The model before us is a photographer’s dream. She can hold a pose for hours without complaint, she doesn’t mind being poked and prodded until the shot is just right, and best of all, she projects an attitude without actually having one.
No, she’s not some high-priced, anorexic supermodel in a flowing Balenciaga – “she” is my Israeli Couscous Salad, and we are at master food photographer Jon Edward’s studio as veteran food stylists, Denise Vivaldo and Cindie Flannigan, prepare her for her close-up.
This is my second food photo shoot with the trio, taking publicity shots for my cookbook, and again I am blown away by the skill and attention it takes to make this salad – as well as the other seven dishes I’ve brought today – sing.
“Wait, Jon, just let me move this carrot,” says Vivaldo as she takes tweezers to this colorful dish, rearranging a mint leaf for good measure.
I first tasted this colorful salad at a bridal shower and had to have the recipe. Couscous is not a grain, but actually pasta, and if you’ve tried only the fine-grained variety, you’re in for a treat. Israeli couscous boasts larger, tapioca-size toasted rounds that have a chewy, almost buttery texture, the perfect backdrop for the crisp vegetables, toasted pine nuts, and refreshing citrus dressing.
You can substitute conventional fine-grained couscous, if you like, or even bulgur, a hearty grain popular in the Middle East made from kernels of wheat that are steamed, dried, and then crushed.
This light, refreshing salad is one of my favorites for summer entertaining. In this heat I’m looking for easy dishes and a carefree menu, so I can enjoy my guests without breaking a sweat.
“People make themselves crazy when they entertain,” says Vivaldo, a classically trained chef and caterer as well as food stylist, and whose company, Food Fanatics (www.foodfanatics.com), specializes in recipe development, consulting, and food styling for print, film and television. “If you could enjoy yourself more, you would do it more often.”
I ask Vivaldo for some tips on party planning – and she ought to know. This seasoned professional, who has catered 10,000 parties (serving the likes of the George H.W. Bushes, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bette Midler and Prince Charles), is the author of “How to Start a Home-Based Catering Business,” “How to Start a Home-Based Personal Chef Business,” and with Flanagan, “Do It For Less! Parties” as well as the upcoming “Do It For Less! Weddings,” due out in October.
“When we’re entertaining, we’re all our own harshest critics,” she says. “But if someone else has set the table, the simplest meal is divine.”
What makes people really nervous are sheer numbers. “People are not used to cooking in quantities,” Vivaldo notes. “It freaks them out to see how much food they’ve got. Is it enough? It is too much? Remember, the more things you have on the menu, the smaller the portions you need to serve.”
Then there’s the expense. “When people entertain, they spend a lot of money instead of keeping it simple,” she says. “If you’re having a lot of people, you don’t have to offer a complete bar. Why not make one kind of drink, say Cosmopolitans, and add something non-alcoholic and some water and you’ve got it.”
Planning a barbecue? Vivaldo suggests handwriting rustic invitations on brown butcher paper glued onto gingham and trimmed with pinking shears. Inexpensive bandanas from the dollar store tied with twine make rustic napkins. Galvanized buckets, cast-iron skillets or even clear pitchers filled with ice-cold lemonade make festive centerpieces.
You don’t need to spend a lot of money on matching linens, Vivaldo advises. “Look around your house. Everything doesn’t have to match. Be creative. You can use a Mexican serape or even $10 sheets from Target. People don’t come to your home to see your couch. They come for the company and a glass of wine.”
For my next party I find an easy, tongue-tingling recipe for Salmon with Orange-Soy Glaze and Black Pepper in “The Quick Grill Artist” by Norman Kolpas, renowned food writer and award-winning author of over three dozen cookbooks. One hundred imaginative recipes go from grill to table with flair in under 45 minutes. Even the prep is quick.
“You can get any recipe to go on the grill in the time it takes for the grill to heat up,” Kolpas says. “I call it instant gratification grilling.”
For dessert his S’mores Quesadillas will delight the kids – and the kids in us! “Although I respectfully dispute his judgment on this,” Kolpas writes, “my son, Jake, insists that the recipe works even better if you double the quantities of all ingredients for the filling.”
Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of “Cooking Jewish: 532 Great Recipes from the Rabinowitz Family” (Workman) and can be found on the Web at www.cookingjewish.com.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.