Food Photography & Styling

So I needed to take a new photo of the Crostini with Sausage and Cheese for the web site and with my current mission to improve my food photography I set about styling the food and playing with light. I found a board that I liked, prepared the food and set up on my terrace table. I tried so many different arrangements but nothing struck me as quite right.

Food Photography

Food Photography – Crostini con Salsiccia

I used a foil tart tin to be a reflector and that aspect was surprisingly satisfying. Working remotely via the ipad to take the photos I did have enough hands to stand with my “reflector” and move the natural light where it needed to be.

Half way through I got very frustrated and started eating the crostini! After that I actually started to like my shots, adding in a crust, some crumbs and then playing with the position of the cheese and tomatoes until I finally got the photo above. It’s far from perfect but I think I got good light and you get the idea of what there is to eat.

I’m voraciously reading blogs and photography web sites for information about food photography and have come across two great ones so far:

www.twolovesstudio.com – Australian photographer Rachel who takes amazing photos and has endless tips and info for people looking to improve on their food photography.

I’m putting together the styling kit Rachel recommends and pieces are already proving essential .. tweezers, brushes and so on. For major camera kit items my shopping list this week includes a new Macro Lens and an arm for the tripod for overhead shots.

https://www.foodphotographyclub.com/

https://www.facebook.com/TheFoodPhotographyClub/ – membership club on facebook (plus web site above) – lots of excellent feedback and information here too.

I’ve got White Balance on my list of technical aspects to study and learn – a great article and videos from this Club from Cristina for that.

It’s a steep learning curve for this aspect of photography but I’m loving it!

Stuffed Zucchini

StuffedZucchini

So my third recipe in the zucchini series is Stuffed Zucchini. This was super tasty. I used fresh Italian sausage, chopped zucchini, plus salt and pepper to season. Mix everything together and fry in extra virgin olive oil for a few minutes (I added a little water to keep everything soft). With the zucchini slice lengthwise and scrape out a little of the middle leaving a quarter centimeter edge all round. Place in a baking tray, fill with cooked filling, add a little soft cheese of your preference, cover lightly with baking paper add put in a pre-warmed oven 180° for twenty minutes. Serve warm from the oven.

StuffedZucchini2

Photographs were taken pre-cooked. A long long time spent arranging and photographing for an overhead shot but I eventually reverted to my usual style and much prefer the last shot I took which is the top photo here.

 

Local Butcher

I live here in Tuscany and have been here for fourteen years. It’s a stones throw from Montalcino but my nearest hub is actually a place nobody has ever heard of, called Buonconvento. Population of approx. 3000. Sits on the Via Cassia, the old main road between Siena and Rome.

One of my favourite features is the local butcher run by the Orlandi family which you can find on Via Roma. The meat is excellent quality but the best value for money as far as I’m concerned are the ready prepared meals. We’re not talking processed food .. far from it. It’s things like juicy chicken breasts that have been marinaded in herbs and spices, ready to grill, or the home made meat ragù that you can use for your lasagna.

So if you’re staying in this area and are planning a meal or too in the comfort of your villa this is the place to shop. You can even get your eggs, some local cheeses and other local specialities here.

Another aspect that they’re pursuing and having a huge success with is a roving BBQ – the classic Ape “car” has been converted to house a custom BBQ/Grill and they’ll arrive at your place and cook their meat for you on site. What a fab way to host a dinner party!

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You can find them on facebook: https://www.facebook.com/BRACIAPE/

Crostini with Mushrooms

CrostiniFunghi1

Have found a fantastic food blog/photography website written by an Australian girl – www.two-loves.com. Beautiful photos and lots of amazing advice. Used some basic advice on props (interesting) and background (minimal) and did a couple of photos that I really love for today’s recipe…. Crostini with Funghi (Mushrooms).

