I wish that when I was in art school—painting prolifically and studying furiously, throwing elaborate dinner parties in friends' homes because I didn't have a kitchen in my dorm—I knew about food styling. I longed for a career both culinary and visual, but couldn't imagine what that would look like. If only someone had told me about food styling! I could have spent a summer assisting in New York (sleeping on a friends couch and waiting tables to pay the bills). Instead, I taught myself food styling by accident, not even realizing that what I was doing had a name, was a skill, and could be a career.
If the term food styling means anything to you at all, you might imagine someone pouring cereal into glue or making ice cream out of mashed potatoes for an advertisement. It’s true, that’s one way to go about things, but magazines and lifestyle brands trend toward naturalistic styling and using real food. A food stylist is a cook and an image-maker. She works with the photographer, and often a prop stylist too, to create a pleasing composition and to convey a mood, a narrative, or a concept—and of course to make the food look its best.
When I started working on Sweets & Bitters, the blog and the mooks (a cross between a magazine and a book), I wanted the pictures of food to tell a story. My background in painting lent itself well to composing images around food, and I was styling without knowing what styling was. More experienced stylists than me have all sorts of tricks up their sleeves. And even if they are using real food they know how to make it look as good in a photo as it does in real life—better, actually. But a lot of the job is what any artist or designer is trained to do: adding pops of complimentary colors, mixing textures and playing with negative space to create a dynamic composition.
Since those first improvised photo shoots, I’ve been lucky to work with a handful of accomplished photographers and stylists, and I always learn from them. These images of Ramen are from a test (that’s the industry term for a uncommissioned set of images, made for ones own portfolio or creative satisfaction) with photographer Burcu Avsar and prop stylist Linden Elstran. If they look a little different—ahem, more polished—than the usual Sweets & Bitters images, that’s because Linden was selecting the objects and directing the composition, and Burcu was capturing the images with her trained eye and professional camera equipment. When you see photos of food in a magazine, there are at least as many people collaborating on creating each shot (probably an art director and a handful of assistants too)!
So it turns out that career I was pining for at 19 and couldn’t quite put my finger on is called food styling. I never would have guessed that a degree in painting, plus years of working as a cook, baker and bartender and setting beautiful tables for my friends and family could add up to a real job!
REcipe: Miso Mushroom Ramen
Unlike Kamo Negi Ramen, this can be made in one evening. The richness of this broth is deceiving, but it is in fact vegetarian, and it can easily be made vegan by replacing the butter topping with raiyu (chili oil) or sesame oil. Make the broth and tare (pronounced tah-ray) up to a week ahead if you prefer to space out the cooking.
Gathering the ingredients may require a trip to an Asian market, though you might be able to find everything in a big supermarket. Buy the best quality stuff you can because it really does make the soup more comlpex. Black miso adds depth of flavor, but can be hard to find, so feel free to substitute red miso. Sun Noodles are best: you can find them in the refrigerated section of Asian markets or Whole Foods (in New York only). If you can’t get fresh ramen noodles, dried ones will do.
for the dashi
- 2 ounces konbu* (dried kelp)
- 1 ounce dried shitake (6-7 mushrooms)
*To measure out 2 ounces of konbu if you don’t have a kitchen scale, just look at the weight on the package and estimate, erring on the side of too much.
for the broth
- 13 cloves garlic (1 head), peeled
- 1 large finger ginger (1 ounce), sliced
- 2 medium carrots, cut in large chunks
- 1 small onion
- 1 bunch scallions
- mushroom stems (optional, if you have them leftover from something else)
- 1/4 cup plus 2 Tablespoons toasted sesame oil
for the miso tare
- 1 Tablespoon toasted sesame oil
- 4 cloves garlic, grated
- 1/2 cup good quality dry sake
- 1 teaspoon grated ginger
- 3 Tablespoons mirin
- 1/2 cup less 2 Tablespoons aka (red) miso
- 2 Tablespoons black miso (or additional aka miso)
- 1/2 teaspoon tobandjan (fermented chili paste)
for the noodles and toppings
- toasted sesame oil
- 16 ounces mixed fresh mushrooms, such as maitake, trumpet, hedgehog, or shiitake*
- kosher salt
- reserved shiitake mushrooms
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce
- 2 scallions
- 1 pound bean sprouts
- 2 tablespoons butter, divided into four pats
- 4 tea eggs or soy sauce eggs (optional, see Kamo Negi Ramen recipe)
- 2 packages Sun noodles kaidama, or miso ramen, seasoning discarded
**choose three or four kinds with different colors and shapes, taking into consideration what is in season and looks appealing and interesting.
