January 13, 2012
San Francisco-based photographer Caren Alpert has captured mouth-watering shots of food, stylish portraits of chefs and glimpses of chic restaurant interiors for clients such as Bon Appetit, Saveur Magazine and the Food Network. But, beginning in 2008, she branched out from her editorial and catalog work to experiment in fine art.
Alpert has taken magnified photographs of foods, from Brussels sprouts to Lifesavers, using a scanning electron microscope at her alma mater, the University of Arizona. Titled “Terra Cibus,” meaning “nurturing from the earth,” the series, recently exhibited at the James Beard Foundation in New York, provides viewers a new, and often bizarre, look at familiar foods.
I spoke with Alpert about the project:
Can you describe the process of preparing the samples and getting the shot?
I choose the foods out here in San Francisco. I sort of curate them if you will. I decide what I want to shoot. I overnight them to the lab in Arizona. They go through a dehydration process and then a metal coating process. Depending on what the food is, the length of dehydration can yield a better result and different metals used in the coating can yield a different result. That is the preparation process.
With a scanning electron microscope you are photographing the surface of a subject or a specimen—in my case, food. I am basically photographing the electrons bouncing off of the surface.
What have been the most interesting foods under the microscope?
Have you gotten a sense of which foods are photogenic under the microscope and which are not?
I am getting better. But I wouldn’t say I am dead on 100 percent of the time.
I read that you tried a tortilla chip and it was boring looking. Have there been other duds?
Interestingly, it has been difficult to photograph meats and proteins. Bacon, for example—I thought it would be more interesting than it was at first pass. I am trying to find the best way to photograph foods like that, that are higher in fats.
What sort of editing do you do?
The machine captures in black and white only. We do a post-processing treatment back at the studio where we infuse the color of the original foods as best we can.
After photographing a shrimp tail, you went to a scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium to inquire about its feathery texture. Do you often take your photographs to outside experts?
Certainly when I am stumped, yes. I am trying to involve more information about what we are looking at. The shrimp tail was quite surprising. Because the Monterey Bay Aquarium is a local gem for us, it was nice to be able to call on them, and they were very receptive to helping out. They were also very surprised to see the image. That is the part of the tail where you hold it and bite it off and then you throw the tail back on your plate. It is right there at that sort of cartilagey intersection.
What have you learned about food from these photographs?
How an unprocessed food or an organic food intakes water or air, you see a lot of that. Processed foods are very sharp and spiky, whereas unprocessed or more organic foods sort of have a repetitive pattern.
Has working on this series changed your own eating habits in any way?
No. Probably the biggest shock—but it hasn’t been enough to change my eating habits—is the French’s fried onions, which you sprinkle over your string bean casserole. They are really irregular and very violent looking compared to some of the others. You would think after seeing it, it would be enough to make you not want to eat them. But they are sort of a guilty pleasure. I snack on those occasionally.
Is healthy eating part of the goal? What do you hope viewers take away from the photographs?
I hope the viewers think about their own choices everyday or how they influence others around them. I got an email a few months ago from a man who said he and his two kids were on my website trying to guess all the foods. Then they would go back to their kitchen cupboards or refrigerator drawers to see if they had any of those foods at home. I think if it can encourage dialogue like that it is really interesting and successful.
I sort of like to encourage the viewer to look at it more aesthetically. I think people are so floored. “Oh my gosh, that is my lunch sandwich or that is my chocolate cake or that is my morning blueberries.” People are just fascinated. They are taken with the beauty of some foods and not others, of course. I got another email from a young woman in Spain who said that she and her boyfriend were fighting about images as art. She thought the images were beautiful and artistic, and he thought, oh, anyone can do that. They were having an argument about what makes art. That’s awesome, you know? It is really encouraging people to think about the parameters they put around those definitions.
More images can be seen at www.carenalpertfineart.com. Prints are available for purchase directly through the photographer.
July 12, 2011
I’ll admit that, like most, I take my rhubarb in strawberry-rhubarb pie. I think the best pie I have ever had came from a little country store called Heart ‘N Hand just outside of the town of Skaneateles in the Finger Lakes region of New York. My husband and I ceremoniously sliced into it two summers ago on our wedding day.
But whenever I see rhubarb in the grocery store, I am instantly reminded of another delicious memory—my first encounter with the rosy stalks. I think I was maybe 12 years old, with my mom at a farmer’s market, when she bought me a bundle. I chomped into a stick like it was celery, and my face puckered from its tartness. I liked the taste. Plus, there was something so Laura Ingalls about gnawing on the raw stalks.
