July 24, 2012

Shades Of Black & White, And The Colours In Between………

have been quite busy this past week, doing all those things that needed to get done. The long and short of that is there’s not been a lot of time to spare and as usual blogging has been one of the casualties.
When I’ve had the time, I’ve ended up choosing to sit myself down and do nothing at all. I have been discovering the sheer pleasure that comes from just letting go, sitting down and doing very little and not feeling guilty at all. I have to say there’s a lot of good in growing older!
One thing I have been continuing to do is photography, though not so much of food. It was when I saw Susan’s announcement of Black And White Wednesdays, hosted this week at Roma’s Space that I remembered I did have some black and white photographs I wanted to post.
So this post is dedicated to the shades of black and white (and the colours in between, if you can see/ find them), just some food and food related photography but no recipes. That’s for the next post.
And a reminder, if you would like to join us in this month’s food photography exercises , you’ve got a whole week to do it and post about it.

“All photographs are there to remind us of what we forget.  Because each one of us forgets different things, a photo more than a painting may change its meaning according to who is looking at it.” ~ John Berger

Litchees/ Lychees 

Forks - An Abstract 

Peas In A Pod!

Kulfi At The Fair

“We must remember that a photograph can hold just as much as we put into it, and no one has ever approached the full possibilities of the medium.” ~ Ansel Adams
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July 16, 2012

Saying It With Flowers: Remembering Barbara, And Indian Style Pumpkin Blossom Fritters

didn’t know her very well. My friendship with her was limited to interactions by e-mail and on Facebook and Twitter. I read her blog posts (Winos And Foodies) occasionally and first met her (virtually) when I won a bid on a book on photography that she had sponsored for a fundraiser. That led to our discussions on and off about our mutual interest in photography.
Barbara was diagnosed with cancer in 2004 and her highly popular event “A Taste Of Yellow” was her way of supporting the LiveStrong Foundation and raising awareness about cancer through food and blogging. She finally lost her long battle with it 2 weeks back, on the 29th of June. She had just come out of surgery for a collapsed lung. I did not need to know her better than I did to know of her passion for good food and photography, how kind, nice, dignified, courageous and cheerful she was even when during the times when things weren’t all that good with her health.

(Image courtesy Barbara's FB profile)

She once wrote a meme on her blog about the “5 Things To Eat Before You Die” and the last item on that list was her “87th birthday cake”. Today would have been her birthday, and even though she isn’t here to celebrate it, I’m happy to celebrate her spirit and courage by dedicating this post to Barbara. May you continue to be happy but at peace and free of pain and suffering wherever you are.

Jeanne and Meeta are dedicating this month’s edition of the Monthly Mingle to Barbara’s memory with the theme “A Taste of Yellow” and I hope I’ll be seeing you all there.
Every season brings with it fresh vegetables and fruit. One of the things that make an appearance in the local market here in summer, for the space of 2 to 3 weeks, is the pumpkin flower. Now I come from a vegetarian cooking tradition that makes ample use of pumpkin but for some reason we don’t cook with pumpkin flowers. I only discovered that one could cook with pumpkin flowers when my Dad used to tell us stories of his childhood friend in Kerala whose mother who would cook with them. Turns out they were originally from Goa.

I’ve been seeing pumpkin flowers at my market for the past few years but never thought of cooking with them.  Never having seen anyone I know cook with them, I didn’t know what to do with them. This year I took the plunge, and bought a couple of bunches of pumpkin flowers.
Here in Goa (and along the Konkan coast), these pumpkin flowers are used to make Bhoplachya Foolanchi Bhaji (Stir-fried Pumpkin Flowers) for which you need a really huge bunch of flowers or Phodi which are fritters which you can make with a smaller bunch of flowers which is more likely to be what you have unless these are growing wild and with abandon in your backyard. Phodis are usually made by rubbing/ marinating the flowers with a spice mixture, then coating them with semolina and pan frying till they’re crisp.

I understand that pumpkin flowers are very much part of the food culture in the Indian states of Orissa and West Bengal. There they make fritters (both stuffed and plain) with pumpkin flowers which they call Kumro Phool Boda/Bhaja (Bengal) or Kakharu Fulla Bhaja (Orissa). Think of an Indian style pumpkin blossom tempura and you have an idea about what I’m saying.

I decided to make some fritters, the plain kind, and this recipe is all my own and so is not authentic or representative of the fritters made in the mentioned states. In India, a favourite batter for making fritters is one made with chickpea flour and rice flour so that’s what I’m using here. You could add a 1/2 tsp of baking powder to the mix if desired. If you would like to fill them you could use a spiced mashed potato and pea mixture or spiced paneer.

