Can I Photograph Your Meal?

Dreamstime food phtography
“Just give me a moment to take this picture with my zoom lens, then I’ll scoop your dinner off this cloth and back onto your plate.”

Picture this:

You’re sitting at a casual dinner party, relaxing over a good meal and a nice drink. The diffuse evening light coming through the curtains bathes everything in a soft glow. The conversation is low-key but amusing. You could happily sit at that table for the rest of your life.

Then, the host comes up. She’s holding her camera, and you think she might want to take a photo of the guests to remember this time forever. Instead, she asks slightly awkwardly, “I’m a food blogger – can I take a picture of your plate?”

Yikes! Who wants to be that host? Not me, as it turns out.

I recently ran into this problem for the first time when I was mixing work and pleasure by testing a dinner party menu for the blog on a few unsuspecting guests.  We’d issued an invitation to MJ’s aunt and uncle weeks before I found out I needed to write a post on entertaining, but it still seemed crass to try and get those two birds with one dinner party stone.

It left me pondering if there is any polite way to photograph food that you’re about to serve to guests?

Photographing the meal secretly in the kitchen seems like the obvious answer. But it isn’t an option for me. MJ and I live in a farmhouse cottage that has been converted to have a single cooking, dining and living space. While I love being included in the party while I’m cooking, it makes it impossible to snap a sneaky pic of the plates before they go to the table.

This means I need to ask. But asking seems to imply a hidden motivation for the gathering. The last thing I want is for my guests to feel like they’re props, or that the event they viewed as a fun get-together is actually just part of my work.

On reflection,  it seems to boil down to honesty.  Having invited MJ’s family over for dinner,  we were socially and ethically bound to provide hospitality – including a relaxing atmosphere. That wasn’t going to happen if I was fiddling around with the placement of their sticky beef ribs to get the perfect picture.

In the end,  I couldn’t bring myself to ask MJ’s venerable uncle if I could take a few shots of his fried okra. The food went to the table un-photographed. My blog post ended up with just a few pictures of dishes that I’d prepaped earlier.

The only solution seems to be to include the question when I extend the invitation. It would mean coming out of the food blogger closet, but at least my friends and family won’t feel like they’re dining under false pretences.

Would you feel offended if your host whipped out a camera and zoomed in on your plate? If you’re a food blogger, what is your personal code of ethics for taking photos in social gatherings?  

How to Plan a Three Course Dinner Party: TexMex Edition

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Home made tortilla chips.

Last week, I wrote about how to plan a three course dinner party, and tried to convince you that it was actually the easy option when it comes to entertaining.

Yesterday, I decided to put my money where my mouth was, and serve up a three course dinner party for six. Well, five and a toddler.

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Okra from the garden, ready to be crumbed in cornmeal and pan fried.

The guests: MJ’s aunt and uncle, and their adult daughter who is lactose intolerant. All three of them love Mexican food as much as MJ. That is, a lot.

The protein: A huge packet of beef ribs from the farmer’s Market that have been malingering in the freezer for a month.

The main course: Sticky Tex Mex ribs, marinated all day and cooked all afternoon

The side dish: Choosing seasonal options (it’s late summer here in Melbourne), I went for creamy mashed sweet potato, and pan fried okra dusted in cornmeal and spices.

The appetizer: The ribs are sticky and tender, so I needed an appetizer that was crunchy and tart. Home-made tortilla chips and salsa fit the bill, and can be made ahead of time.

The desert: Because it’s summer, I went for a light dessert. I couldn’t go past Diana Kennedy’s classic The Essential Cuisines of Mexico, which includes a recipe for a Mexican street food snack of fruit salad sprinkled with chili and salt.

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Salsa made with heirloom tomatoes – oddly coloured but full of flavour.

The verdict: As always, there’s a gap between theory and practice. While I could have made most of this ahead of time, having a toddler isn’t exactly conducive to organized kitchen prep. While I didn’t get to reap the benefits of pre-cooking part of the meal, I loved cooking dishes that I knew inside out. Cooking familiar dishes for guests will definitely be on the menu when I entertain from now on.