1. Preheat your oven to 500 degrees. First, you will make the dashi. Put the konbu and dried shitake in a large pot and cover with 3 quarts of water. Let stand for 30 minutes, if you have time. Bring to a boil, then remove the mushrooms and konbu, reserving the broth. This is your dashi. Discard the konbu, but keep the mushrooms. Break off their stems, and add them back to the pot. Save the caps to use as a topping (refrigerate them for up to a week).
2. Now you are ready to make the broth. Put your aromatics—the garlic, ginger, carrots, onion, and scallions—on a baking sheet. If you have mushroom stems leftover from any other cooking project, add them. (You can also clean and trim the mushrooms that you’ll use for topping, and add the trimmings to the baking sheet). Toss the aromatics with 2 Tablespoons sesame oil. Roast them in the oven, shaking the pan every 5 minutes, until browned around the edges, about 15 minutes.
3. Add the roasted aromatics to the pot with the dashi. Add 1/4 cup sesame oil. Bring to a boil, and then simmer for as long as you can stand, at least 30 minutes and up to 3 hours (you may need to add a cup or 2 of water to keep all the aromatics covered if you go for the longer time). Turn off the heat and let the broth cool for 15 minutes before straining (the cooling time is just for your safety). Discard the aromatics. You should have 2–2 1/2 quarts of broth. At this point, you can refrigerate it for up to a week, or freeze it indefinitely.
4. Make the tare. Heat the sesame oil over medium high heat in a small saucepan. Add half of the grated garlic to the oil, and cook, stirring, until the garlic is dark chestnut brown, about 3 minutes. This is called blackened garlic, but it shouldn’t really be black. Add the sake, stirring it to deglaze pan. Simmer to reduce by approximately half. Add the rest of the garlic, the grated ginger, and the mirin, simmering for one minute more. Remove from heat. Whisk in the miso and tobandjan. Set aside, or refrigerate for up to a week until ready to use.
5. Prepare the toppings. Heat your oven to 500 again. Lightly grease a baking sheet with sesame oil. Place the fresh mushrooms, grouped by kind, on the cookie sheet, breaking any large ones such as maitake into bite-sized pieces. Rub the mushrooms lightly with a little more sesame oil, and sprinkle with salt. Roast them, turning every 5 minutes, until pleasingly browned, about 10-15 minutes, depending on the kind of mushroom.
6. Assemble the toppings. Thinly slice the reserved shiitake caps, and tons them with the teaspoon of soy sauce. Thinly slice the scallions and soak them in ice water (this can be done up to one day ahead). Set all the toppings out so you can quickly place them on the hot bowls of soup.
7. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Heat the broth to a simmer. Set out four soup bowl. Heat them by ladling in a little hot water, then pouring it out. Divide the tare amongst the bowls (about 2 heaping Tablespoons in each).
8. Cook two servings of noodles at a time in the boiling water, stirring with chopsticks to untangle. Cook until very al dente, about 2 minutes. Meanwhile, add a cup of broth each to two of the bowls and stir to mix the broth and tare. Scoop the noodles out and divide them between the two bowls. Arrange the toppings over the noodles—a handful of bean sprouts, shitake slices, a little of each mushroom, sliced scallion, and a pat of butter. Serve immediately, accompanied by a tea egg or soy sauce egg, if using. Repeat for the remaining two bowls. Slurp and enjoy!