Yes, I did it. I signed up for Bloglovin’, and I totally dig it. If you use it feel free to follow me and let me know you’re there so I can follow you. So far it’s two thumbs up. Makes blog reading much easier. I had a blast on there last night and even found some cool “new to me” blogs to follow.
One blog I totally dig reading on a regular basis is Kitchen Riffs. I’ve been a fan for quite some time. John is the man behind the blog, and I just love his recipes and how informative he is. He really gets to the nitty-gritty of recipes and provides lots of extra info about ingredients and techniques. I was so pleased when John said he would like to be part of this series. So without further ado we’ll get right to my interview with John of Kitchen Riffs. And in John’s honour I left out all the girlie pink highlights today. You’re welcome dude!
Burning Down The Kitchen with John of Kitchen Riffs:
1. What was your inspiration to start blogging?
Blogging can be a lot of work — something I recognized before I started — so I actually thought about it for close to a year before deciding to go ahead. Several things got me into this. First, over the years I’ve developed all sorts of recipes that I hadn’t written down, so this was a convenient way to record them — and to share them with other people. Second, I’ve learned a lot about food over the years, but I’ve never really pulled all of my thoughts together in any sort of systematic way. Blogging is a great way for me to look at what I know — or think I know — and do some testing and experimenting. It’s helped me relearn some things, and confirm things that I’ve always kinda sorta thought I knew, but hadn’t taken the time to test in any thorough way. Third, I thought it would be fun to photograph food. It turned out to be a lot harder than I ever imagined it would be! But I like photography, and this seemed like a fun subject. And it is, although it’s also really challenging.
2. Do you find it challenging to come up with new food and drink recipes on a regular basis?
I actually have the opposite problem! There are so many possibilities, that at the beginning I wasn’t sure what to tackle first. So probably the first six months I was figuring out what the blog was about — what I wanted to write about, and why. Fortunately, there’s a big seasonal component. Around Christmas, for example, cookies and sweets are natural subjects. St. Patrick’s Day means something Irish, and so forth. So throughout much of the year, it’s pretty logical to write about something specific.
My biggest problem is having too much to write about. I have what seems like an endless list of ideas. But, with some exceptions, I don’t actually schedule posts very far ahead. I always have a pretty good idea of what I plan to write about over the next month or so, but I often make changes if I happen to feel like cooking something else. I don’t have a whole pile of posts written and photographed and ready to go — most of mine are started and completed within a couple of days of my posting them.
3. How involved in the process is Mrs. Kitchen Riffs? Will she guest post at some point?
Mrs. Kitchen Riffs — or as I call her informally, Mrs K R — is extremely involved in the process. For one thing, she edits every post. I’m a good writer, but she’s better — she made her living as a writer. She has done a lot of developmental editing (that’s where you take someone’s manuscript and rewrite it if necessary). Anybody who writes knows how easy it is to make stupid mistakes, so it’s great to have a pair of experienced, professional eyes look at the writing. She also contributes ideas, particularly for the post openers and endings (in which she and I often share a dialogue).
We have discussed whether she should do some guest posts, because she’s actually contributed some recipes, and will be adding many more — she does almost all of the baking and dessert recipes, for example. We’ve decided it’s easier for me to write and shape the post; she can then make any changes she wants in the editing. And we discuss ideas on what would be fun to write about.
I often run picture ideas past her, and she sometimes comes up with ideas for me. Also, I always shoot many, many pictures for each post — usually dozens. So I have to select which ones to use. After I make the first cut, I often ask her to help select the final four (the number I typically run in a post).
4. Are there any foods you love but Mrs. Kitchen Riffs hates, and vice versa?
We like almost everything! The only thing I can think of that I like, and she doesn’t, is liver. So we never prepare that at home — I’ll order it sometimes in restaurants, so we both win.
5. Take us through a typical day in the life of The Riffs.
We lead an extremely mundane, routine life! We’re lucky in that we’re both relatively young retirees — I’ve been retired for a couple of years, and Mrs K R just officially retired recently. Anyway, because there’s not much that we have to do, we get up (and go to bed) whenever we want. Kind of like teenagers on school break.J And we get to do whatever we want during the day! It’s a lot of fun. We both like to read, so each morning we’ll catch up on news and other reading on our computers. We always take a walk together for at least an hour each day, and we have a home gym where we get in some additional exercise. During the warm months, we like to garden. We often get together with friends or family, and enjoy having people over for dinner.
Of course, the blog provides some structure. I check on the blog several times a day (approving and responding to comments), and most weeks I need to photograph and write the blog posts — typically two a week. I also enjoy visiting other blogs, and commenting, which takes time. I probably spend 20 hours over the course of a week fussing with my blog, creating posts, and visiting other people’s blogs.
