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This will be a short post as it’s Friday and my attention span is dwindling….BUT! I wanted to start a little series called “Food Foto Friday” wherein I show you my latest experiments in food photography.

Note: I am NOT a professional photographer! I’m learning. But I’m hoping that my learning experiences will help you. Or at least interest you. You can let me know.

First up: Experiments in Natural Light with Lana Bars.

I first posted about Lana Energy Bars here. And recently I made about 18 more batches so that I could bring them to practice with me and share them with my team. I used this opportunity to take some photos and practice what I learned at the House of Brinson Food Photography workshop.

What I learned at House of Brinson: You can take awesome photos with just natural light. Even if there isn’t that much of it.

What I learned in my apartment: This is true.

Consider the below comparison image:

In the image on the left, I turned on the fancy-pants light with umbrella diffuser thingie I bought at Adorama. Holy red overtones, Batman! That seriously looks terrible. Or at least requires some serious Photoshop color correcting. Which I don’t feel like doing, people.

On the right-hand image, I turned off all the lights in my apartment. I mean ALL of them. And put this tray on the floor. Not extremely close to the window. The window is on the left side and really doesn’t let in all that much light to begin with. But look at the improvement. NO PHOTOSHOP! None, I promise.

Also, House of Brinson taught me to love my tripod, which I now do. I attached my camera and pointed it to the floor – at the tray of bars. No shaking – which is great because I had to slow the shutter speed WAY down to let in enough light.

So there you have it. Natural light is better. The tripod is my friend, and there are energy bars for all (literally):

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As I have touched upon in previous posts, my mother’s recent small group tour throughout Italy focused on two areas:  Sorrento and Rome.  Our digs for our stay in Sorrento was the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria.  Previously, I referred to the Excelsior as “a gated compound of baller type bodaciousness.”  The place is simply outrageous.  There are spas, lemon groves, pools, and perhaps the greatest patio in the history of the World (as seen above).  Not to mention their exquisite rooms and views.

The Hotel sits on property that has been family owned since the 1800’s, and has been transformed into a 5 star Hotel of acknowledged excellence.  And although the property is sprawling, it is still considered a “boutique” hotel which makes all the difference in the world in terms of the service.  Your stay is never overlooked, as you are able to acquire a familiarity with many of the employees on staff, seeing the same smiling faces over and over.  For the duration of your stay, you are essentially treated like royalty.

If you are fortunate enough to stay at the Excelsior, one of those faces that you will most likely see is that of Nicolino Grigio, the General Manager of the Hotel.  The man is always there, always working, always making things better.  It is not uncommon to witness Nicolino giving guests an impromptu tour of the hotel, explaining its various characteristics and appeal.  But if you were to ask Nicolino how he does it, why he works so hard; he would tell you he doesn’t view it as work.  He loves what he does, and he means it.  (and that view every morning of Mt. Vesuvius surely cannot hurt…)

I know because I asked him this, among other things, and these were his answers:

JI – Where were you before The Excelsior?

NG – I was the manager at Hotel Due Torri in Verona.  I left to come to the Excelsior in 2006.

JI – What sets apart the Excelsior from other hotels in the area?

BG – History, service, and location.   The Hotel was built in 1834 and it is still owned and operated by the Fiorentino family for a 5th generation.  Their sense of family pride has maintained throughout the years, and motivates them to do a superb job.   In today’s day and age, that is rare.  In most cases, investors view hotels as a way to merely turn a profit.  Here, they really care.  After 5 generations, they have a great system and a known goal:  To make our guests feel like they have a home away from home.  They want to create a sense of hospitality they can be proud of.

JI – And what about your location?  What about Sorrento?

NG – The Excelsior’s downtown location is wonderful.  We are located  right at the main square and, at the same time, right above the pier, where you can take our elevator to board ships making day trips to other coastal locations, should you choose to do so.  Once you are here, you don’t need to use the car anymore.  You can just walk out of your hotel, located on a 5 acre lemon grove , and stroll into town to any one of Sorrento’s fine restaurants or shops.

JI – What changes have you experienced since coming to the Excelsior and what is to come in the future?

NG – I like to say that we have “added value” in the last few years.   For example, we now have a beautiful spa and work out facility for our guests to enjoy.  We’re also making the Hotel more of a family friendly resort than before.  We just finished the revamping of the pool which includes a full bar and restaurant. We have built a kids soccer field and a basketball field, as well.  Perhaps most importantly, we have even started a refurbishment of the hotel restaurant, which will be completed shortly.   This year, we also have a new room category – the premium deluxe – with includes a 30 square meter porch overlooking the seas of Naples.  All of our rooms also have free wi-fi and flat TV screens.

