Tuesday, June 28, 2011

0 Recipe #275: Southwestern Black Bean Salsa Tortilla Wrap

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This is a light and easy-to-make meal that's perfect for lunch. You can either eat one whole wrap that's been cut into two sections or only eat one half with a soup or salad. It's up to you.

Southwestern Black Bean Salsa Tortilla Wrap

Black Bean Salsa Ingredients:
1 15.5 oz. can black beans, drained and rinsed
1/2 c. yellow bell pepper, diced (about 1/2 medium-sized yellow bell pepper)
1/4 c. red onion, peeled and diced (about 1/4 small onion)
1 1/2 Tbsp. jalapeño, stemmed, seeded, and finely diced (about 1/2 large jalepeño pepper)
1 c. fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes, diced (about 3 small tomatoes)
1 c. shredded Mexican 4-cheese blend (or vegan cheese substitute)
1/2 c. ripe California olives, drained and sliced crosswise into 1/4" rounds
1/8 c. scallions (green and white parts), sliced crosswise into 1/4" rounds (about 1 large scallion)
2 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. dried oregano leaves
1/16 tsp. (a pinch) salt (optional)
1/8 tsp. ground black pepper, or to taste
1/8 tsp. ground Chipotle pepper, or to taste
1/8 c. fresh cilantro, finely minced and densely packed
1/8 c. freshly squeezed lime juice (about 1 large lime)
1 c. Haas avocado, peeled, pitted, and diced (1 medium-sized Haas avocado)
1/2 c. frozen (or canned) corn kernels, thawed and drained

Other Ingredients:
4 c. unsalted water (for cooking the corn)
1 small romaine heart, leaves detached from base and well-washed (1/2 large lettuce leaf, i.e., 4" piece, per person)
4-6 extra-large (i.e., 10" in diameter) low-fat flour tortilla

Directions: Make the salsa (in advance)*: In a large bowl, thoroughly mix together all ingredients except for the avocado. Then add avocado, and gently combine. (Avocado tends to get mushy quickly if mixed too vigorously.) Make sure all of the avocado is covered with lime juice, which will preserve it and keep it from oxidizing. Cover and place into the refrigerator until serving time. (It's better to let the ingredients marinate a bit; this produces a tastier end result.)

Next, steam the corn: Place a metal steamer basket into a large pot, and spread out its tabs so that it covers the entire bottom of the pot. Then add roughly 4 c. of unsalted water to the pot, or however much water is needed to reach the base of the steamer. (Salted water toughens corn.) Bring water to a rolling boil (on high heat), about 8 minutes. Add corn, cover pot with its lid, and steam for 2-3 minutes, or until tender. Drain into a colander. Allow to cool for a few minutes. Add corn kernels to salsa and gently mix.

Assemble wraps: Place each tortilla onto a plate, then place 1/2 of a large romaine lettuce leaf (about a 4" piece) down the center of the tortilla. Next, place a line of black bean salsa down the center, about 3/4 c. (Don't overstuff tortillas with filling, or the wrap will be hard to close.) Fold over the bottom end (i.e., the end that's closest to you) of the tortilla, bringing it up only about 2-3" towards the center. Then repeat for the opposite end. Then, starting from the sides of the tortilla that still remain open, roll the tortilla into a tight bundle. Grip tortilla firmly from one end while slicing into the center in a slightly diagonal direction. Repeat for each plate until all wraps have been rolled. If you aren't serving them right away, wrap sandwiches in aluminum foil or wax paper, and refrigerate until ready to serve. Serve and enjoy!

Yield: 6-8 wraps.

Chef's Notes: You could also make the entire meal in advance and then bring it to work with you for lunch. If you decide to do this, place salsa into a plastic container with a lid and the tortilla and lettuce leaf into separate resealable plastic bags. Tortillas tends to dry out and harden when exposed to air for too long.

Ingredient Substitutions: Meat eaters could replace 1/2 of the cheese or beans (or a 1/4 of each) with pieces of cooked, skinless, boneless chicken breast. As a variation on a theme, substitute baby spinach or mixed (i.e., mesclun) spring greens for the romaine lettuce. Spinach tastes very mild, and thus does not distract from the flavor of the wrap, while mixed spring greens will add a bit of peppery flavor. For added flavor and color, you could also use spinach or tomato flavored low-fat flour tortilla wraps. Colorful wraps make for a nice presentation, one that's pleasing to the eye as well as the stomach. :)

Optional Ingredients: Before rolling up your wrap, you can also add a dollop of nonfat plain Greek yoghurt or low-fat sour cream (about 1 Tbsp. per person) for added flavor. Or, alternatively, you could try a bit of creamy, low-fat dressing -- like Ranch, Ranch-Buttermilk, Russian, or Thousand Island dressing. There's already a lot going on with this wrap in terms of flavor diversity, spice, and heat, so use any additional ingredients sparingly and make sure they're not too spicy or overpowering. Cool, creamy flavors tend to work best; they provide balance and round out the dish.

