Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Where Do I Get My Recipes? Plus My Strawberry-Rhubarb Sorbet

“Where do you get your recipes?” I’ve probably been asked this several hundred times over the years. Variations on this theme: “Do you test your recipes?” And, “Where do you get your ideas for recipes?”

 As a rule, I create new recipes or revamp my older ones rather than borrowing and adapting from other authors or cookbooks. I have a huge data base of recipes developed for the various books and articles I’ve written over several decades, so it just makes sense to draw on them. I fiddled with them until I was happy and am certain they work, so why not!? (I also started out in an era when editors insisted on receiving original work and were partly buying the author’s particular “way with food,” so I just naturally like to proceed this way.)

Since I’ve already talked here about the importance of testing recipes and of delivering interesting recipes here, you can probably guess that the answer is a loud, “YES, I TEST!” Frankly, it seems like more trouble to make up the quantities and instructions than to just try things out and note down the steps! Plus, it peeves me mightily when I waste time and ingredients on a recipe that's supposed to be tweaked and in final form, and I figure that you feel this way, too. And, in the case of blog posts, the finished dish has to be prepared anyway in order to take pics.

 As for where I get my ideas for recipes? Anywhere and everywhere. Often, an ingredient, like tomatoes, or apples, or bananas will be in season or need to be used. Which leads to a dish that provides an opportunity to enjoy the ingredient myself. Peach cake or raspberry  cobbler anyone?

Sometimes, food editors already have their hearts set on certain recipes or topics—like five, fast, nourishing soups, or easy chocolate sweets for a Valentine’s sweetie. In which case, I suggest a list of basic recipe ideas, and they select the ones they’d like to see.

 Often, a dish I’ve tasted in a restaurant or at an event inspires a recipe. A strawberry-rhubarb sorbet similar to the one here was my dessert enjoyed during lunch with a long-time friend in May. I’ve always loved this flavor combo, and was also taken with the color and silky texture, so came home and set to work. The starting point was a strawberry sorbet I’d once readied, but since rhubarb is very tart and had to be cooked, a whole new method and set of proportions had to be devised.

 The bad news was that it took three tries. The good news was that I got to eat a lot of pretty good, then good, then first-rate (IMHO) sorbet!

Strawberry-Rhubarb Sorbet

I was surprised when I did an internet search on strawberry-rhubarb sorbet that so few versions seem to be around. Yes, a goodly number of sites are featuring the dish with this name, but, astonishingly, almost every single one is actually adapted from my friend David Lebovitz’s recipe in his popular book, The Perfect Scoop!

So, I’m proud to be able to make a contribution to the literature and offer you something truly different to try. This one is smooth, zesty, and refreshing, with just a touch more strawberry than rhubarb flavor coming through. Enjoy!

 2 cups 1/2-inch square rhubarb pieces
 1 cup water, plus more if needed
 3/4 cup granulated sugar
 1/3 cup light corn syrup
 3 cups coarsely chopped fresh strawberries

Thoroughly stir together the rhubarb, water, sugar, and corn syrup in a medium-sized, nonreactive saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring, then adjust the heat so the mixture boils gently. Cook until the rhubarb pieces are soft and falling apart; this can vary from 3 to 7 minutes. Remove from the heat; let cool to warm.

 Combine the rhubarb and strawberries in a food processor. Process until the rhubarb and berries are completely pureed, but don’t try to puree the seeds as they will make the mixture bitter. If the mixture is too thick to strain, stir in a little more water to make it more fluid. Press and stir it through a sieve (one fine enough to catch the seeds) into a nonreactive storage bowl. Scrape off and use any sieved pulp clinging to the bottom of the sieve.

Cover and refrigerate the strained mixture for at least 2 and up to 24 hours. Chill the ice cream freezer tub as required if the instructions call for this. Process the mixture in the ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Place the sorbet in a pre-chilled storage container and freeze, airtight, until firmed up at least 2 hours. Keeps for up to a week. Makes 1 scant quart.

