When you realize it's late and you still have to make dinner
Ok, full disclosure - outside the four walls of a perfect little Instagram photo, lies pure and utter chaos. Pots, pans, grocery bags, the sweater that was cast off in a fit of overheated food styling, and the general clutter that is everyday life.
Of course I'm speaking from my own, personal experience here, but I can pretty much guarantee that in the periphery of even the most well-oiled machine, someone's pushing a creative mess just outside of frame. Thank goodness for the tight crop!
Now, I don't think I've mentioned it before, but I shoot all my photos on my little iPhone 6 Plus (ok, not so little - unless you have really, really large hands), using only the natural light that shines in through my living room windows. I set up a chair with a cutting board on top, and move that chair around the room, depending on where the light's coming from at any given time of day. Is it ideal? No. Is it the way I dream of shooting my food? Again, no. But I love the challenge and I'm having a blast with it.
Or, at least I was until the seasons started to change!
I now find myself in a mad dash to dream up, produce and shoot before the last glimmer of viable sunlight surreptitiously makes its retreat from my hardwood floors, leaving in its wake a dim shade only rectified by ambient (but useless) electric light. The slow cooker has no place in my kitchen at the moment - it's all fast-paced and high heat!
The other afternoon I found myself wanting to cook and shoot, but realizing that I had no more than 30 minutes left, before cooking became merely about enjoyable consumption, as opposed to creating aesthetically pleasing and photographable forays into food. (Gone are the days of casually whipping up anything as simple as a piece of toast without artfully swooping something across it, just so.)
This is when the chaos ensues. This is where the myth that cooking for food photography is somehow therapeutic and peaceful, is cracked wide open. And this is when you get creative.
I scoured my fridge and cabinets for their contents and pulled together a veritable mystery basket of ingredients to begin my 'Chopped-meets-Top Chef quick fire challenge', for which the clock had already been set. Buckwheat noodles, bok choy, mushrooms, some Fresno chilis and an egg. (This was a good day. I've certainly encountered the 'stick of butter, half a cucumber, scallions and an open bottle of Sauvignon Blanc basket', too! At which point, it's best to just drink the wine, switch on Netflix, rest cucumber slices on those suitcases under your eyes, and save the scallions for a day when you choose to live more like an adult.)
I quickly set a pot of water to boil on the stove, broke out the sautée pan and began chopping my vegetables - repeatedly glancing at the floor of my living room, hoping to keep it lit by sheer will power.
Noodles in water - check! Veggies in pan - check! I dashed to grab a pot for the egg poaching, and out of the corner of my eye, I caught a grim shadow enveloping the front of my apartment, like a scene right out of a horror movie. Slowly but surely, the dim began to creep across the room, rendering much of the space utterly useless.
Determined not to lose a day's work, I gently cracked the egg into the barely simmering water, as a bead of sweat broke on my brow, then set the timer for three minutes.
As I yanked the noodles out of the water and swiftly chilled them down, I added soy, mirin and almond butter to my pan of vegetables, furiously stirring and counting down the final seconds of my egg's poach.
As the noodle dish hit the bowl and the egg went down on top, I triumphantly turned toward the living room, only to find that the last beams of light had, indeed, made their exit for the day.
My shoulders slumped, momentarily, as I eyed my steaming bowl of perfectly cooked egg and noodles, and then, refusing to admit defeat, thought, 'to the roof!!' And to the roof I ran, bowl, cutting board, garnish and phone in hand.
I awkwardly bounded up two flights of stairs, trying not to break the yolk, and unlatched the door to the roof, which bears a sign that reads 'NO FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY ON ROOF!" (It may actually say something like 'DO NOT USE ROOF!' but it's all a blur - I can't be sure.)
I was in luck - there was just enough light to get the job done. Down went the cutting board with the bowl on top, and after a little artful arrangement of some mushrooms and scallions, I whipped out my camera (phone). Click, click, click...and then she died.
This is not the first time I've drained my phone without noticing and been left with 2% on which to shoot - I believe the last time this happened, I was 30 seconds away from pulling a soufflé out of the oven!
I laid down on the roof, stared up at the sky and then glanced over at my beautiful bowl of buckwheat noodles and thought 'well, at least dinner's ready!'
Fortunately, after the descent to my apartment and 10 minutes of charging my phone, I discovered I still got the shot, albeit a little on the dim side.
Cook your noodles according to the instructions on the packet, then drain them and run them under cold water to stop the cooking process. Set the noodles aside and place a small pot of water on the stove to boil, adding about a tablespoon of vinegar. (This is for egg poaching.)
Separate the mushrooms if using the Japanese variety, or slice them if using something like a white button or crimini, then chop the bok choy,
Heat the coconut oil in a pan over medium-high heat, and add the mushrooms and bok choy. Cook until the mushrooms are browned and soft, then add the sliced chili to the mix.
Meanwhile poach your egg, at a low simmer, for three minutes. Once cooked, place the egg on a paper towel or tea towel, until the dish is ready to plate.
To the pan with the vegetables, add the mirin, soy sauce and almond butter, and stir thoroughly to combine, then add the cooked noodles, and sautée one minute longer. If needed, season with salt - although the soy should cover that.
Sprinkle with fresh cilantro, squeeze half a lime over it, and top the noodles with the egg.
So, next time you're leafing through the pages of your favorite food magazine, or obsessively checking your go-to Instagram accounts, remember, somewhere, just outside of frame, a soufflé died while the battery pack was being replaced.
Here's to an earlier start until the clocks 'spring forward' again!
When you go in for almond milk, and come out with an octopus.
