Photography with LED Lighting

Photography Dates: December 6 & 13, 2018

I recently picked up some LED light panels to use with my food photography. I’ve used off camera flash in the past with some good results but I wanted to be able to monitor brightness and color balance using constant lighting. As you can see in most of the photos I used a white balance card to set my white balance. I set the WB in camera and then compared the values using the WB dropper in LightRoom. Using a card with flash photography isn’t perfect because we don’t get the full  flash when setting the balance.   You can get close but you don’t really know what you have until you import the pictures.

Using some produce and souvenirs we bought on our various Southwest trips, I set up some test pictures to see how it would work out. In addition to brightness and color balance I wanted to avoid hot spots and diminish shadows.

I used an Aputure Amaran HR672S and two Aputure Amaran H198 lights. Diffusion is essential; pointing the lights at the subject, even using the included diffusion panels left really harsh shadows. For the most part I used two lights coming from 4 o’Clock and 8 o’Clock with the third light pointed either behind the subject or reflected off a white poster board at the back of the picture.

First up, lemons and an onion on our counter top. It is difficult to get the WB correct with this countertop; there is so much brown that when the camera tries to do auto white balance, the photos come out with a dramatic orange bias. But using the WB card to set the balance and shooting with the same light I got pretty close.

LED Lighting Samples

 In the next picture the camera set a white balance of 4,950; Lightroom adjusted it just a tad to 5,150. I don’t see any hot spots but there is a discernible shadow behind the dude with the blue head.

LED Lighting Test

I used the colorful guy with spiky hair to see how colors came out. I did not use a White Balance card in this photo.

LED Lighting Samples

A few days later I tried again while using a white balance card. It made a difference, this is a little bluer than the first one. I think the difference is that I used brighter light here so the Brightness Value is 6.29 compared with 5.91 for the first. I think the color is more accurate – especially the background. 

LED Lighting Samples

I finished with some more produce. A little bit of a hot spot on the onion.

LED Lighting sample

It was a fun couple of days of testing. I’m looking forward to developing my skills.

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Pressure Cooker Butter Chicken

Cook Date: December 4, 2018

I’ve been including pressure cooker posts on my blog since April 2014 so I got an early seat on that bandwagon. That said, I think I’m the last person on the planet with a pressure cooker who has not made butter chicken – an Indian dish made famous by Urashi Pitre. In January 2018 The New Yorker crowned her the Butter-Chicken Lady.   If you are on FaceBook or other social media you can find literally hundreds of links to her recipe along with literally hundreds of raves. So, somehow the dish welled up in my consciousness and I knew I had to cook it. You can find the recipe on her web site here.

This dish is all about the spices. I knew the spices were the heart of this dish and the profile really piqued my interest. My cooking wheel house is American, western European, and Mexican cuisines. When I looked in my spice cabinet I had most of the spices but some were too old to pack any real flavor. Some of these spices are expensive and I thought twice about getting a bottle of garam masala just to use a couple of teaspoons and then have it sit in the back of the cabinet for the next 6 months. I know that whole spices – as opposed to ground – last longer. So maybe I could go that route. Then I read in the recipe that Urashi recommends making your own garam masala. So I headed over to Penzey’s spices to get some of the ingredients I needed. 

Ingredients for Garam Masala

The cardamom surprised me. It comes in pods – Urashi recommends using seeds from green or white pods. Yeah, the seeds come in pods so I had to pull the seeds out of the pods – which took a bit of time but wasn’t too difficult.

Cardamom pods for the seeds

I portioned out the garam masala ingredients.

Ingredients for Garam Masala

If I wasn’t taking pictures I wouldn’t separate all the ingredients into separate ramekins. I was working on my flash photography on this shoot so I took pictures from different angles.

Ingredients for Garam Masala

Into the spice blender they go.

Ingredients for Garam Masala

Voilá! We have garam masala. It smelled strictly delish.

Garam masala ready for including in butter chicken.

That was just step 1. I knew this would really jump start the dish but it isn’t required. Check the bulk spices section of your local grocer and see if you can buy the bit you need. 

The garam masala is just one part of the final dish – there are lots of other spices and ingredients in the final dish. The recipe calls for cilantro as well but Carla has the gene that makes it taste like soap so we exclude it if we can.

Butter chicken ingredients sans the chicken and cilantro – which we don’t use

Yeah, you see that correctly: butter AND cream. Urashi’s started her blog as part of a radical diet change a few years ago and this doesn’t seem to fit that profile. But am I complaining? No way!

