Friday, December 10, 2010

Primping and Pimping for Premium Pix

The art of enhancement.
The art of manipulation.
The art of deception—sometimes.
The art of turning something pedestrian into something irresistible.
No, I’m not talking about push-up bras. I’m talking about food styling.

I had the good fortune learn some food styling tips from one of the top names in the business, Delores Custer, thanks to a workshop offered by the Portland Culinary Alliance at The Art Institute of Portland's Culinary School.
My wildly swinging appetite during her slide show attests to her skill. Oohhhh, I want a hamburger—char grilled, juicy, crispy with lettuce and onion. No, I want pancakes dripping with syrup and melted butter.  Wait, no, bread pudding swimming in chocolate sauce REALLY sounds good.

I am easily manipulated.

No longer an obscure behind-the-scene art, food styling is increasingly on everyone’s radar, not least because of the explosion of enthusiastic amateurs snapping tasty pix for their blogs, review sites like Yelp and food-obsessed websites like Chowhound
While a sumptuous dish viewed in person triggers all five hungry senses, a successful photograph utilizes every trick to appeal to our eyes alone, suggesting tempting scent, luscious texture, a hot sizzle or refreshing chill, and a transcendent deliciousness. Experts like Delores harness a variety of techniques, which she discusses in her new book--the absolute bible on the topic--Food Styling: The Art of Preparing Food for the Camera. After over 30 years as one of the top names in the business, she knows all the secrets, many of which she invented. A split-second with a heat-gun gives chocolate chip cookies that straight-out-of-the-oven look. An eyedropper—or even a tiny jot of soap—gives coffee that just-poured freshness.

I was inspired to put my little Canon digital camera through its paces. Here are a couple shots in which I captured that tight depth of field so popular in food photography today. And now, armed with the methods Delores shared, my food pictures--my favorite souvenirs of any trip—will burst with sensory appeal.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Gallery of the sky, Martinique

Saint Anne, viewed across the bay of Marin

What is it about the skies here?

The light is rapturous--perhaps that's what lured Paul Gaugin here in 1887 to paint about a dozen canvasses.

The clouds are enormous sculptures sailing over blue water.

Squalls sweep in over the Atlantic, giving way to rainbows of epic proportions. Look.....
Le Marin at sunset
From the kitchen at sunset
Gold glow of sunset, off the porch
Clouds from the porch

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Eight Things To Know About Rhum in Martinique:

1.    It’s rhum, not rum.
2.    It’s actually rhum agricole and a different product from the usual Caribbean rums we imbibe. The difference? Instead of being distilled from a fermented brew of molasses, a by-product of sugar production, it is distilled directly from fermented cane juice. Unless it’s aged (old = vieux), it’s a white rhum.
3.    It’s available in boxes, just like cheap wine! Only it’s all the best rhum.
4.    What’s the best? Some local brands of renown include Clement, Trois Rivières,   La Mauny, and Depaz.
5.    The traditional local drink is “ti punch,” a formidable blend of rhum, a little local coarse sugar, and a miniscule whisper of lime juice. Order it at a bar or restaurant and you’ll typically receive a glass, a sugar bowl, a wedge of lime the size of your thumbnail, and a large bottle of rhum agricole. DIY! And please, don’t expect any ice.

6.    Yes, it’s wicked strong at first, but you’ll be surprised at the smooth underbelly it displays after a few sips.
7.    Variations on ti punch? Supermarkets offer various flavored syrups to substitute for the sugar: vanilla, ginger and sirop batterie, which is essentially molasses.
8.    The “ti” of ti punch comes from the French word petit, meaning small.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Martinique: A Tropical Taste of France in the Caribbean

I’m spending nine weeks on Martinique—and this is my third long visit. Am I lucky, or what? (The top picture is the view from our porch.)

Yes I am, unequivocally. Although that sense did waver a bit yesterday when I was stung by a jellyfish at one of the legendary white-sand-and-palm-tree beaches. The effects passed within an hour or two, though, and I’m ready for another swim.

