All photographs by Ngoc Minh Ngo courtesy of Roost Books (except where noted.)
Over the last two years, I have been working on a botanically-inspired cookbook called Sourdough: Rustic Recipes for Fermented Breads, Sweets, Savories, and More focusing on the use of sourdough as a fermented ingredient. Finally after months of waiting, it has arrived in my hands! Actually holding the book has brought back a flood of memories, many centered around the inspiration I found from working as Rosarian at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG). Other visceral recollections reside in the process of photographing the seasonality of the book which took over 7 months to complete. This post attempts to document some of the behind-the-scenes work that went into this incredible labor of love.
So many friends, family, and colleagues contributed to the success of Sourdough including the patience and detailed eye of my amazing photographer Ngoc Minh Ngo. Ngoc and I met in the first few months of my tenure at BBG when she introduced herself as wanting to collaborate on a rose documentation project. Over the next four years, Ngoc and I would meet at the Cranford Rose Garden sometimes as early as 7am to photograph the rare heritage rose collection that was under my care. Although her rose project is ongoing, when the opportunity came to work on Sourdough, I boldly and somewhat naively asked her to photograph it. Her ability to translate the grace of plants as botanical ingredients was what I wanted to capture in my cookbook.
Little did I know what a time-consuming and labor intensive project Sourdough would become. Ngoc became not only my photographer but also styling coach and acting art director on the documentation of the recipes and ingredients through the seasons. We met on many occasions to amass props, dye fabrics from natural sources, and discuss the approach we would take in the styling of the book. Ngoc was patient when attempting to capture botanical portraits, waiting for the persimmons to ripen or the chestnuts to fall. When BBG's Native Flora curator was convinced to let me harvest a few ramps in the off-season, Ngoc never complained when I showed up to her door with dusty bags of soil-clodded bulbs.
Because of the timing of the contract, most of the photography occurred before the manuscript had even been edited. So there was a lot of guess work on our part as to what should be documented. Although we were to turn into Roost 135 photos, we ended up shooting many hundreds, submitting almost three hundred total images. Close to the end, we nearly ran out of inspiration for styling yet one more loaf and turned to the confident hand of food stylist Frances Boswell for help. She generously contributed to some of the book's most beautiful images and I learned a great deal from her fresh and experienced approach to food.
As the seasons progressed, I gained inspiration from what was most readily available from my garden (read: trying to use up copious amounts of produce like zucchini! rhubarb! sweet potatoes!) as well as the abundant farmers markets and ethnic neighborhoods of New York City. I reinvented and converted favorite recipes of greats such as Martha Stewart and David Lebovitz to use sourdough as an ingredient. But as often happens, I would have irresistible cravings and enter the kitchen with the intention of combining flavors in a way that might inspire others to be their own creative compass.
When bringing all of this together in one coherent volume, one of the trickiest hurdles to overcome was the notion of how to coach the reader to develop intuition. Sourdough is an inconsistent medium by nature, exhibiting behavior that is directly reflective of its environment including temperature and humidity. Add to that the use of wildly variable stone ground flours and there is a whole other dimension of recipe writing that becomes complicated at best.
Upon review of the actual physical copy of the book, I am somewhat stunned at its beauty in print and now happily revisit the words that run across their pages. I am so grateful to those who tolerated and supported the madness of holding down a full-time job and running two side businesses during its production. It is my humble pleasure to share with you this collection of inspired recipes and rich photos. I do hope that if you have questions or comments, you will share them with me here!