On a Cookbook Assignment in Belize!

If you follow me on twitter and facebook you might have seen some updates involving a jungle, a camera, a “few” mosquito bites and a cookbook. That’s because I and the  illustrious team of Adam Pearson and Gaby Dalkin headed to Belize to work on a project titled “Flavors Of Belize”. It’s a book about the traditional cuisine of Belize, a wonderful big delicious melting pot of cultures and flavors. I can’t give away too much about this book so I’ll leave it at this: Belizean cuisine is delicious and I’m looking forward to its release early next year.

With so much focus and attention to detail going into each image I was remarkably surprised that it was also so thoroughly covered from the other side, too. These days it’s not unusual to craft a behind-the-scenes video or story from all the moments that happen around a cookbook. I must admit that I adore working on books, the creative freedom and time spent really allows you to work together as a team, to enjoy it without a team of nine art directors standing around you staring at your monitor and asking you to move this, move that. Not that I don’t love each and every one of my clients, ya know :) But sometimes projects are so magical that you feel nothing short of bless from above for being a part of it. That was certainly this project. The people, the production, the friends we made will forever stay in my heart.

And I’m pretty sure the bug bite scars will stay on my legs for quite some time. More on that later*.

We arrived in Belize City and then headed to Chan Chich, a jungle lodge and nature reserve located in northwestern Belize in the Mayan jungle. This 130,000 acre private nature reserve is located in Orange Walk on the Gallon Jug estate and is more breathtaking than I could ever describe. If you’re a naturalist, researcher or bird watcher than you simply must go. We didn’t have much time to absorb nature, we were there to work and got to it immediately!

After a few Belikins, of course.

We stayed in a beautiful lodge, nestled directly in the center of the grounds. As usual I had a difficult time sleeping in due to the fact that I really wanted to explore my surroundings as well as the calls of the birds and monkeys all around us. Just look at how beautiful this place is.

One of the most impressive things to me were the unearthed Mayan mounds all around us, literally outside our door. Because Chan Chich is situated in La Selva Maya and is also private property, these historical hills have never been unearthed and remained untouched.

When it came time to work, the main building’s gorgeous deck became our studio. With perfect ample light, a verdant backdrop and a few clouds passing by, we photographed half of the book in this location before heading back to the city.

 

Thanks to the amazing Olivera Rusu, there were many amazing behind-the-scenes photos taken during the whole process. Here we are working, and judging from the smiles on our faces you can probably tell how the shoot went.

These images © Olivera Rusu

We took a few side trips to villages in the area to meet with locals and document their food culture. This was such a fantastic part of our journey but you’ll have to wait for the book to see what we photographed. Let’s just say it was quite the experience!

Image © Olivera Rusu

It takes a village! One thing I’ve learned about being a photographer is that you cannot be shy. With so many cameras, iphones, and video all around you’re never quite sure who’s filming what. Sometimes it feels more like a tv or film production than a food shoot but there’s never a dull moment, that’s for sure!

We all took our turns in front of the camera, giving some background about the project. Filmmakers and cinematographers Autumn and Jeff Bierman worked on the production as well and it was nice to meet our Los Angeles neighbors in Belize. WE LOVE THESE TWO PEOPLE. It’s unreal how cool and incredible they are.

Here they are reviewing some footage and also interviewing Adam for his segment. I’m pretty sure Autumn is concerned about being eaten alive by insects. Adam was already scratching.

I mentioned the journey from jungle to city was quite an adventure, right? Thanks to wet unpaved roads it took almost 6 hours and caused our van to get stuck in the mud. With no cell service we were in quite a bind until a good Samaritan arrived on the scene. He pulled us out and we were on our way! Note to self: next time make sure your van is stranded in front of a Four Seasons or W rather than the jungle.

 

I’ll make sure to keep you posted about the book’s release. I can’t wait to share so many Belizean recipes that we fell in love with!

 

With so much love and gratitude for the team, I want to thank everyone involved on this project and to the lovely people of Belize. Especially Tanya, Shelly, Wayne and Carla!

*About those bugs: EATEN ALIVE. I was. When people tell you to take every precaution available, wear long pants, bring ample protection, please heed their warnings.

Exploring Vancouver Like A Local!

