Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Advertisement food photography of Pepperidge Farm's Milano cookie and Pirouette waffle roll

I had a homework recently for the photography class I am taking. It's to shoot a photo of a commercial product and make an advertisement out of it. I got excited with this assignment because I could shoot some food photos and make them mouthwatering! It's also a taste of how real professional photographers and maybe photo editors do their jobs.

For this project, I especially did some research in the grocery store to look for the kind of food that might look good. At the same time, I was thinking about how to compose the photo to deliver the supporting information about the product. Finally, I decided to shoot Pepperidge Farm's cookies and waffle rolls.

Above is the final advertisement for the cookies. Below is the how I Photoshoped the original picture and added graphics to it.

The first one is the original photo. Although I shot it next to the window, it was still a little dark. I increased its exposure and the brightness & contrast to become the second image. Then I noticed the real cookies' chocolate filling wasn't as thick as that of the photo on the package, so I sampled the brown color from its chocolate and used the brush tool to paint the chocolate edge thicker. I also found a high-resolution logo of this company on the internet and added to this photo. Nice thing is when I shot the photo, I knew I was going to put words and graphics on it so I left enough space to fit them in. Now, the chocolate looks thicker and richer, but...ooops, fake too! To give it the natural look, I added some gloss along. Now much better! Not done yet! I gotta keep working. Since it's an advertisement, it'd be better if it could deliver some short and catchy literal information, so I was thinking so hard and eventually came up with this "Made with butter and love" slogan. I was satisfied with this "final version" for a day or so until when I opened the photo again and realized the cookie surface was too rough to match its "elegant European cookie"'s marketed image. I softened the surface and it finally looks fine.

Similarly I made the waffle roll advertisement photograph.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Chicken and jalapeno & bell pepper stir fry

When it comes to Chinese cuisine, you just can't miss Sichuan cuisine. Sichuan is a southwestern province of China, and my hometown is its capital city.

Unlike US, full of national chain restaurants with standardized recipes everywhere you go, in China, almost each province has its regional style, because it's a much less mobile country. Even when something local is good, it doesn't spread fast. This has changed slowly in the past couple of decades simply because people tend to travel more. However, cuisine style is still a regional thing, so the homemade food of a Shanghai family is definitely different from that of a Sichuan family. People in Shanghai like sweet taste, and basically add sugar to everything they cook, including what is supposed to be savory, and we just think it's so wrong. Roughly speaking, there are eight popular cuisine styles, named after the provinces they come from. Sichuan cuisine, is with no doubt the most spread and popular cuisine. I didn't realize how popular it was outside Sichuan until I went to Beijing for college. As the China's capital, it's home of every and each kind of Chinese cuisine. When I saw Sichuan style restaurants everywhere in Beijing, I felt kind of intimacy of home.

Sichuan cuisine is characterized by its hot and spicy taste. Chili pepper and Sichuan pepper are constant ingredients in many well known dishes. You may find chili pepper in other regional cuisines like Hunan cuisine, but Sichuan pepper is what tells it apart from anything else, or what I call the spirit of Sichuan cuisine!

This purplish red spice is the outer pod of some kind of fruit growing on the tree. Added to dishes as a whole or grounded, it creates a distinctive numb feeling on the tongue along with an exciting taste. Look at that little red pod, opening its mouth, so ready to give your tongue a bite! For people who never have it before, it might be intimidating, but for someone like me who grew up eating it, it's a must-have spice that never goes out of stock at home.

A lot of people got sick these days because of the change of season. Maybe some heat from jalapeno pepper and this Sichuan pepper would prevent you from the cold. Why not give it a try?

This chicken and jalapeno & bell peppers stir fry is developed from my mom's chicken and green chili pepper stir fry-干煸鸡. I still remember that after the last final exam of each semester, my mom would cook this dish as a reward of my hard-working. So it symbolizes relief and happiness to me.

