Japan Cookbook

Announcing the Japan Cookbook that I photographed and that was published last April. This is clearly an overdue post, on an overlooked blog. Japan was written by Nancy Singleton Hachisu and published by Phaidon. The props were picked by Barb Fritz, and the food was cooked and styled by Hannah Kirshner, with the help of her assistant Saori Kurioka. We borrowed handmade pottery from potters in Brooklyn and San Francisco. And Hannah called on specialty farmers she knew across the country to send us unusual Japanese produce. An enormous team produced this book, I only wish I knew everyone’s names to note them all personally.

Japan Cookbook Cover photos by Jennifer MayJapan Cookbook photography by Jennifer May NYCJapan Cookbook ramen photo by Jennifer MayJapan Cookbook photos by Jennifer MayJapan Cookbook Phaidon photos by Jennifer May

Elderflower Cordial from Elderberry Bushes

Last year I bought two tiny elderberry bushes from the Catskill Native Nursery, and planted them in a bare patch in my garden. This year they are 10′ tall and loaded with elderflowers. Eventually, I would like to make elderberry syrup, which is a potent anti-viral. But, I have some traveling to do this summer, and it is is possible the precious elderberries will be gobbled by birds before I get to them this year. Still, I wanted to do something special with this amazing plant. So I made elderflower cordial.

elderflowers

Elderflower cordial is simple to make. It requires only the beautiful flower heads, water, sugar, optional citric acid, and the zest and juice of lemons. You can also add orange zest and juice, which I did, for the color. My batch combined two recipes. One is from the River Cottage, and another from Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook.

elderflower

There is one funny thing about elderflowers. They are either a super-food or potentially toxic. Searching “health benefits of elderflowers” reveals that they contain bioflavonoids and are antioxidant, anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, and antibacterial. Searching “are elderflowers toxic?” tells us the stems and leaves of the elderberry plant contain a cyanide-producing chemical. To put this in context, almonds also contain a cyanide-producing chemical. And we all know rhubarb leaves are toxic, while the juicy stems are delicious. To prepare elderflowers for infusion, you snip away all of the stems and branches. Problem solved.

Still, I tend to err on the side of caution, especially with something new. While I did serve the cordial at a recent cook-out, my cautionary words ensured I had only one unfazed sipper (besides myself). “Well” he said, “They sell it at Ikea.”

Cyanide and box stores aside, elderflower cordial is one of the most aromatic beverages I have ever made or consumed. It is delicate, and seasonal, and I like to think loaded with healthful properties.

elderflower
Elderflowers plucked from their potentially toxic stems
infusing elderflower cordial
An infusion of elderflowers, orange zest & juice, lemon zest & juice, sugar and water
elderflower cordial
The strained & cooled elderflower cordial
elderflower cordial
Elderflower cordial diluted into a beverage with sparkling water, and ice

Easter Weekend

This Easter weekend, we hosted friends and family. Kendra, Joost and their boys joined us from Boston. It’s always a food event when Kendra is around. She is a food stylist I have worked with many times, and when not cooking for the camera, she is cooking for the people she loves. As she and her family traveled from Boston, and I and my family traveled from Brooklyn, Kendra and I texted each other details of the weekend’s menu. She simultaneously texted her friend Jeremy, who sent his favorite recipe for Eastern European goulash, along with an entire printed page of hacks and additions.

Hungarian goulash over an open fire jennifer may food photographer
Hungarian goulash over an open fire

We continued to discuss the menu over wine that night. One difference between myself and Kendra is in how we were raised. She is a French-Irish-British hybrid, and was raised in France and Quebec. Her parents excelled at impromptu entertaining – lots of food, lots of libations. As for me, I was raised on a remote property, on an unpaved road, at the ocean’s edge on Vancouver Island, and I don’t remember my parents hosting anyone, ever. We ate well because we ate fresh seafood we caught from the sea, and we grew big vegetable and berry gardens. We never had wine or beer in the house. My grandparents, with their Irish & Russian roots, liked to whoop it up in their younger days (their 50s & early 60s), but later, entertaining became a hassle.

