Hello, friends! Here’s my first dinner of 2015, and it’s a good one! I made lamb chops with pesto and spiralized sweet potato shoestrings, and there’s a recipe at the bottom of the post. But first I want to talk about a few of my resolutions this year. The two that I’m trying to focus on are: working to improve my photography, and eating more real food, both life pursuits that make me truly happy.
I take thousands of photos, and I cook at home most nights of the week. But every year I like to re-commit to my passions out loud, to help keep me accountable. And by out loud, I mean, on this blog. This year I’m trying to cook more meals at home – particularly using my Walden Meat CSA and as much local produce as I can get my hands on, shoot more photos, and share them on my Instagram feed, blog more about the food we eat at home – that one’s to encourage me to actually eat at home! And learn more about my camera, take more risks with my shots, and keep reading and learning about photography.
So here’s what I’ve been playing with tonight – let’s chat a bit about this photography work. Some behind the scenes talk? I hope I don’t bore you here. It’s like my very own photo crit. That’s short for critique, and it’s where your peers and professors share feedback in art class. It always terrified me. But one of the best ways to improve your work is to think critically about what worked well, and what didn’t work so well, so here we go!
I’ve been spending a little bit more time on Pinterest lately to help improve my composition. Before I write a post or cook dinner, I like to look at photographs of the same type of food, and analyze the styling. The goal of course, as with most art, is to be inspired by many, directly copy none, and seek to develop your own style and point of view. That’s hard though, isn’t it? I’m not sure that I can pinpoint my P.O.V. – it’s mostly real food, cooked in a real kitchen. I’m still playing with how best to achieve that on a regular basis, and make my work recognizable as my own. I love the play of light and dark. And I’ve been trying to vary my backgrounds – nobody likes hundreds of photos of the same plates on the same white background. Even though I love my Ikea white DOCKSTA table. And I do wish that it was a real Saarinen Tulip table though… alas, I’m currently priced out of my own taste, the perils of majoring in Architecture with significant advanced coursework on the Modernist Home.
This week I took my copy of Helene Dujardin‘s Plate to Pixel: Digital Food Photography & Styling off the shelf, to re-read it now that I’ve improved (and/or taken hundreds of thousands of shots) since purchasing it, and reading it originally in 2011. I thought I could use a fresh perspective. I also purchased a second Lowel Ego lamp, because, although I’d much prefer to be shooting in natural light, I’d have to be eating dinner at 3:30 in the afternoon for that to happen around here.
So let’s get started with this dinner! I started with the lamb rack, which I decided to cut into chops, because they cook quickly. Whole racks look really gorgeous in food photography, but I was being practical here – individual chops take just a few minutes to cook, and you can cook each one to the doneness that you’d like. We’re a family of mixed doneness requirements, so individual chops are the best choice.
I wasn’t feeling particularly inspired with the raw meat, so I shot a few chop shots quickly before finding the one I wanted – and, I managed to screw up the exposure on my camera while I was fiddling. There were several underexposed shots, and a few overexposed shots, but I figured that I’d be able to process one of them in Lightroom to my liking. This is not ideal, as you might notice, the final shot looks a little blue. So I fixed it, and moved on. And then I went onto the pesto. Store bought. I don’t bother with making my own pesto in the middle of the winter – the basil costs too much, we don’t eat a lot of it, and I usually only go home with a half cup from the Whole Foods salad bar, which is fairly affordable. I’ve also really been digging this local vegan pesto from Sauces n’ Love, based in Lynn, Mass. They also make this great scarpetta sauce. So this pesto. I wanted to try working with my black velvet background. Getting some light and dark in play to really make the green pop. But then I thought I should try a few shots on the table top – light on light. I like them both, so I put them together! Here’s the diptych I ended up with.