6. Can you tell us a little about your kitchen?
We bought our current house about 4 years ago, and a previous owner had made a lot of nice upgrades — including decent kitchen counters and cabinetry. There’s a lot of storage space. The best part is a center island that’s about four feet square, with an overhang on two ends so you can seat 4 people if you want an eat-in kitchen. We don’t — we use our dining room — but we keep a couple of chairs there. It’s handy when I’m looking at a cookbook. The island also makes a really nice work area for rolling out pasta dough or whatever. We don’t have a fancy restaurant stove or anything like that, just basic appliances. And a few small appliances on the counters — including a food processor, a blender, and a Kitchen Aid stand mixer. That mixer is amazing, by the way. It’s over 30 years old, and still going strong.
7. You make some seriously amazing cocktails, what kind of essentials do you always keep on hand?
Most people have a few favorite cocktails, so I always suggest that people just buy what they need to make their preferred drinks. Our two favorite cocktails are the Side Car (which requires cognac and Cointreau) – and the Classic Daiquiri (which requires white rum). We’d be happy if those were the only ingredients we ever bought. Over the years, however, we have wanted to try more cocktails, so we have acquired more ingredients. And because I sometimes blog about unusual drinks, we have a lot of less-well-known ingredients that we bought specifically for those cocktails.
Anyway, for the us the basics are Cognac, gin, rum (3 kinds — light, amber, and dark), rye and/or bourbon, Cointreau, Grand Marnier, Pimm’s Cup, and sweet and dry vermouth. Plus lemons, limes, seltzer water, simple syrup, and a couple different types of bitters. Other ingredients we often have on hand (though these tend to be more seasonal) are tequila, Campari, Pernod, vodka, various liqueurs, and grenadine. It took us several years to build up our collection!
We also have a couple of cocktail shakers and some handy measuring devices. I generally use a 2-ounce kitchen measure, instead of a jigger. A lot of cocktail recipes call for small ingredient quantities (¼ or ½ ounce), and jiggers often don’t have those measures.
In addition, we have several implements for squeezing lemons and limes, because so many great cocktail recipes call for citrus juice (we always use fresh-squeezed).
8. What about glasses for cocktails, are there a few basics you think everyone should have?
It depends on what you drink, of course, but there are three basic glasses: The classic cocktail glass (what most people call a “martini” glass), the shortish rocks glass, and the tall Collins glass (so called because that’s what you use for a “Collins”-style drink, such as a Tom Collins).
Cocktails that are served “up” (that is, chilled but without ice) look great in cocktail glasses. But most cocktail glasses are too large — they often hold 8 ounces or more. That’s way too big for a drink! For one thing, the sheer volume of alcohol needed to fill a glass that size is too much for most people. Second, the drink will get warm before you can drink it all. So for a cocktail glass, I recommend something that holds about 5 ounces.
If you want more, I think it’s much better to mix up another round of (fresh, cold) drinks.
When it comes to rocks and Collins glasses, most people already have something in their kitchen that works. A rocks glass usually holds 8 ounces or less (8 ounces would actually be a “double” rocks glass, but in this case using a too-large glass doesn’t matter — most people fill these only half full anyway). And a Collins glass is usually a tall glass that holds 10 to 12 ounces — it’s like what most of us use as a water glass. So for most people, cocktail glasses are all you need to buy.
9. Same situation for your kitchen pantry, what kind of things do you think new cooks should keep on hand when first building up a tasty pantry?
It depends on what you like to eat! But I couldn’t imagine living without extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) and good vinegar — both wine and balsamic. We use EVOO only for salads and for finishing dishes, BTW — for cooking I use pure olive oil or a neutral oil like canola. The flavor of EVOO dissipates too quickly when exposed to heat, so if you use that for cooking you’re just wasting money IMO.
In the refrigerator, we always have unsalted butter and cream on hand.
You also need good seasonings and flavorings, starting with salt and pepper. I prefer kosher salt and sea salt (I use this more as a finishing salt) to regular table salt. I also prefer whole black peppercorns that you grind yourself, because the pre-ground stuff loses flavor incredibly fast.
The herbs and spices you need depend on your taste. What do you cook? If you do a lot of Mexican, definitely you’ll need cumin, coriander, and oregano. Italian? Add some marjoram, bay leaf, and thyme to the list. Asian? You’re going to need soy sauce at a minimum. And so on. I’d buy spices and flavorings like bottles of liquor — just get what you need when you need it, rather than buying a whole bunch of stuff that you may never use.
All of these things directly influence the finished taste of dishes, so I think buying good quality makes a lot of sense. If you buy additional ingredients as recipes demand, over time you’ll build up an extensive collection of stuff, but it’ll all have a purpose — and you’ll know how to use it.