If the strawberry-rhubarb combo appeals, check out this fine cobbler at right here. Other sorbets you may like, blackberry plum and minted lime:


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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Getting to Yes on Foodgawker and Tastespotting (My Six-Month Journey, Plus Tips)

If you’ve heard that getting your photos on Foodgawker or Tastespotting is guaranteed to boost your food blog traffic, it’s true. Depending on the image and subject, your page views resulting directly from a single pic posted on either of these sites can top 300 to 400 or more daily for several days. Plus, these sites archive everything posted, so traffic continues to trickle in over time. (One tidbit I’ve learned: A tasty shot of a popular item like tomato soup, blueberry muffins  or raspberry cobbler will land you more hits than even a very arresting pic of a more esoteric recipe, such as the lavender syrup pic or the strawberry-rhubarb sorbet  both shown on the left below.)

The gotcha, which you probably already know, is that both of these so-called “food porn” sites are notoriously picky and quirky. Don’t even think about submitting unless your masterpiece satisfies these minimal criteria: attractively prepared and presented food; the image in sharp (but not unnatural) focus; exposure neither overly dark or light; and the pic cropped attractively into a square 72 dpi format.  (BTW, submitting "trendy" photos will help you, too; here's a post with more pics and  how to tell if your shots are "in" right now!)

 About 6 months ago, I decided to make a concerted effort to break in to Foodgawker and Tastespotting. I’d taken some very general “how-to photograph food” sessions at culinary conferences, so I knew that most experts recommend shooting food in natural light.

And over the years, I’d picked up a few food styling tips watching stylists I’d worked with. I was also armed with the basic photo-editing skills of cropping, sizing, and slightly enhancing images using the Adobe Elements 8 software.

That said, I was bracing for some rejections, because, in my heart of hearts, I knew my photography “lacked.” Still, the string of no’s and negative reviewer comments ranging from, underexposed, overexposed, dull/unsharp, over-processed, flat, harsh lighting, composition too tight, and the biggie, “poor composition,” was even longer and more deflating than I’d expected.

When the first yes finally came (after about a month of regularly trying), I was as excited as if my latest cookbook had just made the bestseller list! Well almost!

 To get right to the grim nitty-gritty stats, I had to submit about ten pics to both Foodgawker and Tastespotting before my first one was published. In each case, my initial “winner,” (the raspberry cobbler at right was one) was rejected by the other site. This is one reason I strongly recommend submitting to both at once: It’s proof (not to mention a salve to the ego) that the selection process is highly subjective—that one photo reviewer’s “good enough” is another’s “garbage,” that beauty really is in the eye of the beholder! (A Foodgawker ad for an entry-level photo editor/reviewer recently listed starting pay as $15 an hour, another reminder that judgments aren’t necessarily infallible assessments of mighty photo gods!)

Interestingly, although the two sites often seem to like and dislike different shots, statistically, they’ve been equally picky. Gradually, as I’ve learned and adapted, the rate of acceptance has risen, and on both sites one out of every two or three of my submissions now passes muster. (And I’m hoping for even better numbers in the future.) But I still haven’t cracked the code on which site will like what. If you have, please comment here and fill me in!

While criticism is never easy to take, the bits of feedback these sites always provide when rejecting photos are a key reason my success rate has gone up and my photography is getting noticeably better. The comments have helped me correct many basic exposure/lighting/processing problems in just a few months. That said, these two often don’t agree on even technical issues: The raspberry cobbler shot was summarily bounced by Foodgawker for harsh lighting and composition, but was promptly posted by Tastespotting. And the hot fudge sundae pic at left was run by Foodgawker yet rejected by Tastespotting for exactly the same reasons!  One image that both apparently liked was the lavender buttercream-filled macarons below.

Actually, I found the feedback so valuable, I decided to actually seek out and hire a professional food photographer to look at some of my shots and discuss with me in detail what I needed to improve. I learned so much from just a single phone consultation, that I highly recommend this approach to you, too. The photographer I worked with was Susan Powers; she was both extremely pleasant and helpful, and her fee was quite reasonable. She can be reached at susan@susanpowersphotography.com

Today, my submissions to Foodgawker and Tastespotting tend to be rejected for “composition issues," doubtless the most subjective and complex of all aspects evaluated. Sometimes I take the criticism to heart, but other times, especially when the photo has been accepted at the competing site and I really like it, I’ve gained enough confidence in my own judgment to just chalk it up to reviewers’ differing personal tastes. A version of the pic of the strawberry-rhubarb sorbet below was submitted to both sites today, and  both rejected it. I resubmitted the version below and Foodgawker is running it, but Tastespotting objected to the composition. I remain convinced that it's a beautiful shot and really like the composition.

