in the right healing direction.

So I came to the flat of a stranger, weary from work and nervously on edge, to check out what might turn out to be either an agonizingly long evening, for which I already had a fake excuse for escape cooked up, just in case, or the beginning of something that could help me through this life journey's detour I was on.  It was an oddly matched group of women.  That night there were probably seven or eight women in attendance.  (Two added later were by my invite as women who had attended my same small break out group from the workshop.  Another, no longer part of the group, was a real nut job.  'nuff said.  Though I'll probably say more 'cause she was really something to write about.)

Last night, as I was doing that stepped back observation, I had the thought that this group is such a wonderful fluke.  My path probably wouldn't have crossed with most, or maybe any, of these delightful women, without the Divine intervention of that Recovery Workshop and the action of one attending who felt called to propose some form of fellowship in the aftermath. I wouldn't be part of it if I hadn't stared down fear in its ugly face and took the risk to show up. 

My unease on that first evening was greatly reduced when somebody brought out a bottle of wine (not because I needed wine (well maybe I did) but more because this was a group built on a church sponsored program and I assumed it would be some sort of intense Bible study or something).  My commitment was sealed on the discussion around what kind of group do we want to be and what shall we call ourselves.  "Please don't call it a 'recovery group'" someone said.  ("Yes!" my heart sang).  And then we all laughed when the organizer in all innocent honesty said "besides we might want to continue to meet through the year and we'll be through the recovery process by six months."  After more discussion and a second small glass of wine we hit on "The Dinner Club."  We'd be meeting on a weeknight evening so dinner would probably be involved.  Those of us living in homes that could accommodate the group would take turns hosting. (Many were still on uncertain financial ground and eating out regularly seemed like a frightening fantasy) Then would it be potluck, rotating meal makers, take out, what?  The table was filled mostly with deli containers and other store bought prepared food by those of us who grabbed something on the way over from work.  But, unbeknown to us at the time, we had a Chef amongst us.  When we popped that fork full of moist pork tenderloin into our mouths and bit into that perfectly oven roasted green bean that the Chef had prepared all other food was forgotten.  The wine took on whole new wonderful taste characteristics.  The Chef, who loved to cook food and loved to have people love her food, agreed to be the food preparer for future Club meetings.  The rest of us would pay her a fee that covered her costs and a little of the labor involved and take turns hosting.  Sometimes we do more potluck style, but mostly it is the Chef's creations we enjoy. It has been a perfect arrangement.

Since then we've been meeting regularly.  Bi-weekly at first.  Then monthly if possible.  We've been through a lot together since that first meeting.  All divorces were eventually finalized.  Children launched (though one still has a son at home).  Lost a few parents and beloved pets.  Some ventured back out into the dating world.  Some have remarried.  Some of those marriages didn't work out.  Some completed advanced degrees and started new careers.  Others lost established careers.  We've been through a lot together.  An observer, if any were allowed, would hear lots and lots of laughter, see a few tears, see genuine connection and hear wonderful wisdom shared.  Most of these women I don't see outside of dinner club.  I hang with a few though "outside club." 

Our cast of characters includes:
  • The Chef
  • The Nurse
  • The Event Planner
  • The Nursing Home Dietitian
  • The Technical Editor
  • The Therapist/Teacher
  • The Real Estate Agent
  • The Retired Army Nurse
  • and me, The Transportation Planner wannabe Writer
  • (and the Whacked out Nut Job who got herself excused from the table)
The Dinner Club only met a few times while I was assigned overseas.  Twice they set up a computer and I Skyped in on their dinner, with my morning latte in hand on the other side of the world.  A third time they thought they were Skyping me in but I was able to surprise them in person due to an unplanned trip home.  It was a sweet reunion.  Last night, as we met in my home, I felt like a returning Prodigal Son.  Or daughter I guess.  I had moved away from this group.  I was in very little contact with any of them.  While over there I felt a little abandoned in my very small world as I realized their lives had moved on without me.  And truthfully it was me who had moved out of theirs.  So the "homecoming" last night, in my home with my Tribe was just what I needed.  What we needed.  And I look forward to the next meal we will share.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

My Favorite Cookie Recipe: Chewey Molasses Cookies

The impending snowfall brings out the cooking fever in me.  I only hope my son is able to make it home so I have help eating these!  I plan on sending him to work tomorrow with treats for the staff.  That's not over the top for an intern is it?  They keep nicely for several days in an airtight container.  But I need to get them out of the house.  I love them too much.

These cookies are based on a recipe from  The Silver Palate Cookbook, (Julie Rosso & Sheila Lukins). Judy brought them to Chelan one spring many, many years ago and I've been making them ever since.  Always when it snows.  I've adapted the recipe the way I do: mostly with shortcuts that reduce the amount of dishes used (and therefore need to be cleaned up afterwards).  They come out perfectly round and chewey/crispy: just right.  Like a chewey ginger snap. 