Hi friends! Color me giddy, thrilled and senselessly excited: I’m partnering up with the fine folks at Food & Wine, Travel + Leisure (American Express Publishing) and the Canadian Tourism Commission to announce a rather jam-packed event I’m participating in.  I am still putting the final details on everything but can finally announce it!

When I was asked by the great folks at Food & Wine Magazine if I’d like to sign on for a this project my answer was an immediate yes. As a traveler I am the first to sheepishly admit that I have never been to Canada.

Never.

Ok, I’m glad I got that off my chest. I’m embarrassed by the fact that I’ve been all over the world yet have never set foot in my neighbor’s country. Flown over countless times, stood right next to it, known and loved many of her inhabitants, and yet this boy has never taken the time to explore all it has to offer. I’m glad I have an opportunity to change that.

Here’s where the Canadian Tourism Commission and their new site Explore Canada Like A Local comes in.  I created my own list (I’m still adding to it as we speak!) on this new site of places I’d like to visit. I was given free reign and the option to pick any place in Canada. I decided on Vancouver for a few reasons (Chinese cuisine and sustainable seafood the two chief items) and then began to compile my list. It’s pretty thorough but me? I’m always up for a challenge. With camera and empty stomach in tow I’m going to work my way through them like a champion.

But here’s where things get really exciting. Not only will I be blogging about my trip to these fantastic places but you can actually enter the Explore Canada Like A Local Sweepstakes and win my trip! Of course you can select the two others bloggers participating if you’re more of the backpacking and adventure type but really, we’ve got some eating to do, right? The winner will receive an all-expenses paid trip to be as much of a glutton as I am, following my itinerary along the way.

And if you wanna check that out you can do so right here.

I’ll be heading to Vancouver mid-November to begin my exploration so check back to see the images, tweets, and reports on my visit. The sweepstakes is open now and ends December 15, 2011.

See you in Vancouver! (Kari, get ready. Please.)

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You guys know I’m on twitter right? You can also find me on Facebook where I tend to post embarrassing things about myself or worse, where people put photos of me caught off-guard or bent over looking fat on my Wall. God bless social media.

 

 

Banoffee Pie Madness

 

One of the best things of being a food photographer is the access to new tastes, flavors and recipes. Because 100% of what we do at our studio is actually edible, you’ll find me on set most days asking this series of questions to Adam, my food stylist partner:

 

a)     I’ve got the shot. Can you review it and tell me if there’s anything you’d like to change?

b)    Ok, fantastic. Looks great. We’re done. Can I eat this?

 

I can’t really remember a day where I haven’t dug into a casserole or broken off a piece of bread or stolen a cookie. I often tell myself that it’s part of my job and that I actually should know what things taste like. When I photograph a cookbook it’s inevitable that people will ask me what the process was like and if there was a favorite recipe. Why shouldn’t I be prepared?

(sidenote: yes, I actually did taste every single recipe made from Jenny’s upcoming book and let’s just say you should be as excited as I am for it come out)

Recently a rather unfamiliar dessert landed on my shooting surface. Ok, let me back up. Unusual for me. But then again I’m not a Sweets kinda guy, generally. But this item, Banoffee Pie, is an English favorite that we were shooting for Cooking Channel and it really caught my attention.

Let’s see…bananas, check. Cookies, check. Coffee, check. Condensed milk made into caramel? Double check. I knew I was gonna try this. And something told me I was gonna like it.

Holy crap.

How have I gone 41 years without ever taking a bite of this? Adam’s assistants were particularly jazzed, knowing how fun and tasty Banoffee Pie is. But me? I was a Banoffee Virgin, new to the combination of tastes and are all individually my favorites.

Was it over the top? Yes. Was it super sweet? Indeed. Do I crave it all the time now? Hell to the yes.

I danced around the studio with whipped cream on my face and kept saying “Imagine Banoffee This! Imagine Banoffee That!” I think I was reprimanded slightly by my team, told to re-focus and reminded that we had plenty of more recipes to shoot. Our day was far from over.

When I got home I furiously jotted down ideas and notes, then asked my dear sweet partner if we could one day return to the studio, play around with banoffee ingredients, photograph them, them shamelessly eat them until we collapsed.

He obliged.