Was investing the considerable amount of time and the constant eating of humble pie required to get to yes with Foodgawker and Tastespotting worth it? Absolutely! Besides the benefit of increased site traffic, I know I’m shooting and posting better photos on my blog. It’s extremely gratifying to finally be able to take pics that really do my recipes justice, as well as simply to possess the ability to personally create truly pleasing images.

 Should you decide to take on the challenge yourself, here are a few tips that have helped me:

>Always respond positively to the feedback from photo critiques and remind yourself that nobody is deliberately picking on you! Yes, reviewers are wrong sometimes, but if you keep hearing the same criticisms over and over, accept that they’re preventing your work from being published and address the problems. I'm told by Chuck at Foodgawker that they have different morning, evening and weekend editors, so unless you always submit at the same time on week days, be assured that more than one person is critiquing your work.  At Tastespotting, in contrast, a single person makes all the final decisions; this is a good thing to keep in mind.

>Plan to devote at least a number of hours (8 to 10 or more if possible) a week to shooting and re-shooting, photo-editing and re-editing, and submitting and occasionally resubmitting based on criticisms received. Not only can a lot be learned over time through trial and error, but what’s learned will soon show in improved images. (My pics are so much better these days that just this weekend a relative asked me if somebody else was now taking my photos!) And persevering by making changes and resubmitting once or twice instead of falling into a funk can sometimes turn a no into a yes.

>As two of my foodie colleagues, Nancy Buchanan and Susie Kuack point out, for these particular sites, composing vertical or square shots tend to work better than horizontal because ultimately images must be cropped to a square and submitted in a 300 by 300 pixel (or similar) format. And as Nancy advises, take shots both close in and farther out so you have the flexibility to submit close-up and broader view images if you’re told that your photo is cropped too tight or too wide.

>Understand that “food porn” sites are looking for more than just command of the technical aspects of photography. Even professionals are bounced if their food looks like mud or is crudely presented, because visitors to these sites come to be enticed by beautiful and seductive, not average-looking, fare. Simply slapping a piece of cake down on a dingy plate smeared with icing and cluttered with globs and crumbs will sink you, so develop  some food styling expertise and obtain at least a minimum set of props (dishes, napkins, silverware, and such).  Take a course; look closely how the food is presented in appealing photos; read some food styling how-to books. Here are two good books by Delores Custer and Denise Vivaldo, two of the many stylists whose work I greatly admire. And start building a prop collection. If budget is an issue, shop yard sales, secondhand shops, etc., and stick mostly with white and light-colored dishware, which is most versatile and also shows off food particularly well.

 >Start getting a feel for what photo reviewers mean by good composition. Composition refers to how the total space is used and IMHO is the hardest aspect to grasp and even begin to master. As a starting point, realize that you actually have to compose your shots! Just plopping a round bowl or plate of food  in the center of the square pic usually isn't sufficient; something more visually exciting (but not distracting) has to be going on. Both sites ran the maple custard pie pic (right) and raspberry ice cream pic (above), which, as you can see, add interest to the round in the center though the use of colorful, strategically placed linens and cutlery. In the raspberry buttercream topped cookie shot below not only do linens add interest by echoing the frosting swirl, but the dark color of the tea in the cup helps balance the intense raspberry hue of the frosting.

 The topic is enormously complicated though, because so many elements, from line, color, mass, form, texture and white space, come into play. I’ve learned most of what I now know simply by looking at hundreds of pics on Foodgawker and Tastespotting and carefully analyzing why certain images are visually appealing. And, or course, practicing, helps me learn what  works and what doesn't. I’m guessing that this approach will work for you, too.