Indian Style Pumpkin Blossom Fritters


12 – 15 pumpkin blossoms
3/4 cup chickpea flour (besan)
1/4 cup rice flour
1/4 tsp turmeric powder
1/2 tsp red chilli powder (or to taste)
A large pinch asafoetida
1 tsp cumin seeds
Salt to taste
Oil for deep frying


Trim the stalk and the sepals off the bottom of the flowers. Gently open each one and remove the yellow coloured stamen carefully. Carefully wash the flowers and lightly pat them dry.
In a bowl, put all the remaining ingredients, except the oil, and mix up a batter by adding enough batter to give it a rather thinnish coating consistency – think of something like the batter for tempura but just a little bit thicker.
Heat the oil in a wok and when it is ready, dip each flower in the batter and gently slide it into the oil. Fry well on both sides till golden brown and crisp. Drain on paper towels and serve warm.
These are normally served on the side with rice and lentil curry, but they’re just as good with a steaming hot cup of tea.
This recipe would serve 3 to 4, but frankly speaking, I could eat them all by myself!

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July 11, 2012

Vazhapoo Thoran/ Poduthuval (South Indian Style Banana Flower/ Blossom With Lentils and Coconut)

In the southern part of India that we belong to, the banana plant (no, it’s not a tree, just a very large plant!) and the coconut tree are very much a part of our lives.  As I have mentioned in a couple of my earlier posts,  in the days before high-rise apartment blocks became a reality, it was almost impossible to see a house in Kerala that didn’t have banana and coconut trees growing at the front ar the back of the house. In those days, if you dared to confess that you bought bananas (the stem or flowers) or coconuts people would look at you in a pitying manner as if to say “Poor chap, he’s come down to this in life….”.
Much has changed since the days of my childhood, but people in Kerala who do have a little bit of a backyard (or even a front yard) will plant at least one of each. Of course, its no longer a shame to buy them at the market nowadays because that’s about the only place you can find them sometimes!
Coconuts are almost the backbone of Kerala cuisine, from the soft fleshy white coconut that is grated, the thick fragrant coconut milk to the fresh aromatic coconut oil that is extracted from the copra. The coconut husk is converted into coir, the coconut leaves are converted into brooms or used woven to thatch huts and the trunk of the tree makes excellent building material and furniture.

It is much the same with the banana plant. We use every part of it except perhaps the roots! The raw fruit is cooked and eaten, as is the ripe fruit. Even the flowers of the banana plant are cooked in different ways. Traditionally, we use the leaves for steam-cooking certain food s in as well as for serving meals. The banana leaf as a plate means no plates to wash and the used leaves are completely biodegradable and often fed to cows. The stem of the plant yields strong fibre, and in some varieties is also cooked and eaten.
While raw and ripe bananas, and even the stem, are often cooked, banana flowers are considered even more of a delicacy because they’re usually not cut and cooked. Every banana flower is a potential bunch of bananas so they’re usually not cut in the way we might cut other vegetables or fruit.
More often than not, they’re removed from banana plants that have fallen. Banana plants have roots that don’t really go very deep into the ground and are easily uprooted during heavy rainfall or by strong wind during storms.

I haven’t posted too many raw banana and related recipes mostly because I haven’t been able to find the “core” ingredients here where I live. I see a lot of banana plants here but it seems people here eat only the ripe fruit. It’s a different matter that I don’t particularly like raw banana.
My husband loves the dishes we traditionally cook with anything banana (fruit, stem or flower) and our daughter might eat it if she isn’t told that’s what it is! Last week, when I discovered banana flowers at my vegetable vendor at the market I couldn’t believe my eyes. Actually the deep reddish purple coloured, tear drop shaped “flower” is actually an inflorescence or a cluster of flowers arranged around a stem which you will discover when you peel off the layered red “petals”.

My vegetable vendor looked surprised that I wanted to buy them and asked, “Aap is ka kya karte ho? Iska subzi banathe ho? Accha lagta he kya?” (Translation: “What do you do with this? Make a curry? Does it taste good/ Do you like it?”) I picked up 2 small ones to make into a traditional stir-fry sort of preparation. Banana flowers are very easy to make and take very little time to cook. What takes time and a lot of effort is removing the flowers, cleaning and chopping them.
Choose banana flowers that are firm with tightly packed leaves. Don’t be tempted to buy the ones where the outer leaves are slowly opening up no matter how nice they look. If you don’t plan on using them right away, just wrap it well in cling wrap and store in the crisper in your fridge. I would advise you use it up at the earliest for best results.