So what did I discover? Banoffee ingredients make me happy. They work well introduced into a variety of formats. And that I will probably never get tired of bananas + caramel + cookies/crust + whipped cream + coffee.  For reals, y’all.

Add this combination to the top of a cupcake and what do you have? Insanity.  Any cupcake will do but you’ll probably want to introduce a flavor that compliments a traditional banoffee pie. Banana cupcakes, vanilla or espresso could totally work. Top them with chocolate frosting, sprinkle graham cracker crumbs on top, a dollop of whipped cream, a banana coin and a small graham cracker. Drizzle with dulce de leche. Stuff into your face.

 

 

Could graham cracker crumbs, dulce de leche, cream, chocolate and bananas make a delicious parfait? Absolutely. It’s rich, I’m telling you, so you might want to add a scoop of vanilla ice cream :)

 

Yes, I am a stickler for that panino/panini format, I can’t help it. At any rate, spreading banoffee ingredients on bread, tucking some banana slices in there and then pressing on a grill or panini press gives you a sweet, breakfasty type sandwich (although the sensible me shudders at the thought of eating something like this for breakfast). Still, it’s fun, delicious, and even better if you top it with a dollop of whipped cream.

Sigh. Oh, banoffee milkshake, you were my favorite. For some reason all these things in a blender with ice cream just sing. You could get a lil fancy and top with chipped cream, chocolate shaving and a drizzle of caramel if you wanted. Again, vanilla ice cream is a good start, but could you imagine butter pecan or any type of banana ice cream? I think I need to stop dreaming up ways to use these ingredients. I will no longer fit into my pants.

I happen to love Maggie’s Banoffee Pie that she made for us during our Palm Springs retreat when I told her about my new found love for the stuff. If you’re looking for her delicious recipe you can find it here.



Book Review: Say Cheese!

I think I can say that my love of cheese is no secret. It’s my favorite food group (yes, I consider it a group that must be eaten regularly). I was excited when Kristina told me her next book round up would be all about cheese. BRING IT. Oh, and bring me some wine while you’re at it. Take it away, Kristina! — matt

Kristina Gill: I read on Twitter that it is National Cheese Month, so I thought I’d bring you guys a small selection of the books I have on my shelf about cheese.  Something old, something new, but infinitely useful to cover all the bases from buying it, making it, cooking with it, pairing it with other foods.  Last year, Matt did a brief video providing tips on cheese plates.  You should check it out again if you missed it the first time.  (You can just see me sitting at the table at 2:29, then I got sent upstairs!!  But I was allowed to hoover up all the leftovers afterward!)  I must say that after having written these reviews, I sooooo wish I had a cheese plate.

Cheese Primer by Steven Jenkins (Workman, 1996) and Mastering Cheese: Lessons for Connoisseurship from a Maître Fromager by Max McCalman and David Gibbons (Clarkson Potter, 2009)  Two books you could consider your cheese atlases.  They take you on a trip around the world of cheese.  The Cheese Primer is 90% about individual cheeses and how to choose and serve them, spanning Europe and the United States.  Mastering Cheese on the other hand is the opposite.  It’s about the food itself, cheese from A-Z, with 25% about the cheeses of Europe and the United States, a little by country a little by type.  The Cheese Primer is a very useful reference book for when I want to hone in on a specific cheese.  When I got the book in 1996, it was so exciting to read, now that I think about it, maybe that’s why I moved to Italy…  I’ve tasted almost all the Italian cheeses in the book, but not many of the others.  And though Nancy Silverton likes to say that it was LA that put burrata on the map in the United States, Steven Jenkins did indeed have burrata in his book in 1996 (and he includes my favorite castelmagno from Piedmont)!  I would highly recommend either (or both) of these books if you want to know about a lot of different cheeses, where they’re from, and what they’re about.

 (Matt’s notes: I don’t think you could find a greater example of mid 90’s graphic design than Cheese Primer’s book cover. Whoa.)