Super easy this one – chop a handful of parsley with a clove of garlic and start cooking in a pan with a generous amount of extra virgin olive oil. Peel and chop mushrooms and add to the pan. Salt and pepper to season. Cook gently, stirring occasionally, for ten/twelve minutes. Top your baguette slices with the mushrooms and serve. You can add a little mozzarella to each one and put in the oven for another ten minutes (180°c) – optional.

CrostiniFunghi2

Brains!

brains

One of the many things I love about my job are the people I meet. I’m living in what lots of guests say is everyone’s “Dream” i.e. under the Tuscan Sun! And I’d be the first to say that it’s a beautiful place to have landed and stayed in. However I am in the middle of nowhere in a tiny village of 20 houses and the next biggest town is still only 3000 inhabitants so it’s a little restricted at times with regard to conversation and variety. With the regular guests from the US, UK, Canada, Australia … and so on I have a little peek each day into other lives and other realities. It’s so much fun to talk to everyone about what they do, where they live and where they are traveling/have traveled (my favorite topic!).

This year is proving to be very interesting indeed. One of my favorite days so far was with two Australian gentlemen. They’d left their wives in Chianti to ride horses and came to me for two days of good food and wine.

We’d been talking on the first day about flavors and textures and the subject of brains came up – not intelligence but the eating thereof! I was told that if I could procure a brain they would cook it for me during the lesson next day. I’m always up for a challenge so trotted off to my local (and excellent (more on them another day) butcher) and happily purchased the single sheep’s brain that they had on sale.

So in the middle of cooking very typical Tuscan food .. Pici Pasta, Pesto etc … the various ingredients for a stock (carrots, onion and celery) were chopped finely to make a light broth (boiled for 15 mins). In the meantime capers and basil were diced and chopped and a lemon was sliced. The brain was rinsed and popped into the boiling broth for exactly four minutes. Drained, sliced and plated on the bed of capers and basil, lemon squeezed over the top and tasting spoons at the ready.

I have to interject at this point that my cook Paola was very dubious of the whole process – a good Italian will never admit 1) that anyone outside Italy can cook or 2) that there is anything good outside of Italy to eat. I was jollying her along saying that she must at least taste for politeness sake.

My first taste and I was so happy. It was the consistency of soft foie gras and the tart flavours of the capers and lemon gave it a lovely zing.

Paola took her taste and immediately said she’d be trying it again the next evening for guests at home!

A success all round.

Even the plating was beautiful. Gotta love those Aussies!

Savoury Zucchini Tart .. and taking food photos!

zucchinetart

So I got another zucchini recipe underway yesterday … Savoury Zucchini Tart. I chose some of the smaller zucchini from the veggie garden and chopped fine rings. Into a pan with a little olive oil, salt, pepper and a splash of water, a lid on top and let them simmer and sweat down until al dente. Leave the lid off for the last couple of minutes for the liquids to evaporate and then set aside to cool. Prepare a puff pastry in a dish (I usually go for round) with parchment paper underneath. Beat an egg in a bowl and add 2 tbs of grated parmeggiano and the zucchini. mix well and then spread into pastry base. Fold edges of pastry and baste lightly with egg wash (or milk). I sometimes add some small cubes of brie on top which melt into the zucchini. With beautiful fresh sweet zucchini I didn’t do this today – no need. A little more grated parmeggiano on top doesn’t go amiss, before putting into a preheated oven (180°c/350°F) for 15/20 mins.

zucchinetarttriangles

It took as much time photographing the tart after making it as it did to make it, if not more! It’s an aspect of photography that I’m trying to improve on (people/portraits are more my forte). Here are my best results… am now researching a good food photography course to take!

zucchineslices

 

Cutting Boards – Wood v Plastic

I get a lot of comments regarding the fact that I have wooden rather than plastic chopping boards and thus the issue of hygiene and bacteria so I’ve started doing a bit of research on the matter. I’ve gathered together snippets from various places to form my argument Pro Wood!

