Friday, March 23, 2012

sweet stuff

Week 10 was one of those during which I was not very inspired for photos. Most days, it felt like a fight to think of something and execute it in an interesting way. But the pictures have to be taken, and take them I did.

Sunday's subject was our breakfast: a "buckwheat baby" with salted caramel syrup from Smitten Kitchen. My friend Danielle had raved about it on Facebook, prompting me to pin it and have Steve make it for me that weekend. It didn't turn out quite as pretty as I might have hoped, but it was pretty tasty. We just used the caramel syrup that Steve makes for putting in my coffee, rather than the one from the recipe. It needed a sprinkle of Maldon salt on top, but it did the job nicely. We would probably make this again, but I think waffles and lemon ricotta pancakes are still the favorites.

64/366 buckwheat baby

For Monday, I decided to take a picture of the kishus that Steve and I bought from Bi-Rite the previous Saturday. They're so cute and tiny, but it's kind of difficult to show that in a picture. I read somewhere that the segments reminded someone of baby toes... Anyway, I put the kishus in a stoneware farmer's market basket that I got from Anthropologie, and then I tried to figure out how I was going to shoot them. I wasn't really feeling it at the time, but I ended up liking this shot more after cloning out the edges of the white plate and the table underneath it. A clean white background worked much better.

65/366 the mighty kishu

I went with another reserve idea on Tuesday, shooting the caramel eggs that Steve had brought home for me the week before. My plan was to try to make a nest with the raffia-ish ribbon that I was pretty sure I had somewhere. Luckily, I was able to find it, but my patience for making it into a nest was rather short-lived. I wound it around my hand and managed what you see here, weighing it down and keeping it together by putting the eggs inside. Then I had the same problem that I had had the day before: how to compose an interesting shot. And this time, I had a nest that wanted to fall apart if I moved it too much. I took a total of 12 shots, before it got too messy. By then, I had no desire to try making it again, so I just gave up. It was rather fortunate that I had a useable shot in those 12 photos, even though it involved some pretty extreme rotating in Lightroom to get a composition I could live with.

66/366 blue eggs

Wednesday was a little easier, or maybe just lazier. I was downstairs with Carmen, Elsa, and Steve's parents, who were visiting for a couple weeks; and Carmen decided to show us Elsa's new hat. It ended up looking like a terrible Annie wig. Between that and the sailer-inspired shirt/dress, it was a very special look.

67/366 impromptu annie costume

On Thursday, I felt like doing a little baking, trying out another recipe that I had found on Pinterest. This one was for Thin and Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies. I had been meaning to make chocolate chip cookies again soon, and these looked really simple. Not only did I not have to get out the stand mixer, the recipe also made less than two dozen cookies and used ingredients that I already had on hand. I didn't have to go to the store for anything before I started. The results were good, although not my favorite chocolate chip cookie ever. I think the recipe from the Baked cookbook has better flavor, probably from aging the batter in the fridge for several hours. However, this was great for a quick, small batch of cookies.

68/366 milk & cookies

I was back to no ideas on Friday, prompting me to go across the street to attempt another picture of the blossoming tree. I think I've taken pictures of it every year since I started doing 365s, and it gets more and more difficult to find new ways to frame it. The shot below was one of those flukes, where I tried something new for one shot and then changed my mind and shot at a different angle. As happens occasionally, that single shot was the only one I took that I ended up liking. I went to Arizmendi for a snack a little while later, but the picture I took there of the roasted garlic asiago sourdough rolls didn't go quite as nicely with the previous day's cookie picture as the tree picture did. In the end, I figured I'd save the bakery shot and make a return trip to Arizmendi on another day if I'm stumped for a picture.

69/366 annual tree picture

Finally, Saturday's picture. It was another low effort one, since we were already downstairs with everyone. I had taken a picture of Elsa and her grandma a few days before, so here was a good opportunity to shoot one of Elsa and her grandpa.

70/366 with grandpa

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

finishing february

Week 9. We kind of took a break from the usual Sunday cooking that week, going to Plow for brunch instead. It seemed to be even more popular than usual, though, so we had about an hour and a half wait for seats. To kill time, we got coffee at Farley's and wandered around Potrero Hill a little. We also walked down to Big Daddy's Antiques—a usual stop for us while waiting for Plow. Finally, after returning to the restaurant to wait outside for a little longer, our name was called. We got a nice spot at the end of the counter, from which we could watch the cooks in front of us and keep an eye on the pass next to me. At one point, that area was completely loaded with plates waiting to go out, but I was too slow in deciding to get my camera out. Luckily, I had other opportunities, including just before our food was delivered to us (below). I got a single lemon ricotta pancake and the scrambled eggs with nettles, mushrooms, and goat cheese. And Steve went for his usual "Plow"—their take on a typical "grand slam" type breakfast. You'd think such simple food wouldn't be worth an hour and a half wait on a chilly day, but you would be wrong.