I used every last ramekin I could to set up the mise en place. Like the garam masala most of the ingredients can me combined in the pot. The garam masala is divided into two 1-teaspoon portions and the butter and cream are held until the end.

Butter chicken mise en place

Everything except the butter, cream, and 1 teaspoon of garam masala is stirred together in the pressure cooker and put the chicken on top. Then we cook on high for 10 minutes with a 10 minute natural pressure release. Pull the chicken out and let it cool; then cut into bite sized pieces. Use an immersion blender to combine the sauce. After the sauce has cooled a bit, stir in  the cream and butter, then add back the chicken and rewarm. Serve over rice. 

Urashi and others suggest reserving half the sauce for using with with cooked chicken for left overs, We didn’t do that; while there was a lot of sauce it was great to mix with the rice and/or sop up with the naan we warmed up in a cast iron skillet. Dinner is served.

Dinner is served – Butter chicken

We liked it but be aware it is quite rich. I still have some garam masala I made so we’ll have it again this winter. Definitely great for company

Rating:  ★★★★

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Buttermilk Roasted Chicken – WOW

Samin Nosrat is the real meal deal. She wrote Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat and created and starred in the four-part Netflix series of the same name. In the series she traveled around the United States, Italy, Mexico, and Japan to explore the four ingredients “that can make or break a dish”. Carla and I were hooked within the first few minutes of the first episode and can’t stop raving about it to our friends. Samin is adventurous, out-going, and just plain fun to be around. Her book has won many awards including the Sunday Times Food Book of the Year. 

In the final episode she made buttermilk roasted chicken which brought together the four elements. The fat comes from the chicken and the buttermilk; the chicken is brined, which brings in the salt, buttermilk is tangy which introduces the acid, and for the heat she roasts the chicken in a particular way. I could have just looked up the recipe – this recipe is on her blog –  but  I loved her and the show so much I bought the book.

The recipe has only three ingredients: buttermilk, salt, and chicken. I went for a nice chicken.

Chicken, buttermilk and salt for this dish.

The day before you plan to roast the chicken, mix a pint of buttermilk with 2 Tablespoons of kosher salt. Clip the little wing tips from the bird and stash it in your chicken parts bag in the freezer for stock. Place the chicken in a gallon sealable plastic bag and pour in the buttermilk-salt brine. Seal it up tight, squish the bag to distribute the buttermilk all around the chicken. Put the bagged chicken in a shallow pan in the refrigerator and – if you want – turn the bag over a few times during the brine. 

Take the chicken out of the refrigerator an hour before you plan to cook it. Preheat the oven to 425°. I placed my cast iron skillet in the oven while it preheated. Scrape off the excess buttermilk. Samin says to tie the legs together; I tried to remember how to truss a chicken. It took me about 3 tries to get the legs securely tied together. The legs may look secure in the photo below but it didn’t hold during the cook – but it didn’t ruin the dish.

Trusssed buttermilk brined chicken ready for the oven.

When the oven comes up to temperature place the chicken in the skillet/roasting pan in a way where the legs can point to the back corner of the oven and then be rotated later. If you preheated a skillet in the oven, be careful, careful, careful – it is rocket hot. Use some good pot holders.

We had a hot oven so we roasted some carrots as an accompaniment. After peeling put in a big bowl and toss with olive oil and kosher salt.

Peeled carrots ready for olive oil  and salt.

After the chicken has roasted for 20 minutes drop the temperature to 400°. After ten more minutes – the chicken has roasted for 30 minutes at this point – turn the skillet/roasting pan to point the legs to the other back corner of the oven and put in the tray of carrots. Cook for another 30 minutes until 

Roasting chicken.

It’s important to keep the oven in the back of the oven which is the warmest part. And keep the legs pointed to the corners which will help the dark meat cook to the required temperature.

Cook for another 30 minutes making sure the thickest part of the thigh and breast is at least 165°. Remove from the oven and let rest for 10 minutes.

Roast chicken out of the oven and sitting on a trivet

Remove to a cutting board for carving.

Buttermilk roasted chicken ready for carving.

The carrots are probably done when the chicken is.

Roasted carrots to go with the roast chicken.

As I carved the chicken I pulled off a wing to enjoy. OMG this was sooo good. The chicken was very moist and tender. Roasted chicken can end up with dried out white meat – but not this dish. The only problem is that it was so tender I couldn’t carve it into picture-worthy pieces. But it tasted fantastic.

Oh, my this is a winner. My previous favorite roast chicken was spatchcocked dry-brined chicken. This dish is the new champion. Mashed potatoes or risotto would be other great sides. 

GO FOR IT. It is simple and delish.