>Use at least a reasonably good dslr camera; a cheap model designed for taking snapshots of the kids won't do. I started with a Nikon D40, then upgraded to a secondhand Nikon D200. I immediately noticed that the images looked better, plus the larger viewer allowed me to frame and preview pics more easily (thus helping me improve compositions). (I'm sure other brands of comparable quality would serve equally well.) Pros suggest using a tripod and shooting tethered so you can preview images on a full computer screen, but I usually don't bother. They also suggest shooting "raw," meaning you have larger images with more information so you have more options when working with/fixing the pics using photo-editing software. I always shoot raw.

So now you see, step by step, one way it can be done. Getting to yes with Foodgawker and Tastespotting isn’t a matter of magic, luck, or who you know. It may not even require an innate sense of design or artistic talent or training, though these doubtless help a lot. If your pics are already regularly or even occasionally being posted on these sites, please do share any insights and suggestions. I’d love to hear your personal story and approach.

Oh yes! And feel free to post your comments about any images presented here. My skin has gotten thick and I can take it!

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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Lavender for Sweet Remembrance, Plus a Lavender-Blackberry Syrup

It’s said that aromas can remain with us and trigger memories for a lifetime; I’m certain this is true. I clearly remember the clean, sweet herb scent of lavender sachets wafting up whenever my beautiful, gentle mother slid open the drawers or her highboy dresser or dabbed Yardley English Lavender cologne behind her ears. And though she died far too young (and deeply mourned) more than forty years ago, just a whiff of lavender in my garden or kitchen today instantly calls her up—still vibrant and in good health—in my mind’s eye.

With such an intensely pleasant association, I would have to love lavender. (See another post and recipe here.) But it’s only in the last several decades that I’ve enjoyed it in more than sachets, soaps, and perfumes. Since my mother didn’t grow any herbs in her garden, I started out knowing almost nothing other than that the dried herb was aromatic and that the distinctive purple flowers pictured in the romantic, Victorian-style images on her lavender bath products were charming.

 A whole succession  of English regents used lavender. Queen Elizabeth I reportedly had a sweet tooth and always had a lavender conserve at hand  to enjoy. Later, Queen Victoria used it lavishly and was largely responsible for its enormous popularity in the 19th century,  as this quote from an 1895 book, Fragrant Flowers, suggests: “The royal residences are strongly impregnated with the refreshing odour of this old-fashioned flower, and there is no perfume that the Queen likes better than Lavender-water, which, together with the oil for disinfecting purposes, Her Majesty has direct from a lady who distills it herself.”

The association of lavender with antimacassar lace and staid Victorian ladies, plus the arrival of more and more seemingly magical chemical air fresheners, deodorants, and disinfectants after 1900 doubtless account for it gradually falling out of favor in the second half of the 20th century. Up until the last twenty years or so, at least in the mid-Atlantic region, only a few herbalists and specialty growers were carrying lavender, and even fewer sold fresh blooms or live plants. Dried lavender was marketed almost exclusively for soap and candle crafting and very rarely suggested as an ingredient in cooking.

 Now, thank goodness, this glorious herb is making a comeback, having captured the fancy of 21st century aromatherapy and culinary fans, as well as those suspicious of chemical additives and turning to natural enhancers again. I started growing lavender in the early 1990s, at first strictly as a garden ornamental. The curved spires are graceful and eye-catching and attract butterflies, plus I revel in the refreshing spicy-citrus aroma whenever I walk past.

Truthfully, here in my Maryland yard cultivation is a bit of a challenge: The soil is heavy and mostly clay, and lavenders like it light and sandy. Much of my yard is shady, and lavenders prefer full sun. Many of the English lavenders whither from our intense summer heat, and the French lavenders are often killed by our occasional hard winter freezes.

 Some of my California foodie friends report that lavender grows like a weed for them; dare I say I’m green with envy!? But so far the only variety I’ve found that thrives here in summer and survives the winter left in the ground (usually, if well mulched) is Provence. Fortunately, its foliage is a pleasing green-gray, its bracts daintily shaped, and its tiny blooms an arresting purple-blue; see the pic below right. And, most important, its taste is bright, with a lively mix of floral, spice, lemon, and pine notes, so it is a fine choice for culinary use.

