Tuesday, November 5, 2013

pan-seared branzino with orange-fennel salad

Debating blogging this. One of our favorite dinners and I never seem to take this in daytime. So the result is a poorly lit photo. It is however remarkably good.

These days I test my recipes when I have time to test them – which is not nearly as often I want to, or at a time of day that’s convenient. When I feel that I’ve made enough progress for the day in my other work, if there are enough working brain cells in my head, I turn to food that inspires me, ideas I want to play with. I miss the days when I could test recipes in the morning, with perfect, ample light streaming through the window, but in the real world where you have to pay various bills (and that apartment you just plunked some money on), you do what it takes to make your life sustainable.

It’s not lost on me that a good picture will make it more likely for a reader to click on a post. I’m not even talking about getting more eyeballs, or traffic, or comments, or “likes”. I’m talking about trying to convince a reader that a dish is not only worth his time and effort, but also one he’ll want to make for dinner over and over again. We all know that a good picture is usually one taken in daylight. It’s the single most important thing you can do to improve your food photography, says every food photographer worth his salt. And yet, here I am taking iPhone (no less!) pictures of my messy plate trying to convince you to make this for dinner tonight. How am I doing?

Frankenfennel. Chef's knife for scale.

In a recent post Shauna lamented this very thing – picture-taking . She railed against the fake facade of Pinterest perfection. She lamented that while her daughter was waiting for dinner, she was busy snapping the perfect picture. And then something snapped in her. “To hell with it,” she said, took one photo, and sat down to dinner with her family.

One of the reasons we, food bloggers and writers, got into this whole food blogging and writing mess, is because we love to cook, we love to eat, we love to feed our loved ones, and we love to write. I’m sure some folks decided it was a great way to get a book published, but I think for those of us who’ve really stuck with it, we started blogs partly because we were introverts hanging out in our kitchens, futzing around with recipes. We found solace in our solitary voices online – so much power by hitting that “publish button”. We formed friendships with people we would not have met otherwise (I’m looking at you: Carol, MJ and Gail). We wrote and cooked because our hearts and minds (and stomachs) commanded it – something in us compelled (and still compels) us to do it.

I don’t want to shoot down or diminish the photography portion of food blogging. There are amazingly talented folks doing stunningly beautiful work. But suddenly writing about food, or more specifically, blogging about food, turned more into photography session and styling of food than the food itself or the writing. There’s a dearth of good writing out there; but there’s no shortage of perfectly photographed and styled food. Isn’t something a little wrong with that?

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Sometimes, I look at various pictures of immaculately styled food and wonder if they’re even real. Most often, I wonder if the food even tastes good. I’ll skim the ingredients, and read over the cooking instructions. A lot of it doesn’t sound like something I want to eat. Some recipes are sloppy with unclear steps or ingredients out of place. Sometimes, you can look at a recipe and know it hasn’t been properly tested. And yet its picture has been repinned over a thousand times. Does a recipe even matter if all it takes is for someone to click (or pin) a picture just because it looks amazing, or adorable, or so, so perfect? Does it really matter if your linens are ironed (Andrew, don’t answer that) or that you have a portion of your already cluttered apartment devoted to “food styling” with tiny plates and forks and antique spoons you picked up for that very purpose? Yes, to all that if your main purpose is to be a food photographer.

Look, before I cast that stone, I should probably say that I, too, fell into that trap, so if I’m going to point fingers at anyone, I should probably start with myself. There are a few items in my kitchen that I purchased because, and I quote, “it would look great in a food photo.” So yes, guilty as charged. J’accuse….. moi.

But somewhere along the lines, I suspect it was amidst working 16 hour days and still trying to make dinner at night, I looked at what I was trying to do, and said the same thing as Shauna – to hell with it. I want to write about food and I want to give you good, solid, working recipes. Period. End of story. And even as I write these very words, I struggle with it. I don’t want this space to feel like it’s an afterthought for me – because it’s not. Far from it.

I will always strive to take a beautiful picture. Not a beautifully styled one, not a perfect one, but I’ll always strive to find something beautiful, even in artificial light. A messy plate, a spill, a blurred hand in the way – to me, those things are beautiful because they’re real. I guarantee you that sometimes these pictures will look terrible, and I’m sorry.

What I’m not sorry for is that through the years of blogging and writing, I’m proud of the recipe collection here. If I want to eat this on a regular basis, I think you will too. It might not look perfect on your plate (it certainly doesn’t look perfect on mine), but what I am here to do, the reason I started this food blog all those years ago (and let’s be honest, it was TERRIBLE for awhile and I justify it every-which-way, but it is what it is) is because I love to cook, I love to eat, I love to feed my family and friends, and I love to write. That’s it.