If you are thinking about picking up a bundle (as I now am!) or have some rhubarb in your garden or CSA box that you don’t know what to do with, I did a little research. Of course, there are plenty of baked options (pie, cobbler, crisp, even muffins), but my intent is to offer up a few more unusual options.
1. Raw: Before you do any cooking with rhubarb, you ought to at least try it raw. (Note: Be sure to remove all the leaves, as they are poisonous.) Many suggest dipping the stalk in sugar or some other sweet, such as honey, maple syrup or agave nectar, to mellow its tartness a touch. Sprinkling diced rhubarb over yogurt or cereal is an option too.
2. Stirred: Rhubarb, like cranberries, can add a tart zing to a smoothie, and if you puree the vegetable, it can be added to a margarita as well. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver suggests making a jam by slicing rhubarb and cooking it with a couple tablespoons of water, blending and cooling it, and then adding champagne or prosecco for a rhubarb bellini. For a tasty nonalcoholic beverage, Serious Eats starts out by making a similar rhubarb syrup but instead adds it to freshly-steeped iced tea, topping it off with strawberries.
3. Smothered: Rhubarb sauces, chutneys and salsas add a unique flavor to savory dishes. Food writer (and occasional Smithsonian contributor) Kim O’Donnel says that rhubarb chutney—a good way to make use of rhubarb before it wilts—complements salmon, trout, roast chicken, turkey, duck and pork chops. It sounds easy too. She cooks one-inch pieces of rhubarb with orange juice, vinegar, brown sugar, ginger, cinnamon and dates.
A surprisingly butterless recipe from Paula Deen for grilled chicken with rhubarb salsa calls for a salsa that mixes together rhubarb, strawberries, jalapeno, lime juice, cilantro and olive oil. Yum! But perhaps the most creative condiment is rhubarb aioli, which award-winning chef Vitaly Paley of Paley’s Place in Portland, Oregon, pairs with pork. He folds a rhubarb reduction into his homemade garlic mayonnaise.
4. Roasted: Raw julienned rhubarb can be added to a garden salad, but several recipes I have found instead suggest roasting chunks of rhubarb on a baking sheet drizzled with honey or sprinkled with sugar for about five minutes, letting them cool and then tossing them in with greens. These same recipes (example: from Martha Stewart) recommend a killer combination of rhubarb, toasted walnuts, goat cheese, arugula and fennel.
5. Dried: This one is rather time-intensive, and requires a dehydrator, but the fruit-roll-up-loving kid in me likes the sound of the rhubarb leather one commenter on Backpacker.com describes. Basically, to make it, you cook rhubarb in water, with a cinnamon stick, and add sugar to taste, until it is the consistency of applesauce. Then, you pour it into dehydrator trays lined with parchment paper and dry at 135 degrees for nine hours.
March 1, 2011
Last week, a Smithsonian editor sent me a screen capture of a portion of her Facebook news feed. A friend’s status update read, “It’s official: salmon cooked in the dishwasher, complete with dishes and soap, is not only delicious but a boon for the lazy person (e.g., me).” *
The post was lit up with comments. Several people expressed disbelief and fired off questions to help them make sense of it. What do you put it in? Aluminum foil. What’s the benefit to using the dishwasher instead of the oven? It’s brainless. It’s effortless. The experimental cook had a quick response for everyone—even the friend who declared her stark raving mad. “Come try it, flaked into pasta with peas and a light alfredo sauce,” she typed. “Then tell me I’m mad.”
The editor who had passed the idea along to me wouldn’t try it. Her reasoning: she is a more sophisticated cook than that. Another co-worker said he didn’t eat salmon. And another was without a dishwasher. So, I volunteered to be the guinea pig and put the technique to the test.
Materials and Methods
I went to my local Whole Foods, where I briefly considered buying small portions of both salmon and steak, so that if the “surf” turned out to be mushy mess, my husband and I could at least enjoy the “turf.” But, ultimately, I decided to go all in and bought a large salmon fillet. If the fish wasn’t cooked through after one dishwashing cycle, I figured I could salvage it by baking it the oven.
The dishwasher-specific recipes I found on the internet were all quite similar, and seemed simple enough. I tore off two sheets of aluminum foil, placed one on top of the other and drizzled some olive oil on it. Then, I placed the salmon fillet on the foil and lightly seasoned it with salt, pepper and lemon juice. Some recipes recommend adding dill as well, but not a fan of the herb, I decided to kick it up a bit more with some lemon pepper and topped it with a tab of butter. Next, I folded the foil over the fillet, flattened it and tightly folded all the edges.
I put the wrapped fillet in the top rack of the dishwasher and set the dial to a normal cycle. Several sources say that as long as the foil is tightly sealed, you can run a full load of dishes with detergent. But, for the purposes of this experiment, I opted to play it safe and ran the dishwasher empty.