Artisan Cheese Making at Home:  Techniques and Recipes for Mastering World Class Cheeses by Mary Karlin (Ten Speed Press, 2011; photography by Ed Anderson)  I have never used this book because there are three farms not too far from my home which make their own cheeses.  One makes only mozzarella, one makes an entire range of raw milk cheeses including very good mozzarella, and a third organic farm specialized in aged cheeses, up to 8 years.  If I didn’t live so close to these three farms, I might indeed be tempted to do some experimenting.  This book is beautiful (Ed Anderson’s photographs are wonderful) and goes from the beginning to the end of the cheese-making process.  It has recipes for traditional cheeses, like provolone, queso blanco, whole milk ricotta, and chèvre.  It also covers rubbed cheeses (cocoa, honey, etc) and more advanced bloomy rind, surface-ripened, smeared-rind, and blue cheeses.  I am curious about everything and I find even reading about how these cheeses are made fascinating, and understanding the process only increases my respect for the artisans who make good versions of them!  This is a book for that person you know would love to try out cheese-making, or for someone who is just really curious about how cheese is made.  There are also recipes in the book that use cheese as a featured ingredient.

Fiona Beckett’s Cheese Course (Ryland Peters and Small, 2009; photography by Richard Jung)  Now that you know everything there is to know about cheese– where it’s from, how it’s made, how it should taste, how to choose it, and how to serve it, enter British food journalist, Fiona Beckett, with her book on cheese and how to pair it and serve it.  Beckett has cheese covered, from the explanation of the types of cheeses to wine/drink and cheese pairing, cheese boards, and recipes.  Richard Jung has beautifully photographed it all, and it really is torture looking at the photographs if you’re trying to keep a low-fat diet (hello leek and blue cheese quiche with hazelnut crust…lavender honey and vanilla cheesecake anyone??).  This is a book for someone who loves putting together cheese plates and boards.  This is perfect if you don’t need to know too much about any single cheese, but you like to have a general guide on pairing different types of cheese with each other and with other items.  If you need the reader’s digest version, watch Matt’s video!  [There is a recipe in this book for oat crackers, divine with cheese, or you can use my favorite recipe from Richard Corrigan’s Clatter of Forks and Spoons].



Adam’s Scary Apples

spooky-apples

No it’s not Halloween Déjà vu here! Since we get so many requests and comments about these Scary Apples I’ve decided to rerun them for this year’s Halloween. Kind of a greatest hits, right? Enjoy! And Boo!

Full confession: When I was about 4 or 5 years old I was so utterly terrified of Halloween that I once ran from the dinner table to the bedroom where I locked myself inside it for 20 minutes while Trick or Treaters came to the front door of the house. I’m not sure why I did that exactly as I wasn’t normally a timid or shy child; I think my dramatic exit had more to do with the fact that I enjoyed that sense of fright, darkness and mystery that rolls around every October. I like to be scared when I know nothing bad will actually happen.

This explains my interest in fright nights, scary movies, haunted houses, macabre scenarios, you name it. I think there’s a part of all of us that likes that thrill…why else would we visit haunted houses, watch slasher films, and listen to Paris Hilton songs and videos?

Not that I’ve done the latter. Even that’s too scary for me.

When I mentioned to Adam that I wanted to do my first Halloween blog post about a cocktail I tried he quickly informed me that it would neither be a) exciting b) deep enough or c) have enough pizazz. “What’s so exciting about a cocktail, all by itself?”  he asked. I could see his point as there are tons of others who focus on spirits and do a much better job. Besides, this drink wasn’t anything exciting or thrilling but perfect for the grown-ups at any Halloween party. “Give me a few minutes and I’ll help you out” said Adam.

Wow. Was my drink really that lackluster that it needed help? Apparently so.

He grabbed his car keys, ran to the store, came back but not before making a detour to the front yard where he began tugging at one of the trees. My partner isn’t a man of a thousand words (which must be why we’re a great match) but sometimes stoic and methodical. He was up to something I could tell but I didn’t quite know what.  When he returned to the kitchen he ransacked his baking shelf, took out the candy thermometer, a sheet pan and began his kitchen alchemy.

What happened next was pure magic.

I walked back into the kitchen to find the most beautiful candied apples before me.  Black glossy cinnamon-scented candied glass enveloped small apples, twigs became their handles, and a few shockingly red candied apples only made their black counterparts more ominous. It was halloween on a silpat, a spooky forest that completed my cocktail.

drinks-and-apples

I had no choice but to have him bundle up the apples, head to the studio with me where I knew exactly how I wanted to photograph them. They joined my new favorite black wine goblets from Juliska in an eery still life that still gives me the chills when I look at it. Only this time there’s no need to lock myself in my bedroom.

