Chicken and Dumplings with Mushrooms
In this monthly series, I commit to cooking whatever is on the cover of Bon Appetit, Saveur or maybe some other food magazine. There’s a reason these particular dishes are on the cover – they’re usually the best recipes in the magazine.
I’m gonna lay some honesty on you guys. I’ve dreaded this post for weeks because I hate these photos. I kind of blame Bon Appetit for putting Chicken and Dumplings on the cover. Hello, plate of brown food. But, in the spirit of one of my New Year’s Resolutions for this blog being “keep working on my food photography,” I’m going to try to dissect what went wrong and figure out how I could have improved these photos. If you’re not interested in food photography, I would suggest you just skip straight to the recipe – it’s more delicious than these photos would let on.
OK, so first of all – yes, this is obviously a plate of brown food. While Bon Appetit was somehow able to pull this off (maybe because they had more interestingly shaped mushrooms than I did?), I did not pull it off. The magazine cover image seemed to have a variety of shades and depths of brown, whereas I ended up with one yucky shade of tan-beige-brown. But, be that as it may – I cooked the cover recipe, and this is how it turned out for me.
I think my food styling could have been improved. Even though Bon Appetit included a spent/cooked sprig of thyme in their image, I think my photos would have benefitted from a fresh, green sprig. And maybe some chopped parsley. I think the chopped parsley in my Coq au Vin photos turned stewed, sort-of-purple chicken into something beautiful to look at.
Next, and this is HUGE – the lighting for these photos was terrible. While I know that the best times for photography in my south-facing dining room/office is either early morning or late afternoon, this dish finished cooking right at noon (poor planning on my part). Noon is the WORST time for photos – the sun is way too bright. But yeah, because I didn’t want to pack all the food up, refrigerate it, and then get it out later, I tried to power through.
In my free time, I’ve been reading the book “Plate to Pixel” by Helene Dujardin – one of the best food photography books out there. In it, she says “If you have time to wait for the right time of day, a time when you like how and where the sun splashes across your setup, then wait it out to get what you want. Otherwise, just make it happen by strategically placing yourself and your food.”
I said to myself “OK Helene, I’m going to show this high noon sunlight who’s boss.” Armed with a bunch of reflectors (really, just white poster boards) and a tripod, I set out to get what I wanted by strategically placing myself and this bowl of brown stuff.
An hour later, I was a sweaty, frustrated mess with no good photos to show for it. But you know what? I learned a lot about light that day. I learned that no matter what, noontime light is sometimes just too bright. I learned that reflectors can help a little bit, but they’re not magicians. I learned that a bowl of brown food is really hard to make to look appetizing, even in the best lighting conditions. And I learned that I still have a lot to learn about food photography.
P.S. Despite all of my struggles with and complaints about these photos, this recipe is really very tasty. I took the liberty of adding some lemon zest to the dumplings, because lemon zest makes everything better.
Chicken and Dumplings with Mushrooms
For the Chicken Stew with Mushrooms:
- 4 ounces bacon, cut into 1/4-inch strips
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 chicken legs (drumsticks + thighs)
- Kosher salt and ground black pepper
- 3/4 pound mixed mushrooms
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 1/2 medium yellow onion, chopped
- 1/4 cup dry white wine
- 3 sprigs fresh thyme
- 1 bay leaf
- 4 cups less-sodium chicken broth
For the Dumplings:
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon lemon zest
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 egg
- 2 tablespoons whole milk
- Make Chicken Stew with Mushrooms: In large Dutch oven, cook bacon over medium-high heat 6 to 8 minutes or until crisp, stirring occasionally. Using slotted spoon, transfer bacon to paper towel-lined plate.
- Place flour in shallow bowl. Season chicken with salt and pepper, then lightly dredge chicken in flour. Place chicken, skin side down, in pot and cook until deep golden brown (do not turn), about 10 to 12 minutes. Transfer chicken to plate.
- Add mushrooms to pot, cook 5 to 8 minutes or until brown, stirring occasionally. Transfer mushrooms to bowl. Add garlic and onion to pot; cook 5 to 7 minutes or until onion is soft, stirring occasionally.
- Add wine to pot; simmer 2 minutes. Add thyme, bay leaf, broth, chicken and bacon. Heat to boiling, then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, partially covered, 2 hours or until chicken is falling off bone. Add mushrooms and simmer an additional 10 minutes.
- Make Dumplings: Heat medium pot of salted water to boiling. In medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, lemon zest, salt, nutmeg and pepper. Whisk in egg and milk (batter will be slightly lumpy). Reduce heat until water is at a strong simmer. Drop batter by teaspoonfuls into water; cook 5 minutes or until dumplings are doubled in size and cooked through.
- Remove dumplings from water with slotted spoon and divide between serving bowls. Divide chicken between serving bowls and ladle stew over chicken and dumplings.
I guess all of that is true, Courtney 🙂 I mean, looking back on these photos now, they’re not THAT bad. I think I was just frustrated at the time because the light was like, GLARING in the windows! haha.
We are our own worst critics. I totally feel your pain on this, but trust me, you’re thinking these look way worse than anyone else does. This is a tough food to photograph and I think you did a really nice job. I understand though– I hate when photos are less than what I think they could be. But think of it this way, you’re only disappointed because you know you’re capable of taking freaking awesome photos–and that’s a great thing.
Lori, I love how you have committed to this series and yes everything is better with lemons! I know what you are saying about photos – I think you did a good job on this and some foods are harder to photograph than others. I struggle with pasta – I can never get it to look natural. I have this book also and have read it many times. I currently use PSE11 but thinking of getting lightroom… do you like that? PS – I’m guessing motor oil might be in the BA picture HA! Keep up the great work – you inspire me to do better!
Hi Deb – I agree, pasta is SO hard! Especially the long, twirly kinds like spaghetti and linguine, at least for me. I always end up fiddling with it too much and then it just looks unnatural. Haha.
I really like Lightroom, but I’ve never used PSE, so I can’t compare the two. I was able to get Lightroom at 50% off when B&H had a sale, so I think I’ve really gotten my money’s worth. I was able to teach myself the basics pretty quickly.
Is the author of that book related to Jean Dujardin? I assume that it a rather common french name. Either way, she has great ideas about photography and I can certainly see your improvement everyday.
Also, the actual food was delicious – the dumplings were perfectly fluffy.
Thanks Ice 🙂 You’re right, if I hadn’t said anything, nobody would have known. But then, I also wouldn’t have had a blog post, either. haha. I’m only about 1/3rd of the way through Plate to Pixel but I definitely recommend it. There’s so much to learn from it.
I think you are being too hard on yourself. I think your pictures are beautiful.
Had you not said anything I would have known your struggles. Oh no, actually I would have because I go through the same thing every time I picture food for my blog posts.
Either way, I am happy you learned so much.
I want to read Plate to Pixel too.
Oh my.. there is so much to read.. Crazy!! 🙂
Aw, thanks Cathleen!
I think you are being too hard on yourself because these photos turned out great. There is brown slop and then there is some nice looking chicken and dumplings. Going all white definitely helped and yes the light is a little bright is some parts these are far from horrific. Let’s always remember, how much you bet those mushrooms on the bon app cover were probably cooked separately to get that deep brown caramelized color and then strategically placed.
You’re right Susan, I’m my own worst critic, without a doubt 🙂 I bet Bon Appetit took their perfectly shaped mushrooms (that the probably got by picking through a huge box and then throwing away the not-so-perfect ones) and browned them, like, 3 at a time in a pan or something. Hahaha.
Droool! I’m always looking for chicken recipes. It’s breakfast time, and I’m hungry for some of this!