10. I have to admit I am a huge fan of your photography skills, especially your cocktails. Any advice for the rest of us looking to improve our shots?
Thanks for those kind words! I appreciate them. Food photography is basically about how you compose and light your pictures — and how you style the food. The mechanics of lighting and photography are reasonably easy to learn, but you do need to practice. Two basics before we get to tips: you need to know how to adjust your white balance so your photos don’t have a weird tint. Your camera’s instruction book tells you how to do that. And you want your photos to be as sharp as possible, which almost always means using a tripod.
Anyway, when it comes to taking pictures, the most important thing is to figure out your light. Most food looks best if the main light comes from behind (as you look at the dish, the light would be located anywhere between 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock), and occasionally directly from the side (9 o’clock or 3 o’clock). This helps make the look more three-dimensional. If your main light comes from the front, the photo is going to be flat. However, it’s usually good to have a secondary, less-intense light source in the front to open up shadows and lighten the dish a bit. For this purpose, I generally use a piece of white foam core or cardboard. Your actual light source doesn’t matter that much — both natural light and artificial light used off-camera work equally well. But you should never use the flash on your camera, because that’s lighting from the front — which causes flat, featureless pictures.
Once you know how to do it, the photography stuff is pretty straightforward. But this is one area where you really have to practice and experiment to learn and refine your skills. When you’re starting out, I recommend buying a few books specifically on food photography. The best introductory book I know is Helene Dujardin’s Plate to Pixel (she also writes a blog called Tartlette – http://www.tarteletteblog.com/
After you learn the basics, it’s just practice. It also helps to take a lot of photos, from different angles and possibly using a couple of different set ups. I typically shoot at least 100 photos per post, and use only about 4 of them.
Although many people initially find photography to be daunting, over time I’ve found that food styling is the real challenge. I can take photos with great lighting and composition, but if the food doesn’t look appealing to begin with, the photo is going nowhere. So you learn to add color in the form of garnish. If you are shooting something like a soup with brightly colored carrots and peas, you make sure to arrange some of the veggies so they show in the picture. Here again, I think reading some books will help most people a lot. Most food styling books are written for professionals, so they all discuss a lot of “tricks” that most bloggers will never try — using fake ice cream, for example — because we’re all shooting real food. The only “trick” I ever rely on (and not all the time) is using acrylic ice cubes in drinks — because they’re clear, they look better, and they don’t melt while I’m taking pictures!
On this topic, the best book I know is Food Styling by Delores Custer. It’s a bit expensive, and a lot of it is aimed at professionals rather than bloggers. But it has a lot of good information. Also good, and cheaper (although less comprehensive), is Linda Bellingham’s Food Styling.
11. Do you prefer wine, beer or cocktails with a great meal?
Wine. Although there are a lot of cocktails on my blog, we don’t actually drink them with meals that much. We have cocktails maybe once or twice a week, and sometimes before dinner when we’re entertaining. But at a restaurant, we almost always prefer to start with a glass of bubbly — Champagne or Prosecco or the like — and then have a bottle of wine with the meal.
12. What kind of snacking do you prefer, sweet or savoury?
I like both, but generally prefer savory and salty.
13. White, or whole wheat bread on the table when having a meal?
We actually do both! When we want something with a super crusty crust, it’s usually a white bread. Otherwise, whole wheat. But we’ve started baking our own bread, so it’s easy to bake whatever we feel like having for a particular dinner.
14. Salad or soup before dinner?
Although we do both, most often we serve salad as a first course. There are so many things you can do with salads, and they can be incredibly nutritious. We also serve a lot of main-course soups — and invariably they’re preceded by a salad!
15. Any junk food you just go crazy for? Things you stick in the cart when Mrs. Riffs is grabbing something else?
Over the last year or so we’ve become pretty good at avoiding the junk food aisles and making our own stuff! Mrs K R likes to bake, and she can make much better stuff than what you buy in packages, so it’s been ages since we’ve bought any packaged baked goods or cookies. We both like Chex Mix, and that’s something we used to buy sometimes. But we’ve taken to making that too — homemade is so much better, and you can spice it to suit your taste. In fact, my post on Homemade Chex Mix is one of the all-time most popular on the blog!