By the way, we did still end up cooking a new dish that day. Steve made a chicken pastilla, which we ate after the Academy Awards finished. I took a quick shot of it, but it had nothing on the picture from Plow.

57/366 eat @ plow

The next day, I decided to take a walk to Glen Park in search of pictures. I had apparently forgotten that Glen Park isn't terribly picturesque. On my first trip there with Carmen, I had already taken pictures of the house on the way with interesting things outside. I had also already taken a picture coming into the little neighborhood's shopping district, such as it is. And while they have a pretty cute housewares & gifts store, it wasn't really capturing my interest for pictures this time. I left Glen Park without a picture of the day. So on the way back, I walked down Church St., at the edge of Noe Valley. I passed Curator, a new-ish store that replaced a similar cute place a couple years ago. They were closed, but that just meant that I could take pictures of the seed bombs and other things in their windows without feeling self-conscious about it.

58/366 seed bombs

Another walk took place on Tuesday, to Noe Valley with Carmen and Elsa this time. The wee one was dressed in her "cougar" leopard print pants, her red riding hood, and her lobster claws. I decided that that was worth documenting, since we were already stopped for Carmen to take a picture of something else.

59/366 cougar-lobster-gnome riding hood

Leap Day was next! Too bad I had used an Elsa picture the day before, because it would have been a good time to photograph her in her Jumperoo. Instead, I tried to think of something else suitable, and I came up with the pocket gnome. That seemed somewhat fitting for Leap Day, since gnomes could be mischievous. (I'm not exactly sure why I would associate Leap Day with mischief, but whatever.) I took the gnome out for a walk and found a fence or two to perch him on.

60/366 leap day gnome

Thursday was March 1, prompting another calendar shot. Taking my cue from the warm wood tones in the picture, I taped the March page to the living room door and shot it there. Easy enough.

61/366 march

On my way to get my bangs trimmed on Friday afternoon, I spotted rows of scissors in a downtown window. Sadly, it took me way longer than it should have to make the connection between the scissors and the bang trim... I had even chosen it as my picture of the day already before realizing it.

62/366 getting snippy

Finally, there was another Saturday afternoon of me moping around the house, trying to figure out what we should do that was picture-worthy. We decided to go to Bi-Rite Market, partly because I wanted to see what seasonal produce they had, and partly because I had seen on Twitter that the market carried ice cream sandwiches. I didn't really feel like going to the creamery down the street for normal ice cream, but the ice cream sandwiches sounded novel. And I'm all about the lemony desserts these days, so this one was perfect.

63/366 snappy snack

With that, we move into March territory, so here's February mosaic.

Friday, March 9, 2012

two weeks ago

Moving on from Valentine's Day, we have yet more food... and some other stuff too. The Sunday of week 8 was another lunch photo day, and Steve made a dish from Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi, which was one of his birthday presents from me. We decided to try the Saffron Tagliatelle with Spiced Butter: homemade pasta with various Moroccan spice flavors, including cinnamon, topped with toasted pine nuts, mint, and cilantro. I expected it to be a little sweeter than it was, but the pine nuts kind of sweetened it up slightly. Overall, the flavor combination was a good one.

50/366 saffron tagliatelle

Monday was Presidents' Day, which meant a day off work for Steve. Knowing I needed something to photograph, we decided to go out to lunch and try Bocadillos. It's a place in the Jackson Square area that we tried to visit for Steve's birthday in 2006 before realizing that it was closed on Sundays. In fact, it's not open for lunch on weekends at all—it's not far from the Financial District—so Monday was a good day to try it. I thought it was pretty good, but I suspect that the evening tapas menu would have been more exciting than the lunch menu. We had mostly little sandwiches (bocadillos) to choose from, so we each had two of those and shared the whole grain salad of the day. One of the sandwiches that we each ordered was the lamb burger, which is featured in the Pintxos cookbook that we have, by the same chef/author. In fact, Steve made those same lamb burgers exactly one year before. I hate to say it, but I might have preferred Steve's lamb burgers to these...

51/366 bocadillos

Next was Fat Tuesday. And since I tend to fall into patterns every year, I did the same thing I did last year for Fat Tuesday: go to Dynamo for a donut. I went a little earlier in the day this time, so I didn't have to resort to buying the very last donut they had. Unfortunately, it wasn't one of the days that they were making the Lemon Thyme ones I've been craving for so long. I had to settle for a Chocolate Rose donut instead.

52/366 fat tuesday

I had fewer ideas for Wednesday, but I kept finding myself drawn to the last of the Valentine's ranunculus flowers in the Heath vase on my dining room table. I liked the colors, especially against the newly hung picture frames in there. Never mind that I had used the flowers in my Sunday lunch picture too...  

