Fun with food…styling
Been gone a bit, but I have a good excuse: Working on the photography for my fourth cookbook. Long awaited, at least by me (and to my contributor, Kay Beppu, who allowed me the use of her family’s ozoni recipe in return for the promise of a copy of the book . . . two years ago!). I hope to see “Celebrations Island Style” from Island Heritage later this year, about dishes to prepare for all the holidays celebrated in the Islands.
It was, as usual, a source of great anxiety, a huge amount of work, and then as much fun as it’s possible for someone like me to have in public. I love the cooking, the shopping for props (thanks to Savers and Goodwill), the fussing over details, working with food stylists, creative directors, photographers, the small aesthetic disagreements, seeing the photos projected from the camera directly to video, full-size, in full color, immediately after they’re shot. We are always, as the song says, “looking out for a hero.” “Hero,” in photo-speak, is the bit of food that’s absolutely perfect — the right color, the right shape, complementary to the rest of the environment.
One of the recipes we worked on was a great favorite of mine: Chinese pepper steak. It’s a quick stir-fry flavored with lots of black pepper. The version we’re using, unlike the one I enjoy so much at Little Village Noodle House, includes bell pepper and tomato in a slightly thick brown gravy. The photographer’s assistant came to me afterward and asked what the difference is between this dish and Beef Tomato, the familiar local favorite.
The only answer I could come up with was “pepper.” And the only conjecture I can make is that the mild-flavored Beef Tomato is a Chinese American dish and the more robust Black Pepper Steak may be the original probably from Szechuan or the north of China. But, truly, I have no idea. Actually, I prefer the dish without the tomatoes and bell pepper; the other ingredients are optional in my book. But I used them for the photo because they add color. The book is, well, peppered with meat dishes that are brown, brown, brown.
When you’re preparing recipes for food photography, as everyone knows, you make changes to suit the visuals: undercook vegetables, polish foods with oil or glycerin, add garnishes, use more or less sauce, spatter or smear it, place it in a dish one might never use at home (something, for example, that looks great but actually can’t take the heat of the cooked dish). It’s a form of lying, I suppose, but of the “little, white” kind, I hope.
I insist that garnish be something that makes sense: that agrees with the cuisine in question, that appears in the dish or complements the flavors. I narrowly avoided the creative director garnishing slow cooker kalua pork with cilantro, but then she turned the table and prevented me from garnishing a pudding with culinary lavender — something is never eaten raw and whole, but is infused or cooked in a bouquet garnis. We garnished the Lavender Spanish Cream with mint, instead, a conventional garnish for sweet desserts.
Anyway, we had fun. I hope you have fun with the book, when it comes out. Meanwhile, here’s the Pepper Steak as I prefer to make it, without the bell pepper or tomato. It’s still not as good as that of Little Village but it’s darned delicious!
Pepper Steak Haole
2 T. vegetable oil
1 lb. round steak or flank steak, cut into strips
1/2 onion, cut into crescents
1 T. black pepper (or less, if desired)
1/4 t. garlic powder or 2 cloves minced fresh garlic
1 c. beef stock (homemade, store-bought, or from bouillon cubes)
2 tsp. sugar
2 T. cornstarch or arrowroot
2 t. soy sauce
1/4 c. water
Heat oil in high-sided heavy sauté pan. Sauté steak with onion, black pepper, and garlic until meat turns color. Add stock and sugar. Cover and cook on low heat 10 minutes. In a small bowl, whisk together cornstarch, soy sauce, and water. Add to sauté pan and cook 3 to 4 minutes more, stirring, until mixture thickens. Serve hot on a platter or spoon over rice.