RATING: ★★★★★ . The coveted full 5 stars.

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Chicken and Dumplings

When I blog cooking posts that I’ve tried from another web site I provide a link to the source and only post my own copy if I’ve made substantial changes. This original recipe comes from Cook’s Illustrated which has a pay wall. It is also available on the sister site  America’s Test Kitchen which has some free content though it requires registration. I apologize I can’t provide a direct link to a free version of the recipe but I hope you can get enough information to get you started on your own version.

Like many of my late Fall recipes- three of my last four – we start with mirepoix – diced onions, carrots, and celery.

Mirepoix for Chicken and Dumplings

Brown six bone-in skin-on chicken thighs in  a bit of vegetable oil; pour off the fat retaining about a Tablespoon.

Sautéd chicken thighs for chicken and dumplings

As the thighs brown we line up the rest of the ingredients.

Ingredients lined up for chicken stew.

Sauté the mirepoix until they start to brown.

Mirepoix sautéing for chicken and dumplings

After the mirepoix is lightly browned scrape up the flavorful browned bits with some dry sherry.

Dry sherry used to stir up the fond (brown bits after sautéing)

The original recipe calls for store-bought low sodium chicken stock to which chicken wings are added to add collagen to the stew. I used my homemade chicken stock so omitted the thighs since the homemade has plenty of body. I used the called-for 6 cups but it really could use 8 cups – you’ll find that the dumplings really suck up the broth.

Homemade chicken stock for chicken and dumplings.

Add the broth to vegetables in the Dutch oven, nestle in the chicken thighs. and simmer for about an hour – until the chicken is very tender. At the end remove the thighs and set aside to cool for a bit. When cool, discard the skin and shred the thighs into  bite sized bits; return the shredded parts and bring to a low simmer while you prepare the dumplings. I intended to add 1/2 cup frozen peas to the stew at this point but totally forgot. I added some to the leftovers and they were good.

Dumpling ingredients for chicken and dumplings

The recipe calls for buttermilk – which is great. I used Bulgarian style which I think has more fat in it that regular. Mix the dry ingredients of flour and salt. Melt the butter, let cool slightly then whisk into the buttermilk. Finally whisk in egg white – which keeps the dumplings nice and light. Drop the batter into the pot, cover tightly and simmer until a toothpick comes out clean.

Dumplings simmering in the chicken stew.

Dinner is served. 

Dinner is served – Chicken and Dumplings

This is delicious and is a great cold rainy day dinner.

Rating: ★★★★

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Tualatin Hills Nature Park

Visit Date: November 24, 2018

We’ve had plenty of Portland area winter rain this past week so we had itchy feet to get out and walk a bit. For a change of pace we headed over to the Tualatin Hills Nature Park off Millikan Way west of Murray Blvd in Beaverton. 

Tualatin Hills Nature Park entrance
Tualatin Hills Nature Park entrance

Carl and I are big fans of the Tualatin Hills Park and Recreation District. The Portland area in general does a good job of setting aside ample space for parks and nature areas. THPRD does its part on the west side of town. We have a THPRD greenway behind our house where Summer Creek flows.

The nature park has three main trails: the Vine Maple Trail runs through the middle of the park, the Big Fir Trail is on the south and the Oak Trail runs more north.

We started out the Big Fir Trail and took most of the loops off the trail. When finished, we heade up the Oak Trail and the Old Wagon Trail loop. I grabbed some picture – of course – with my Sony 55mm f/1.8 prime lens. Normally I’d take something with a wider aperture – like my 24-105mm zoom but I wanted to play around with the prime. I definitely had to adjust my perspective a few times since I couldn’t pull back to 24mm. Anyway, here are some shots.

Big Fir Trail. Tualatin Hills Nature Park.

In addition to getting some landscape photos I wanted to emphasize some of the late Fall color contrasts.

Tualatin Hills Nature Park. Beaverton, OR

This tree was covered with different shades of green. It was interesting contrast with the orange around it.

Tualatin Hills Nature Park. Beaverton, OR

Even though the area had been soaked with rain the paths were not muddy at all – they are very well maintained.

Side loop off the Big Fir trail at Tualatin Hills Nature Park. Beaverton, OR

I wanted to see what the blurred background would look like with a low/wide open aperture.

Tualatin Hills Nature Park. Beaverton, OR

Toward the end of the Big Fir Trail we saw the namesake trees across a meadow. Did I mention it was a foggy morning?

Big firs on the Big Fir Trail. Tualatin Hills Nature Park

I love ferns. Growing up in the desert I didn’t see many. Now tumbleweeds and Joshua trees we had in abundance. I love the ferns here.