A smallish island, not more than 60 kilometers long and 20 kilometers wide, Martinique’s intricately winding coastline and hairpin roads seem to cover much more ground than its actual area of about 1100 square kilometers. Ranging from dense and somewhat arid chaparral with spiny acacia and cactus to impassable rain forest, it’s known in French as “lîle aux fleurs” – isle of flowers. It lives up to the moniker. Its volcanic origins are expressed in the dramatic landscape, heaving with steep hills and deep valleys.

Martinique is a department of France, analogous to Hawaii’s status as a state and resulting in a vibrant blend of colorful Caribbean culture and French civility.

Boulangeries supply baguettes and pastries (filled with guava or salt cod, as well as dark chocolate—no, not in the same pastry!), and any corner store will offer brie and red wine, as well as locally produced juices like corossol and maracudja (soursop and passion fruit).

The radio stations play lively local zouk interspersed with French pop. All the social services available in métropole (as locals refer to mainland France) are available here, so health care, education and infrastructure all meet the European standard. 

It has its rustic aspects as well. Brightly painted snack shops built of scrap wood dot the roads, and there’s an old house just down the road from ours with walls made traditionally of woven sticks, alternating with corrugated sheet metal. Free-roaming flocks of sheep and goats roam the countryside where late-model BMW’s whip along curving roads. Men still go out in small boats to catch tuna and swordfish, which they slice up and sell along the highway, and villagers cast out fishing nets from shore as they’ve done for generations.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Food-Obsessed Fest with the Best

The IACP just concluded its annual conference, held in Portland this year.

Which IACP? The International Association of Chiefs of Police? Nope.

The International Academy of Compounding Pharmacists? Nope.
How about the International Association for Cognitive Psychotherapy? Uh uh.
Maybe this picture gives a hint:
It attracted food-obsessed folks of all stripes, from several continents. Food stylists, expatriate bed & breakfast proprietors, cooks, personal chefs, cookbook authors, editors, cooking teachers--all bound by an bottomless love of all that's edible.
I signed up as a local volunteer, allowing me to give directions, recommend restaurants and join some excellent seminars while rubbing shoulders with some renowned food folks. Ruth Reichl gave the keynote address. Legendary sausage king Bruce Aidells sassed teacher/author Crescent Dragonwagon, who sassed right back. Shirley O. Corriher, author of Cookwise and Bakewise, made me biscuits.
Okay, she made them for everyone.

Hugh Carpenter won Cooking Teacher of the Year, and I got to shake his hand and remind him that I was one of his assistants at Montana Mercantile in Los Angeles back in the eighties.
At the Host City Reception, I scooped gelato for Cathy Whims of Portland's Nostrana, and flitted about the room sampling lavishly garnished potato pancakes from Broder, chocolates from Moonstruck, Dungeness crab with delicate gnocchi from Paley's Place, gorgeous macaroons (passion fruit!!! port wine!!!) from Pix Patisserie, and about two dozen other delicacies. And a surprisingly delicious cocktail, bravely combining Campari and Krogstad Aquavit from our own House Spirits Distillery!
Next year Austin, Texas hosts. Need any volunteers?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Island Abundance at the St. Croix Farmers Market

Stroll through a market--or wedge your way through the crowd--and meet the buyers, sellers, producers and processors. Smell the guavas or the aged cheese or the shellfish, hear the crack of a machete against green coconut, the cackle of doomed chickens or the sizzle of thinly sliced tubers plunging into boiling oil, and you begin to taste a place. Anywhere--Java, France, Martinique or Santa Monica, it's a colorful window into what matters locally.