 About ten years ago, I began experimenting with lavender in the kitchen and only wish I’d done so sooner. It adds a haunting, almost addictive dimension to baked goods such as shortbreads and to certain fruit and berry recipes, especially ones featuring blackberries, peaches or lemons. Try tossing in a couple lavender heads to infuse poached berries, or a sorbet mixture, or jelly or jam; fish them out when the cooking is done.

Note that the bracts and tiny blooms they hold, not the leaves, are the edible parts of this herb. Also, be sure to purchase “culinary grade” dried lavender for cooking purposes. Lavender for craft projects is not processed under the same standards and may not have an appealing flavor profile either. One sign that lavender is back in the mainstream: McCormick is now carrying it in its gourmet bottled herb line.

Lavender-Blackberry Simple Syrup

Lavender recipes as not as common in 18th and 19th century cookbooks as I expected.  The "receipt" I liked best was in the 1832 The Cook's Own Book, by Mary Middleton Rutledge Fogg. To make "Lavender Drops" she called  for filling a quart bottle with "blossoms of lavender," and pouring over "as much brandy as it will contain..." She recommended a few drops of  the strained mixture with a bit of sugar  for "nervous cases;" I'm thinking the brandy might have had more to do with any calming effect than then lavender.

 I don't claim that this syrup has any medicinal properties whatsoever, it just tastes uniquely herbal-floral and pleasing. Splash or drizzle this syrup over mixed fruit compotes, or dishes of berries, melon, peaches or sliced nectarines. Add a little scoop of ice cream or sorbet and perhaps a pedestal serving dish, for light and simple, yet elegant sundaes like the one shown here. And do experiment with stirring a little syrup into hard or soft beverages; it is particularly winning paired with lemon drinks of all sorts.

Depending on the variety, brand, and degree of freshness, dried lavender can be fairly mild or boldly flavored to the point of  being overpowering. Take a sniff and then add in between 1 and 1 1/2 tablespoons, as seems appropriate. Note that the blackberries are mostly incorporated for color. If desired, you can leave them out, in which case the syrup will have very pale grayish-lavender color instead.

Tip: The syrup needs to be stored, airtight, in the refrigerator.

 3/4 cup granulated sugar
 3/4 cup water
 2 tablespoons clover honey or light corn syrup
 4 to 6 fresh blackberries, washed, drained, and mashed with a fork
 1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons dried lavender blooms

Stir together the sugar, water, honey, lavender, and blackberries in a 1-quart saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil, stirring, then adjust the heat so the mixture boils gently. Cook, without stirring for 6 to 7 minutes until the berries soften and break apart. Remove from the heat. Stir in the lavender. Let stand so the lavender can more fully infuse the syrup 30 minutes or up to an hour for a bolder taste.

Bring the syrup just back to a full boil again, then strain it through a fine sieve into a clean sterilized bottle or jar. Press down lightly to force through all the liquid. Let cool to room temperature and store, refrigerated, for up to 2 weeks. Makes about 2/3 cup syrup.  The recipe can be doubled if desired.

For a lavender buttercream recipe for cookies and French macarons go here.
Or, to make a lavender-infused limoncello liqueur, go here.
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Friday, July 13, 2012

Steamy Kitchen's Jaden Hair Shares Her Secrets to Successful Blogging

As part of my ongoing series of posts called "Secrets to Successful Food Blogging," I'm thrilled to spotlight one of my favorite bloggers--Jaden Hair. Unless you live in an extremely remote corner of the food blogosphere, you are almost certainly already familiar with this exuberant and pretty young dynamo and her mega-blog, Steamy Kitchen.

In case you haven't met her in person, Jaden has a cheery disposition, enthusiastic, can-do attitude, and, apparently, boundless energy.  Enough energy  to not only host and maintain her enormously popular, award-winning Steamy Kitchen blog, but to write several food columns, make regular chef appearances on television and radio shows, frequently speak at conferences, and maintain a major presence in social media. She has, for example, about 120,000 Twitter followers!

