Food Photography & Styling Day 2 and Ratatouille (Deconstructed)

Ratatouille …………. do you like it? It’s never been a favorite dish here at The Café. Why?……… The reason was summed up perfectly in a comment from a blogging friend in response to my last post where I shared a photo of both the beautiful raw ingredients used in Ratatouille and my version of the finished dish. I promised to share the recipe today, with a new twist that I learned at my recent French Cooking Boot Camp held at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. The comment went like this ………..

………….. “that is the freshest most colorful ratatouille I have ever seen! I usually shy away from it because it seems like an overcooked mess, but I will definitely try your recipe, Chris“! Sue, my friend from The View From Great Island  (if you haven’t seen Sue’s blog, be sure to check it out, it’s one of my favorites!) hit the nail on the head. To me, the ingredients for Ratatouille are fresh and delightful, but the final result usually leaves a lot to be desired. So when I saw Ratatouille as one of my cooking assignments for Boot Camp, I was a bit disappointed.
I was intrigued when Chef Bruno our Boot Camp instructor said that he felt the same way about Ratatouille, but went on to share a technique to combat the traditional soggy results. He explained that he cooked the vegetables individually to the perfect texture, then waited to combine them till the last minute, keeping them fresh and vibrant. I tried his technique at school and loved it. I made it again when I got home, adding a few ideas of my own.
I made a yummy sauce with olive oil, garlic, shallots, Herbes de Provence and canned tomato puree. I simmered it slowly to thicken while I cooked the veggies and added a shower of fresh basil at the end. Instead of adding the veggies to the sauce (as in Chef Bruno’s recipe), I layered them separately on top of angel hair pasta, adding tiny fresh tomatoes and Kalamata olives. A garnish of a few arugula leaves on the top made for a lovely presentation, nothing like the traditional “overcooked mess”. I have the feeling that this fresh, delicious Ratatouille will be on the menu quite frequently here at The Café!

I’m turning the reins over to Scott for Part 2 of his post on Food Styling and Photography. He participated in a workshop last weekend at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City and has some wonderful tips to share.

P.S. There is another Ratatouille recipe on this site. It was shared last summer by my sister, Annie – it’s deeeelicious and makes a delightful presentation, check it out!