Somehow, I parlayed that love (and endless, boundless enthusiasm) into a job writing cookbooks with chefs who are kind enough to let me tell their stories. Because at the end of the day a good recipe, plus a good story is all I need to make me want to cook. And while I love me some food photography, some of my favorite books have no photos in them at all.

Which lets me focus on writing and recipes themselves – and that’s all right with me.

Not in the mood for pan-searing? Try Branzino With Roasted Grapes. One pan, oven, twenty to thirty minutes – done!
Last year: Mushroom Tart from the Smitten Kitchen cookbook!

Pan-Seared Branzino with Orange-Fennel Salad

I love making this for a weeknight dinner – everything comes together in under half an hour which is roughly, given my current workload, is how long I have to make dinner these days. I also hear this is roughly how long busy moms have before their kids have a pre-dinner meltdown. I can’t speak for that first-hand, but if this recipe helps a busy mom out, terrific. In the summer, I swap in ripe peaches or nectarines in place of oranges and add mint in addition to parsley. I’ve also made this with crushed pistachios in the past, but they weren’t on hand when this picture was taken.

If you want to add some pistachios to the mix, by all means, go ahead. I’ve tried using other nuts in their place, and there’s just something about pistachios that really complement the citrus (fruit) flavors in the salad.

For the seasoning blend, nothing beats fennel pollen, however it is expensive and difficult to find. Andrew saw it at a store, and remembering how I waxed poetic about it, got me two tiny jars. Flavor wise – nothing beats it; you’ll want to mix it into everything: whipped ricotta, honey, a tiny pinch with your scrambled eggs. It lends this intoxicating herbal-floral note that’s unlike anything else. Otherwise, if fennel pollen proves elusive (or seemingly not worth the expense) just take some fennel seed, toast it, and crush it – the results are pretty phenomenal as well. Many chefs will tell you that toasting our own spices is one really simple way to elevate your dishes to restaurant quality, and if you thought they were just being coy with you, heed their advice. Taking five extra minutes to toast and crush the spices is well worth it, I think, if it takes your dish from three to four stars. That extra fourth star equals five extra minutes of your time – think about it.

1 teaspoon fennel pollen or 2 teaspoons fennel seeds
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more as needed
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper, plus more as needed
1 large orange
2 fennel bulbs, shaved
2 cups mixed baby salad greens, preferably a mix from a greenmarket that has mustard greens, arugula, kale, various lettuces
A small handful of fresh, flat-leaf parsley leaves
2 branzini (about 1 pound each), filleted
3 tablespoons grapeseed oil, or other neutral oil
2 teaspoons white wine or sherry vinegar or to taste
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon maple syrup
Flaky sea salt, such as Maldon

1. Heat the oven to 400[dg]F; position the rack in the middle. If using fennel pollen, combine the fennel pollen with 2 teaspoons of salt and 1/2 teaspoon of pepper in a small bowl and set aside. If using fennel seeds (a cheaper, and easier to find option), in a small pan set over low heat, toast the fennel seeds until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat, and using a mortar and pestle, finely grind. Combine the fennel with 2 teaspoons salt and 1/2 teaspoon ground pepper and set aside.

2. Supreme the orange (cut out its segments) by trimming off the top and bottom of the fruit with a paring knife. Set the fruit on one end, and carefully cut the skin from its flesh, beginning at the top and following down the curve of the fruit. Carefully cut out each section of the fruit by inserting the blade of the knife between the flesh and the membrane on both sides. The wedges should come out easily, leaving only the membranes intact. Set the segments aside. Squeeze out what remains of the orange into a small bowl. Reserve the juice and discard whatever is left of the orange.

3. In a large mixing bowl, toss the shaved fennel, greens, parsley leaves, and reserved orange slices. Set aside.

4. Heat oil in a large ovenproof nonstick sauté pan set over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Pat the fish dry with paper towels and season both sides of the fillet with the reserved fennel seasoning mixture. Place fillets, skin side down, and sear for about 3 minutes. Transfer the pan to the oven until the fish is no longer opaque and flaky, about 4 minutes. Remove from the oven and divide between 2 plates. You may need to cook your fish in 2 batches, depending on the size of the pan; do not overcrowd the pan.

5. While the fish is in the oven, add vinegar to the orange juice and season with a few pinches of salt. Stir and let sit for 2 minutes. Whisk in olive oil and maple syrup and season to taste with pepper. Add the vinaigrette to the salad and toss to combine. Taste and adjust seasonings if needed. Serve the branzino alongside the fennel salad. Sprinkle with flaky sea salt, if you like.

Serves 2 to 4 (we tend to eat 2 filets each with a large salad)

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12 Comments

  • 1
    Brian said:

    Okay! Rant, rant, rant! The one picture that grabbed me this morning was the Fennel! I liked the idea of combining the Fennel with the Orange Segments, but, sorry the only Citrus Fruit I bother to Supreme are Pommelos.
    One last thought for you. When you move to your new apartment you can buy a Mangle to iron the linens. Just joking, but one of my neighbors has one, just to press the sheets.

