Stew In A Good Light (Lamb Shanks With Vegetables & Cannellini Beans)

Dear Mary Berry, thank you for helping me to learn to cook lamb, and to appreciate it.

It could be a very short statement. But, of course, there’s more to it. It is not just knowing how, it is also enjoying it, and being natural at it. I combined some of Mary’s recipes that I found in her Absolute Favourites (BBC Books, 2015) recipe book, which I absolutely love indeed.

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Then, naturally, there is my careful picture taking – in order to do the meal justice by the way it looks. And here some may worry because stews might not be the absolute delight to shoot apart from what they taste like. Stews usually take longer to cook, at least the meat ones, the vegetables become a bit mushy, meat may look overcooked, and you can end up with a pile of extremely tasty but not very attractive food on your plate – and you may panic at the idea of shooting just that.

My tips here are:

Choose simple – looking, yet pretty crockery and cutlery, let the food stand out – a general rule for foodies anyway. Prepare the position of each of them ahead in time enough not to be bothered by arranging them at the moment you have your food ready.

Make sure you pick vegetables that look its best for the photos, be picky and patient – use small tools, tea spoons with long handles, tweezers or wooden sticks if you need to arrange the bits.Use the less – good looking to “undercushion” your hero, e.g. meat or vegetable. Don’t just style the food the most usual way you would serve it at home – not even in order to achieve some sort of top natural look. There always needs to be at least some styling.

Be careful about not leaving any splashes, drops or grease / sauce smudges around the plate. Just don’t.

Then there is the moisture – yes, use a brush, or at least small teaspoon to help keep the meat look moist and freshly pulled out of the pot. That counts for the vegetables as well. In the ideal case you have it all prepared by skilled cook / stylist, and even then – you need to be very fast. In some cases though, where there is just you and the meal, you need to be quick as well as cautious – the meat surface goes dry very fast, nearly immediately after you place it on your table. Look at the image above – the meat was taken and arranged within two minutes after pulling out of the pot maximum, I was superfast, and yet I needed a brush to help support the moist look. Hope I succeeded. No-one would like to pick the fork or spoon after seeing a chunk of meat drying out in front of their eyes. Not in real, neither in photos. And the same applies to vegetables. Arrange the hero bit of the meal the very last.

As to the background, use props that support the idea of the meal you’re shooting – cider or beer go well with this meal, so I used it. Mind you, the glass I used was cooled in the fridge shortly before I added the cider, and I needed to be quick, too, I tried my best in having the best level of the beverage to keep the foam still visible, as well as the dew. No matter what my depth of field – I wanted it look as just being served.

I also used freshly chopped herbs to emphasize the freshness and appeal of the food. It helps adding colour and texture, too. What I personally do not like very much is the extreme sprinkling of whatever is the part of the meal in the spot – some just would sprinkle over the meat, stew, plate and all around the plate – achieving… mess? You wouldn’t do that at home, you wouldn’t expect that in a restaurant. Don’t do it in the images, it doesn’t look natural – it looks you tried to make it look natural, which is two things, not one.

As to the lighting, I mentioned last time I am trying some new lights. I don’t use flash or speed lights. In here, there is diffused continuous light from the right, which reflects in a large V-shaped white board on the left and a couple of smaller silver reflectors placed in the left and front in angles just suitable to bring out the liquid and juice reflection on the meat – these shiny little areas give the food life in the image.

One of the smaller reflectors also bounced light nicely through the cider, I liked how that went through and then onto the bread placed aside. To me even that counts.

Few years ago I was basically obsessed with filling in any shadow that occurred on and around my subjects. I am at much greater ease with that now. I do fill in only the most necessary areas, and usually leave more of them in their natural dark to add texture which otherwise wouldn’t come out so visible. You don’t need to fill in every single shadow – let the shape and lines of your subject tell you which parts may remain darker. Use smaller or larger black cards or blocks to avoid much of the light coming and covering the food. Too much reflection on the stew may cause it looking greasy and thus not appealing.

These are just very few basic rules, I hope you found them useful.

And for those keen to prepare those tasty looking lamb shanks, here is a link to one of the gorgeous Mary Berry’s recipes:



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