Friday, June 24, 2011

0 New Blog Feature: Subdivided Tag Cloud Groupings for Ease of Use

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Hello there, my fellow chefs and healthy gourmet enthusiasts!

I just wanted to give you a heads-up on some recent and upcoming changes on this blog. You may've noticed that there have been some changes with the way tag clouds are organized on the right sidebar of this blog. More specifically, the single tag cloud that was initially set up on this blog has now been divided into multiple ones by topic, for ease of use. As you can see, the topics are as follows:

General Index - Just what the name implies. :) This is basically an overview of various general categories, versus say, a segment which focuses solely upon recipe subsets. Recipes are, in fact, listed in the "General Index" section as well, but as a general category showing all of the recipes on the blog. I've done this so that you can see exactly how many recipes in total are on this blog, and also so you can view the latest ones, filtering out all of the other categories. If you want to view just the recipes as a whole, in chronological order, then you'll want to click on the recipes tag. :)

Find by Ingredient: This section will allow you to find recipes by ingredient, although it also has a few articles that mention the various ingredients in a significant fashion. (Don't be too concerned that this will make it hard to find what you're looking for: A single mention of the word "corn" isn't going to merit a tag/listing. However, if the article is about corn, then I'll include it in this category.) This section is mostly for the purposes of finding recipes by ingredient. And yes, I do plan to further expand this area based upon what seems to be popular search terms and of course, also upon feedback I receive from you. This often seem to happen naturally in due course: People often ask me, either in person or via social media, if I've got a particular original recipe from the blog using one ingredient or the other, and if I don't, a lot of times I'll custom-create something for them that incorporates this new ingredient. :-D  Et le voillà, there are now new ingredient categories for the blog. :) So, if you'd like to contribute suggestions for ingredient categories, please do let me know, either via the comments section of this blog/post, Facebook, or Twitter. I always love hearing from readers and do sincerely appreciate your helpful suggestions and insights. I'm trying to make this blog better for you, the readership, so it's great to hear your feedback, since it greatly helps me to do that. :-D

Find by Food Category: If you are looking for a particular meal course (appetizersdesserts, etc.) or type of dish (omeletteschilipasta, etc.) or a recipe for a specific occasion (holidayspicnic/bbq food, etc.), this is the section you'll want to visit. Again, there might be some articles about a specific food category, but it's really mainly just for searching for recipes.

Find by Nationality: This one's self-explanatory, including mostly recipes but also a few articles about various (inter)national and regional American cuisines. Also, if you're searching for tips on cooking ethnic foods or finding related ingredients, this is the section you'll want to visit.

Find by Dietary Lifestyle: Whether you're a carnivore, omnivore, or herbivore, sometimes you might want to only view recipes, tips, and general information regarding the foods that fit your particular lifestyle. Currently, this section covers three main categories: meat-eaters, vegetarians, and vegans. I was initially thinking about expanding these categories to include gluten-free, kosher, etc., but honestly, that'd take a lot of picking through various recipes. While I'm at it, I could've included recipes for the lactose-intolerant or people with various food allergies (like tree nut allergies or peanut allergies, etc.). However, with that level of granularity, that would be rather time-consuming and require a lot of maintenance as well, and that's time I don't have at the moment. ;) Also, these latter categories like this are more about dietary restrictions based on medical conditions (food allergies, etc.), with the exception of the "kosher" category, which mostly addresses religious lifestyles but can also be used by others as a resource for various other dietary reasons and health concerns. When it comes to medical concerns, I figure that people who are living with these conditions will be able to sift through the recipes to find something that suits them or make substitutions for various ingredients, so they can enjoy a larger cross-section of recipes. (Of course, most people who've been managing their food allergies for a while have no doubt become experts at doing this, regardless!) Of course, some recipes are more amenable to modification than others, but there's so much variety here on this blog that I think people with various dietary restrictions will be able to find several recipes that innately suit their particular dietary focus/foci.

I was originally going to create a main heading called, "What are you hungry for?!" or "What are you in the mood to eat?", but since my blog's topics aren't solely limited to recipes, (although I realize that the recipes are probably what most people are there for ;) ), I didn't think that this title would make very much sense.

I hope that you will find the new category groupings to be much more helpful and effective in your efforts to find various recipes and topical articles on this blog.