“And what about the flow of the day?” I asked Kendra. I had the night-before jitters. She sipped her wine. “We’ve got this,” she answered. “And let’s have Jim create a house cocktail.”

cooking over an open fire

The menu would be Hungarian Goulash – the meat browned indoors on the stove – and then simmered low and slow over a small fire outside, served with buttered egg noodles, boiled new potatoes with parsley, a composed salad, and an array of vegetable dishes brought by Chris’s parents. Chris’s mom also brought a trifle with orange custard, and sugar cookies she had decorated with a bunch of little girls earlier in the week.

painting easter eggs
Brother-in-law James created this house cocktail with pear nectar, rosemary-infused agave, vodka and bitters.

My brother-in-law James was a bartender in Manhattan for many years, and is now a manager at Mother’s Ruin. He created a cheerful Easter cocktail of pear nectar, rosemary-infused agave, vodka and bitters. It paired very well with the shrieks of young children clamoring in the sandbox and chasing jumbo bubbles across the lawn. And it steadied my nerves as I watched my 4-year-old submerge her entire hand into the egg dyes along with the hard boiled eggs.

painting easter eggs

painting easter eggs

Guests arrived. I prefer to be involved in a social event with a co-host who thrives in the situation. While I love to host, it doesn’t come naturally. I create lists, plot it out, figure out the serving dishes. It’s also a timing thing, reading the vibe of the crowd, predicting appetites and thirsts. Sometimes I think everyone must be starving. Other times I can’t believe anyone is hungry at all. Kendra carried a roasted beet tart outside, and I followed her. I planned to photograph the tart out by the fire, but I was delayed at the Easter egg painting station, and a few minutes later, the tart had been devoured.

beet tart on board
Remnants of a roasted beet tart with quince glaze, made by Kendra
easter weekend feast
Easter buffet of fire-simmered Hungarian goulash, buttered egg noodles, boiled new potatoes, and a selection of vegetable sides

It was a great night. We set out the food buffet-style. People helped themselves. We ate, we drank, and then Kendra and I toasted each other late into the night, around the campfire.

The next day, we headed to our favorite park in the Catskills. We roasted sausages and left-over new potatoes. Our friends brought bread they had made that morning. We set more jumbo bubbles flying and the children chased them. We walked off the meals, got some air. Later that night, Kendra emailed from the road back to Boston. “It was a perfect weekend. What are we cooking over the fire next?”

 

NYC Food Photographer home baked bread
Our friends Derek and Kelly made this bread and brought the bunny board
day at the park
Our favorite park in the Catskills for Sunday picnics
sausages and potatoes on grill
Day 2: Grilled sausages and new potatoes

blowing huge bubblesblowing huge bubbles

blowing huge bubbles

boy chases bubble

chasing bubbles in the park

face painting with children

dock over lake and mountains

father and son on dock

families walking in the woods
Strolling through the forest with my little on on my shoulders

child's hand reaches for Easter cookies

 

Kelli Cain, Ceramicist

Today I did a studio visit with ceramicist Kelli Cain. I fell in love with Kelli’s work this fall, when I saw it at Field + Supply. She had invited me to visit in person one day, and I had been waiting for the right time. My dad is visiting from out of town this week, and what better than a long drive to show him more of the area. We drove deep into the Catskill Mountains. The traffic all but disappeared. The landscape became hilly farmland. The studio is located down a long dirt driveway, in a converted farmhouse. Kelli had made us tea and cookies, and we chatted while I picked through dozens of her beautiful handmade pieces. I love Kelli’s palette. I love her glazing techniques. Each piece is more beautiful than the last. It was a lovely day, rewarded with a bag full of beautiful treasures that I can’t wait to use in life and in pictures.

studio visit kelli cain ceramics
Ceramicist Kelli Cain in her studio in the Catskill Mountains

studio visit kelli cain ceramics

studio visit kelli cain ceramics

studio visit kelli cain ceramics

studio visit kelli cain ceramics

catskills road

Autumn Feast (Thanksgiving) 2015

The holiday spirit took over this November. We invited 14 people for a 3-course dinner at our cottage in the Catskills, and it was the most successful party we have ever hosted. I have so many memories of Thanksgiving pasts where frenzied hosts burn themselves on steam and pot-handles, curse over last-minute gravy and cold vegetables, and knock over piles of pans in the sink. This time, we accepted the offers of everyone who wanted to contribute. And, we cooked almost everything in advance. I am a list-maker, and I set to it.