Food Styling & Photography Tips
Last Friday, I shared with you some of my experiences studying food styling and photography at The Institute for Culinary Education (ICE) up in New York City. I’d like to share a little more of what I learned in this 3-day course. Our teaching team, Jim Peterson, Jamie Tiampo and Laurie Knoop did a masterful job helping our class navigate the world of digital photography, photo editing and food styling. This was no small feat, considering the fact that the sixteen students had a wide range of skills and expectations for the course. The final proof of their success with our class? Each participant, veteran, intermediate or beginner, walked away with valuable knowledge, skills and tips they could immediately put to use in their area of interest.
For me, it was not one big “Aha!” moment, but rather, a series of tips and techniques that are already paying off. So let’s get going! I’m going to divide today’s post into two parts: Photo Tips and Food Styling Tips. I hope some of these suggestions will resonate with you as you put them to action on your photography projects. Special thanks to Jim, Jamie and Laurie for sharing some of these ideas and tips with all of us in our ICE class and now, here at The Café.
Food Photo Tips
  • Start with a “dummy”! – While Chris is doing her magic in the kitchen, creating a new and wonderful recipe to share, I’m usually upstairs in our “elf” workshop (where we shoot, photo edit, write children’s musicals, record music, take naps, etc!) getting ready for the shoot. Chris usually has a pretty good idea about what background and props she wants, so we’ll set up the shot so I can experiment with camera angles, set the white balance for the day’s sun/shade mix and hook up the tether connection (camera to computer).
  • Lighting – as I shared with you last week, this is probably the most important thing in the shoot (right up there with the recipe itself) Your hard work and creativity can go right down the tube if the lighting isn’t good. The perfect shoot turns into the perfect storm and a wonderful tasty recipe looks, to your viewers, like something (sorry!) the neighbor’s dog leaves behind on his walk. Chris and I prefer natural light whenever we can avail ourselves of it. It has amazing qualities that no invention man has created has yet to perfectly duplicate. (residents of northern climates and latitudes, we hear your cry – we’ll share some artificial lighting tips in another post). Our regular window happens to face west, but we’ve used our front door (east facing) at times too. Often in the winter we move everything upstairs to a third floor walkup attic with identical west facing windows. Direct, hard sunlight rarely works unless it’s morning or late afternoon light, or if we filter the light through diffusers. It’s surprising how well many DSLR (digital single lens reflex) cameras can shoot these days in lower light situations, so don’t be afraid to try what, to the eye, appears to be a dark shoot – (just remember – the higher your ISO setting on your camera is, the more noise or fuzziness shows up in your picture). The best thing you can do to control light is have a number of inexpensive tools in your light-taming arsenal.
A simple light reflector – a children’s book wrapped in foil makes the food pop!
  • Manipulating the Light – the idea here is to have ways to block, bounce, reflect or filter light to do what you want it to do. I use simple things like small pieces of foam core board (any craft store has these – we use white to reflect or bounce the light back into the scene and black to block particularly harsh light – or to tone down an onion that is “blowing out” in the picture (thanks for the term Jim and Jamie). We wrap one or two in aluminum foil when we want to bounce the light to get a special glow to one part of the food. Sometimes just using your hand to cover the light shining on a part of the scene helps. A nifty idea for holding up the little boards that Jim gave us is to use a floral “frog”, from your craft store (like this). It sure beats trying to hold them up with your teeth, or having one fall over in the soup you just painstakingly prepared.
See the little onion on the left that is just starting to “blow out”?
Final shot, onion shaded, ready for our readers – better?
  • Tether, tether, tether! – this is very simple, but very essential for good shooting. It’s hooking up your camera (not all low end cameras can do it) to your computer. I use the digital camera cable that came with my Canon camera. It connects from the camera (on my 60D and T1i cameras it’s behind the little rubber door on the left side of the camera) and runs into one of the USB ports on the side or back of your computer. When we shoot, our photos go directly into a digital camera software program made by Apple called Aperture. You can also use software programs that are provided with your camera, or standalone editing programs like Photoshop or Lightroom.
Tethering to your computer gives you much more control
Now you can really see your creation
Food Styling Tips
  • Water and Oil – making your food look fresh – no matter how hard you try, food will tend to dry out when you’re shooting – to get a natural shine and pep back into your foods have one spray bottle of oil and one of water on hand when things need a bit of freshening.
  • Salads – many times when Chris and I do a food shoot, especially on hot Carolina summer days, the lettuce tends to wilt – a refreshing bath in cold water and a good spin in the salad spinner while the rest of the food is being prepared perks up the lettuce and gives us the “fresh from the garden” look we’re going for.
  • Hero, Stunt Double and Backup – When Chris and I are shooting, sometimes the muffin or piece of food we think will look the best in the shoot turns out to be a dud – sometimes it’s an ugly blemish that we missed, an oddly shaped item, who knows! It’s always good to have a replacement or two in case something happens to the Hero.
  • Build a styling tool kit – just a simple fishing tackle box filled with tweezers, wipes, Windex, toothpicks, tape, sticky-tam, rubber bands, sponges, Q-tips, small brushes and anything else you might think you need is an invaluable time saver.
Notice the food stylist toolkit in the corner?
Ratatouille – Deconstructed
Ingredients for the sauce:
1 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium shallots, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons Herbes de Provence
1 teaspoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
½ teaspoon sea salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup fresh basil
Ingredients for the veggies:
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
3 medium zucchini, cut into 1/4″ dice
3 med bell peppers, cut into 1/4″ dice
1 medium eggplants (aubergine), cut into 1/4″ dice
1/2 cup pitted Kalamata olives
1 cup fresh cherry or grape tomatoes, red or yellow, sliced in halves

Directions for the sauce:
1. Heat oil in a medium size pot over medium heat. Add shallots, stir and allow to soften for 3-4 minutes. Add Herbes de Provence and garlic and continue to cook for another minute.


2. Add tomato puree, brown sugar, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer till thick and fragrant, about 45 minutes. Add fresh basil, taste and add more salt and pepper as needed

Directions for the veggies:
1. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil to a large sauté pan and heat over medium high heat till hot but not smoking. Add chopped zucchini, stir and sauté until tender-crisp, about 3-5 minutes. Don’t let it get soft and mushy.  Remove from pan and set aside.

2. Repeat step 1 with peppers and eggplant in separate batches. Use 2 tablespoons of oil for the eggplant. If it looks too dry while cooking add a bit more. Eggplant tends to soak up a lot of oil so sometimes I add a bit of chicken broth or white wine instead of extra oil to keep the fat level lower.

3. Combine all of the veggies. Add olives and fresh tomatoes. At this point you can either combine the sauce with the vegetables and serve as a ragout or keep the veggies and sauce separate. Serve over pasta rice or polenta. Another idea is to serve as a sauce over grilled chicken.

I love to garnish this Ratatouille with fresh herbs or a few sprigs of arugula. Sometimes I sprinkle a little Feta cheese over the top for a bit of delicious saltiness.
I’m sharing this Ratatouille at Stone Gable’s On the Menu Monday

31 thoughts on “Food Photography & Styling Day 2 and Ratatouille (Deconstructed)”

  • I’m totally cracking up over the fact that vegetables are all over your floor. One never knows what is in the background;)-we have those same puzzles.