However, don't get too comfortable with these new changes, as they'll probably be temporary. In my continual efforts to improve the search capabilities of this blog, I plan to replace them with dropdown menus for the various sections instead, which'll take up less real estate on the blog, and also make it easier and faster to select what you're looking for. After I've implemented these changes, I'll probably reinstate the original tag cloud as a single unit. Who knows. I haven't decided yet. When I start working on this, I may decide in the end that it's either (a) not worth the effort, or (b) not as effect or easy to use as I'd hoped, and then completely abandon the idea. LOL. We'll see. It just depends on testing and reader feedback. Then, I need to evaluate the idea to see if it's actually an enhancement, versus an obstacle. Haha. These future changes are, of course, not an immediate priority, as I've got a cookbook, and now a chapter of another newer book project to write. Yes, I'm hard at work on not one, but TWO book projects right now. :) More on that later....

Happy Cooking,

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

0 Recipe #274: Corey's Creamilicious Corn Chowder

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Corn chowder is definitely a comfort food. This version is much healthier than the traditional version while still remaining quite flavorful. The secret is in choosing the right ingredients and also the proper techniques, to keep the soup velvety smooth and creamy tasting while eliminating unnecessary fat.

I like to use whatever's fresh and in season. And so, when I saw there was a special on corn at the supermarket $2 for 10 ears of corn, I jumped at the opportunity to make some dishes with fresh corn. Of course, I got all 10 ears. ;) So, in other words, expect some more corn recipes in the near future. :-D

You know summer's almost here when corn suddenly makes an appearance at the grocery store and the farmers' market stalls. Excitement! :-D

Creamilicious Corn Chowder

4 ears of corn, shucked, cleaned, and rinsed (makes about 2 c. cooked)
1/2 medium-sized yellow onion, unpeeled
8 c. water, lightly salted
1 lb. Yukon Gold potatoes, washed & well-scrubbed (about 3 medium-sized potatoes) (makes about 2 c. cooked)
1/2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 Tbsp. unbleached, all-purpose flour
1/2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, plus more for preparing the corn for roasting
1 large fresh bay leaf
1/2 c. carrots, diced
1/2 c. celery, diced (about 2 medium-sized stalks)
1/4 c. shallot, finely minced (about 1 medium-sized shallot)
2 c. (16 oz.) low-sodium organic vegetable broth*
1 1/2 Tbsp. fresh thyme leaves
1/2 tsp. turmeric powder (to naturally enhance color of soup)
1/4 tsp. allspice
1/2 Tbsp. paprika
1/8 tsp. ground white pepper, or to taste (If you like your soup a bit spicier, use 1/4 tsp.)
3/4 tsp. salt, or to taste
1/8 c. (2 Tbsp.) lite nondairy creamer
1 c. skim milk
1/2 c. vine-ripened tomatoes, cored, seeded, & diced (about 2 medium-sized tomatoes) (about 2 Tbsp. per bowl)
4 Tbsp. flat leaf Italian parsley, finely minced (about 1 Tbsp. per bowl)

Directions: Using an oil diffuser (like Misto) or a silicon brush, lightly coat the shucked corn with a small amount of olive oil. (It's very important to do this; otherwise the corn will dry out in the oven.) Roast the corn and the onion half on a large (12" x 17") aluminium foil-covered tray (i.e., for easy cleanup) for 15-20 minutes on 600°F (i.e., the broil setting). Flip/rotate vegetables half-way through cooking. Remove onion from oven after 15 minutes and place onto a heat-proof plate. Corn should be ready either at the same time as the onion or 5 more minutes after that, until grill marks appear.

Meanwhile, bring 8 c. lightly salted water to a rolling boil in a large (6-8 qt.) pot, about 8 minutes. Then gingerly place potatoes into the pot of boiling water using a heat-proof slotted spoon. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover tightly with a lid, and simmer for about 20 minutes, or until almost tender when pierced with a knife. When finished, do not drain water! Allow to cool for at least 10-15 minutes, then drain potatoes into a heat-proof colander, with a large, deep bowl placed directly underneath to catch the starchy potato water. (If there's debris in the water, strain potato water into a mesh sieve potato instead. Of course, this all depends on how well you scrubbed the potatoes. ;) ) Reserve liquid and set this bowl aside. When cool enough to handle, place potatoes on a cutting board and cut into 1" cubes. (You can peel the potatoes if you like, but I don't. There are lots of nutrients in the peel. You won't be able to see bits of the peel in the soup anyhow, as it will be pulverized in the food processor later.) Transfer potatoes into another (different) large bowl and set aside.