JI – What can you tell us about your executive chef, Vincenzo Galano?

NG – He has been our Chef here for 10 years and is doing a fantastic job.  He is the kind of person where even his best is never enough.  He is quite attentive to detail, and the quality of his dishes is never overlooked.  We are very proud to have him with us.  He leads an exceptional staff of 20 people in our kitchen.

JI – What is the strangest request you have ever gotten from a guest?

NG – (slight pause, with a smile…)  Actually, there is no request that we find strange.   We try to accommodate anything and everything.  We cannot offer the moon, but we can get pretty close to it.  We like to make things tailor made to our guests – and the more we know about our guests and their needs, the better and more memorable their experience will be.

Special thanks to Nicolino and the entire staff at the Excelsior for making our stay in Sorrento an experience never to forget.  Cannot wait to head back!

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This past weekend, I attended a food photography workshop run by House of Brinson. If you haven’t checked out their blog yet, you really should. It’s brimming with beautiful photography and recipes. Naturally, when they announced their workshop, I signed up immediately.

This was, hands down, the most helpful and informative food photography class I’ve taken yet. There being only three of us in the class, the small student-teacher ratio really allowed us to get in all our questions, and get as much information and assistance out of the class as we could.

We each set up a total of three shots. William, the photographer was on hand to give us advice on topics such as lighting, exposure and white balance, while Susan the art director would supply styling tips – as well as cooking up a storm (for both eating and photography purposes).

Here are the photos I took, with some notes scribbled in for helpful hints.

My first shot was of a bunch of golden beets (pictured above). I kept the styling simple so I could concentrate on the veggies. That being said, we did get to pull from the Brinson’s vast supply of cool vintage props. Like the soap stone that the beets are seated on.

You may remember from my previous food photography post that white and black cards can be used to reflect light and create shadow. I used two black cards in this shot to make the beets a little more moody. Who doesn’t like moody beets?

In fact, roasting beets is a great way to make them both moody and tasty. Here’s how to make Roasted Golden Beets:

What You Need:
1 bunch golden beets (about 4), rinsed with the stems cut off
tin foil to wrap them each individually
sea salt
2 tablespoons olive oil

What To Do:
Heat up your oven to 350 degrees.

Wrap each beet loosely in tin foil.

Place in the oven, wrapped and on a cookie sheet and bake for about 30-40 minutes, or until easily pierced with a knife and soft on the inside.

Remove them from the oven and peel off the skin (be careful – they will be HOT).

Slice them up into chunks and place in a bowl.

Season with sea salt and the olive oil. Rosemary is nice too if you have some fresh on hand. Serve alone as a side, or throw them in a salad.

My second shot was of a Cherry Tomato, Mozzarella and Zucchini Savory Pie that Susan baked from Martha Stewart’s Pies Cookbook (we also ate a duplicate of this guy for lunch).

A filling of zucchini, tomatoes, and cheese was enveloped in a buttery crust like an enormous pocket. Check out Martha’s book for the recipe.

Two challenges faced me when photographing this pie:

1. It was a little lopsided – too much crust on the lower right hand side.

2. It smelled really good. Even after eating it for lunch, I wanted another piece.

I cropped out the lopsided portion of the crust (you really don’t need to see the whole pie anyway), and tried my best to ignore the smell of the cooked veggies and cheese. As an added trick, we used gray cards for white balance/color temperature control.

My final shot was of four leek and puff pastry squares fresh out of Susan’s oven. They looked so nice on their parchment paper that I scooped them up in the pan and started clicking away. Eventually, we decided that the pan wasn’t working in the shot, so we removed it, keeping the parchment paper.

We didn’t use any artificial lighting – all of it was natural light coming in through the windows. It happened to be a VERY cloudy day this past Saturday. If you were in the NYC area that day you might recall it being downright unpleasant: horizontal rain and whatnot. However, we were still able to achieve nice lighting by slowing the shutter speed waaaaay down.

And speaking of puff pastry, it’s something that’s ridiculously easy to make. I even recommend getting the store bought variety and then topping it with any number of things. Take for example this recipe from Bon Appetit for a Honey Roasted Onion Puff Pastry Tart. You could also use many of our suggested pizza toppings, like the Fig Prosciutto and Ricotta topping.

Hopefully, in the coming weeks I will have much improved food photography for you. Although, I will still be inserting many a wonky iPhone shot just to balance things out.