NYC food photographer Manhattan
Mini-cocktails in lovely glassware keeps the party festive and the guests steady on their feet
lists NYC food photographer
My final notes, after a week of planning.

A week before the day, we built our menu around what we knew people would be bringing. One brought pumpkin pies & green beans, one brought a box of wine and a strawberry cheesecake from Junior’s, one brought home-made cranberry sauce and a tray of roasted vegetables, one brought 120 oysters & two sauces, one brought bite-sized smoked salmon & creme fresh blinis and a salad, and to round out the house-cocktail we had planned, another surprised us by showing up with his entire bar and bar-tending tools.

In the days leading up to the feast, Chris dry-brined two 12-pound turkeys in salt, rosemary and lemon, according to a recipe by Melissa Clark. I followed Mark Bittman’s recipe for make-ahead gravy (make a killer turkey stock, make gravy, store in fridge, reheat before serving and whisk in the turkey drippings = no stress and delicious). We had a vegetarian coming, and I made a vegetarian mushroom-thyme gravy from Food52. We made two vegetarian dips from Martha Stewart’s Appetizer‘s book. We made Alton Brown’s pickled beets. I stored it all in glass mason jars in the fridge. The morning of, Chris made a vegetarian stuffing (with all the bread, butter, mushrooms, apple cider, apples, and celery & sage, no one missed stock or sausage).

The day before, we rented bar tables, chairs & table cloths. The living room became the dining room, and the dining room became the bar. The bonfire in the forest became the oyster station. I picked a bouquet of dried flowers and berries from the yard, counted cutlery, chose serving dishes and stuck post-it notes all over them. I raided my boxes of pretty glassware, silver, and platters that I use on photo shoots. I boiled the napkins and ironed them, and at that point I knew I was about to go too far.

glassware NYC food photographer

The day of, guests arrived at 2pm, we started with oysters & cocktails. Dinner unfolded seamlessly. As hosts, we were able to enjoy the party with a minimum of last-minute details. Chris and I agreed on a bar-limit to adhere to before the turkey was carved.

NYC food photographer oysters
Uncle Ian shucked PEI Carr’s Oysters for hours beside the bonfire
NYC food photographer oysters
Fresh PEI oysters, with cocktail sauce, beside a bonfire, on an unseasonably warm day. It is an embarrassment of riches.
NYC food portrait photographer
I wish I had taken more portraits. At least Ro’s fluffy sweater, pink nails, and glowing smile stopped me in my tracks.
NYC food photographer negroni
Bartender Jon kept them flowing
turkeys NYC food photographer
Two smaller turkeys instead of one large makes for more succulent meat.
Thanksgiving NYC food photographer
One thing I learned from Chris’s grandmother: do everything you can in advance.

moon NYC food photographer

At the end of dinner, guests helped load the dishwasher and rinse for the next load. We had coffee and sweets, and went back out to the bonfire beneath the moon. The party was over by about 10 p.m., which served us well, because we did it all again the next day, and the next…. Oysters, and turkey sandwiches at Jon & Juliet’s house the next day, and on day three back to our house for turkey soup and bruschetta.

I snapped photos here and there. Mostly I seem to have taken photos of drinks. I was probably a little bit busier than I remember. But it’s a rare feeling after three days of hosting to feel more refreshed than tired, and I want to remember the keys, and repeat.

manhattan NYC food photographer
Tradition dictates we move the party to Jon & Juliet’s house for day two.
oysters NYC food photographer
Me and my girl. She is squeezing a lemon over an oyster. I thought she might eat it, but she preferred to prepare them for us.

 

 

Autumn

These past couple of weeks have been a gift from the gods of autumn. It appears we have been spared a hurricane this year. The leaves have been brilliant, and without strong winds, they drop at a reasonable rate. In the years of Hurricanes Sandy and Irene, they are gone overnight. And I mean gone, probably swirled away to Ohio.

