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Playing With Food : Looking Good at All Costs

TIMES FOOD STYLISTS

When we shoot photographs in the Times Food Kitchen, we are also testing the recipes, so that we do not resort to the extreme measures we are about to describe. However, we do go out of our way to make the food look attractive, so we buy the most perfect produce we can find and often coat the food with oil and spray it with water to make it look fresher before photographing it. And we try to shoot every dish as soon as it is cooked. Our aim is simply to show you what the dish will look like.

For this article, however, we pulled out all the stops and picked dishes that would prove a point. We also chose a lot of different dishes, meaning that the food had to sit until everything was prepared. In the “before” shot, the souffle fell, the cream of broccoli-shrimp soup photographed more brown than green, and the tart fell apart when we sliced it.

And that’s just for starters. The seafood and vegetables in the soup sank out of view. The salmon steak was smeared in grilling and the ends spread. The fish and the orange zest topping dried out under the hot lights, and the vegetables looked brown and wilted; one tomato was missing a stem and the rest were dry-looking.

The blueberry-nut bread had missing blueberries, broken edges and some large holes. The fruit and custard in the tart slid into the raspberry sauce. The pastry was chipped. The cobweb pattern in the sauce started to run when the photographer moved the plate. All of the plates got smeared from handling. The cream in the hot coffee sank--and like just about every bunch of grapes you’ve ever seen, ours was missing a few grapes and had a bruised berry.

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For the “after” shot, we baked a souffle out of angel food cake so that it wouldn’t fall drastically. We undercooked the broccoli in the soup so it stayed bright green and slightly tinted the finished soup with green food color. We also put marbles (you can also use green grapes) in the bottom of the soup bowl so the seafood and vegetables would be visible.

The tart was made with a thicker pastry than the recipe called for. It was baked at a lower temperature and sprayed with diluted browning sauce for more even color; we cut the pastry edge with a sharp razor blade and glued fallen crumbs with white petroleum jelly.

We cooked the salmon in a ridged stove-top cast-iron skillet, then used a glowing hot metal skewer to emphasize the grill marks. We attached the ends with a small pin. The orange zests were dipped in corn syrup to help them keep their gloss. The potatoes were painted with red lipstick to make them rosier, and the vegetables were barely cooked, then refreshed in cold water. And we glued stems onto the tomatoes with petroleum jelly.

The coffee cup was actually filled with molasses so the cream would stay on top. We also spooned a few soap bubbles into the liquid.

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We supported the sagging slices of bread with cardboard backing and patched the holes with extra crumbs. We filled some of the holes with extra nuts and berries to make them more visible. And to make a prettier plate, we wiped the edges of the white oval plate with purple food paste color to match the blueberries.

Finally we brushed the salmon, the vegetables, the fruit toppings, the soup ingredients, the blueberries in the bread with oil to make them shine. We cleaned all smudges with cotton swabs. And we filled in the cluster of grapes with some extra fruit--and pinned on a new stem. This was lightly sprayed with cold water just before shooting.

If you actually cook the recipes that follow, the way the dishes look will probably fall somewhere between “before” and “after.”

CREAM OF BROCCOLI SOUP WITH SHRIMP

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1 bunch broccoli

4 cups chicken broth

Salt, pepper

Nutmeg

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1 bay leaf

8 sprigs parsley

1 sprig thyme

2 tablespoons flour

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Cold water

3 egg yolks, beaten

12 medium shrimp, peeled and deveined

6 fresh or reconstituted dried shiitake mushrooms, cut in halves

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2 tablespoons butter or margarine

1/2 cup canned or blanched white asparagus tips

Finely diced sweet red pepper

Fennel sprigs

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Wash broccoli, discarding any bruised or discolored leaves. Cut off tough ends and cut stems into 1-inch lengths.

Add leaves and trimmed stems to boiling chicken broth. Season to taste with salt, pepper and nutmeg.

Tie together bay leaf, parsley and thyme and add to saucepan. Simmer, covered, 20 minutes. Add broccoli florets and simmer 10 to 20 minutes longer or until tender-crisp.