By now, the corn and onions should be ready. Remove from the oven, and allow to cool for a 10-15 minutes. When vegetables are cool enough to handle, prepare the corn: Place a corn cob holder into the flat side where the stalk has been removed (for stability). (You can also level off the other end for increased stability.) Holding the corn cob holder with a firm grip, slice off the corn kernels from the cobs, using a sharp knife. (Be careful when doing this!) Reserve 1/2 c. kernels for garnish. Next, dice the onions. Place the kernels, the cob, and the diced onion into the same bowl as the potatoes. Set aside.

In the now-empty pot you originally used to boil the potatoes, make the roux: Melt butter in a large soup pot over medium-low heat, then rapidly whisk in flour, stirring until the mixture forms a smooth paste, about 1-2 minutes. Add the olive oil, bay leaf, carrots, celery, and shallots and sauté for 3 minutes on low heat until vegetables are almost tender and shallots are translucent. (If roux starts to brown or burn while you're sautéing the vegetables, deglaze with a little vegetable broth and stir continually.) Then add 5 c. of the reserved starchy potato water, vegetable broth, and corn cobs into the pot. (Cobs are cooked in the soup for added flavor. Don't worry, you won't be eating the cobs as part of the soup; they'll be removed later. ;) ) Turn up the heat to high, cover with a tightly fitting lid, and bring to a rolling boil, about 8 minutes. Then reduce heat to low, carefully empty the bowl containing the corn kernels, onion, and potatoes into the pot, and simmer, uncovered, for an additional 10-15 minutes. Check on soup every 5 minutes or so, and stir. If soup cooks down too fast, add more potato water, about 1/2 c. at a time, as necessary. During the last 2-3 minutes of cooking, lift the lid, add the fresh thyme leaves, and stir continually, just until soup thickens. Cook soup until desired consistency has been reached. Season with turmeric, allspice, nutmeg, paprika, black and white pepper, and salt. Taste, and adjust seasonings. Turn off heat and let rest for 10 minutes. With a two-pronged carving/serving fork, stab the corn cobs to remove from the pot, then discard. Also discard bay leaf.

When soup has completely cooled, stir in creamer and skim milk. Either use an immersion blender or transfer soup in batches to a blender, and then purée the soup until the texture is smooth and creamy.

Garnish with reserved kernels, diced tomato, and parsley. Serve hot or warm with some crusty, rustic bread or slices of toasted Parmesan garlic bread. Bon appétit!

Yield: about 8 c., or approximately 4 servings.

Chef's Notes: If you'd like to make this recipe vegan, you can substitute unflavored/plain soy milk for the creamer and milk, and another 1/2 Tbsp. olive oil for the 1/2 Tbsp. butter. Please make sure that the soy milk is unflavored; otherwise the soup will taste disgusting. LOL.

*I know there are many people who make this soup with chicken broth. However, I initially tried using chicken broth, and frankly, the flavor was way too strong, even though I only used 2 cups. Chicken broth seems to overwhelm and interfere too much with what should be the primary flavor of the soup, i.e., corn. :) Vegetable broth, in contrast, allows the corn flavor to shine through. This is why I recommend using vegetable broth for this soup instead. :)

Added later: The overpowering chicken taste does diminish markedly after the soup's been refrigerated for a day or two. However if you'll be serving the soup on the same day you'll be making it, you might want to just use vegetable broth instead.

Monday, June 6, 2011

3 Recipe #273: Grilled Hearts of Romaine with Caper-Avocado Dressing

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This sophisticated way of serving hearts of romaine is an exciting alternative to traditional cold salads. It's particularly wonderful for summer dinner parties or casual outdoor gatherings, for a nice evening spent out on the deck/patio. Nothing says summer like a little outdoor dining. :)

The caper-avocado dressing in this recipe can also be used as a marinade for chicken or fish.

Grilled Hearts of Romaine with Caper-Avocado Dressing

Dressing Ingredients: (Makes 1 c.)
1/4 c. ripe Haas avocado, peeled, pitted, and diced (about 1/4 Haas avocado)
3 Tbsp. shallots, peeled and finely minced
1 1/2 Tbsp. capers, soaked for 10 minutes in 1/2 c. water
1/2 Tbsp. garlic, peeled and finely minced
1/2 tsp. Dijon mustard
1/8 c. extra virgin olive oil
1/4 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar
1/8 c. freshly squeezed lemon juice
3/8 c. water
1/8 tsp. ground thyme
1/4 tsp. ground oregano
1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
1/4 tsp. kosher salt, or to taste

Salad Ingredients:
4 large hearts of romaine, halved lengthwise, with ends untrimmed/instact to keep leaves attached/bundled together
1/4 c. extra virgin olive oil (or 1/2 Tbsp. per half heart of romaine)
1/4 c. fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano, shredded (or shaved)* (or 1/2 Tbsp. per half heart of romaine)
cracked black pepper, to taste
kosher or sea salt, to taste

Directions: Make dressing: Pulse all ingredients together in a blender until smooth and creamy. Refrigerate dressing overnight to allow flavors to meld.