Oh, yes, and she is raising a young family (pictured at the bottom) and has authored The Steamy Kitchen Cookbook.  Not only did she create the recipes, but learned food photography so she could take the pictures for it. (Naturally, she has other book projects in mind.)

Jaden and I met several years ago during a flight to a blogging conference in San Francisco. I'm happy to confide that she is every bit as friendly in person as the photo above suggests.  I noticed her blogging in the seat next to me, realized that we were already Twitter friends, and struck up a  conversation.  We have kept in touch and talked shop at conferences ever since.

Here's what Jaden had to say when I asked her to account for the enormous popularity of  Steamy Kitchen: "Every time I create a recipe and post, I'm always asking myself, 'Is this the very best recipe about Pork Belly Buns (or whatever the recipe is) online?' I think that single question is what makes Steamy Kitchen so popular. I always strive to publish the very best post, whether it's through humor, photography, step by step photos or easiest recipe. My audience obviously loves my Asian recipes, but the majority of them also enjoy simple methods and good solid shortcuts. The Pork Belly Buns (pictured below) are especially great because I provide a real shortcut for the buns - a tip from my Mom!" 

Q:  Why did you start your blog? Has the experience been what you expected?
A:  I started the blog just to document the recipes that my Mom would dictate to me over the phone. She lived in California and I had just moved to Florida, so our communication was always over the phone, talking about recipes. (Here was one of my very first posts:  it was about chinese-long-beans.) When I first signed up for Wordpress, never in my wildest dreams did I think Steamy Kitchen would become our family business. However, about 3 months into the blog, I realized that this was my calling. I enjoyed blogging, creating recipes, talking about food and being part of this amazing online community so much that I decided to find a way to make blogging a full time "job."

Q: What are the most helpful discoveries you made as you gained experience that improved your blog or changed your approach?
A:  The first discovery that I made was community is everything. I try to attend every single food blogging event and be an active member in nurturing our community. You'll always see me introducing new bloggers to each other, giving advice in every way possible and creating local gatherings. Community also extends online - Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest - there are so many ways to participate! Probably the most important discovery was that authentic generosity is the heart and soul of blogging. Giving to give (not to get) and loving the process of giving is everything. This applies to friendship, community, the recipes I create, the information I provide for each recipe or post, communication with readers and mentoring bloggers.
Q:  Do you have any secrets to success or advice you could share with other food bloggers?
A:  I think what I said above--generosity of spirit, along with always creating the very best that I can-- has everything  to do with the success of the blog.

Steamy Kitchen is truly a family business. My husband is the web developer (or what he describes as the ".com" of the business) and my boys have equal say in what we do, posts that we write. They even help me quite a bit in the kitchen. We've made this an entire family affair and I'd love to see more bloggers do the same.

Q: Any interesting insights to share about how you write, come up with recipes, test, photograph, etc.?
A: My boys sometimes have a hankering for a certain dish and so I'll create a recipe and post around that. I'm very spontaneous and organic. I'll cook throughout the week and on Mondays, I have a chef assistant that comes to my home We spend all day re-cooking the top dishes of the week before and we'll test and refine the recipes. ###

You might also like to read my interviews with Life's a Feast's Jamie Schler,  or 5-Second Rule's Cheryl Sternman Rule,  or perhaps Will Write for Food's Dianne Jacobs.  Each one has her own fascinating insights to share on how to create a successful food blog.

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Thursday, July 5, 2012

Wanna Be a Better Food Writer?—3 Key Writing Exercises to Try

A while back David Leite of Leites Culinaria and I teamed up and had fun teaching a food writing workshop at a BlogHer food bloggers' convention in Atlanta. The pics here show David enjoying some conference down time at Atlanta's very charming and historic Sweet Auburn Curb Market (see details here).

In our fairly focused and fast-paced session, David and I dished up a lot of how-to info, and our audience seemed highly receptive. (David is not only a fine writer but also an entertaining speaker and all round likeable guy! ) I previously posted a hand-out with the nitty-gritty of what we covered in the session called Seven Steps to Tastier Food Writing, in case you're interested in the details.

While it was great to hear from  attendees that they'd found our presentation useful and enjoyable, actually practicing the techniques mentioned is  usually the key to writing better. Improving writing skills is very much a matter of learning by doing.