16. If you could name a cocktail that would best convey “you” what would that cocktail be?
The Side Car, for several reasons. First, it uses lemon juice, and lemon is one of my favorite flavors. Second, it’s a cocktail that you can tinker with to arrive at the ratio of ingredients you find most pleasing. I’m a big believer in preparing food the way you like, not the way someone else thinks it should be done. This is particularly critical in cocktails, because so often you have to balance the sweet and sour to get the flavor that most pleases you. The standard recipe for the Side Car uses equal parts of cognac, Cointreau, and lemon juice — a ratio of 1:1:1. I find it works better, though, if I use 1½ parts of cognac (sometimes 2, depending on the brand). Also, the traditional recipe calls for sugaring the rim of the glass — the same way that people salt the rim of a Margarita glass. I don’t do this, because I find it too sweet. So this drink perfectly conveys me: It has a flavor I crave, and it allows me to customize it to suit my individual preference.
17. If you could cook with one person, celebrity or someone you admire, who would that be and what would you want to make?
Julia Child — who’s no longer with us, alas. She’s actually the one who got me into cooking. I grew up in the 50s and 60s, when salad meant iceberg lettuce and green peas came from a can. Except for holidays, food was more functional than celebratory. I remember watching Julia Child on PBS when her program The French Chef was first broadcast. Here was someone who thought that food should taste wonderful at every meal — not just holidays. And she knew how to cook food so that it was wonderful. It opened my eyes. Her cookbooks remain among the best ever written in the English language. And she had a wonderful personality — there’s a reason why we all just call her Julia! So I would have loved to spend time in the kitchen with her, making just about anything.
18. Do you have a favourite cuisine? What is it about that cuisine that draws you to it?
I like a lot of different foods, but if I had to single out a cuisine it would probably be either Italian or Indian — and probably Indian. I tend to cook Italian more because it’s easier to do fairly simple and quick meals, but I prefer the complexity of Indian. I love all the spices, particularly the hot ones. Mrs K R and I are not vegetarians, but we enjoy eating vegetarian, and Indian vegetarian food is among the best — and there are thousands of recipes. I also enjoy mixing and adjusting the spices to my taste – it’s kind of like with the Side Car, adapting things so they’re perfect for me.
19. What’s your favourite childhood memory involving food?
Christmas cookies. Every year my mother would bake tons of them — a dozen varieties at least, sometimes double that. When I was growing up, sweets and snacks were a special treat — they weren’t everyday food the way they often are now. But during Christmas season, every night my mother would put out a big platter of cookies, and we could eat our fill. And they were really good!
20. Where do you see yourself in 5 years? Is blogging still a big part of the picture?
Sounds like a question in a job interview! I definitely see myself blogging 5 years from now. This is a hobby and I enjoy it, so I’m sure I’ll continue. The blog will probably evolve somewhat, but it’s always going to be recipe-based.
Dare Portion of Burning Down The Kitchen:
Show us a photo of your spirits collection!
Part of what makes Burning Down The Kitchen so fun for me is being able to make recipes I’ve bookmarked from fellow bloggers. It’s how this series came to life. I wanted to start highlighting other bloggers and it just seemed like a fun way to combine an interview with a recipe. I love trying out recipes from other bloggers, and I knew immediately when I asked John to be involved with the series that I wanted to make his Roast Potatoes. I’ve had them bookmarked for some time and was just waiting for the right time to try them out.
I admit I struggle with potato dishes. I think I have a tendency to over-cook them. I do one type really well, and actually you can check back here on Monday for a pretty unique potato recipe from me. But for some reason it’s the only potato dish I make consistently well. So when I saw John’s post about roasting potatoes I knew I wanted to try out his method. His potatoes looked like sheer perfection. I was so excited to try them. Let me just say I was not disappointed. John knows his stuff. My potatoes turned out perfectly. So thank you John for teaching this old gal a thing or two about making some seriously kick ass potatoes. I loved them. And not going to lie, I may have gobbled them all up before any one got home from work or school. The joys of cooking so you can catch the natural light. They made a perfect midday snack.
I would like to thank John so much for the honour of being able to interview him for this series. John is a class act folks. If you have not discovered his blog yet, please take the time to head over and poke around. You will thank me. He makes delicious food, tempting cocktails and his stories of his life with Mrs Riffs always makes me smile. This man is a joy to have as a friend and such an inspiration to his fellow bloggers.
Some of my favourite Kitchen Riffs recipes:
John is a master at whipping up amazing cocktails. I get so envious of all his drink recipes. My regulars readers know I cannot have alcohol for health reasons. IBS and alcohol do not play well together. It bums me out in a big bad way I can’t partake. I think there’s something so sexy about cocktails. The possibilities are endless for tasty concoctions. So for all of you who can partake have an extra for me. Anyone planning a party or for those who entertain, John’s site is a valuable tool. Honestly the best resource for cocktails on the web if you ask me.
Thanks for reading. Stop in over the next few days for Easter recipes. You can also look forward to my signature potato dish on Monday. It will rock your world. No lie!
Toodles and smoochies! xx