Ferns at the Tualatin Hills Nature Park. Beaverton, OR

Another opportunity to capture the contrast of yellow and green. Go Ducks! 🙂

Tualatin Hills Nature Park. Beaverton, OR

And another close up with a creamy Fall background.

Tualatin Hills Nature Park. Beaverton, OR

Over the years the trees that go down become a home for all sorts of plant life.

Tualatin Hills Nature Park. Beaverton, OR

We logged around 9,000 steps and had a fun time sight-seeing in this park we hadn’t visited for a few years. It seems like it would be a nice place to go even in a light rain as the tree canopy would help serve as an umbrella.

If you live on the Portland West Side I think you’ll like the park. A couple of the trails – Vine Maple for sure – are made of asphalt, don’t have big inclines and are wheel chair accessible.

If you are visiting Portland this is a nice easy hike that won’t take up too much of a day. But if you want to spend a day hiking and don’t mind elevation gains, try Portland’s Forest Park. 

And for a real fun day, take the 4T loop; it is a trip around the west side of Portland on the Train, Trail, Tram,  and Trolley (Portland Streetcar). I wrote about it a few years ago here.

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Tuscan Bean Soup

Cook Date: November 21, 2018

For the first time in years we weren’t hosting Thanksgiving dinner at our house. That gave me time to prepare a nice hearty soup/stew for dinner the night before Thanksgiving.

Last weekend we were FaceTiming with our son and grandsons who live in Chicago – Mama was at a rehearsal. We were mostly chatting with the four and two year olds while Papa was making a white bean stew. He told us it was one that I made for them a couple of winters ago. I couldn’t remember it exactly – there are a LOT of white bean soup recipes around – but I was intrigued by his using a small bit of parmesan cheese rind in it. I remember using that in Minestrone soup but not the one he was making. He also added water for the liquid  and I thought, hmmm; that doesn’t sound like me; wouldn’t I have used chicken stock?  

I hadn’t made a bean soup/stew dish for a few years so I knew it would soon be on the menu. I spent the first half of the week pondering and searching through my recipes but just couldn’t find anything that matched what he was making. I found slow cooker recipes, stove top recipes, and oven simmered recipes, but nothing in the pressure cooker like he was making. So,  I texted him and asked him to text me a picture of the recipe. That solved the riddle; that past winter I searched expressly for a vegetarian option and found this recipe from Dad Cooks Dinner  Mike Vrobel is a go-to guy for recipes so I used that.

I found things I liked in that recipe and a couple of others I’ve made.  First was a basic white bean and kale recipe from a a healthy-workplace initiative at my old job a few years ago.  Next a slow cooker recipe from Cooks Country (recipe may be behind a pay wall) added some flavors that improved on the simple original. Finally I used the Dad Cooks Dinner vegetarian-version recipe for pressure cooking steps and the parmesan rind.

I pulled it all together in a blended recipe you can find here.

Let’s get started by brining some Great Northern beans overnight. You can  use Cannellini beans also.  

This time of year it seems like every dish starts with mirepoix: carrots, onion, and celery. With kale and garlic for later in the dish.

Vegetables for Tuscan bean stew
Vegetables for Tuscan bean stew

 We start off with a big difference from the vegetarian version the kids made the week before: Pancetta! It’s diced and gently sautéd until crispy. We need to be careful, it will go from perfectly crispy to burnt in the blink of an eye.

The pancetta is sautéing and everything else is lined up.

Once the mirepoix is finished, we add the beans and give it a big stir.

Mirepoix and Great Northern beans for Tuscan bean stew

Now we are ready to add the liquids and aromatics. I had time to take another close up just because I was fiddling with the camera

Next set of ingredients for Tuscan bean stew

While everything cooks under high pressure for 20 minutes I cut the stems out of the kale and chop into one-inch pieces.

Kale for the Tuscan bean stew

After a quick pressure release we taste and adjust seasoning, then drizzle in a bit of balsamic vinegar for brightness. If the broth isn’t thick enough for your liking, mash a few beans agains the side of the pot. Finally toss in the kale and simmer for about 5 minutes until the kale is tender. 

Ah, delicious goodness ready to be served. (I actually took the picture after we both had two helpings). The recipe makes plenty of soup.

Yummy Tuscan bean soup.

Carla and I watched the four-part Netflix series “Fat, Salt, Acid, Heat” featuring Samin Nosrat – a classically trained chef. She travels to a few different countries to demonstrate how each of those four elements of cooking works. She is very engaging and her enthusiasm is contagious. It the best shows about food I’ve seen in years.  She is so fun I’d love to hang out with her sometime. Since watching, I’ve been mindful of the things I cook in a whole new way.  One of the things she did was demonstrate how dried beans transform during the brining and cooking process. I totally stole the idea of this picture from her.