53/366 more flowers

On Thursday, Carmen and I had plans to go out for ice cream, while the weather was nice. Those quickly turned into lunch plans as well, since we were going relatively early. I proposed that we go to Mission Cheese and then Bi-Rite Creamery, and that is what we did. My picture of the day was of my "Chedd Or Alive" grilled cheese sandwich with apple chutney. Delicious. 

54/366 chedd or alive

I had ordered a new ring from Elephantine that arrived on Thursday, and the box is what I photographed for Friday's picture. Actually, I was trying to get the ring in the shot too, but I ended it up liking the picture better with it cropped out. (Hands look pretty weird sometimes.) Despite taking more pictures during a walk around Noe Valley later that afternoon, I went with the picture of the little box in the end.

55/366 elephantine

Once again, I was at a loss for picture ideas on Saturday, giving Steve and me an extra reason to go to Noe Valley to run our errands. We passed this scooter parked by a house on the way, and that was about the height of my picture-taking excitement for the day.

56/366 the metropolitan scooter

Monday, March 5, 2012

valentine's day 2012

Valentine's Day for us comes in two parts: the morning/breakfast part and the evening/dinner part. Steve usually sets out a few things for me on the table in the morning—a card, flowers, a few chocolates, maybe some sort of beverage to go with dinner. This time it was ranunculus flowers, chocolates from Recchiuti, a few macarons from Miette, and a big bottle of my new favorite Elderflower soda. Clearly, he had done some shopping at the Ferry Building.

i'm lovely?

Once I've documented Steve's efforts, it's generally time to banish him to the office while I make my presentation for him. I started the tradition of baking something special for breakfast back in 2008. That year, it was a complete surprise for him when he got up in the morning and found a scone with a Post-It saying "Eat Me." Since then, he obviously knows there will be something, but I usually manage to keep whatever it is a secret until that morning. This year, I made Honey Tea Cakes from the Miette Cookbook.

Fun fact: Steve and I managed to get each other matching Valentine's Day cards this year. They weren't exactly the same, but they were both from Night Owl Paper Goods and printed on wood.

for steve

Enough about breakfast; on to dinner! Like the breakfast tradition, this started in 2008. The previous three years we had gone to restaurants for Valentine's Day: Zuni Cafe, Foreign Cinema, then Fresca. 2008 was when we decided that it was better to cook something special at home and save restaurant meals for other nights, when the quality would probably be better there anyway.

Since then, these dinners have gotten more and more ambitious. That first year, Steve made Oysters & Pearls from The French Laundry Cookbook and a fancy dessert from Elizabeth Falkner's Demolition Desserts. For our main course, he played it pretty safe with a cowboy steak, potatoes, and some green beans. (The processing on those photos makes me cringe now.) 2009's meal also had the Oysters & Pearls, continued with a fish dish from The French Laundry Cookbook, and then finished with a fancy dessert from the Cannelle et Vanille food blog. Then I got obsessed with lobster, prompting a French Laundry lobster main course in 2010, a different one in 2011, as well as a lobstery starter that year. It may have been a bit much. Dessert in 2010 was another Cannelle et Vanille recipe, but it was back to Demolition Desserts last year for some "tiramisushi."

This year, things got even crazier. Having exhausted all of the lobster recipes in the The French Laundry Cookbook, I bought Steve a new fancy cookbook for Christmas: Eleven Madison Park, from the restaurant of the same name in NYC. We didn't know about it in time to try to eat there during our New York trip in 2010, but since then it's risen to the top of my wishlist for if we make it back someday. The book is just gorgeous, but the recipes are even more involved than the French Laundry ones. I went through it ahead of Valentine's Day, marking several recipes from each season that looked both appealing and doable. From there, I left it up to Steve to decide which dishes (and how many) to make. I figured he would choose maybe one or two and then make something easier for the rest of our meal. However, he decided to tackle all three from that book.

It required quite a lot advanced planning, as well as a little specialty shopping to find things like glucose syrup. Steve actually started cooking on Sunday, finishing the first 10 components—things from all three dishes that could be done ahead. A few other parts were prepared on Monday night, and then Steve worked from home in the morning on Valentine's Day so he could cook more in the afternoon. He had some issues with some of the cooking times in the book, but it all came out fine eventually. The first course was even ready around the completely reasonable dinnertime of 7:30pm.

beet salad with chevre frais and caraway

The beet salad that served as our first course had a few kinds of roasted beets, some caraway tuiles, rye crumble, beet vinaigrette, and goat cheese mousse that was dispensed from one of those whipped cream siphons. The caraway tuiles and rye crumble were the most surprising component: interestingly sweet and cookie-like, but kind of wheaty and savory too. But of course, the goat cheese mousse was my favorite part. We each had an extra squirt of it at the end to mop up the last of the beet vinaigrette from our plates.