A few tips: the dough is quite moist.  Probably because it's made with melted butter.  It's important not to make the spoonfulls too full and to leave lots of room between them as they spread.  You cook them directly on foil.  This is important.  Don't take a shortcut.  Let them cool on the foil (I think they finish cooking up and firming on that and they are easy to pull off when they are done).

Chewey Molasses Cookies

Preheat oven to 350-degrees, with oven rack in the middle of the box.

  • 12 Tablespoons (1.5 sticks) butter
In a mixing bowl, put the butter and add:
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup molasses
Beat together until butter is cooled.  Add:
  • 1 large egg
Leave the mixer running while you get out the dry ingrediants.  While the mixer is running add the following in this order, blending thoroughly between each addition:
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/2 taspoon baking soda
  • 3/4 cup more flour
Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula.  Not your finger.  But taste it if you want.  It's gooooood!  The dough will be very moist. This is the way it should be.  Don't worry.  It all works.

Line a cookie sheet with foil.  Drop by a tablespoon onto foil leaving about three inches in between.  You should only be able to get about ten on each sheet.

 I use a small food scoop wich helps make the sizes consistent.

Cook for eight to ten minutes in center of heated oven.  When the first batch is cooking, step outside and breath in the fresh cold air.  Watch the birds and note the storm moving closer. 

In the meantime, the cookies will flatten out.  You are looking for the edges to just start darkening at which point you take them out.  The rest of the cookie will still look lighter colored and fluffy.

 In my oven each batch takes exactly nine minutes.  They will finish cooking on the foil when you take them out.  Pull the cookies on the foil off the sheet and put a new sheet of foil on.  Fill another sheet.  When the second batch is cooking make yourself a latte.  You deserve it.  Take one of the freshly baked cookies and dunk it in your latte.  There will be a party in your mouth.  You will declare this a favorite recipe.  I am sure of it.

When the third batch is cooking check Facebook and your email.  Something important may have happened.  When the fourth and final batch is cooking wash up all the dishes.  You will have just enough time.  And the cookie sheet won't need to be washed because the cookies were cooked on the foil.  It's a great deal.  You will be so glad the dishes are washed when you are done.  You can leave the kitchen or start on dinner.  Depends how domestic you are feeling and how deserving your family is.  When the foil has cooled you can peel the cooked cookies off.  This recipe made 42 cookies, each about 2.5 inches accross.  Store in airtight container.  Buon Appetito!

FYI, the yellow dessert plates were a gift from my father.  He picked them up in Provence, France for me several years ago.  I had seen an article in Gourmet Magazine about colorful dessert plates from Provence and sent him with the request to find something I'd like.  I think he did really well.  I love using them.

Crock Pot Lasagna: My Way

After spending the last two winters in the Middle East I am very happy to be back into winter crockpot cooking mode.  Having all the necessary staples in my cupboard and freezer I decided to tackle crockpot lasagna.  I figured out the general technique by internet research and then assembled according to my previous lasagna experience.  This is American style lasagna with a tomato base sauce (not Italian style made with bechamel sauce). It turned out fabulous.  It made enough to feed two of us for dinner and then a work crew of two for lunch the following two days.  As usual, the leftovers were every bit as good as, maybe even better than, the original.  Buon appetito!

Crock Pot Lasagna

  • 1 lb sausage (or lean ground beef seasoned librerally with garlic)
  • 1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
  • 1 large can crushed tomatoes
  • assorted dried Italian herbs (basil, oregano, parsley, whatever you like)
  • 2 cups fresh ricotta (you can also use cottage cheese if you don't have ricotta)
  • 2 cups shredded mozarella (reserving 1/2 cup for top)
  • Fresh parsley, if you have it
  • uncooked lasagna noodles or dry pasta sheets
  • 1/2 cup grated parmesan or romano cheese
  • Olive oil for coating inside of crock
  • A tastey red wine.  I'm partial to a Chianti or Cabernet for this meal.
If it's after noon, pour yourself a glass of red wine.  Take a sip.  This helps with your seasoning tasting and generally puts you in an Italian mood.  If you are throwing this together before leaving for work I recommend skipping the wine at this stage.  You can make up for that later.  After work.  After work you might need it more!

Brown sausage (or ground beef) with chopped onion until meat is cooked through and onions are soft.  Drain the grease off.  Add crushed tomatoes and Italian herbs, seasoning to taste.  Take another sip of the wine and taste again.  You'll know when you have it right.  Remove from heat. 

In a separate bowl, combine ricotta (or cottage cheese) with one-and-a-half cups grated mozarella (you've set 1/2 cup aside for later).  If you have fresh parsley, throw in a few tablespoons chopped.

Spray bottom and half way up side of crock pot with olive oil (if you don't have a Misto Olive Oil sprayer get yourself one.  You deserve it.)