Next prepare the salad: Preheat outdoor grill, indoor tabletop George Foreman grill, or large (11") square, nonstick grill pan (for stove top cooking). Using a silicone pastry brush or oil diffuser (like Misto), lightly coat (or spray) each romaine heart half with 1/2 Tbsp. olive oil ) and place on grill. Grill over medium heat until grill marks appear, and romaine is slightly wilted and lightly charred on the outside, turning occasionally with heat-proof tongs, about 2 minutes per side. (Please note: Cooking time may vary depending upon the selected grilling method. Also, a closed George Foreman grill only requires about 2 minutes total, since both sides of the romaine hearts will be simultaneously grilled.) Important safety tip: If using grill pan, be sure to use splatter screen to contain the hot, spluttering oil.

If romaine hearts are beginning to cook too quickly, reduce heat as necessary. Remove the romaine from the grill and transfer to plates. Season with salt & pepper, to taste. Drizzle dressing on top, about 1-2 Tbsp. dressing per person. Sprinkle Parmigiano-Reggiano on top, about 1/2 Tbsp. per person. Refrigerate any remaining dressing for future use. Serve immediately.

Yield: 8 servings of salad (1/2 romaine heart = 1 serving) and 1 c. dressing, or 1-2 Tbsp. of dressing per half grilled romaine heart. (If all 8 servings are topped with only 1 Tbsp. of dressing, you will have about a 1/2 c. dressing left over.)

Chef's Notes: *To make this recipe vegan, simply omit the Parmigiano-Reggiano or use a grated cheese substitute.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

0 Recipe #272: Three-Bean Guinness Turkey Chili -- Someone Please Pour Me a "Pint" of Chili :-D

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Pour me a pint and pass the turkey chili, please. Er, rather, pour the pint into the chili in this case. ;)

I know it's hot as Hades outside, but I had to use up the remaining ground turkey. (Yes, it's been a week of ground turkey. Don't worry, this is going to be the last turkey recipe for a while, as our household needs a break from ground turkey. ;) LOL.) Think I'll have a few bites in an air-conditioned room, and then freeze the rest for those times when I'd rather reheat instead of cook (for an instant meal!). Also, the idea of chili sounds much better when it'll actually warm chili will actually warm the cockles, versus melt them! ;)

The other reason I made this dish is that I was curious to taste turkey chili, as I've never had it before. The verdict? It's surprisingly good. Honestly, it almost tastes just like ground beef, but of course it has far less fat. Pretty cool, eh?!

Three-Bean Guinness Turkey Chili

1/2 medium-sized yellow onion, unpeeled
2 large whole garlic cloves, unpeeled
1.3 lbs. lean ground turkey
1 12 fl. oz. bottle Guinness Extra Stout
1 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar
2 large fresh bay leaves
2 c. fresh vine-ripened tomatoes, diced (about 3 medium sized tomatoes, or, if unavailable, use 2 8 oz. cans of diced tomatoes, including juice)
6 oz. can tomato paste
15.5 oz. can pre-cooked kidney beans, drained and rinsed
15.5 oz. can pre-cooked black beans, drained and rinsed
15.5 oz. can pre-cooked pinto beans, drained and rinsed
2 c. water
2 Tbsp. (Hershey's) Dutch-processed cocoa powder
1 Tbsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. Mexican chili powder
1 tsp. ground coriander
1 tsp. paprika
1/2 tsp. ground oregano
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon powder
1/2 tsp. salt, or to taste
1/2 tsp. ground chipotle (or 1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper), or to taste
1/8 tsp. ground black pepper, or to taste
1/8 tsp. ground allspice powder
1/8 tsp. ground clove powder
2 Tbsp. masa harina de maiz (corn flour)
1 c. red bell pepper, roughly chopped
1 c. green bell pepper, roughly chopped
1/2 c. California black olives, pitted and halved crosswise (optional)
1/2 c. fresh cilantro, roughly chopped (for garnish) (about 1 Tbsp. per person)

Directions: Preheat oven to 600°F (i.e., the "broil" setting). Place onion half and garlic on a large (12" x 17") aluminium foil -covered tray (for easy cleanup), and put onto the top rack of the oven. Roast onion and garlic for 15-20 minutes, until lightly charred (but not burnt/grey). Remove garlic after 10 minutes, and place onto a heat-proof plate, followed by the onion whenever it's ready, which takes about another 5-10 minutes. Let cool until cool enough to handle, then peel garlic and onion. Finely mince the garlic and dice the onion, and then set aside.