It would seem that wooden boards are not nearly as unhygienic as people have been led to believe. In fact bacteria tends to remain much more in the grooves of plastic boards. Various studies have shown that wood cutting boards contained less salmonella bacteria than plastic. On wood cutting boards, the bacteria sinks “down beneath the surface of the cutting board, where they don’t multiply and eventually die off.” On plastic boards, however, bacteria gets caught in knife grooves that are near impossible to clean out, whether the board is washed by hand or in a dishwasher. So although sparkling new plastic cutting boards might be easy to disinfect, any weathered plastic board will hold onto bacteria.

In a study conducted at the University of Wisconsin they tested bacteria known to produce food poisoning – Salmonella, Listeria and E. coli. These bacteria were placed on cutting boards made from seven different species of trees and four types of plastic. All the wooden boards consistently outperformed the plastic.

The scientists found that three minutes after contaminating a board that 99.9 percent of the bacteria on wooden boards had died, while none of the bacteria died on plastic. Bacterial numbers actually increased on plastic cutting boards held overnight at room temperature, but the scientists could not recover any bacteria from wooden boards treated the same way.

It’s evident that both wood and plastic will be safer if they’re cleaned well and replaced often. When boards become excessively worn or develop hard-to-clean grooves you need to get new ones.

If both wood and plastic are prone to bacteria if not properly cared for and replaced, it comes down to preference and longevity. I personally prefer a hard wood cutting board* because it won’t develop grooves as easily as plastic and you won’t have to replace it as often if you are diligent about upkeep. (Be sure to always wash and dry your board well, and also lightly rub it with mineral oil to prevent moisture and bacteria from seeping in.) Furthermore, not only will your wood board last, but it will also help your knives last, because hard wood boards won’t dull your blades as quickly as plastic boards will.

*Hardwoods, like maple, are fine-grained, and the capillary action of those grains pulls down fluid, trapping the bacteria – which are killed off as the board dries after cleaning.

It’s also a good habit to use separate cutting boards for raw meat and poultry, and for your vegetables, fruit and prepared food. This limits cross-contamination, which is the biggest danger of all.

Another plus point for wood v plastic is that Wood is completely biodegradable and renewable.

Looking more closely at plastic boards:

Have you every considered that using plastic cutting boards might just be the easiest way to actually eat plastic? They get nicked, cut and scratched. Guess where all the plastic shards end up? And those lovely little nicks and cuts are a favorite nesting spot for bacteria to grow. Hard plastics can contain bisphenol A, which makes plastic strong but can damage the reproductive system, disrupt hormones, mimics estrogen, and is linked to bread and prostate cancer. Not too appetizing.

And no, plastic unfortunately is not more sanitary than wood boards just because you can put them in the dishwasher. Most dishwashers don’t get hot enough to sterilize  (Dishwashers typically reach temperatures of 120-140F, but solid surfaces need to be at a temperature of 250F for 15 minutes to be properly sterilized.) Second, washing plastic cutting boards wears them down, which may make more plastic leach into foods, especially fatty and oily foods

So, in conclusion – I’m sticking to my wooden boards and now have my arguments ready to back up my choice. Thanks for reading. Lesley

So much Zucchine .. what to do?!

Preserves

Preserves

It’s that time of year again when the zucchini seem to appear from nowhere overnight and this year I’ve decided to do as many different recipes as I can find – let’s see what the results are over the next few weeks.

I started yesterday with Zuchine Sott’Olio – a classic Italian way to preserve summer produce for use later in the year. Zucchine cut into strips, salted to draw out excess liquid (2 hours), blanched in boiling water (2 mins) then put into sterlised jars with some garlic, chilli pepper flakes, mint leaves and black pepper, topped off completely with extra virgin olive oil. The filled jars look so colourful and I can’t wait to try these from September onwards (min one month in jar recommended).