So, some people buy shoes, others buy electronics, and a few, like my father, buy a massive gas grill when they already have one, because it happened to be a really, really good deal (love you, dad!). Impulse buys vary from person to person, and they range from the insignificant to the 'what-the-hell-did-I-just-do?!' For me, impulse buys tend to be food related - and nine times out of ten, it's something I've never cooked before.
Cut to this morning. I walked into the supermarket to pick up a carton of almond milk, and 20 minutes later, I walked out with an octopus. An eight-legged. one and a half pound sucker with its head still attached, resembling something Sigourney Weaver may have encountered in any one of the Alien movies. Because, why not, I guess.
As I drove home, I had a heightened awareness of the paper bag on the passenger seat next to me, and a growing realization that I had absolutely no idea how to cook the octopus inside it, or what to serve it with, for that matter. There's also something equal parts cool and unsettling about bringing home food that still looks like the animal it used to be. When that animal has four times the amount of arms you do, being sat in traffic with a bag you know can't possibly be rustling, but somehow seems like it is, is ever so slightly unnerving.
Once the two of us made it back to my apartment, I unwrapped my brown paper packet and stared straight into the rear end of an upside down cephalopod, that seemed like it was either going to ink me, or possibly jump up and wrap its cupped tentacles around my stumped face.
After a moment of ever-so-slight intimidation, and the words 'what the hell am I gonna do with you,' actually audibly floating out of my mouth, I pulled out my phone and consulted the two individuals I knew would know the answer - my dear friend and the talented chef of one of my favorite restaurants, The Little Door, and Google. Chef said poach and braise and Google said do whatever Chef says.
Not sure whether to keep my newly acquired guest's head on or not, I figured I'd save him what little dignity he had left, and me the chore of pulling a limp head off a squishy body, by submerging him whole. The head I could deal with later.
If you've never dunked a whole, slippery and greyish-blue octopus into a pot of simmering water, I think you'll find it morbidly satisfying. Call me strange, but it's kind of amazing to see its color turn from lackluster to purpley-pink and the arms go from long and stringy, to perfectly curled and plump. I know, I know. I need to get out more, and should probably be on somebody's 'watch list' - but it's just so damn cool! This is the kind of thing that makes me really happy.
This is also when I realize, it's a good thing I live alone, because guys, poaching a whole octopus in your kitchen is like cooking sardines at home (which I did once, during week one of living with my great friend and former roommate. Sorry, Amy! At least they were tasty, right?) - it's fragrant, to say the least. But, if you don't mind your entire 800 square foot apartment smelling like Sydney Harbor on a hot day, then you've got nothing to worry about. It's basically like a trip to the seaside. And by basically. I mean, in the sense that you're just as land-locked as before, so nothing like it at all.
As the lid to the pot rattled while my new-found friend poached, I couldn't help but peek my head around the corner, into the kitchen, just to check that none of his eight legs were prying out over the edge. They were not. My inner Sigourney breathed a sigh of relief.
Next up, braising.
I emptied the pot of the poaching liquid, which had turned a slight shade of purple, and started anew, with clean water, seasoning and a little more confidence. Stage 2.
Two hours of braising seems like a lot of time for such a small creature, but nobody likes octopus you can bounce off the pavement, so two hours to tenderize is what it takes. Two hours also gives you plenty of time to record the adventure that is cooking your impulse buy.
Finally, after much anticipation, I pulled that little beauty out of its braising liquid, plopped it on a cutting board, admired it lovingly, and cut those eight squirmy legs right off its body. It's not personal, it's business. Now I realize I could probably eat the head, but honestly, it felt like that was getting a little too intimate, so today, it was arms and that's it.
The final step in this quick-shopping-trip-turned-all-day-project, was to get some color on those arms, by giving them a hard sear on a hot cast iron pan in a little olive oil. Tender on the inside, browned and slightly crisp on the outside. What every octopus strives to be when it grows up.
Tossed with some garlicky, tomatoey pasta and just a sprinkling of chili flakes, this guy was everything I could have hoped he would be - tender, flavorful and totally conquered. Somebody give me five - I mean eight!
Ok, your turn....
For the octopus:
For the pasta:
Poach the whole octopus in a large pot of salted water, for 10 minutes. You want the octopus completely submerged.
Remove the octopus from the water, pour out the water, and refill the pot with enough to cover the octopus. Add your 3 smashed garlic cloves, 1/2 tsp chili flakes, 2 strips of lemon peel and some salt. Bring the water to a simmer, cover the pot and braise the octopus for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until completely tender.
Remove the octopus from the water, strain out the lemon peel, chili flakes and garlic cloves, and reserve the water to cook the pasta in.
Cut the legs from the body, into bite sized pieces, and sear them in a cast iron skillet with a tablespoon of olive oil, about two minutes per side. Octopus, done.
Cook the pasta according to the instructions on the packet, in the reserved braising liquid. If for some reason there isn't enough, just add more water to it. The seasoned water you cooked your octopus in, will flavor the noodles beautifully.
In a small pan, heat the 1/4 cup of olive oil and add the minced garlic and chili flakes. Cook for about a minute at medium heat.
Add your tomatoes and cook until soft and blistered, then add in the octopus pieces, and about a tablespoon of chopped parsley.
Once your pasta is cooked, add that to the pan with the tomatoes. Always add the pasta, a little at a time, to the sauce, and not the sauce to the pasta. That way you don't risk too much pasta to too little sauce.
Now dig in, you've certainly earned it.
Oh, as a side note, I got so caught up I forgot the almond milk, of course. God only knows what I'll come home with instead of it next time!