Meanwhile, in a large stock pot, sear ground turkey meat on high heat for about 10-12 minutes, stirring continually to break up meat and evenly brown it. Remove from heat and drain excess liquid/fat.  [Useful tip: Use a pan drainer to drain most of the liquid, then drain remaining liquid with a heat-proof (i.e., silicone) turkey baster. Works like a charm!]

Return to stove. Pour in entire 12 fl. oz. of Guinness and vinegar and deglaze on high heat, reducing liquid's volume by half. Then turn down heat to low. Add onions, garlic, bay leaves, diced tomatoes, tomato paste, kidney beans, black beans, pinto beans, 2 c. water, cocoa powder, and all spices, and stir together to evenly distribute ingredients throughout the pot. Cover with tightly fitting lid, & simmer 20-25 minutes or until meat is tender. Lift lid to check on chili every couple of minutes, stirring occasionally and adding more water if/when necessary. Taste for flavor balance, & adjust to suit your personal preferences. Continue to cook until desired thickness has been reached. When there's only 5-7 minutes of cooking left to go, remove lid (for the remaining duration), add the red and green bell peppers, and stir. (Be careful not to overcook the peppers. When the chili has finished cooking, the bell peppers should still retain their color and a bit of crunch.) In the final 2-3 minutes of cooking, add masa flour, olives (if using), and then remove from heat. Let cool for 15-20 minutes. Discard bay leaves. Garnish with cilantro & serve.

Yield: 2.3 qts., or approximately 8-10 servings.

Serving Suggestions: Serve with low-fat/baked tortilla chips. I personally recommend R.W. Garcia Flaxseed Tortilla Chips, which are a tasty, crunchy, much healthier alternative to regular tortilla chips. :)    In particular, the Blue Corn w/Flaxseed or Flaxseed w/Soy varieties would be excellent complements to this dish.

Chef's Notes: Chili freezes well, and can keep for several months. If you are serving less than the above yield, either cut the recipe accordingly, or freeze the leftovers; chili tastes really good after it's been frozen. :)

Please note, you plan to freeze your chili, I'd recommend making it without the masa, olives, and green and red bell peppers, and then instead add them into the chili when it's time to reheat it. These ingredients don't freeze very well, and from experience, I can tell you that they can taste a bit strange after they've been thawed. ;)

Also, if you think you'll be making this recipe frequently, you can always make multiples of the spice mixture portions in advance (minus the fresh onions and garlic, of course), and then store them (i.e., in Ziploc baggies) for future use.

Friday, June 3, 2011

0 Food Photography and Styling, and All That Jazz

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I have a confession to make: I'll admit that I've done a complete 180 with regard to my philosophy on food styling and photography. Those of you who've been following this blog for a while now might recall the following post, "Stepping Into the Ring, Round 1: Substance vs. Food Fashion" ;)

As you can see from the aforementioned article, back then, I was more into cooking and eating than I was into staging and photography. When I first began blogging back in mid-2007, I'll admit that I wasn't all that serious about these subject matters. This was mostly because I felt that I was just a gal with a blog, who was casually writing about food and putting together recipes from the top of my head. Even though I knew that my recipe blog was clearly a public entity, it began as most blogs do: It was small and unnoticed. ;) The anecdotes and recipes I shared there were originally intended only for the eyes of friends and family, and a small group of blogger pals. (And yes, back then, when it came to opining, I really let 'er rip. Hahaha.) Of course, the blogging community was also a lot smaller back then, and my blog was also far less visible. Back then, blogs felt like little nooks and crannies where a handful of bloggers congregated and connected with one another.

Now, it seems everyone is doing it, and the competition for "air time" in the blogosphere -- and really, the ever-expanding social media world at large -- can be intense. (Of course, if you are a truly passionate blogger who loves writing about your topics, that sort of stuff shouldn't really be your primary motivation or main focus anyhow. If that's the real reason you got into blogging in the first place, then you might want to check your ego at the door and then seek professional counseling. Haha.) Anyhow, my larger point is that there are now so many freaking blogs out there that sometimes it's hard to be heard above the din. And personally speaking, I'd rather not shout. ;) So word to the wise: It's honestly a better idea to write about what you know and own your niche, versus trying to be popular or be everything to everybody.