Here are some writing exercises I've given out for attendees to practice in some of my previous day-long writing workshops. After they practice a few minutes, I ask volunteers to read what they produced--the improvement in their prose is usually dramatic!  Often, students say the hands-on activities are the most effective part of the whole day. And occasionally, I hear from former students that the exercise worksheets have been helpful long after they took my class.  I'm positive you'll see improvements if you take the time to try them. (And your little self-paced tutorial is completely free!) If you do try them, PLEASE come comment on your results.

Practice Exercise 1--Use Active Verbs
Concentrate on using strong, active verbs to power your sentences. First, watch a TV chef or a friend cooking, or perhaps observe what's happening at a famers' market. Then write several paragraphs describing the activity. Use only interesting, meaningful verbs and only active voice. (For a handy list of culinary action verbs, go here.) Try to make the reader visualize the action and scene.

Be careful to avoid sentences like, "The vegetables were being laid out in the stall." This is passive voice, which imparts relatively little information, and is dull, dull, dull. Instead, be livelier, clearer, and more direct by saying who is prepping and what exactly he or she is doing. Here's an example of  the active voice construction: "The old man at the produce stall deftly shucked away the green husks, plucked off the silk, and stacked the ears of corn neatly in a woven basket at the end of his counter." Better, don't you think?

 Practice Exercise 2--Choose Vivid Adjectives and Adverbs 
 Describe a dish or ingredient so enticingly that peeps will be drooling for it. If you create recipes, pick one and write an introduction so readers will know exactly what to expect if they make it. Start by repeatedly tasting the food yourself and noting down the interesting details. Remember that food stimulates all the senses, so pay attention to not only the taste, but texture and aroma and even the sounds involved in eating it. (For a whole post on writing recipe intros or headnotes, go here.)

Be sure to use specific and thoughtfully-chosen adjectives and adverbs. One cookbook editor I've worked with warns authors that she only allows one "delicious," per book! Here is a perfect example of adjectives and adverbs she does NOT want to see: "This apple crisp is quite mouthwatering and very delicious and would be scrumptious for dessert." I bet she'd become apoplectic if she read that one!

Merely being more specific and fresher will make your prose more vivid and compelling, as you can see in the following example from my All-American Dessert Book: "This voluptuous, generous pie will disappear quickly. The filling is deeply lemony and packs a little puckery punch; the meringue is cloud-like and not overly sweet."  

Practice Exercise 3--Self-Edit Your Prose
 Self-editing enables a writer to pare away wordy phrases and passages, cut clich├ęs, rework passive constructions, eliminate redundancies, and improve word choices. Try editing a passage you wrote and allowed to sit a few days by reducing the word count by at least a third (without deleting any key information). Unless you write extraordinarily "tight," it will be easier to do than you think! Your rewrite will be much more compelling; if you compare the before and after versions, you'll see for yourself!

For more pics and info on the Sweet Auburn Curb Market,  go here.

For another popular post on a different aspect of food writing, check out "Five Things NEVER to Say to a Food Editor."
Or perhaps you'd like, "Food Writing Lessons I've Learned the Hard Way."
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Sunday, July 1, 2012

American Blueberries Are Back-Time for Blueberry-Apple Crumb Bars

Big, plump American blueberries are just beginning to return to our markets now, and I’m celebrating by eating as many of these succulent frosty-blue beauties as I can. I had a big bowl “plain,” this morning for breakfast, and then some with a dollop of yogurt for lunch. Just now, I snacked on a blueberry streusel bar made this afternoon, though the batch was baked to be served as dessert tonight. No reason not to enjoy another bar with a scoop of ice cream after dinner, right?

Blueberries are native to North America, and together the U.S. and Canadian growers produce over 200 million pounds annually, about four-fifths of the world crop. Considering that nobody was even marginally successful at cultivating wild blueberries up until 1916 and many said it was impossible, we should be grateful that they’re plentiful today.

