THE MODEL BEFORE us is a photographer’s dream. She can hold a pose for hours without complaint, doesn’t mind being poked and prodded until the shot is just right, never needs a bathroom break, and best of all, she projects an attitude without actually having one.
No, she’s not some high-priced, anorexic supermodel in a flowing Balenciaga – “she” is my Israeli Couscous Salad, and we are at master food photographer Jon Edward’s studio as veteran food stylists Denise Vivaldo and Cindie Flannigan prepare her for her close-up.
This is my second food photo shoot with the trio, taking publicity shots for my cookbook “Cooking Jewish,” and again I am blown away by the skill and attention it takes to make this salad – as well as the other seven dishes I’ve brought today – sing.
“Wait, Jon, just let me move this carrot,” says Vivaldo as she takes tweezers to this colorful dish, rearranging a mint leaf for good measure.
Denise Vivaldo has been a food stylist in Los Angeles for more than 30 years. Originally a professionally trained chef, catering for the likes of the George H.W. Bush, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bette Midler and Prince Charles, Vivaldo was discovered by Aaron Spelling and put to work on his television shows, building food presentations for the camera. Her company, the Denise Vivaldo Group, Inc., styles food for cookbooks, packaging, television, and film. The author of eight books, she also teaches food styling, catering and cooking classes and workshops across the country and internationally.
We met again recently at Melissa’s Produce headquarters in Vernon, when Vivaldo and Flannigan demoed some food styling tips from the new second edition of their book, “The Food Stylist’s Handbook” (Skyhorse Publishing, $24.99), an encyclopedic resource of media styling tips, tricks, and secrets for chefs, artists, bloggers and food lovers and considered in the industry as the food styling bible. So who better to teach us a thing or two about making food look great!
“The market has changed,” Vivaldo said. “Everyone is photographing their food now, and food styling has changed a lot. What haven’t changed are all the tricks and techniques to manipulate the food. We make the food sell the recipe or sell the chef. We rewrite recipes that don’t work. We want the food to look as good as it can. Food to us is a prop. The image tells a story.”
Today’s sophisticated diners as well as home cooks know the old adage: you eat with your eyes. Sure, the food must taste good, but presentation is key.
“Show off your salads with garnishes that taste delicious and give a contrasting color and texture to the salad itself,” Vivaldo suggested. “Try fresh dill on potato salad or very finely sliced and fried leeks on green salads. Edible flowers make beautiful garnishes on salads – pair a beautiful nasturtium with a half-moon slice of goat cheese for a totally elegant look. For vegetable, pasta or green salads, place two crostini underneath the salad so that the ends peek out, then top with big shavings of Parmesan or Asiago cheese.”
When entertaining or even serving family meals, it takes little effort to enhance a dish’s appeal. “If you are plating your food on individual dinner plates, then consider placing your sides slightly under your main meat to elevate it,” she explained. “If your sides are being served family-style, there are many garnishes you can use to make them special. Sprinkle toasted chopped nuts or cut colorful sweet peppers into very thin strips and briefly sauté them, then sprinkle them on top of just about any side dish to add color.”
For desserts, whipped cream and berries are traditional, and it’s easy to add mint leaves and sprigs. “For something a little different, use a channel knife” – find it at a kitchen supply store or on line – “to make long curls of great-smelling lemons, limes or oranges,” suggested Vivaldo. “Wrap an orange curl around a stick of cinnamon, or slice any citrus into thin wheels, then cut halfway through. Take each cut end and twist in opposite directions for a citrus twirl. For the epitome of elegance, brush a little pasteurized egg whites on edible flowers or rose petals and sprinkle with sanding sugar, then let dry. Use these glittery beauties to garnish chocolate desserts, creamy desserts, or even ice cream.”
I first tasted the colorful couscous salad shown here at a bridal shower and had to have the recipe. Couscous is not a grain, but actually pasta, and if you’ve tried only the fine-grained variety, you’re in for a treat. Israeli couscous boasts larger, tapioca-size toasted rounds that have a chewy, almost buttery texture, the perfect backdrop for the crisp vegetables, toasted pine nuts, and refreshing citrus dressing.
You can substitute conventional fine-grained couscous, if you like, or even bulgur, a hearty grain popular in the Middle East made from kernels of wheat that are steamed, dried, and then crushed.
This light, refreshing salad is one of my favorites for summer entertaining. In this heat I’m looking for easy dishes and a carefree menu, so I can enjoy my guests without breaking a sweat.
Before we know it, Rosh Hashanah will be here and we’ll be thinking fall, apples and, of course, apple cake. When I was testing recipes for my cookbook, every one of my “tasters“ said Aunt Sally’s apple cake was just like their bubbe or tanta used to make.
Israeli Couscous Salad
YIELD 6 to 8
FOR THE SALAD
1 package (8 ounces) toasted Israeli couscous
1 teaspoon olive oil
Kosher (coarse) salt
1 or 2 medium-size carrots, cut into ¼-inch dice
1 red or yellow bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, and cut into ¼-inch dice
1 cup frozen peas, thawed and drained
½ cup chopped red onion
2/3 cup diced dried dates, snipped dried apricots or raisins
½ cup pine nuts, toasted
¼ cup chopped cilantro or mint
Kosher (coarse) salt and black pepper, to taste
FOR THE DRESSING
½ cup olive oil
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons orange juice
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon kosher (coarse) salt, or to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 Prepare couscous: Combine couscous, oil, and 1 teaspoon salt with 2¼ cups water in a large saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer, cover, and cook until tender and the water is completely absorbed, 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove pan from the heat and fluff couscous with a fork. Transfer to large bowl to cool. Stir occasionally to separate grains.
2 Combine cooled couscous with remaining salad ingredients.
3 Whisk dressing ingredients together in a bowl. Pour dressing over salad and toss well. Add more salt and pepper if needed. Cover, and chill at least 2 hours or overnight.
4 Remove salad from refrigerator 30 minutes before serving.
Old-Fashioned Apple Cake
YIELD 9 SERVINGS
1¼ cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
4 medium sweet apples such as Gala or Fuji, peeled and thinly sliced
½ cup apricot jam
Juice of ½ lemon
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease an 8-inch square baking pan.
2 Stir flour, baking powder, and salt together in a bowl.
3 Combine apple slices, jam, and lemon juice in a bowl.
4 Beat eggs well with electric mixer at medium speed. Gradually add sugar, beating until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes; add oil and vanilla, scraping bowl several times. Reduce speed to low; blend in flour mixture.
5 Spread half the batter evenly into prepared pan; cover with apple mixture. Top with remaining batter and bake on center oven rack until golden, about 1 hour. Cool cake in pan set on wire rack. Cut into squares and serve.
Source: “Cooking Jewish” Workman) by Judy Bart Kancigor
Jlife Food Editor Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of “Cooking Jewish” (Workman) and “The Perfect Passover Cookbook” (an e-book short from Workman), a columnist and feature writer for the Orange County Register and other publications and can be found on the web at www.cookingjewish.com.