At any rate, the irony is that now that blogs have made it into the mainstream, the advent of other popular social media microblogging services like Twitter and Facebook have completely changed the way that people engage with (and yes, pay attention to!) blogs. Microblogging has pulled a lot of the focus away from traditional blogs, and the social media crowd's attention span has also changed as well. ;)

Sometimes I wonder if blogging is still relevant anymore, especially now that the mainstream has embraced it. Please understand that I'm not saying that to be snotty, but rather, it seems that sometimes certain forms of media stop being relevant as soon as they become popular, because the "cutting-edge kids" have already usually moved onto something else (i.e., "the next big thing") by then. As a person who spent 15+ years in the IT field, I think I have a pretty good handle on that topic. ;) IT's all about what's next. You can never stand still, or you'll dematerialize into a pile of dust. ;) If you're staying static and not continually improving your technical knowledge and skills, it's only a matter of time before you're history. ;) You've got to be into paying attention to "the next big thing," many times even before it even becomes "the next big thing." :) Expanding the metaphor beyond the world of technology for moment, regardless, the mind wasn't meant to be fossilized like a dinosaur. Here's a newsflash to those crotchety people whose minds are more like an iron cage than a steel trap: We have now moved beyond the Paleolithic era. ;) So, get with the program!

Whoops, I seem to have gotten away from my original topic. So let's get back to that, shall we?! What was the topic again? Ah yes, food photography and my initially nonplussed attitude towards it. :)

Not to knock the field of food photography itself, which I have the utmost respect for, but back then, I just couldn't be bothered with it for the longest while. To be blunt, I was just too damn busy and other priorities in my IRL life were constantly calling and pulling me away with their tenacious tentacles. They still are, of course, but I've more recently rearranged my priorities a bit, so I can get the cookbook done a bit faster. :)

There was also another reason why I so stubbornly resisted becoming more involved with food photography: In truth, I was also a bit annoyed by how much emphasis some bloggers were putting on their recipe photos versus their recipes. I kept thinking, "Wait a minute! Isn't the whole point of a recipe blog to create and share quality, thoroughly-tested recipes?! After all, who cares if the pictures are beautiful if the recipes stink!" Hahaha. Clearly, this is actually a two-way street, and there's another side to this equation, as I now realize with a much more subtle understanding than before. Just think of the converse of that statement: Who's going to care about the recipes if the pictures aren't appealing? ;) Try to shrug that off if you want, but it's clear to me now that people can ignore that little gem of wisdom at their own peril. ;)

I think the larger issue is that initially, there was some part of me that just balked at the whole idea of "image over substance," whether that was on a blog or elsewhere. Frankly, the notion just bugged the hell out of me. With respect to recipe blog photography, I now realize that there's quite a bit more to it than that, but at the time, I just couldn't get over that stumbling block. I rejected what I perceived to be a merely superficial focus, and just scoffed at the audacity of the whole thing. My stance has always been "substance comes first, then we can figure out the other stuff." ;) I've been pretty staunch about that most of my life. As young girls, my sister and I were raised to improve our minds and the health and fitness of our bodies, and not spend the majority of our time looking in the mirror. ;) Sure, it's important to look presentable, (and, as much as we might not like to admit it sometimes, first impressions do matter in various arenas of life). And yes, OK, it's fun to be fashionable, and in certain arenas of business, it unquestionably helps to look like you belong to the 21st century. ;) However, as a general way of life, it was drilled into our skulls that substance is really what moves you forward in your life and keeps you grounded. So, in keeping with this philosophy, I initially rebelled and resisted the notion of placing any import whatsoever on the process of taking decent recipe photos for the blog. After all, I wasn't in the big leagues of food blogging anyhow. What did it matter?!

Then I started to write my cookbook. ;) Suddenly, I began to realize that I was going to have to step up my food photography skills by several notches and put in the time and effort to at least try to make my recipe photos look at least somewhat professional. If not for the blog, then for the sake of the cookbook. Otherwise, I'd have to remake a whole lot of my already-posted recipes just for the photographs. ;) Plus, since I wasn't about to hire a team of food stylists and food photographers, gosh freaking darn it, I was going to have to learn this stuff myself. Yeah, I was pretty curmudgeonly about it at first. Begrudging would perhaps be a better word to describe it. ;)

And, well, OK, these highly professional looking blogs also freaked me out a bit, because it put a lot of pressure on me to "care" about layout and photos, when really, I'd much rather have be in the kitchen cooking and writing recipes. Hmmm, let's see. Which would I rather do? Cook and bake and create new recipes or worry about lighting and web scripts?! ;) Tough choice. NOT. Hahaha.

[As you can probably tell, I'm very passionate and opinionated when it comes to the topic of food. The other stuff I do here (minor coding here and there, etc.) is just stuff I do out of necessity to maintain and optimize the blog.]