Dry, soaked, and cooked Great Northern beans.

Carla whipped up some corn bread to go with dinner. Another great choice would be a thick crusted French bread.

Dinner is served. We sprinkled a bit of grated Parmesan Reggiano cheese on top. A drizzle of nice olive oil would be good as well.

Dinner is served. Tuscan bean soup.

This gets a rare 5-star rating. It was just terrific. Carla absolutely loved it. It’s a perfect dinner for a cold, blustery late Fall or Winter dinner. 

RATING: ★★★★★

A note about the pictures – I used my Sony A7R3 with a Sony FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS Lens attached. This lens is amazing but it takes some work to master it. I have a long way to go. I am astounded by the shallow depth of field you can get with it. Take a look at the small area in focus in the shot with an F/2.8 aperture. 

Shallow! depth of field with Sony FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS Lens at f/2.8
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Remembering Summer – Grilled Skirt Steak

I know, I know – it’s almost Thanksgiving; why am I posting about summer grilling? Just because the mood struck me I guess. I made this Serious Eats spice-rubbed grilled skirt steak  recipe at least three times this summer. I just couldn’t get enough of it. And yet I didn’t blog about any one of those cooks. Summer gets crazy busy and I just didn’t like enough of the pictures from an individual preparation enough to blog. Now, looking back on my photos, I’ve discovered I can put together a reasonable start-to-finish set of pictures.

This recipe is a little spicy. Skirt steak is a great candidate for this type of marinade because it can use just a little help. This cut of beef – don’t ask where on the cow it comes from – is not like a tenderloin filet (filet mignon), rib eye or New York strip that is great with just a bit of salt and pepper. 

Rub/Marinade ingredients for spicy skirt steak

Measure, pore, mash, and you have your marinade ready.

Depending on your butcher you may need to strip off some of the silver skin membrane before marinating.  Before covering the steaks take a close look at how the grain runs across the meat. We’ll talk about that later. If you aren’t sure, take a picture before marinating. Mix the marinade ingredients into a paste and rub it on the skirt steak and marinate in the refrigerator at least two hours. 

Preparing skirt steak for the rub/paste

Before rubbing the paste on the steak, check to ensure it isn’t folded over itself. Skirt steak can be really long. That is experience talking; the first time I prepared this, I didn’t realize it was folded so only marinated one side. I was a bit surprised when I got ready to put it on the grill and it unfolded into a long strip with marinade only on one side.

Spice-rubbed skirt steak ready for marinating.

Once the steak has marinated in the fridge for at least two hours, take it out to let it warm up a tad while you get the grill ready. You need a crazy hot grill to cook this. This isn’t slow cooked barbecue here, this is hot and fast. For a couple of skirt steaks, you’ll only need one chimney of charcoals; I took the pictures below when we had a small crowd over. 

Lighting the charcoal for skirt steak
Ludicrously hot coals with air vents wide open for cooking skirt steak.

Put the top grate on, scrape and oil it; close the lid and let it heat up a few minutes. As you can see these are thin pieces of meat; put the steak strips on the hot side of the grill for three minutes, then flip and cook for another three minutes. If your coals are hotter or cooler you might adjust the time a little. After cooking on the hot side, move the steaks to the cool side of the grill and take their temperature.  I didn’t need to leave mine on the cool side at all; they were ready to roll after direct cooking.

Skirt steaks on the cool side of the grill to finish cooking. 

Remove to a platter, tent with foil and let rest at least 5 minutes; 10 is better.

Skirt steak resting after coming off the grill.

When you are ready to cut it for serving you need to carve against the grain. Refer back to the third picture of the post – before it is covered with paste. Your – at least my – first inclination might be to start at one end and slice into strips. That will result in very a tough and chewy dinner. Instead, cut the strips cross-wise  three or for pieces. pieces the short way. Then rotate 90° and slice with a slight bias. That way you get cross sections and each piece will be very tender.

Put the meat on a serving platter and pas sit around.

Sliced skirt steak ready for serving.

Dinner is served

Dinner is served – spice-rubbed skirt steak

This is a great summer-time dinner for friends and family. If you aren’t a fan of spiciness, try another marinade. The three main take aways on grilling skirt steak is

  • Marinade with a bit of acid and/or salt to break down the tough fibers
  • Grill hot and fast
  • Slice across the grain

Rating: ★★★★  

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