Hearty Winter Beef and Barley Soup & Food Photography


This winter is probably the coldest. For the past weeks, the temperature in London was maintained at subzero! I remember last Saturday was really cold, that kind of biting cold that I had never experienced before! I longed for hearty food that could act like extra layers of skins to keep me warm and snug.

I like her approach in photography – clean, well-thought, warm, and nicely composed! And the food she makes are just scrumptious as if I could take them off the screen! I think I stumbled upon her blog through flickr and have been following since. Today, I have Sabra from Cookbook Catchall to share with us a hearty winter recipe and her approach in food photography.

Leemei invited me to write a guest post for her blog with a hearty winter recipe and some tips and tricks on food photography.  I am a bit humbled by the latter because I am very much still learning and experimenting. I hope that I can share something that will be interesting to all of you on both fronts!

I write a little food blog that is called Cookbook Catchall.  I’m in my third year, as hard as it is to believe!  My blog has been a great outlet for my creative endeavors in the kitchen, as well as for my burgeoning interest in food photography.  As time has gone on, I’ve gotten more and more serious about food photography and have started taking on client work, including photographing for the New York Times Dining section.

My photography set-up is quite simple.  I use natural light and tend to photograph mid-afternoon when the sun is at an angle and intensity that I find pleasing.  We moved recently and now have N, E, S and Western exposures.  I am having fun moving around and experimenting with the different qualities of light.  In fact, I had a wood table on casters made for this purpose – so now the table moves around easily with me and to whatever spot I find the light to work best for a given shoot.

In terms of controlling the light, I use reflectors, adjust the window shades, move toward or away from the windows and block the light with cloth or cards as required.  Experimenting is really the best way to figure out what does and doesn’t work, and why.  There are plenty of shoots that for one reason or another have completely failed for me.  As frustrating as it is to not get anything pleasing after a half day of cooking and a lot of set up and shooting time, I always learn something that helps the next attempt or the next shoot so the effort is never in vain.

I usually start out with a very specific idea of how I want the shoot to work – something that I’ve worked out in my head over three or four days prior to the shoot (I think about props, camera angle, where I want the light coming from, focal length, mood, etc.).  Often times I start out executing on that but end up having a different idea mid-stream that works much better.  I force myself to be flexible despite my natural inclination to stick to my plan because I always benefit from trying something on the fly.

I typically shoot tethered to my computer.  That’s probably the single most helpful thing I’ve incorporated into my workflow.  It allows me to see exactly what I am doing and make thoughtful styling, focus point, camera angle and exposure adjustments as I go along – something I find very hard to do well using the little LCD on the camera.

People often ask me about my gear.  I completely understand the curiosity about equipment and stuff but I can definitely tell you that equipment is not what creates a magical photo – skill and experience does (and a little luck).  I say that not because I am experienced (far from it!) but because I look at some of my fellow food bloggers images that are taken with cameras far less recent or costly than my current one and they are very often much more skilled images.  If you don’t have a late model SLR or a bag full of lenses it does not matter! (that said, I shoot with a Nikon system and currently use the D700).

I knocked around a bunch of recipe ideas for this post, but as the weather has gotten colder and colder here in New York I’ve found myself increasingly hankering for a warm, hearty stew – here’s my own rendition:

Hearty Winter Beef and Barley Soup

Yield: 3-4 persons


1 – 1¼ pounds chuck roast, chopped into ~1 inch cubes
5 cups cold water
A few sprigs Italian flat leaf parsley plus chopped parsley to garnish
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 medium yellow onion, halved
4-5 medium carrots
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 cup frozen pearl onions
2-3 smallish waxy potatoes (blue make for a nice color contrast with the other ingredients but any waxy potato will do)
2 medium Jerusalem artichokes or parsnips
¼ cup pearled barley
Vegetable oil for cooking
Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper to taste


1. Season the beef generously with salt and pepper on all sides. Heat 1-2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet and brown beef on all sides.

2. Transfer beef to a 5-6 quart Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed sauce pan. Add water, thyme sprigs, 1-2 sprigs Italian flat leaf parsley, Worcestershire sauce, vinegar, half of the yellow onion (skin on is fine) and a whole carrot (skin on is fine). Bring to a boil and then reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, for 30-40 minutes. Remove thyme, onion and carrot.

3. Meanwhile, cut potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes or parsnips into 3/4 inch cubes and peel and chop remaining carrots into 1 each pieces. Re-heat pan used to brown the beef (add a little additional oil if necessary) and cook cut vegetables plus whole pearl onions for several minutes until they begin to brown. Take care not to crowd the pan. If your pan is not big enough, brown in batches.

4. After beef mixture has cooked 30 minutes per the above, add the barley and browned vegetables plus a generous sprinkling of kosher salt and pepper. Bring temperature back up to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer. Simmer, partially covered for an additional 30-40 minutes. At this point,the sauce will have thickened and the beef will be fork-tender. If sauce is not thick enough for your liking, remove cover, raise temperature and cook a little longer. If too thick, add cold water in ¼ cup increments until consistency is as desired. Adjust seasonings to taste. Serve with a sprinkling of chopped flat leaf parsley.