I was more keenly aware of the gushes and wooshes of my dishwasher knowing that my dinner was being subjected to them all. But when the cycle was complete, I peeled open the foil to find a rather normal looking fillet of salmon (with the exception of the foamy layer of butter—if you try this at home, I might suggest leaving that off). More importantly though, it was, in fact, cooked to perfection.
I can see how cooking your dinner in a loaded dishwasher is like killing two birds with one stone. Combining the two tasks into one is environmentally friendly and could save you some on your electricity bill. But I didn’t find the process any simpler than baking the fish in the oven (aside from the fact that I didn’t have to clean a baking dish). The prep work was about the same. And the cooking time was significantly longer. I hadn’t ever paid attention to the length of my dishwasher’s cycle, but it was an hour and a half, and a hungry one at that! Needless to say, I won’t be making a routine of it. But it was well worth the experiment.
If you want to amaze dinner guests or your kids, I suggest you try it!
*The author of the Facebook post was Amy Rogers Nazarov, a food and technology writer who blogs at www.wordkitchen.net/blog. She is now weighing the pros and cons of cooking a steak on the engine of her 2005 Toyota Matrix.
February 11, 2011
I love funny family stories, the kind that get told over and over again and get better with age. My family certainly has its fair share, but since I started dating my husband six years ago, I’ve heard a whole slew from the annals of his family’s lore.
There’s the story of my mother- and late-father-in-law and the honeymoon picnic. That one takes place in 1973, somewhere en route from Central Nebraska to Yellowstone, and ends with a pesky swarm of bees. Then there’s the story of Ryan (my husband) and the unslurpable peanut butter milkshake. They sound, I realize, like the titles of Berenstain Bears books. And, oddly, most revolve around food. One story, in particular, is always revisited on Valentine’s Day.
To set the scene: My mother-in-law lives in Grand Island, Nebraska, a city of about 50,000 people that has slipped, in recent years, from third to fourth largest in the state. Grand Island is an exit off of Interstate 80, the highway that runs from Teaneck, New Jersey, to San Francisco, bisecting the country. The place (and my mother-in-law, for that matter) is as Midwestern as it gets. As my husband puts it, draw an “X” over the United States and you mark the spot.
Karen lives on a tree-lined street that reminds me of the one Marty McFly drives his DeLorean down during Back to the Future. Being there feels a bit like traveling back in time. It’s the land of casseroles and fine folks, where the biggest event of the day may be a porch visit from a neighbor. And it’s great—especially when you are looking for a change of pace from a big city.
It’s not a fancy place. Patrons of one of the most popular restaurants in town, Texas T-Bone, are free to toss peanut shells on the concrete floor. So, naturally, Karen and her husband often kept things pretty simple for Valentine’s Day. Occasionally, they would exchange cards. Other times, while grocery shopping, they would just show each other the Valentines they would have gotten. “I’m practical,” Karen says. She would usually urge him not to, but Clark, Karen’s husband, loved to buy her roses. And they would usually opt to prepare a dinner at home. “Because [at restaurants] it was always crowded—well, as crowded as Grand Island can be,” she says.
So, on a particularly cold Valentine’s Day, in 2005, Karen decided she would fix something warm and hearty: a meatloaf. (I called her today just to hear the story again.) “I hardly ever made meatloaf, and he loved it,” she says. At the very last minute, she shaped it into a heart. Though she claims it was not a big deal—just a “little meatloaf of love”—she says, “I pulled it out of the oven. I did the whole close your eyes deal. And you would have thought I had given this man the world.”
Karen is the shutterbug of the family, but it was Clark who said, “Go get the camera.” The photo is buried in a box somewhere, or else I’d share it. But I can imagine what it looks like—Clark grinning ear to ear over that heart-shaped meatloaf. I searched Flickr.com for some sort of replacement, not expecting much, and was surprised to find a few other meatloaves made with love. When I tell Karen, she laughs. “I thought I was being so original,” she says. “It must be a hot thing!”
Every Valentine’s Day, people eat heart-shaped foods—chocolates, conversation hearts, cut-out sugar cookies, sandwiches with the crusts artistically lopped off and maybe even pancakes or fried eggs. But, even a meatloaf hater like myself has to appreciate my mother-in-law’s creativity. Inspired by it, I made a heart-shaped pizza a couple of years ago.
What crazy culinary things have you done in the name of love?
February 4, 2011
As ecstatic as my husband would be if I were, I am not a die-hard fan of any one team, be it football, baseball, basketball or hockey. So when he asked me the other night whether I’d be rooting for the Green Bay Packers or the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl, I had to chew it over a bit.