Ravioli

Ravioli are a type of filled pasta composed of a filling sealed between two layers of thin pasta dough. The word ravioli is reminiscent of the Italianverb riavvolgere (“to wrap”), though the two words are not historically connected. The word may also be a diminutive of Italian dialectal rava, or turnip.

The history of ravioli is an interesting tale. So far as Italy is concerned, the earliest records of ravioli appear in the preserved letters of Francesco di Marco, a merchant of Prato in the 14th century. The pasta is described as being stuffed with pork, eggs, cheese, parsley and sugar, and during Lent a filling of herbs, cheese, and spices was used. There were both sweet and savory kinds. The city of Cremona claims to have created ravioli. But Genoa claims that too, insisting that the word ravioli comes from their dialect word for pasta, rabiole, which means “something of little value” and referred to the practice of poor sailors who suffered left overs into pasta to be eaten for another meal.

In 14th century England Ravioli appears in the Anglo-Norman manuscript Forme of Cury under the name of Rauioles. In Malta Raviul dating back before the North Italian ravioli, are stuffed with ricotta from the local sheep.

Here’s our version of Home-Made Ravioli Pasta with suggestions for fillings and accompanying sauces.

Ingredients

4 Eggs
400g Plain Soft Flour
Pinch Salt

How to make the Ravioli Dough

  • Start by putting the flour in a heaped pile on the table or pasta board (spianatoia).
  • Break the eggs into the ‘volcano’ of flour. Add a pinch of salt.
  • Use a spoon or fork to lightly beat the eggs in the middle before slowly bringing the flour into the mixture.
  • Once the mixture is not too sticky work it with your hands. Knead well for at least 15 minutes until the dough is smooth and suppliant.
  • Set the dough aside for half an hour and get your filling ready.
  • After the dough is ‘rested’ divide into two halves and roll each out as thin as possible, 1mm thin if possible. If you have a pasta machine then you’ll find it much easier to get the required thinness. Remember to pass the dough through at one thickness then gradually reduce the size and pass it through again.
  • Whether you decide to roll a circle (comes more naturally as a circle if hand rolled) or a more square shape then do both pieces the same shape.
  • Put a small dollop of filling at even intervals over the dough (see pictures). Smooth a little water between the dollops of filling.
  • Once completed lay the second half of pasta over the top and gently press between the mounds of filling. With a pastry cutter cut round the mounds to make the ravioli squares. Seal the edges with a fork.
  • An alternative method to using two pieces, one on top of the other, is to place the fillings in one half of the circle or other shape and then fold the other half over – see pictures.
  • Cook in boiling salted water for 4 minutes. Serve hot. See below for ideas for fillings & sauces.

Serves 4

RAVIOLI FILLINGS

Spinach & Ricotta

  • Cook the spinach in extra virgin olive oil and a little water with salt and pepper to taste.
  • Once cooked make sure you drain out all the water.
  • Chop very finely.
  • Add fresh ricotta cheese, one egg beaten, a pinch of salt & pepper and a dash of nutmeg.
  • Optional additional ingredients – finely chopped walnuts, grated parmesan cheese.

Marrow

  • Cook and mash (blend) the marrow.
  • Add fresh chopped parsley, one small chopped and lightly cooked onion, a pinch of salt & pepper and a dash of nutmeg.

Optional additional ingredients – grated parmesan cheese.

RAVIOLI SAUCES

Sage & Butter

  • Melt a generous amount of butter in a frying pan.
  • Add several fresh sage leaves.
  • Cook on a low heat for 5 minutes.
  • Pour over ravioli once cooked.
  • Season with grated parmesan cheese and finely chopped walnuts.

Caccio e Pepe

  • Grate 50g Parmesan cheese and 50g of Aged Pecorino Cheese.
  • Add a generous quantity of freshly ground black pepper.
  • Once the ravioli is cooked, drain it and put it in a frying pan.
  • Add the cheese & pepper mix and cook for another 2 minutes until the cheese starts to melt.

Serve immediately.