The first breakthrough came around 1912, when a Whitesbog, New Jersey, horticulturist, Elizabeth C. White, whose family was already well-known in the cranberry business (and still is today as I learned during a visit there) teamed up with USDA agricultural scientist Dr. Frederick Coville. First, Miss White drew up specific criteria and sent out local woodland inhabitants called “Pineys” to collect the best possible wild blueberry specimens from the surrounding area. She paid $2 a bush, and promised that any that turned out to be successfully cultivated would be named after the finder.

 She and Dr. Coville began trying to propagate the plants, as she later described in an article published in Success magazine in 1927: “Next we cut up the bushes into pieces, sometimes as many as a hundred pieces to a bush. These were planted under glass in carefully prepared propagating beds. But for a long time we had very poor luck; only about 10% of the plants lived. Finally, we narrowed down to six varieties which seemed in every way suitable for commercial production, Rubel, Harding, Sam, Grover, Adams and Dunfee.”

 She explained that the Sam variety was named for finder Sam Lemmon; calling it the Lemmon bush was deemed too confusing. The Rubel was named for Rube Leek; she said that neither Rube nor Leek seemed suitable for the variety that turned out to be “the keystone” of their blueberry breeding program. (It is still important, perhaps due to the high antioxidant content and flavor of the berries; nurseries continue to sell the Rubel today.) For more info on early blueberry cultivation at Whitesbog, go here.

The research eventually led to a whole new North American agricultural crop that's in demand today, as well as a new business at the farm. Propagated plants were shipped all over the country, and are now extensively grown in North Carolina and Michigan, as well as in Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and New England. Little wonder that the blueberry is the official state fruit of New Jersey. (The bluberry muffin is also Minnesota’s state muffin; no, I don’t know why, but you can find my very fine blueberry muffin recipe here and pictured at the bottom.)

 Michigan and New Jersey produce 66% of all the U.S. cultivated blueberries, and here in Maryland, New Jersey seems to be our primary source. I used to have a contact who drove up to New Jersey each year and bought as many boxes as his station wagon could hold. He sold them to neighbors back here at his cost—for $1 each. Today, I have to pay what everybody else pays, but, they are definitely worth the price.

Blueberry-Apple Crumb Bars 

For a change of pace from simple bowls of berries, I suggest these succulent, buttery, streusel-topped blueberry bars. The blueberry filling is actually stretched with some chopped apples, which add a little texture and are also more economical. To keep prep as simple as possible, the same crumb mixture serves in the base and streusel topping, though an egg gets mixed into the crust portion so it will hold together during cutting.

 These make a fine dessert served with a dollop of ice cream or whipped cream--or perhaps with a dish of berries!  (For a berry dessert that's gluten-free, check out my bumbleberry crumble recipe here.)

 2 1/3 cups old-fashioned or quick-cooking oats
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 3/4 cups packed light brown sugar, divided
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 cup unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled
1 large egg, lightly beaten with a fork
3 cups fresh or frozen (thawed) blueberries
2 cups peeled, chopped tart apples
2 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch

Juice and zest of 1 large lemon

Place a rack in the middle of the oven; preheat to 375 degrees F.

 Grease a 9- by 13-inch baking pan; set aside. In a large bowl, stir together the oats, flour, 1 cup sugar and the cinnamon. Stir in the butter until the mixture is well blended. Remove 2 1/2 cups and reserve for the topping. Stir the egg into the remaining mixture until evenly incorporated; it will be slightly clumped. Press this mixture evenly into the baking pan; press down to form a crust.

 Bake, middle rack for 10 minutes, then set aside; the surface will not be browned.

 Meanwhile, in a saucepan, thoroughly stir together the blueberries, apples, cornstarch, lemon juice and remaining 3/4 cup sugar. Stir in 1 tablespoon water. Bring to a boil, stirring, over medium heat. Boil for 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Spread evenly over the par-baked crust. Sprinkle evenly with the reserved crumb mixture.

Bake at 375 degrees F for 25 minutes to 35 or until lightly browned all over. Cool before cutting into thirds or fourths lengthwise and fifths crosswise (or as desired). Makes 15 to 20 bars.

Read more about Whitesbog, and check out Elizabeth White's cranberry pudding recipe here. It is delish!  So are my blueberry muffins here.

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