    November 5, 2013 10:39 am
  • 2

    Great post, Olga! So agree with you about this sentiment: “…we love to cook, we love to eat, we love to feed our loved ones, and we love to write.” Viva simplicity!

    November 5, 2013 12:20 pm
  • 3
    Whitney said:

    Wonderful post. I truthfully stopping blogging myself because the stress of taking a good picture (and getting it uploaded into Flickr, paying the fees for Flickr, etc, etc) just wore me out. Sometimes I would make a recipe and love it and then realize I didn’t take a picture and thus couldn’t share it.

    Silly I know but the truth.

    Love your honesty. This is why I keep coming back after all of these years!

    November 5, 2013 12:39 pm
  • 4
    Lena said:

    I have to say I think your photos are always striking and beautiful but my favorites are alwasy the ones that are like these, as if they were caught mid meal while someone was actively enjoying the food and you had to say hey wait a minute lets take a picture before you scarf that down because its so delicious!

    November 5, 2013 12:42 pm
  • 5
    Sharmila said:

    I appreciate a beautiful photo and understand the effort it took to take one. But I find that the blogs I continue to visit regularly are the ones I like to read. Pictures are great but the words are what keep pulling me back. The photo then becomes an afterthought. I know I’ve often skipped right past it it in order to finish reading the post first.
    Not that your photos are bad or anything, but I come here primarily to read your writing and check out the recipes. If you never put up another photo here again, it wouldn’t change a thing for me.

    November 5, 2013 1:03 pm
  • 6
    Carley said:

    Hooray for this! I am with you on every word. I started my blog almost a year ago as a place to practice and share my love for food and writing. I like to have nice pictures, but that was never my original intent. But, too often I find myself holding off on writing a post about a great meal until I can re-make the recipe and take photos in the daylight. Now that it’s dark before I leave work at the end of the day, that’s a real problem!

    Over the past month, I have done the same as you – thrown my hands in the air and decided to keep going, beautiful pictures or no. Out of my last 4 blog posts, two used iPhone photos (BAD ones, at that), and for one, I didn’t include a photo at all. I loved the recipes enough that I wanted to share them, and had the time/itch to write. So I went ahead.

    I have always loved your blog for the quality of writing and the great food. Thank you for the confirmation that there’s more to this whole thing than having a beautiful site with beautiful pictures. Some of us came here to this whole thing write (and read), and cook!

    November 5, 2013 1:40 pm
  • 7

    YES! You’ve said it all so wonderfully – exactly what I’ve been thinking lately. Food blogging has turned into this rat race where everything has to be Pinterest-worthy. It’s entirely too stressful, and for me, it takes the fun out of it.

    But this? This writing you’ve just done? The honesty, transparency, no fuss, REAL life that you’ve expressed on this page? That’s why I’m here. That’s why I started reading your blog – and never left – in the first place.

    And that’s why you’re one of my most favorite people in real life, too.

    xo

    November 5, 2013 2:34 pm
  • 8
    olga said:

    Everyone – thanks for your kind and thoughtful comments – means a lot. I hope it didn’t come across as a rant – it wasn’t meant to be one. I was simply speaking my mind – without anger or resentment.

    November 5, 2013 2:49 pm
  • 9
    emmycooks said:

    How are you doing? Great, in my book! In addition to your lovely writing, I read your blog because our tastes are so aligned–I’ve learned that if you like something, I’ll like it too. I love to find a blog like yours, where I feel that the recipes are curated just for my palate. So thanks! (And I agree about photos, who has time to style with antique flea market finds? I just zoom into the plate and food.) :)

    November 5, 2013 4:38 pm
  • 10
    Ashley said:

    Love, love, love what you’re saying and doing here! I agree wholeheartedly, even as I look at my mostly unused collection of items bought primarily for food photos (guilty!). And I love the flexibility of this recipe – it’s always fun to play with what you’ve got around the house.

    November 6, 2013 2:34 pm
  • 11
    ruhama said:

    Obviously behind in my blog reading, but do want to comment on this post. I’ve been enjoying your ‘real life’ pictures just as much as any styled picture. I’m wondering what filter (if any) you’re using with these–they look vintage!

    Also, the fake food on Pinterest sometimes makes me laugh. My favorite food pin is so obviously staged it makes me laugh (I mean, really–there’s cream in it and your photo looks like that?). The recipe is really good, though, so I haven’t deleted it.

    November 23, 2013 9:23 am
  • 12
    olga said:

    ruhama – thank you! i don’t think i used a filter, though I think I did play with saturation, contrast, and exposure because I’m a dork like that. I don’t recall using a filter though sometimes I do on #VSCO camera settings.

    November 23, 2013 9:33 am

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