With their large number of beautiful, flawless photographs, an even more staggering, rapid-fire posting frequency, and a seemingly endless and all-absorbing focus and dedication to their blogs, these seemingly perfectionistic behaviors/tendencies often made me wonder if some of these bloggers still had a life. ;) Regardless, I know that some of them do hire web designers and photographers. Yeah, they seem to take this blogging thing pretty seriously. ;)

Personally, I'd rather do all of that stuff myself, versus farm out all of those jobs. You learn more skills that way. (Plus, you probably save an arm and a leg too. ;) ) Yeah, if you're starting from scratch, that way is surely harder and longer, and there are definitely no short cuts. However, even if it takes a while to amass all of the skills in your "tool kit," you also reap all of the rewards for putting in the time and effort. Plus, all of those skills you've just learned (and later, hopefully mastered!) will come in handy in other facets of your life as well. For example, these types of abilities are useful if you decide to start your own small business or volunteer your skills for a charity organization.

The one good thing about these highly professional looking blogs is that, even though I was a bit reluctant to admit it at first, they spurred me on to become a better photographer. Sure, I might've been annoyed and ticked off at first by their seemingly effortless images of perfection, but I think it was probably because I secretly wanted to be just like them. ;) Maybe, back then, it was something like, "Yeah, I hate you all for your magically diffused lighting, evenly spaced hors d'œuvres, perfectly round chocolate cakes, and eerily symmetrical helpings of spaghetti, but wait, how did you get these photos to turn out so well?!" Hahaha.

[I'm not generally envious of others as a rule, but dagnabbit (!), food blog photography envy is probably one of my greatest weaknesses. ;) LOL.]

Of course, these people infuriated me -- OK, not literally; I'm being tongue and cheek about it ;) -- because I knew they were doing it better, and for Pete's sake, I was going to find out how they did it. Just ask my friends and family: I can be determined like that. ;) So, I kept working on my blog. Trying new ideas and changing things around. Redoing my blog's banner a few more times. Touching up my layout and tightening up some of the web code on the site. Reading online resources. Playing with my camera, and yes, finally reading the manual that came with it. ;) It's still not 100% where I want it to be, but I'm not sure that it ever will, since I'm never completely satisfied with its appearance; I'm perpetually trying to improve it. ;)

And of course, these irritatingly infallible bloggers keep upping the ante. Do they ever rest or take a time-out?! Their photos look fantastic, (and furthermore, seem to get better with every post!), and back then, when I first began this blog, mine did not. You only have to scroll back to 2007 for confirmation of that assessment. ;) Frankly, looking back at those old cringe-worthy photos makes me want to shriek in horror (Haha!), although on the plus side, it does actually feel pretty darned good knowing that there's been an improvement arc in that area. ;) [On that note, I've been seriously considering retaking several of those older photos, since many of them are frankly past the point of post-production. They can't just simply be doctored in Photoshop after the fact. Believe me, I've tried. ;) The primary motivation for retaking the photos is, of course, the upcoming cookbook.]

As they say, failure is an opportunity for improvement. And seeing other bloggers' gorgeous photos that were clearly leagues above my own made me determined to do something about that. After all, I didn't want my blog to look "amateur," and that got me going like nothing else. Those exceptionally talented bloggers kept raising the bar, and I was determined to meet them there, or at the very least give it my best shot.

So thank you, impossibly perfect blogs and bloggers, for making me want to step up my game, and learn a thing or two about food styling and photography. :) And yes, I'm still determined to "beat" -- er, I mean, keep up with -- you. ;) You've also made me improve my coding skills, so thank you for that as well. ;)

And even though I have made progress over the years, I still feel like I'm not quite there yet and have much yet to learn. I am but a young Padawan still craving and seeking knowledge, and hoping to learn the secrets of the Force from the pantheon of wise and zen-like Jedi masters. :) I guess I feel that way in general about so many different areas of knowledge. And, if I'm lucky, this feeling will last a lifetime. :-D Really, a continual ambition to learn and grow is very much like watering your plants. Too little and your life will "dry out," too much and you'll "drown" yourself in it, but just enough (in a steady fashion) will make you bloom. :-D

Like life, a blog is necessarily going to be imperfect, because we, as human beings, are imperfect. So, while I might sometimes secretly coo over those magazine-ready blogs, there's also still a small part of me that wants to keep this blog real and down-to-earth, and yes, maybe even more than a little imperfect. ;) Even if my photos have finally started to look better (Haha!), don't worry, I'm not about to let it go to my head. ;) I will still be blogging here with my own "special brand" of irreverent humor, no matter what, and am glad to know that there are people in the world who actually get me and what I'm trying to do here. So thank you. I'm honored to have you along for the ride. :)

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