St. Croix has a small and lively market in mid-island every Saturday. There are no large-scale producers--most of the vendors (mostly women) easily fit their wares onto the designated space, a table with short walls about the size of a large coffee table. A few bunches of collards or mixed herbs, a small pile of tomatoes, and a dozen avocados--that sort of thing. There are a few green thumbs in business, selling vigorous little plants in 6-inch pots: oregano, mint, orchids and ornamentals. Some women sell home-made seasoning and fruit preserves. And there are a few monoculturalists: one man has nothing but enormous stalks of green bananas and another, a pick-up truck bed of green coconuts.

Adjacent is the fish market--a picture of bureaucratic irony. There's a series of concrete stalls with concrete tables shaded from the sun, expressly for selling fish, but for some reason that's not allowed, so all the fish vendors sell out of coolers under improvised shade. Gutting and scaling take place on decaying wooden tables, decorated lavishly with glittering scales. A couple of 5-gallon buckets of bloody water serve for rinsing knives, hands and fish. There's even a fish-cleaning set-up in the back of a van. I suspect it diminishes the re-sale value of the vehicle considerably....

Thursday, January 28, 2010

St. Croix: an Island of History

In Jeopardy parlance, the answer is: A place in the United States where we drive on the left.

Or try this: A place in the U.S. that has flown the flags of 6 other nations before flying the stars and stripes.

Question: What is St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands?

I'm on my eighth visit to St. Croix, the largest of the three U.S. Virgin Islands. St. Thomas is for shoppers, St. John is for nature buffs, and St. Croix is for real. There's a whiff of history everywhere you turn. Ruined sugar mills-- tall pale cones crafted of coral block and white mortar--dot the landscape, from the days when sugar and rum went to Europe and the Americas by the boatload.

Christiansted, hosting a harbor on the North coast, echoes old Denmark, with stately plastered buildings in egg-yolk yellow, narrow streets and arcaded sidewalks. Frederiksted, anchored with a 1760 fort, is all peeling gingerbread trim, having been entirely rebuilt following the violent slave rebellion in 1878. Gracious great houses preside over the landscape. A few old houses are open for tourists, but more of them are still just home to somebody. And some are just home to geckos and tangled vines as they crumble into time.

We often walk a long dirt road to swim at a remote beach. Sometimes I find a worn fragment of china, relic of the plantation that once governed the property. The history here is like that--right under your feet--just keep your eyes open and there it is.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Finding Gold Among the Pine Needles

Autumn in the Pacific Northwest. A stroll in the forest, sun filtering through flaming vine maple leaves. Cushy moss and thick beds of shedded needles under the Douglas Fir. Wind whispering, birds calling. And a great big basket of chanterelles!

It was my first time mushroom hunting. My long experience buying chanterelles at the farmers market helps--I'm familiar with the variety of shapes and shades in which they come, the intertwining ridges that run underneath the cap and down the stem, the way the caps invert into distorted rippling cups, the puckering and contortion of a mushroom that has forced its way up under a log.

The first few minutes of hunting was a little discouraging, as I heard shouts of discovery from someone following right in my footsteps, picking a luscious fungus I'd virtually stepped over. Soon I found a few and my senses sharpened, picking out that certain shade of yellow, a little brighter than fallen leaves. I began to spot them capped with pine needles, thrusting up a thick layer of duff. I found rich clusters of them, and I gasped as I circled my fingers around a stem and burrowed them around it, into the forest floor. Thick around as a broom handle! A twist, a pull, a trim with my Opinel knife, into the basket.

There were 40 of us, spreading out in the woods south of Mount Hood. Bark, a Mount Hood advocacy group, orchestrated the outing. We carpooled out of Portland and into the wilderness along logging roads, passing hunters and ATV enthusiasts before spilling out into the forest, baskets in hand. Mark DesMarets, an experienced fungal enthusiast, advised us about the specimens we might find and the ecology of the mushroom. Amazingly, 300,000 pounds of wild mushrooms are exported from Oregon annually.