2 lb chicken thigh (chicken breast though leaner, is less flavorful or tender)
5 jalapeno peppers
half red bell pepper
half yellow bell pepper 
a teaspoon whole Sichuan pepper
1 tsp minced fresh ginger
2 cloves of garlic
2 tbsp cooking oil
2 tbsp sugar or 1 package of Splenda
1 green onion
soy sauce & salt to taste
1. Dice the chicken into 1.5cm^2 cubes. Add 2tsp salt and 2tbsp cooking rice wine to marinate the chicken for 15 minutes. 
2. Mince garlic and ginger. Chop the green onion to half an inch long. Slice the peppers to strips.
3. Heat the cooking pot or wok on high heat and add oil.
4. When it’s smoking, add garlic and ginger into the pot. Stir quickly to avoid burning. Then add Sichuan pepper and keep stirring.
5. Add chicken cubes and keep stirring until all the watery liquid evaporates and the chicken gets lightly crunchy and burnt on the outside.It takes 15 minutes or  so, depending on your specific stove. 
6. Add peppers to keep stirring until the pepper gets soft. 
7. Add sugar, soy sauce and salt to taste. Turn off the heat and sprinkle green onion to serve.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Bell pepper egg-in-a-hole

It's exactly 20 minutes before my 26th birthday, when I am writing this line. I am older than a quarter century already! well, I still feel young inside, with plans to do this and that, to go here and there. My heart is still filled with hopes and dreams. I think I look young outside too. This evening, I was walking my dog in the neighborhood, when I came across some neighbor kids playing in front of their houses. They were interested in my dog first and then started a conversation with me. I asked their age and they asked me in return: "Are you a teenager?" I was laughing and said:"No, I am not." Then they grudgingly murmured:"Ar...are you an" I told them I would be 26 tomorrow; then they said happy birthday to me! It was a happy prelude! When I returned home from the dog walk, I immediately spotted a box lying at the door. It's my macro lens, ordered earlier this week using the money I earned from the food photography contest!! So I got myself a birthday present with that money. It came so in time.

Happy birthday to myself. I wish in this coming year, I can refine my food photography skills, take good care of this blog, and maybe at the same time take one step further into the design field by starting a professional level degree.

This afternoon I tried this recipe found on "Everyday food" by Martha Stewart. It's light, simple and tasty, great for breakfast or brunch. Enjoy Bell pepper egg-in-a-hole.

Serves 4
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 1 bell pepper (any color), cut into four 1/2-inch-thick rings
  • 4 large eggs
  • Coarse salt and ground pepper
  • 2 teaspoons grated Parmesan
  • 4 slices wholewheat bread, toasted
  • 8 cups mixed salad greens
1. In a large cast-iron or nonstick skillet, heat 1 teaspoon oil over medium-high. Add bell pepper, then crack 1 egg into the middle of each pepper ring.
2. Season with salt and pepper and cook until egg whites are mostly set but yolks are still runny, 2 to 3 minutes. Gently flip and cook 1 minute more for over easy. Sprinkle with Parmesan and place each egg on a slice of toast.
3. Toss salad greens with 1 teaspoon oil and season with salt and pepper; serve alongside eggs.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Guacamole & homemade low carb chips

Before sharing the recipe, I want to share my personal story.

Compared to those lucky guys who know what they want early in life and jump right in, I took a detour. My major in college was biology. In my home country, high school graduates have to choose their college major the summer even before college actually starts, and once chosen, it's incredibly difficult to change. Well, that's how China's higher education system is like. It sucks!! I chose biology because I was doing pretty well in high school, and we heard that biology is a front-line scientific field to explore so it's the most popular major back then. I wish we had some career consultants or workshop to let us know how important choosing a college major was. Well, having no idea what biology research was like, I chose it as many A students.

In college, I was selected into the extremely competitive Honors Program. They chose 50 students from 3500 freshmen to try this new elite program. Everyone thought students in this program were the smartest. Well, my vanity made it even harder to say goodbye to this.  While I got frustrated with biochemistry, molecular biology, analytical chemistry, college maths and physics classes, everyone in my class was talking about applying for graduate school overseas. Trying to prove I was as good as others, I, without a brain, joined them and got an offer as expected. This is the second big mistake I made.