He filled me in on statistics that others might normally take into consideration, like the fact that the Steelers have won more Super Bowl titles (six) than any other team. But my thoughts quickly veered from the teams’ talents to the places from which they hail. Then, soon enough, it was on to the cities’ food offerings.
Food is always on my mind, but I would be willing to bet that, for most people, it’s not that great a leap to make when talking about the Super Bowl. Along with clever new commercials, good grub is an essential part of the viewing experience.
Last year, in honor of the New Orleans Saints making it to the Super Bowl, fellow F&T blogger Lisa Bramen paid due homage to gumbo, suggesting that readers incorporate the stew into their game-day menus. Maybe Pittsburgh and Green Bay aren’t as revered for their cuisine as New Orleans is, but, with a little research, I found a few interesting food traditions.
To eat “locally,” so to speak, a Pittsburgh native might suggest you try one of these “Steel City” dishes:
City Chicken. Despite its name, this meal contains absolutely no chicken. The Pittsburgh favorite is basically cubes of veal and pork on skewers, rolled in flour or breadcrumbs and then baked or fried. The recipe took root during the Great Depression, when veal and pork were cheaper than chicken. The 1936 version of The Joy of Cooking refers to them as “Mock Chicken Drumsticks (City Chicken)” because the idea was to assemble a drumstick-shaped kebab out of scraps of other meat. Apparently, some grocery store butchers in Pittsburgh sell packages of cubed pork or veal with a handful of skewers labeled “city chicken.”
Chipped Ham. Most people who grew up in Pittsburgh “Remember Isaly’s,” as the dairy-turned-deli-meat-brand’s slogan harps. The establishment’s chipped chopped ham, a Spam-like loaf of ground ham that’s “chipped” into razor thin slices at the deli counter, became popular after World War II and has stuck around ever since. (According to Isaly’s Web site, Steelers fans across the country have it shipped in for big games.) Traditionally, the ham is fried in a skillet, doused in Isaly’s own barbecue sauce, and then piled high on a bun. But there are many spinoffs: chipped chopped ham scramble, creamed chipped chopped ham over biscuits, chipped chopped ham, rice and spinach casserole….
Pittsburgh-Style Steak. Actually, in Pittsburgh, it’s just called “black and blue.” The steak is cooked so that it is charred on the outside but rare on the inside. Lore has it that Pittsburgh steelworkers used to bring slabs of meat to work and slap them on exposed metal, like a hot furnace, to cook them in this way.
And when it comes to dessert, especially at wedding receptions, Pittsburghers are all about cookie tables.
Snacks for a Packer Backer
For some insider knowledge, I consulted Ray Py of Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, whose daughter Beth Py-Lieberman is an editor here at Smithsonian. When it comes to the Super Bowl, he says, it’s mainly beers and brats. But, throughout the year, the Green Bay area offers some of these specialties:
German Beer Spread with Wisconsin Swiss and Cheddar Cheese. Among the usual suspects—chicken wings, chili and nachos—that Mr. Py found listed on the menus of some of his local Super Bowl buffets was something I hadn’t heard of before: German beer spread. I found a recipe from the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, a nonprofit funded by dairy farmers that promotes more than 600 kinds of Wisconsin cheese. (Green Bay fans are cheeseheads, remember.) The spread is made by mixing shredded cheese, Worcestershire sauce, dry mustard, garlic and a dark German beer in a food processor and then served on crackers or rye bread.
Pan-Fried Walleye. The Friday night fish fry is a Wisconsin tradition, which began when German Catholic immigrants populated the area and observed meatless Fridays during Lent. Sometimes cod and perch are served, but a staple freshwater fish is the walleye, plucked from the Great Lakes. The fish is often battered or pan-fried with a lemon butter sauce, though there are countless ways to prepare it.
Booyah. “People will argue until the Holsteins come home about what the proper ingredients are,” Terese Allen, a food columnist for Madison’s Isthmus newspaper, has said. But booyah is a stew of meats, usually chicken and beef, and vegatables, such as onions, celery, carrots, onions, potatoes, cabbage, corn and green peas, often cooked in large kettles for church picnics and county fairs. From what I’ve read, it originated in Belgium, and its name is thought to be derived from “bouillon,” the French word for broth. One local, in an article in the Green Bay Post-Gazette on October 29, 1976, claimed his father had something to do with the naming of the dish. He said that his father had approached the paper about advertising a “bouillon” supper he was hosting at the school where he taught, but the reporter instead heard “booyah” and published it as such.
Ultimately, I’ve decided to rally behind the Steeler Nation. I was born in Pittsburgh, and although I only lived there for my first six weeks and for about a year when I was four, I have to go with my roots.
If you haven’t drawn your allegiance, though, I say go with your gut.