In view of that number, my two-and-three-quarters pound of fragrant, golden chanterelles doesn't sound too impressive. But piled high in my basket, curving stems spreading to undulating crowns, I found them magnificent. Likewise, a few hours later when a handful of them issued their savory juices in my skillet, along with butter, leeks, garlic, thyme and creme fraiche... magnificent.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Harvesting for Humanity

A gunmetal gray cloud cover hangs low over the Salinas Valley, obscuring the rugged Santa Lucia Highlands and shading a crowd of workers wearing hairnets and rubber gloves as they bend in a field, plunging knives into the stems of red romaine lettuce, pulling off tattered leaves and tossing tidy heads into crates. The awkward techniques and leisurely pace make it clear: this isn't an ordinary harvest crew. On this May Saturday morning, 60 volunteers are joining a bi-monthly gleaning event organized by Ag Against Hunger to supply fresh produce to food banks in the tri-county area and beyond.

Today, the glean team is harvesting lettuce from a field that was maintained all the way to maturity--nine weeks--and, now that prices have dropped, is no longer economically viable to harvest. Without Ag Against Hunger, the tilling, planting, pesticide spraying and watering which has nurtured this field since March would be wasted, along with a perfectly good crop of lettuce. Some Saturday mornings, volunteers engage in true gleaning: the age-old process of gathering produce after the official harvest has been completed and part of the crop is left behind due to size or cosmetic issues.

I arrived at 9 AM at the Ag Against Hunger warehouse in Salinas to find a buzzing crowd of all ages passing around a clipboard and filling out waivers. The parking lot proclaimed a broad demographic: a shiny Cadillac Esplanade, a dusty Jeep Cherokee covered with progressive stickers, a Prius, pick-ups, mini-vans and station wagons. Families with small children mingled with seniors. College kids swigged coffee from commuter mugs. Teenagers horsed around. After a quick orientation with Gleaning and Volunteer Coordinator Ananda Jimenez, and an invitation to find carpool companions, we piled into vehicles and followed a white 18-wheeler about 10 miles south on Highway 101.

Thanks to this 19-year-old organization, by noon our brief agricultural labors will be over and we will save 4200 pounds of lettuce from being tilled under. Crops rescued from the plow by volunteers make up only about 1% of the total fresh produce that Ag Against Hunger distributes each year. The balance is produce already harvested and processed that becomes unsalable due to price fluctuations. Ag Against Hunger's network of about 50 growers and shippers are grateful for the opportunity to donate this surplus to food banks and human services agencies and enjoy the accompanying tax benefits.

Visit Gleaning Stories to hear audio recordings of gleaners (including me!). Their mission is to collect and broadcast the stories of gleaners in the Salinas Valley.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Rafting down the Rogue River

I hadn't planned on dawdling in Southern Oregon. Just drive my friend Debbianne to her new home in Williams, Oregon, and get on the road by noon the next day to complete my drive from Portland to Monterey, California.

But what do you do when it's gonna be another hundred-degree day and your lovely hostess says "a bunch of us are going to float down the river. Why don't you come?" Here's what I did--reflected on the matter for oh, five minutes or so, and concluded that life is too short and unemployment too precious to decline such an invitation. Shortly, nine people, two trucks, four kayaks and a couple coolers of icy beers were winding their way north along the very scenic roads to the Galice Resort, where we rented a raft and gear and got a shuttle seven miles up the river, all for about $90.

After slathering up with sunscreen and cinching our PFD's tight (that's Personal Flotation Device, of course) we slid into the water for a few hours of leisurely floating, paddling and the occasional class I or II rapid, punctuated by a few refreshing swims. Surrounded by rugged hillsides and fragrant pines, we saw herons, mergansers, osprey and a couple of small dark swimming mammals--mink, perhaps?

We pulled out at the Galice Resort close to sunset, to a classic rock soundtrack from the live band up on their inviting deck. A little tailgate party followed: cold beer, watermelon, and chips. What a lovely way to spend a scorching afternoon.

Thanks to Michelle, the aforementioned lovely hostess, organizer, driver, and kayak-den-mother. Here she is!