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Recently, I helped Mom (a.k.a. “Marmo”) lead one of her customized tours around Italy.  Mom’s philosophy is a good one:  try to keep the trips to two general areas within an 8-10 day time frame.  If you try to squeeze in too many spots, you’re only going to skim the surface of each area, and you’ll be shifting around too much to relax every once in a while.    The plan for this particular trip was to target (1) the Amalfi Coast and (2) Rome.

Marmo and I fly into Rome then take the train to Naples.  From Naples, we meet our driver, who takes us into Sorrento – a beautiful town at the beginning of the Amalfi Coast.  Our digs for our stay in Sorrento:  The one and only Excelsior Vittoria Hotel – a gated compound of baller type bodaciousness, complete with palm and lemon trees, beautiful gardens, and the most ridiculous view overlooking the Gulf of Naples towards Mt. Vesuvius.

Spanning six generations (it’s still under the same family ownership), The Excelsior has grown from a beautiful cliff side estate, into a 5-star hotel of dreams.  And for the group’s first day in the Amalfi coast, Marmo arranges a hands on Neapolitan Pizza making demonstration.  For this, I am beyond excited.  Readers of the blog are well aware of our undying infatuation with Pizza.

We are led to a bar around the pool, where there is, indeed, an outdoor brick oven in which wood logs have been burning for about 2 hours in preparation for our class.  Our class is being prepped by the head chef of the hotel, Vincenzo Galano, and a second chef whose name I didn’t get.  They first instruct us as to their method, which is very simple: a 3 hour rise, a little sugar with the yeast, some double zero flour and water.  No overnight rises or complicated gimmicks; it’s very straightforward.  I need to get a closer look to observe the finished product.

And, indeed the dough is softer and fluffier than my freshly shampooed hair.  I had always thought that an overnight rise was essential for that ultra soft feel for pre-cooked pizza dough, but this proved otherwise.  The two man Pizza dream team then instructs us on hand pressing the dough, and lets each of us take a crack at it ourselves.

After the dough is flattened, the sauce is applied, followed by the mozzarella, some grated parmesian, and some olive oil.  It is then transported into the oven, and spun around with some of those extra long pizza peels that I want to decorate my apartment with.

Basil leaves are chopped up and spread onto the pie after it is pulled from the oven, nice and piping hot.  And the final result is wonderful.  The melted mozzarella has a milky, slightly sour, yet fresh tang to it.  The basil supplies a faint, but noticeably minty backdrop.  The cooked dough is beautiful.  Charred on the outside, but chewy and floppy when chomped down upon.  The center of the pie is the way a Neapolitan pie should be: saucy, sloppy, and a tad oily.  Skewering sections of this pie accordion style with my fork is a thing of ease.  Delicious.

The sauce is wonderfully fresh, while the grated parmesan cheese adds a nice, subtle kick not typically included in our New York furnished Neapolitan pies.  Halfway into my pizza, I’m thinking about sneaking Vincenzo and his pizza making sidekick through customs back in Newark so we can dominate the NYC/Neapolitan Pizza scene.  This pie would be easily on par (if not better) with some of well thought of joints in Manhattan.

And with what would be a theme for our stay at the Excelsior, Vicenzo and the rest of the staff could not be nicer.  Everyone got their own apron and chef’s hat, as well as the perfect amount of instruction (neither too much nor too little).  And after an hour or so of being around that oven, what better way to celebrate than to kick back, enjoy a freshly made pizza, some sparkling Pellegrino, a glass of wine, and a view of the Excelsior’s garden of lemon trees?

There is no better way.  Stay tuned in the upcoming weeks for more tales of my trip to the motherland, or feel free to contact Marmo to create some tales of your own.

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It’s John’s Birthday today, and while he might kill me for doing this (if he can catch me), he is 30 today!

I thought I would take this time to tell you a few things about John and why he is an awesome brother: 

1. He fields my various witty remarks (anxiety attacks, pleas for more blog content, harassment about his weekend plans) that I shoot at him via gchat with apparent ease and only occasionally ignores me.

2. John has two general reactions:

Positive reaction: “Great.” Sometimes things can be “glorious,” and then you know it’s really great.
Negative reaction: “S*&T!” The delivery of this remark is always the same regardless of the magnitude of his disapproval. 

3. I can only sometimes detect the fear in his eyes when I tell him my latest crazy scheme.

4. He gives dating advice! My personal favorites are these:
a. Do as I say, not as I do.
b. Do not laugh excessively at a dude’s jokes.
c. Stop dancing like that.
d. No fear, naw mean?
Side note: I literally have no idea what he means. Especially about the dancing.