Strain stock and reserve. Remove spices and discard. Puree broccoli in blender or food processor.

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Reheat reserved stock. Stir in flour mixed with small amount of cold water. Cook, stirring, until slightly thickened. Remove from heat and beat in egg yolks, 1 at time.

Strain soup into clean saucepan and add pureed broccoli. Add shrimp and mushrooms and heat just until shrimp turns pink, stirring often. Stir in butter and asparagus tips. Adjust salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot or chilled, garnished with red pepper and fennel. Makes 6 servings.

BLUEBERRY-NUT BREAD

3 cups biscuit mix

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1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Dash ground nutmeg

1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed

1 egg

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1 cup milk

3/4 cup chopped nuts

1 cup fresh blueberries

Combine biscuit mix, cinnamon and nutmeg in large bowl. Combine brown sugar, egg and milk in separate bowl, then stir in biscuit mixture. Beat well until smooth and fairly thick.

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Fold in nuts and blueberries. Spoon mixture into 3 well-greased (7x3-inch) loaf pans. Bake at 350 degrees 30 to 35 minutes or until wood pick inserted in center comes out clean.

Cool in pans 5 minutes. Loosen and turn out onto wire rack and cool thoroughly before slicing. Makes 3 (7x3-inch) loaves.

CHEESE SOUFFLE

Butter

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2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

3 tablespoons flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

Dash cayenne pepper

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1 cup milk

4 eggs, separated

1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

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Butter inside of 1 1/2-quart souffle dish. Attach collar. Dust dish and collar with Parmesan cheese.

Melt 3 tablespoons butter in small saucepan over medium heat. Stir in flour, salt and cayenne. Cook until mixture bubbles, at least 1 minute.

Remove pan from heat. Gradually add milk, stirring constantly with wire whisk. Return pan to heat and cook, stirring constantly, until sauce boils and thickens. Remove from heat.

Lightly beat egg yolks. Stir about 2 tablespoons sauce into yolks, then stir egg yolk mixture back into sauce. Add cheese, stirring until melted. Set aside.

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Beat egg whites until frothy. Add cream of tartar and continue to beat until soft peaks form. Fold 1/3 of beaten whites into sauce mixture.

Add sauce to remaining egg whites and gently fold together just until combined. Pour mixture into prepared souffle dish. Gently smooth top with spatula. If desired, use tip of knife or spoon to draw circle on surface about 1 inch from outside rim.

Bake souffle at 450 degrees 10 minutes, then reduce temperature to 250 degrees and continue to bake 10 to 15 minutes or until top is golden and center is just set. Remove collar. Makes 4 servings.

FRESH FRUIT TART

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1/3 cup sugar

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1/8 teaspoon salt

2 cups milk

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2 egg yolks, lightly beaten

2 tablespoons butter, softened

2 teaspoons vanilla

1 (9-inch) baked Tart Shell

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Whole blackberries

Halved strawberries

Halved seedless green grapes

Halved and pitted bing cherries

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Whole blueberries

Apricot Glaze

Combine sugar, cornstarch and salt in saucepan. Gradually stir in milk. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens and comes to boil. Boil, stirring, 1 minute.

Gradually stir 1/2 hot mixture into egg yolks. Blend back into hot mixture in saucepan. Bring back to boil, then boil, stirring, 1 minute.

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Remove pan from heat. Stir in butter and vanilla. Cool filling mixture.

Spoon filling into Tart Shell. Decorate top of tart with blackberries, strawberries, grapes, cherries and blueberries. Drizzle with Apricot Glaze. Makes 8 servings.

Tart Shell

1 cup flour

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3 tablespoons powdered sugar

1/2 cup butter

Combine flour and powdered sugar. Cut in butter until mixture forms crumbly dough. Press evenly against bottom and sides of 9-inch tart pan. Bake at 425 degrees 15 minutes or until golden brown.

Apricot Glaze

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1/2 cup apricot or apple jelly

1 teaspoon orange liqueur or brandy

Heat jelly until melted. Stir in liqueur. Makes about 1/2 cup.


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