lamb - glazed rib eye with puntarella, apples, and vadouvan

The main course was lamb loin with "blackened" apples, roasted garlic, puntarella (the greens) prepared three ways, a crumble of dehyrdated apples and rendered lamb fat, and a couple sauces. It sounded like a really interesting dish when I saw it in the book, and definitely lived up to that. The lamb, cooked sous vide, was done perfectly. Then there was the sweetness of the apple, the bitterness of the greens, and a subtle Indian flavor of the vadouvan in the crumble. The garlic was also nice for variety. And despite Steve's cheats in making the (not) veal stock, the sauces were amazing.

chocolate, fleur de sel and caramel

For dessert, we had chocolate and caramel in various incarnations. There was a foamy caramel gel on the bottom, salted caramel ice cream, chocolate sorbet, cocoa nib tuiles, chocolate ganache circles, sucree (cookie) tubes, and a crumble of the same cookies to hold the ice creams in place. This was the dish that had the most leftovers after that night, and it grew on me each time we had some. We ditched the chocolate ganache circles after that first time, though, since they were really difficult cut out and transfer. Luckily, I didn't miss them. The salted caramel ice cream and the cocoa nib tuiles were my favorite components anyway, although the intensely chocolatey sorbet and the slightly orangey cookies provided a good contrast. It was a nice rich ending for our Valentine's meal.

But wait, there's more! We had leftovers two nights later, and Steve also made another fancy salad from Eleven Madison Park. He had gotten the ingredients for both that and the beet salad, just in case, but I had discouraged him from trying to make the extra course for Valentine's Day. It worked out much better for him to make the second salad on Thursday to supplement our meal of leftovers.

radicchio salad with mozzarella, mango, and basil

This tasted a little like a caprese salad, probably because of the basil and mozzarella. The role of the tomato was played by mango, however, which countered the bitterness of the radicchio quite well. Technically, this wasn't the kind of radicchio that was called for in the recipe, and we probably should have placed individual leaves on the plate instead of little blossoms/wedges. The overall effect is much less dainty than in the cookbook picture. But I was also having issues with the basil oil running on the plate, so I wasn't going to perfectly reproduce the cookbook picture anyway.

Which brings me to the picture-taking aspect of all this. The last 3 years, I've taken pictures of our Valentine's dinners on our coffee table in the living room, using my tripod and a floor lamp (or just the overhead light) to illuminate the food. That has been, shall we say, less than optimal. But now I have the tabletop light that I got for Christmas! Two of them would probably be better than one, but it's a big improvement over undiffused and ambient lights. No more sparkly meat!

I set up my station on the dining room table this time and did all the things that I should really be doing every time I take food pictures... I ironed the white sheet that I used as a backdrop on the table, and I took the time to set up my tripod. I even took test shots with an apple on a plate and reviewed them in Lightroom before shooting the real food. That let me check for exposure compensation so that the whites would actually be bright enough, and I was able to evaluate how the light was hitting the apple. From there, I decided to drape an extra piece of aluminum foil across the front of my set-up, below the camera, to bounce the light back onto the food from that direction as well. I had basically made my own light box with the tabletop light on the right side, a white reflector across from that on the left (with a piece of foil hung down the middle for extra reflecting strength), and a small piece of white poster board (also with foil) across the top between the two. Then, I shot down into the box from above with my camera mounted on the tripod, making sure that the poster board on top was far enough back to be out of the frame.

I used my remote to trigger the shutter and enabled mirror lockup to minimize camera shake. And this time, I played with the live view function on my camera, since the camera started so high up that I had trouble reaching the viewfinder with my eye, even while standing on a chair. With live view, I could actually zoom in and move a little box around the frame to pick my focal point and then watch it focus right before each shot was taken.

My main issue with taking these pictures was actually just controlling the food. I mentioned the basil oil in the picture of the radicchio salad, but the sauce under the beet salad also wanted to run a little too much. We tried having Steve apply the liquid components at the last minute, when the plate was in place for the photo. That helped a lot, especially with the beet salad and the main course, but it didn't fix the problem for the radicchio salad. I think we would have had to thicken the basil oil with something to reproduce those perfect green dots in the cookbook.

The other troublemaker was the salted caramel ice cream in the dessert. It melted so quickly at the edges that there were little pools starting to form under the carefully shaped scoop by the time I even started shooting.

Despite the challenges, I think the pictures turned out better than in previous years. Chances are, next year's dinner will not be as fancy as this one, but hopefully my pictures will continue to improve. Someone has to show off Steve's hard work, after all, and this dinner certainly involved a lot of it.