Spread 1/3 of meat mixture in bottom of crock.  Layer with 1/3 cheese mixture on top (the cheese mixture isn't easy to spread.  I suggest, with clean heands, pinch out some and flatten with hands and lay on top of the meat.  Break lasagna noodles to fit over the top.  Try to get a single layer though it's fine to overlap the edges a bit.  I have pasta sheets that I use that lay flatter than the strip noodles but either would work fine.  Repeat these three layers two more times, ending with a pasta layer.  Scatter the 1/2 cup mozzarella and paremsan (or Romano) over the top. 

Now you can turn the crock pot onto low setting.  Cook a minimum of four hours.  Longer is fine.  The house will smell delicious which is one of the best things about crock pot cooking, in my humble opinion.  Serve with hearty bread, a green salad and that red wine.

Let me know how it turned out.

OK, so I wasn't thinking about posting this or I would have taken a better picture.  And more pictures during assembly.  If you make this send me some pictures.  Thanks.

Friday, January 6, 2012

An Ikea Moment: It's a Fantasy Suite Life

I took a break from powering through Ikea (I really love/hate that store…or is it “love to hate" that store…or "hate to love" that store?) and glided into the 320 square foot demo living space.  Here, within six temporary walls was a beautifully coordinated compact space.  In pristine colors of sea foam blue, black and white, with polished silver accents, was a space one could live in containing everything you’d need to live a beautiful life. (I do realize that in parts of the world there are families of eight living in the same space with even less stuff, but that is not what my fantasy was about.)  The daybed’s daytime job of becoming a couch pulled it off under a toile fa├žade (and I do like my toile).  Small scale furniture, most with dual purposes (like surfaces and storage) and built in storage taking advantage of every inch of wall space allowed enough extra room for me to imagine arriving home and waltzing with a cat at the end of a work day (if you know me you know this is truly a fantasy as I would no more waltz with a cat than choose to hang out at an Ikea just for fun).

 I took my time wandering through that little space, soaking in the fancy fold down drying rack, the convertible table with just one of its two fold down leaves extended.  I pulled out the little drawers of said table and saw that my chopsticks and spaghetti noodles could fit into those drawers if needed.  I opened the closet door in that back hallway of a room and figured out how limited my wardrobe would be in that space.  I imagined only my little black dress, a black blouse or two, a pair of black pants and a sea foam blue cardigan nicely filling up that space.  I looked around and determined I could dress in this space without anyone seeing me from the imaginary flats facing the imaginary windows that exposed the rest of the space.  Yes, I could balance on my black stiletto heeled boots and pull on black tights in this close space.  After all the walls would easily prop me up on either side. 

The bathroom was genius in space use: a full sized sink had a polished silver little tray suspended over it to rest my white soap and black toothbrush on.  Built in cubbies around the mirror displayed pots with plastic green plants (the green a slight hue of sea foam blue): there was plenty of space for such luxuries as decor.  My M.A.C. makeup would have to go behind the closed cupboards, except for the face lotion in its black and white label that could live openly in the black and white world.  Wait, the eye shadow compacts in their brushed silver containers and my black applicator brushes could also live openly on the shelves.  My life could be accommodated.  I spent a good five minutes or more in that space, imagining a simple, yet color coordinated life.  It all seemed so attractive and doable. 

I began thinking of a scenario of something similar to a favorite childhood story: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler in which eleven year old Claudia Winkler runs away from home but decides to go somewhere comfortable so chooses the Metropolitan Museum of Art in which to escape.  Like Claudia, I become quite comfortable in the display bed.  I think of Novalee Nation in Home is Where the Heart Is who makes her home in a Wal-Mart after being abandoned by her boyfriend as she nears delivery of their child.  I like the idea of living a second life, in a fully public area, having the place to myself at night.  I’d end up decorating the store at night like Buddy in Elf and singing “Baby it’s Cold Outside” in the shower.  In the fantasy I have a beautiful singing voice.

Back in Ikea, I come back to earth and force myself to leave the fantasy suite.  A couple with whining child has wandered into my compact fantasy life and shattered my reverie.  I am plucked from the serene spaces of my mind into the confusing and aggravating maze that is Ikea to find more stuff to put into my “little" cottage, none of it which is black, white or sea foam blue.  I get pissy with the clerk who tells me that I can’t order anything off the Internet or call in an order in a few days when I will be ready for delivery of my temporary couch (I’m in the market for new living room furniture and have come to Ikea for the standard plain converter hide abed that will suffice until I can figure out what I really want).  I snap back at the clerk who rudely shuts me down when I inquire if I can unload my basket to the belt while she runs a price check for the couple ahead of me.  I roll my eyes at being forced to buy an awkward shopping bag made of blue tarp because they no longer provide bags of any size to customers.  I hate this place.  But I love my simple life in the 320 square feet of a simply beautiful life.  When I come back to order my couch I will build in some time to spend in that suite and maybe check out the security system to see if I could move in there.  And then I will remember it is in Ikea, its own little hell, and return happily, with couch to my relatively huge cottage and all my un-color coordinated stuff.