I have been doing a garden clean up with my daughter. The leaves above our terraced hillside are a blaze of cadmium yellow. They make us stop in our tracks.

foliage-garden-r-3635

There is a hilly road by my house that I try to walk every day. That translates into a few times per week. I love this walk in all seasons, when I walk, my mind is filled with only good thoughts, I don’t know why, probably endorphins, but it has been especially beautiful this past week. I broke my no-touching-the-cel-phone-for-instagram-email-or-step-counting rule and took a photo. It was just too breathtaking.

NYC Food Photographer Autumn

As the leaves start to fall, we get serious about the yard clean up. Every fall, we take a day and rent a leaf blower. Chris blows the leaves into heaps, and then he shreds them with the lawn mower. I cart them over to the garden. According to Mike McGrath (the former editor of Organic Gardening magazine, and now host of a podcast on organic gardening) shredded, composted leaves are all the added nutrients a garden needs. I’m into this rather grueling day for the sake of the garden. Chris is into it because we are also obliterating a habitat for ticks. He enjoys that.

NYC Food Photographer Blowing Leaves NYC Food Photographer Fall Leaves Mowing

It is the end of the season for our CSA farm shares. It has been a bountiful year. I’m going to be sorry to rely on supermarket produce, flown in from Mexico, Florida, and Venezuela. I so enjoy focusing our meals on seasonal produce. But there are a bunch of winter farmer’s markets in the Hudson Valley to get us through. Last weekend we visited the outdoor market in Rhinebeck, and I look forward to getting to know the vendors.

For a start we bought bunches of beautiful fresh scallions, and big chowder clams, potatoes, celery. My daughter spotted the colorful, twisted carrots. I made scallion kimchi from David Tanis’s One Good Dish. The recipe in the book is game-changer and will become a staple condiment in our house. (Here is a variation of the recipe, if you don’t have the book.)

NYC Food Photographer Scallions
NYC Food Photographer Clams

At least once a month I make lentil soup. It’s so easy, and full of iron & protein. I make it a little bit differently every time, and don’t use a recipe anymore. My favorite these days is an Indian-spiced red lentil variation. I would share the recipe, but I made it up as I went. Suffice to say, this was the best one I have ever made, and I just added a bunch of fried mustard seeds, cumin seeds, fresh ginger, and a generous amount of fresh tumeric – about 3 grated root nodules.

NYC Food Photographer LentilsNYC Food Photographer Tumeric GingerNYC Food Photographer Lentil Soup

Finally, these last beautiful days of warm autumn weather have inspired us to cook outside. If you can call it cooking. A food-writer friend we invited called it a “weenie roast” and I’m not just a little bit proud to say that we hosted the very first one he had ever attended. And this is someone who knows food. He had spent the previous night out on the town eating and drinking with Anthony Bourdain. How does this happen? How does someone grow up in America, develop a full fledged career as a food writer, and yet never roast hot dogs over a bonfire? “I’m from California,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of fires in California.”

Of course, he loved it. Because, let’s face it, hot dogs around an open fire in the Catskills is the perfect day-after antidote to boozing with Bourdain in Manhattan.

We ate the hot dogs with pickled green tomatoes I made from a NYTimes recipe. A few weeks ago my daughter and I had gathered the last of the green cherry tomatoes from the garden. We got to them just before the first frost. It’s a great recipe, and paired well with hot dogs. Although next time I would make them with my new best friend, fresh tumeric.

And today, the warmth of this fall is still here. The days are sunny. It’s downright warm. The shredded leaves wait for me in piles around the yard. I will move them into the garden over the next week. And I’ll keep cleaning up the garden with my eye looking all the way across winter, to spring. Not that any season could be better than this one, right now.

NYC Food Photographer Green TomatoesNYC Food Photographer Green TomatoesNYC Food Photographer Green TomatoesNYC Food Photographer Hot DogsNYC Food Photographer Hot Dogs

Food stories in New York's Hudson Valley and beyond from photographer Jennifer May