Banana flowers are best cooked fresh and tend to a bit bitter. The bitterness can be removed but some varieties of banana flowers do remain bitter no matter what. The bitterness comes largely from the sap in the flowers. Trimming off the base of the flowers and removing the stamen in each of the more mature flowers is a must. Then the flowers are chopped and immersed in diluted buttermilk or very sour yogurt. This also ensures the flowers do not discolour and turn dark brown/ black.
It is also a good idea to wear gloves ( I hate them) when cleaning the flowers or else you will be left with stained and unsightly and blackened fingertips and nails which will not clean out easily! The traditional way to prevent this is to thoroughly rub in some coconut (or any other) oil on both hands, inside and out, before starting to clean out the flowers. Once you are done, some soap, warm water and a bit of scrubbing should ensure your hands look pretty again. 

There are many different ways of cooking with banana flowers. This time I chose to cook it as a "thoran/ poduthuval" which is a sort of South Indian style stir-fry finished off with fresh grated coconut. There are many versions of this, and my version contains lentils.
Though I may not like eating banana flower preparations much, I went a bit trigger happy with my camera and hence the overdose of banana flower photography!

Vazhapoo Thoran/ Poduthuval (South Indian Style Banana Flower/ Blossom With Lentils and Coconut)

1 banana flower (about 2 1/2 cups, when chopped and loosely packed)
1 1/2 cups sour yogurt (not the thick kind) or buttermilk
1/4 cup yellow moong lentils (moong dal)
2 tsp coconut oil
1 1/2 tsp mustard seeds
1 1/2 tsp black gram lentils (urad dal)
1/4 tsp asafoetida
2 to 3 green chillies, slit lengthwise
2 sprigs curry leaves
1/4 tsp turmeric powder
Salt to taste
3/4 cup loosely packed fresh grated coconut

Apply some oil to both your hands and rub together ensuring both hands are well coated. Soak the moong lentils in some water and keep aside (for about 1/2 hour). In a largish bowl, pour the sour yogurt/ buttermilk and add another 2 to 2 1/2 cups or so of water and mix well. This is the liquid in which the chopped flower is to be soaked to counter the bitterness as well as to prevent discolouration.
Peel off the first leaf and you will see an orderly row of small yellow tipped flowers at the base. If they look very dark and mature, discard them with the leaf. Peel off and discard the first few outer red leaves but keep the small yellowish white flowers. Trim the base of the flowers and pull out and discard the stiff (sometimes dark) stamen from the centre of the flower. Chop the flowers and immediately immerse them in the diluted yogurt/ buttermilk
Once you reach the pale coloured and almost white coloured leaves, the flowers look soft and tender and peeling the leaves becomes difficult, you will find the stamens are very soft.  Cut off whatever bit of stalk/ stem is present. You can stop removing them and the leaves and chop this up (leaves and flowers together). Now go wash your hands!
Let the chopped flower stay in the liquid for about an hour. You can even keep them overnight in the fridge (do the cleaning just before you go to bed) and then cook them in the morning.
Too cook the flowers, drain the liquid and rinse the chopped flowers. Heat the coconut oil in a wok and add the mustard seeds. When they crackle, add the black gram lentils and stir a couple of time till they start turning brown. Add the asafoetida, curry leaves and green chillies and stir a couple of times. Drain the moong lentils of the water and add them to the wok. Add the chopped flowers and stir fry for a couple of minutes and turn down the heat to medium.
Add the turmeric powder and salt. Sprinkle a little water and allow t to cook, stirring occasionally and sprinkling a little more water if necessary. This dish cooks up very quickly. Once the lentils and flowers are cooked, turn off the heat. Add the grated coconut and mix well. Serve hot as a side dish with rice.

This recipe serves 4.
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July 4, 2012

Exercises In Food Photography #3 : Overhead Food Shots – A View From Above

First of all my thanks, once again, to all of you who found the time to join me in last month’s exercise. Then my apologies for delaying this post. I usually post this at the beginning of the month, but this time some bug got the better of all of us and we have been passing around a rather persistent and irritating cold-cough-fever thing to one another. The fact that the monsoons are here in full force hasn’t been helping this situation much.
Let’s do something a little different this month, shall we? It’s not something that’s not been done, in fact it’s something that’s probably been done to death almost when it was in fashion. There was a time not so far back in the past, when every third food magazine/ cookbook cover had you peering at food from right above.