In grad school, I started doing research in the laboratory environment. If the earlier stupidity was still hopeful, this time it's desperate. I saw by my own eyes how scientists do research in the lab and write papers  for tens of years until the end of their career. Imagining devoting my whole life working on something as microbial as, say, a membrane protein in E. coli is just suffocating. Everyday I was fighting with myself. "What am I doing? how long am I gonna be like this? I can't stand it any longer! Where is the end?" while another voice was saying" you have come a long way to get where you are. You just can't give up!! Hang in there. Everything will be fine. Don't disappoint your parents. No one totally likes what they do, but it's part of life." My mental world was completely torn apart. Seeing people busy with their research project, satisfied and happy, I was so jealous. Everyone is better at certain things than others. Happy for those who found it, I myself was still seeking. Finally, I quit the PhD program and left with a master degree.


This experience isn't completely a waste of time. On the contrary, I am grateful. I learned not to do something just because I am told to or I am supposed to, or for some superficial vanity. I learned to be honest with what I am.  I explored and understood my inner needs and desires, and I more respect the natural me.

I think my right side of the brain-the creativity part was better developed than the analytical left side when I was brought to this world, but it was left unexplored for over 20 years. Now it's time back to track! I registered a drawing class and bought a SLR camera to take photographs. I was the only one in my class who didn't take high school drawing, but the professor gave me A+ for the first assignment. Mostly importantly, I enjoy what I do. I find pleasure and satisfaction from the process of drawing and food photography. Besides classes, I work part-time in a graphic design shop. Design is another thing I like. Completely ignorant when I first started this job, I learn and progress bit by bit every day.

I saw something like this recently: Happy lives are similar-have someone to love, have something to do, and have some hope. Well, I have all, and I indeed feel happy.

 My first taste of avocado can't be described as pleasant. Neither sweet nor tangy and with some weirdly mild flavor, this muddy fruit almost made me throw up. I didn't touch it for a long time until I tried guacamole in a restaurant. wow, it tasted so good! Rich, spicy and savory, it got me at the first bite. I couldn't believe it was made of avocado. That flavorless dark green weirdo? I decided to make it by myself. Since then, it's been a constant snack food in our home. To go with it, I also came up with this low carb chips made of low carb tortilla.


3 avocados - peeled, pitted, and mashed 
1 lime, juiced 
1 teaspoon salt 
1/2 cup diced onion 
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro 
2 roma (plum) tomatoes, diced 
1 teaspoon minced garlic 
1 pinch ground cayenne pepper (optional)

1. In a medium bowl, mash together the avocados, lime juice, and salt. 
2. Mix in onion, cilantro, tomatoes, and garlic. Stir in cayenne pepper. 
3. Refrigerate 1 hour for best flavor, or serve immediately.

Low carb chips

1. Cut one low carb tortilla into 8 pie shaped pieces.Lay on a baking pan and spray PAM evenly to coat the chips.  
2. Bake in a preheated 350F oven for 10 mins or until turn gold. 
3. Cool them down before serving.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

NY state fair in Syracuse on Labor Day

I finally saw the movie "Eat Pray Love", in a drive-in theater!! This is my first experience with drive-ins. I like it so far. It allows you to eat in your car during the movie, no matter whatever strange noise you make; it lets you discuss the movie with your friends and not worry about other people. You can adjust your seat to the perfect angle, and you can control the volume of the movie! The radio quality was pretty good to watch a movie like this, but if you are picky about the sound quality, especially of action movies, drive-ins might not be as good. Popular in the old days, it's almost impossible to find a drive-in theater in metropolitan areas. I am really glad to have such an experience to understand more of America's car culture.