Red & Black Candy Apples

8-10 medium sized apples
8-10 wooden twigs, twimmed
3 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1 cup of water
several drops of cinnamon flavored oil
1/4 teaspoon of red food coloring
1/4 teaspoon of black food coloring
Clean and dry the apples. Try to remove as much of the wax as possible. If you purchase them from your local farmer’s market then chances are they have not been treated with the food grade wax that makes then shine. Remove any stems or leaves and insert a twig into the end of each apple. To facilitate easier twig entry you can carefully sharpen the end of the twig or use a candy stick to create a guide hole. Set apples aside.

Heat and stir sugar, corn syrup and water in a saucepan until sugar has dissolved. Boil until the syrup reaches 300 degrees on a candy thermometer. Don’t go over 310 degrees or your candy burns and then you’ll be sad.

Remove from heat and stir in flavored oil and food coloring.

Dip one apple completely in the syrup and swirl it so that it becomes coated with the melted sugar candy. Hold the apple above the saucepan to drain off excess. Place apple, with the stick facing up, onto a baking sheet that’s greased or lined with a silpat. Repeat the process with the remaining apples. If your syrup thickens or cools too much, simply reheat briefly before proceeding. Let the apples cool completely before serving.

A note about the black apples: Lighter colored apples (Granny Smith, Golden Delicious) work well in making the red appear bright and glassy; darker apples like red delicious help the black candy appear as dark as possible. Muy spooky!

Also, Adam made one batch with red food coloring and after he had a few red apples he reheated the candy mixture and added black food coloring. Adding black to red will make it darker. He repeated the dipping process. Black food coloring can be found online or at specialty baking stores.

Matt’s Winter Cocktail

I only call this winter because it has the flavors of pomegranate, apple and pear. Other than that it’s really just a sweet excuse to get drunk. The pinch of pumpkin pie spice in the drink gives it a holiday flair but it’s subtle. You can use dry ice to make it spooooky if you make a large batch of it but I don’t recommend putting dry ice into an individual glass if you want to keep your lips. Serves 2.

2 oz Pama Pomegranate Liqueur
2 oz Pear Vodka
4 oz Apple Cider or Juice
tiniest teensiest pinch of Pumpin Pie Spice

Add ingredients and crushed ice to a shaker and blend well. Empty drink and ice into a glass and get your drunk on.

Calling All Bakers!

Calling all bakers! I am so happy to announce the Scharrfen Berger Elevate A Classic Dessert with Scharffen Berger Chocolate Contest! For the third year in a row I am returning as a judge for this fantastic contest and I must tell you that this year will be an amazing event, no doubt about it.  To be a part of it again is truly an honor!

In the past I’ve joined judges John Scharffenberger, Chef Elizabeth Faulkner and the amazing Alice Medrich to taste such amazing creations using adventure ingredients as well as cupcakes. This year the theme is all about taking a classic dessert and elevating it to extraordinary heights using Scharrfen Berger chocolate. And it’s this year I’m so amped up over because I have no doubt there will be creative, unique and delicious entries from all over the place. Cakes, cookies, pies, you name it…with the category being classic desserts the sky is the limit!

The extraordinary Chef Elizabeth Falkner toasts some sweets at last year's Scharffen Berger contest.

Now here’s what you really want to know, I’m sure of this: the first prize is $10,000 and a collection of Scharffen Berger Chocolates as well some amazing books. The winning recipe will also be featured on Scharffen Berger‘s website and I’m pretty sure I’ll be blogging about it, too. And can I tell you that judging this contest literally takes everything out of me? You have no idea how brilliant and phenomenal the entries are and when something is fantastic there’s a look everyone gets on their faces and we all agree. Of course there’s always an underdog during judging but believe me when I tell you eating chocolate is a very serious job. Ok, I’ll stop smiling now :)

Oh, and there’s also a fantastic $7000 2nd Place Prize as well as a 3rd Place Prize of $3000.  Those recipes will also be featured on Scharffen Berger’s website.

What’s this all mean for you? It means I hope you hurry and get into that kitchen to start creating your own masterpiece. Head over the website to find out more about the contest and all the official rules. You have until January 2, 2012 to enter. Do not delay, I am looking forward to tasting your creation!