Dark Chocolate Slab
 (Taken with a 50mm f/1.8 II lens at aperture – f/ 4.0 , shutterspeed – 1/25s and ISO – 100)

When we shoot food, we’re usually trying to create a three dimensional effect in a two dimensional photograph to showcase food as is naturally seen by the eye of the beholder. So a lot of food photographs tend to be shot between 10 and 45 degrees to the table to get this effect. Shooting from ninety degrees or right overhead is another approach to food photography and these results in a one dimensional/ flat composition.
While this angle is great to show off food textures that appear from overhead, it doesn’t work well for all types of food presentations. For example, a sandwich shot from the top would not show you the layers in it which would look better from the side. However, a sandwich, with some thought to styling and plating can look good when shot from above.
So for this month’s exercise in food photography, let’s take photographs of our food from overhead (ninety degrees angle to your table). Give your composition some thought regarding your choice of food to shoot, how best you can style and/ plate it to show it to advantage from the top.

One point to consider is that if you use the auto-focus feature on your lens (I do this a lot) then the lens will focus on the point nearest to it, which would be the highest point of your plated food.
Another point to consider is the aperture value you would use. If you would like to have a shallow DoF in your photograph, then a large aperture (small number, big opening in lens) is desirable, but if you would like your overall composition to be in focus then a smaller aperture setting (big number, smaller opening) would be the way to go.

Spiced Chocolate And Nut Fudge 
 (Taken with a 50mm f/1.8 II lens at aperture – f/ 4.0 , shutterspeed – 1/160s and ISO – 100)

Since I haven’t been well, I’m going to use a couple of photographs (of the Leek rings, crackers and cheese, and the Broken Chocolate Bar) I had taken earlier but not posted here so far, to illustrate this exercise. The exception is the Spiced Chocolate & Nut Fudge which I have posted earleir. 

I wanted to take a photograph of a slab of dark chocolate but wanted to do something different with the styling in a minimalistic composition. One way would have been to break off bits and perhaps stack them one on top of another, to create some texture.
I wanted to show the geometric pattern on the top of the slab, so I broke the chocolate slab and “arranged” it so that was broken yet the whole slab was there. I used a foam board real close to the chocolate and over-exposed slightly so there’s very little shadow. The slightly shiny nature of my background and some post processing also helped me get the result I wanted.

Leek Art
(Taken with 100mm f/2.8 Macro lens at aperture – f/ 7.1, shutterspeed – 1/25s and ISO – 200)

As for the leeks, I came back from the market with some fresh leeks for a leek and potato soup, and I couldn’t think of a single way to make them appear attractive through my lens. It was while slicing the leeks and admiring the beautiful concentric circles in different shades of green that I had a “lightbulb” moment. The leek slices are on a dark wooden board and again I used a foam board real close to reflect the natural light.

Crackers And Cheese
(Taken with 100mm f/2.8 Macro lens at aperture – f/ 5.0, shutterspeed – 1/100s and ISO – 400)

The cheese and crackers (appetizers/ canap├ęs) was actually shot from the side initially because I wanted to show the layers of the crackers piled on top of another, the cheese and the toppings. Just as I was about to clear that up, it struck me I could still show the layers and the toppings to advantage from the top too. I gave it a bit of a “messy” appearance, as if to suggest they were being made and voila!

What You Have To Do To Join In:

1.      Take one (or more if you would like to do so) of your subject (any food of your choice) from overhead. You can plate, style and compose your shot as you choose but please ensure the food is in focus. The lens and settings you use are entirely upto you though it would be nice if you mention them in your post for others to know. Do try and use Manual settings if you can.

2.      Post the photograph(s) and details about them on you blog, with details about the shot.   Recipes are also a nice idea so we can try out your dish if possible.  

3.      Please ensure that you link back to this post/ page in your blog post. Then add the link to your Photography Exercise post using the Simply Linked Widget that appears at the bottom of this post. This will direct readers to you blog and allow them to read your post.  Please make sure that the text in your link is correct otherwise no one would be able to reach your post.

 If you do not have a blog, then upload your photographs on Flickr or any other hosting site and then use the link of that photograph in the Widget.
Since I was late in posting this exercise and I would like to maintain the 3 week time period for the exercise, the deadline for this exercise shall be the 30th of July, 2012. I’m looking forward to seeing all your photographs. Happy shooting!
May I request you all, if it is possible, to please visit fellow photographers involved in this exercise and give them your feedback and criticism because this is one more way of improving ones skills and craft.
If you have any doubts or need any clarifications about this exercise, please leave a comment at the end of this post and I'll get back to you.

Other Exercises In This Series:

Exercises In Food Photography #1 : Aperture and DoF

Exercises In Food Photography #2 : Less Is More, So Let’s Keep It Simple!

Exercises In Food Photography #4 : Feature Just One Ingredient!

Exercises In Food Photography #5 : Adding Some Life To Your Photograph!

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