Back to the topic of the title. Yesterday my husband and I went to Syracuse to catch the last day of the 21-day state fair. It was outrageously grand!!! It had everything you expected to see, and only more! Fair food, rides, exhibition, shows, sale, parade, competition... I was shocked to see how many food vendors there were. They took more than 1/3 of the whole fair space. For each single kind of food, say funnel cake, they had at least over 10 different vendors. When I was still overwhelmed by what to eat and which to buy from, I followed the crowd into a building and found even more food indoors. Well, I was speechless...Since we skipped breakfast, we were so hungry when getting there. Naturally our first destination was food. My husband got roast turkey leg, and couldn't wait to gobble it when I screamed "No!! hold on!!! I need a picture!" He grudged to hold it until I was done. Taking food photos is annoying sometimes, I know, especially when people want to eat so bad. I try not to take photos when eating with friends or families, just not to wanna piss them off:)

This is the big turkey leg.

Then he got the "so bad for the body but must eat" funnel cake, dusted with sugar powder. Deep-fried and too sweet, indeed a heart attack bomb!

After the stomachs got satisfied, we headed to the rides to get some craziness and dizziness. Then we strolled in the crowd to see people playing games, drawing caricatures, vendors selling stuff.Of course, I took a bunch of food photos too! It's quite a nice day!

When the darkness descended, and the lights got turned on, the night looked so colorfully cheerful!!

Does looking at the photos make you any bit dizzy? If so, it's time for bed, have a good night!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

XXL chocolate chip cookies

When it comes to chocolate chip cookies, it's like "a thousand readers have a thousand Hamlet", some like it crunchy, some soft, or rich, or thin, or thick, or nutty...

Mine is thick or you call it fat, soft inside and crunchy outside. I used a popular recipe online, and made some adjustment. It turned out to be a big difference, and I am announcing that it is a happy accident. Baking is like chemistry! You think the little changes you make don't matter, but they can make surprising effects. Lucky for me, this little change I made did me good, and it makes the cookies so thick, moist and soft. The richness of each bite is just beyond my description. I didn't realize it was so different because I didn't eat too many cookies in my life, until my husband tried and took them to work to share with people. They just love them!! They even request more over and over again. Someone even wanted to pay $12 for a dozen!

Ok, what's the secret? What makes them so different? It's Splenda!! I haves the portion of white sugar and substitute with Splenda, just the small powder packages, not the crystal kind for baking. The reason might be that unlike crystallized sugar, the powder Splenda doesn't melt at high heat and so the cookies don't spread out as much as normal, so they turn out super fat!!

1 cup butter ( 2 sticks) softened
1/2 cup white sugar
12 packets of Splenda
1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp hot water
1/2 tsp salt
2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup chopped walnuts

1. Preheat oven @ 350F
2. Blend butter, white sugar, Splenda, brown sugar
3. Beat in eggs one at a time. Stir in vanilla. Dissolve baking soda in water, then add to batter. Add salt, flour, chocolate chips and nuts. Drop by large spoonfuls onto pans
4. Bake 10 minutes 

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Farmers' market in the summer

I simply love summer. A variety of colors, a variety of fruits and vegetables and flowers. It is the season to go outdoors to have a feast for the eyes, and of course stomach too. I am amazed by such red, green, yellow vibrancy in this vibrant season. 

I like going to farmers' market to feed my eyes and my camera, to talk to local farmers, listening to their passion about growing organic food and gardening. Also only from here, can you get some idea what food comes out in what season, while in grocery stores, you find them on selves all the year round. 

Another reason is that farmers' market also reminds me of similar markets in my hometown when I grew up. We had such markets scattered in the neighborhood, each one within walking distance from home.  For a long time, farmers' markets were the one and only one source of buying groceries, while western style supermarkets are a more recent thing, with less than 15 years of history in China.

People tended to stop by the markets to get their dinner ingredients on their way of biking home from work. Also often, my dad was cooking, when he realized something was out. Asked to get it immediately, I ran downstairs into the street and came back with it in my hand within 15 minutes.

People chatted with the sellers, bargained the price, discussed how to cook what they just bought. Almost always, you ran into your neighbors in the market and stopped to catch up for quite a while before heading back your own way.

Oh, those were the good old days...