Have you tried using the three course menu plan yet? Did it work for you?

The Secret to a Stress-Free Dinner Party

Dreamstime Awkward dinner party
A three course dinner will give your most interesting guest (in this case, the guy in the middle of this stock photo) plenty of time to tell all of his funny anecdotes. Look how much the women around him are loving it!

There’s something about a dinner party that strikes fear into the heart of the home cook.

When I realise that guests are about the descent upon my home for a sit-down meal, I find myself with an irresistible urge to cook impressive sounding dishes I know nothing about, and impulse-buying expensive cheese. But no more. As part of my challenge to master every technique in Lieth’s Technique Bible, I’m learning how to plan like a chef.

My previous approach to cooking for a dinner party was to either go to ridiculous lengths and expense to cook my guest’s dream meal, or throw down a quick buffet involving burgers and potato salad. It turns out there is a third way.

That third way is a three course meal.

I can see you – finger hovering over the ‘back’ button, imagining ridiculous French banquets and muttering, “This is not the secret I was looking for!” But hear me out.

According to FoodTimeline.org, humans have been eating food in courses for about 10,000 years. And while there is an association between wealth and courses (wealthy people generally have more food to spread around), meals with different stages occur in all societies and socio-economic groups.

So why should you cook a three course meal when you have guests? Won’t it send you bankrupt? Or insane?

Not so. By using the planning guide below, you’ll cook most of the meal in advance, and save on expensive ingredients at every stage. Most importantly,  you’ll be able to enjoy the meal rather than trying to unravel the mysteries of Lobster Thermidor while your best friend’s husband eats all your expensive cheese.

Planning a Three Course Meal in Seven Easy Steps

Adapted from the general meal planning guidelines in Leith’s Technique Bible.

1. Consider your guests.

Do they have any particular preferences or dietary needs? Don’t be grudging about it – even if you’re sceptical about your brother-in-law’s self-diagnosed starch intolerance, you still need to cater for his preference. After all, cooking for someone should be about cooking for them, not in spite of them.

2. Pick your cuisine.

Go with a cuisine that you’re comfortable cooking. Your first Moroccan dish should be a fun experiment on a lazy Saturday, not a panicked disaster as twelve of your friends watch on in sympathetic horror.

3. Choosing a protein for the main course.

Pick the star of your main course: meat, seafood, tofu, eggs, beans or lentils. Make sure this main ingredient is either seasonal (cheap and easy to find) out already in your pantry (even cheaper).

4. Pick the dish for the main course.

Choose the main course dish by finding recipes for your protein in your cuisine that are at your level and look fun. If you already have a tried and tested recipe that fits the bill, then go with that.

5. Balance your main course.

Add balance to the main course with carbs or vegetables. Carbs could consist of rice, pasta, flatbread, a loaf of bread, or potatoes. Vegetables could be roasted, steamed, or in the form of a salad. Most of these options can be made earlier in the day, or with very little attention.

6. Choose your appetizer.

Pick something from the same cuisine, but with a different texture. Ideally, choose something that can be made ahead so you can focus on the main course. Having an appetizer up your sleeve will buy you time to finish the main course, while adding interest to the meal for your guests.

7. Finally, dessert.

Pick something from the same cuisine that is light in summer or heavy in winter. Cakes and biscuits are my favourite options as they can be made in advance and use inexpensive ingredients, but at the same time have a lovely home-made touch.

 

Using this guide, everything can be made ahead apart from the main meal. Your guests get a culinary journey through a cuisine your love, and all you have to do on the night is cook a single dish like you would for any weeknight dinner.

 

Tune in on Saturday to see a sample menu, as I turn MJ’s extended family into my meal-planning guinea pigs.

What is your experience of planning a special meal? Would you consider a three course sit-down dinner?