    I love that you all are such a great team – “Delicious” and “Beautiful”. Thank your for your inspiration.

  • Hi, thanks for sharing the excellent photography and food styling tips. Very useful information cos I enjoy playing with styling and photography.
    I spent lots of time clicking on my end product. LOL

    All your pictures are very professional. Excellent!
    Your ratatouille look delicious. Yum Yum!

    Have a nice week ahead.

  • Ratatouille is one of my favourite comfort foods – even if a little soggy (hanging head in shame!) I will definitely give your technique a try and check out your sister’s recipe – a verdict of ‘delicious’ is all the recommendation I need!

  • Madonna, thanks so much for your kind words! In answer to your question, Ratatouille is thought to have originated in the Mediterranean area of France in the region known as Provence. That’s one reason I sometimes add a bit of a Mediterranean twist to mine with Kalamata olives and Feta.

  • Mary,
    Thanks so much for taking the time to get back to me about the pork, that makes me happy that you and your guests enjoyed it!

  • Such a very helpful post — both about the ratatouille and the photography tips. I love cooking and sharing what I make, but getting good photos is still something I’m working on!

  • Chris, I was really intrigued when your instructor said France has 22 food regions. Do you know what region ratatouille originates? I have wanted to try this recipe, but I am not fond of eggplant because it soaks up so much oil. Your recipe sounds like a cure for that.

    Scott, I love the idea of a toolkit. I sometimes scrabble for something to do a quick fix. Also, I have been placing my food on a table and struggling with my computer and tether. Looks like you have found the answer to my issue. Please continue to share. Thank you both so much. I have thoroughly enjoyed your adventures. I have even told my relatives about you both and they have also enjoyed your stories.

  • I LOOOVE this post! Great photo shooting/styling information and your Rattatouille looks perfect as a result! I think once we use tether we can’t go back. It makes the whole photo shooting experience better and easier. 🙂

  • Totally off the subject, Chris, but I must tell you that I made your Pork Tenderloin with French lentils (they sell them in bulk at our new Whole Foods near Aspen) for a dinner party Saturday night and the meal was delicious. I served Ina’s Roasted Brussel Sprouts as the side instead of Skinny Mashed Potatoes to suit a guest’s dietary needs. Crusty bread, of course. I just cannot tell you how wonderful this meal was. Thank you.

  • Mmmmm….I agree that the final appearance of rattatouille leaves something to be desired. Yours is absolutely stunning. And thanks for all the excellent photography hints…I need to use them all!!!

  • Thanks so much for sharing your tips. I like the idea of a little kit ready to go. I’m always searching around. Luckily I have a good window in my kitchen so I don’t have to move around too much but it’s only good for certain shots.
    The ratatouille looks fantastic. What a great idea to cook the veges separately!

  • God bless you Scott! You do so much work to make the blog beautiful! I appreciate your tips and do plan to use some but goodness, I will probably never do as much as you do. Your effort really does show in every wonderful photograph. And Chris, your ratatouille is gorgeous! You give your hubby good subjects to photograph. 🙂

  • Your ratatouille looks so vibrant, colorful and delicious, and your photos are superb! You’re so lucky to have your talented photographer husband giving you a hand on all those professional food photos;

    Thanks for sharing the helpful hints which we have learned the basics (such as lighting, and daylight) back about 2yrs ago when most of us food bloggers joined Foodbuzz, and now we’ve all been dropped like ‘hot potatoes’ since they made a huge change!

  • Your pictures are great! I am always surprised at how difficult it is to take pictures. It’s something I haven’t come close to mastering yet. Definitely looking forward to your post on using artificial light, as natural light isn’t always possible to use.

  • I’ve tried putting my kitchen creations on the floor but it is so difficult to keep the dogs and the cat out of the shot – they are always trying to eat my posts! I often stand on a stool to give a higher advantage. Love these tips – and appreciate the beautiful recipe. I loved the ratatouille recipe. I’ve made it once and thought it was terrific, it just took too long to make. Thanks!

  • I had a problem with eggplant as a kid so I never liked ratatouille. Luckily, my taste buds have evolved and grown up and so now it’s a favorite (though I think I passed the dislike down to Dudette so I don’t make it often). I love the idea of cooking each vegetable separately. Thanks for passing the tip along. If it ends up looking as gorgeous as yours, I’ll be thrilled.

    Thanks, again, to your husband for sharing more of what he learned with us. It’s always fun to see ho people have their photo area set up. 🙂

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