Of course, I want to show you what that lamb really looks like – not the six perfect pieces that I seasoned with Maldon salt and pepper, and artfully arranged in the photo. Nope, real life is rougher. My knives aren’t always as sharp as I’d like them to be. Here, you notice a few hacked pieces. They got the same seasoning, but this is what you’d more typically see in my kitchen. I’ve always really loved countertop shots, but they are definitely more of a challenge, because the lighting on my countertop… sucks.
And now let’s move on to part three of this meal: the sweet potato shoestring fries. In my trusty cast iron pan. Oh, the dramatic chiaroscuro! Those perfect spirals! I love it. Next time though, I’ll bake these on my sheet pan. They crisp up a little better. Sometimes I sacrifice for art.
If you’ve been following my saga for the past few weeks, you already know that I’m obsessed with my new spiralizer. It’s the Paderno 4-blade Spiralizer, which I purchased from Amazon. I’ve been preaching the gospel of this spiralizer. I’ve been possibly boring the entire internet with all my talk about this spiralizer. Here are my shots – the “here’s the tool, and here’s the vegetable, in a state of undress” shot, and then the “spiralizer in action” shot. Note the lights I have rigged to the bead-board. They were hanging under the cabinet, but they kept on falling off.
Although I love my Nikon DSLR, I love shooting with my iPhone even more – but this is likely because I get the most practice with it. Your best camera is the one you have with you – and I’ll always snap a quick shot with my phone, even when I’m shooting with the DSLR. I still have a lot of trouble with the manual focus on my camera, and I can always get a slightly crisper shot on the phone.
And I really like using vscocam to edit my pictures – upping the contrast, and boosting the exposure always works gangbusters. And you can fade the photo ever so slightly, to give it a bit of a dreaminess. You do always risk falling into the over-processing trap – I’m still mourning the entire year on my first smartphone (an Android) that I used some terrible app and destroyed all of my photos with the fake polaroid filter. I hope I’m not falling in the same trap, but I really like the photos that I’ve processed recently with VSCO. I wish I could afford their desktop software!
I was having a lot of trouble shooting the sweet potatoes with the DSLR, but I love these shots that I got with my phone:
I also managed to snap some of the finished dishes on the iPhone, which you see below. I tried the plate out first with my trusty white on marble. And then switched things up with my new darker cutting board, and a napkin – I love the contrast in this one the best.
And there we are – here’s a final closeup of the dish! Thanks for playing along! Now it’s your turn. You’ve been so quiet: any feedback?
Lamb Chops with Pesto and Spiralized Sweet Potato Shoestrings
A rack of lamb, between 1-1.5 lbs.
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
salt and pepper
1 sweet potato, spiralized or cut into matchsticks
1 teaspoon cumin
salt + pepper, to taste
1/2 cup pesto – good store bought is okay!
First, preheat the oven to 450 F, and prep the sweet potato strings. Peel a sweet potato, and spiralize it, trimming the noodles with scissors so they aren’t too long. You could also cut the sweet potato into matchsticks if you don’t have a spiralizer. In a bowl, toss the sweet potato strings with olive oil, a generous pinch of flaky salt, a few grindings of pepper, and about a teaspoon of cumin. Toss with your hands to coat, and spread the potato out in a large cast iron pan, or a baking sheet, trying to give the potatoes room so that they crisp and don’t steam. Bake for 10-15 minutes, and flip or toss gently. Bake for another 10-15 minutes, watching carefully that they don’t burn, but you want to get them to brown just slightly. To ensure that these are crispy, and not soggy, I like to spread these out to cool on a paper towel after baking to let them crisp up further.
For the lamb – slice the rack into individual chops, and season with salt and pepper on both sides. Heat a cast iron pan to medium-high, add a tablespoon of olive oil to coat, and sear the chops, about two minutes on each side. A minute more if you’d like a more medium chop. Take chops out of the pan, and let rest for 5 minutes on a plate before serving. Serve with a generous dollop of pesto on each chop, or with a little side of pesto to dip in.