5. Regardless of what is going on, what we had been talking about previously, John will divert my attention to Vespas. I receive links to them all day long accompanied by his Vespa negotiating tactics:

“Let’s low ball these people and take no prisoners: We’re willing to pay $2400 over 6 months.  Throw in the helmets and the automatic, in-dashboard cannoli dispenser or there is no deal.” 

6. He will practice his golf swing, (sans clubs) anywhere. In public, out in a bar, on the sidewalk, etc.


7. My dog, Toby hates him. But John will walk him for me anyway.
8. When I moved back from California, he let me sleep on his couch on weekends for a whole year and hang out with his friends. I got very good at beer pong.
9. He likes to sing “Shout” in public. To rave reviews.
10. John used to eat some weird stuff when he was younger. One of his favorites was, “grilled cheese dunked in yogurt.” this was a classic American cheese sandwich which he dunked in Dannon vanilla yogurt as he ate it.
Gross.
However! I have updated this gastronomic disaster and created something truly delicious. So in honor of John and his birthday, I give you Comte and Scallion Grilled Cheese on Focaccia Bread with Honey Mustard Yogurt Dipping Sauce.

What You Need:
For the sandwich
4 slices Focaccia bread, sliced about 1″ thick
Comte cheese, sliced thinly: enough to cover the top of two of the Focaccia slices. I used a “Tewksbury” cheese from Valley Shepherd Creamery that I bought at the Union Square Greenmarket.
1 bunch scallions: chop the white and light green parts only, discard the dark green leaves.
2 tablespoons butter
For the honey mustard yogurt dipping sauce
See this recipe from a previous post about a sangwich.
What To Do:
Heat the 2 tablespoons of butter in a frying pan over medium heat. Once the butter is melted, add the chopped scallions and sauté until they are soft, about 7 minutes.
Take your bread slices and one by one, dunk them in the pan of butter and scallions, pressing both sides into the mixture.
In the meantime, heat up the broiler of your oven.
Once you have coated both sides of all four pieces of bread, place the sliced cheese on top of two of the slices. Top these cheesed-up ones with the remaining two pieces of Focaccia and let simmer in the pan for about 2 minutes. Flip and simmer another 2 minutes for the flip side.
By this time, your broiler should be nice and hot. Transfer the sandwiches to a cookie sheet and pop them in the broiler so they get nice and toasty. But watch out for that broiler – don’t let your cheesy masterpieces burn!
Remove from the oven and serve immediately with the honey mustard yogurt dipping sauce on the side.
Finally, in honor of John’s birthday, we are giving away a prize. All you have to do is wish John a happy 30th in the comments of this post and you will be entered to win a prize.
What is this prize, you ask? John was recently in Italy and brought back another jar of this fabulous herbed sea salt.
We will randomly choose one commenter and award him/her the prize!
Happy birthday, little bro!

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We have reached another Friday! Gonna see a movie this weekend? We have some recommendations that pair well with food (of course)!

Our first film: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Chow down on some garlic bread with these recipes while you watch.

Our second film: My Cousin Vinny. Streak your hair, get out your leather and go to Brooklyn for grits at Egg!

Our third film: If you fry it, they will come: Hot dogs and Field of Dreams. Magic in the Moonlight.

In other news, I’ll be traveling to South Beach today for my first Triathlon of the season. You can also get the recipe for my home made energy bars at that link. Tweeting will be light as I don’t want to take out my pre-race panic attacks on you lovely people.

Come Monday or Tuesday we might have some more BIG NEWS. So stay tuned. And we will also be continuing our Meals on Reels program. Don’t forget to send us your favorite movie/food scenes! Post ’em in the comments!

Have a great weekend!

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This month’s Bathroom of the Month Award goes to Slice, The Perfect Food! While not the fanciest or most polished in terms of loo decor, I walked out of that bathroom feeling like I had visited 1 part carnival, 1 part artist studio, with a dash of wacky/artsy boudoir (see the red crystal chandelier). And with the renegade Muppet art, the only thing missing was this. The large mirrors, tidy appearance, and parquet ceiling sure helped too. But honestly, this bathroom is all about the experience. Go check it out, and while you’re at it, order a Miki.

And if you need other suggestions, let’s review our week’s adventures:

On Monday, it was Marmo’s Birthday, and we gave you a Marmo Special: Farfalle with Sausage recipe.

Tuesday was all about pizza, and we checked out John’s Jersey establishment.

On Wednesday, the Landmark Loews Theatre and Sapthagiri Indian Restaurant hit a home run double feature and make my millennium.

Finally, we hone our crane kicks for the Gramercy Tavern review on Thursday.

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