Chiaroscuro in the Kitchen

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Apple Bake with Quinoa Oats and Yogurt 

Lisa Rees is an award-winning food photographer who grew up in Shanghai, China's largest and most prosperous city where an impressive blend of modernization and ancient traditions coexist. Her earliest memories are of living in a happy household with her parents, siblings and grandmother where seasonal Chinese cuisine was prepared fresh daily and shared around a table. Later, when her whole family immigrated to America, that same dedication to wholesome meals and gathering for dinner carried her through a life-changing time of learning the ways of a new country, including its culture and food.

After pursuing a career in engineering, Lisa currently works in real estate development and lives with her husband and daughter in Manhattan Beach, a lovely coastal city in southern California where the fresh breezes of the Pacific Ocean keep temperatures mild year-round. Along the way, she stumbled onto her passion for food photography and now spends the majority of her free time expanding her culinary skills, which range from Beignets and Macarons to Kimchi Fried Rice and New England Mussels, all artfully showcased in stunning photographic compositions.

One of her outstanding accomplishments is winning first prize in the PX3 Prix de la Photographie in 2015, in Paris, France for her Matcha Chia Pudding on a Plate . Her images are currently represented by StockFood, a food media agency based in Munich, Germany.  

Read on for my interview with Lisa...

Baked French Toast with Berries 

Tell us about your childhood, Lisa.  I was born in Shanghai and spent my preteen years there.  Life was quite carefree, and I was very much interested in dance, especially ballet which I devoted a lot of time and energy to, starting at the age of five.  Drawing/painting was another hobby I regularly practiced, too.  My whole family immigrated to the U.S. almost 30 years ago to reunite with my aunt and uncle who were already living here.  Moving to the U.S. has provided the children in the family a fantastic opportunity for higher education and my parents better career opportunities.  My parents settled and have lived in Los Angeles ever since.

Braised Beef Shank Noodles 

Was there an early influence in your life? My mom and my grandma have both been very instrumental in my life.  They are my role models of what great womanhood is, through their passion in cooking and appreciation of food.  As a youngster, I was very lucky to see them prepping and creating delicious Chinese cuisine everyday with fresh ingredients and spices such as star anise, five spice powder, dried orange peels, curry powder and Chinese cinnamon.  I often tagged along with my grandma to the local markets where we would buy produce, meat or fish needed for the meals that day.   Seasonal cooking was very much a main theme in the family kitchen as well as learning the health benefits of different ingredients.  Family time for me as a kid was very much centered around the sharing of delicious meals and lively conversations around the table.

Wild Salmon Carcass for Stock Soup 

Have you always been interested in food and cooking?  I am a strong believer that we all have unique gifts inside worth exploring and discovering at different stages of our life journey.  For me, I definitely had a renaissance through rediscovering my love for food/cooking and visual arts in recent years.  I am very grateful for the new adventures I have been engaging in since I started doing food posts on Instagram.  I have gotten to connect with many very talented people all over the world that share the same passion as I do.  I am always in awe and continually being inspired by their work.

"I am a strong believer that we all have unique gifts inside that are worth exploring and discovering at different stages of our life journey."

Fall veggies with wild rice.

What is an early memory you have that is associated with food? 
One early memory of food for me was learning to make Chinese dumplings from my grandma.  She had so much patience in teaching me the various steps involved in the making of dumplings, from rolling out the dough skin, prepping the filling and assembling them to create beautiful tiny folds along the outer edges of each one.  Oh boy, it was a challenge for me at the start.  From that process, I began to appreciate the necessary patience and attention to details that are so essential in cooking.

Chinese Dumplings

What inspires you? I very much find my inspirations in food from both eastern and western influences.  Oftentimes, I would incorporate an Asian touch into my more western style cooking today as they really complement one another beautifully.  With regards to my food photography, I am very much influenced by the artworks of Italian painter Caravaggio for his dramatic use of chiaroscuro which came to be known as tenebrism.  Once someone said, “What begins with the work of Caravaggio is, quite simply, modern painting.”   Through the play of light and dark, it tells a story and draws one’s eyes to focus on the simple yet stunning qualities of a dish or food.  For me, artfully captured food communicates through all the senses, not only just delicious taste, but also conveys a specific mood at the same time.  In addition, visuals from fashion also influence my choice of colors, lines and textures in shooting food.

"For me, artfully captured food communicates through all the senses..."

Fig Tartlets with Gorgonzola 

Have you had any culinary travel adventures? As of so far, I haven’t had the opportunity to go on a culinary travel specifically. It’s definitely on my to do list for the near future.  However, I do travel quite often to Europe to visit family.  During my past trips to cities in Italy, Paris and Amsterdam, finding new places to try and taste great food, be it a nice eatery or casual street food has always been a big part of my travel mission.   Since food plays such an essential role in the lives of families in most cultures, I find that it helps me with a better understanding and a more intimate connection to different cultures and their history.

Fusion Sushi Bowl with Orzo 

What is your favorite prop to use for food photography? Believe it or not, a simple kitchen towel is my favorite go-to prop when I style and photograph food.  I love the ease in using it to create movement, fluidity, light and shadow in a photograph through the folds and endless possibilities of positioning and shaping it around food.

Banana Pancakes 

Have you had any cooking mishaps? Yes of course, I have my share of cooking mishaps.  Most recently, I was making a pumpkin pie to bring to a friend’s dinner party.  I got really carried away with roasting the pumpkins to make the puree for the filling, preparing the pie crusts with chocolate wafers.  Somewhere along the process of preparing the filling, I forgot to put in the two eggs needed for the blending of the pumpkin puree with several other ingredients.  Only after I took the baked pie out of the oven to cool, then I spotted the two lonely looking eggs still sitting at a corner of the kitchen countertop.  When I brought the pie to my friend’s, I told her about the missing eggs in the filling and felt quite embarrassed.   To my surprise, everyone at the dinner table enjoyed the pie very much despite the mishap.  It was all polished off very quickly.  Whew, I will never forget this experience!

Lisa Rees

Do you have a favorite holiday tradition? The annual Chinese New Year celebration dinner with my entire family is always revolved around preparing and cooking a big feast for this special occasion.  Just to mention some of the traditional must have dishes:  dumplings/Jiao Zi have minced meat and vegetables wrapped in a thin circular elastic dough skin; steamed whole fresh fish topped with slices of ginger, scallions and chili peppers and served with a soy/vinegar sauce, spring rolls have meat and vegetable filling rolled up in square, thin dough wrappers and then fried to golden crispy; rice cakes/nian-gao which means "getting higher year after year" is made of sticky rice, sugar, chestnuts and dates; sweet rice balls/tang-yuan is a dessert where glutinous rice flour mixture forms the outside skin with a red bean or sweet black sesame paste filling on the inside.


Barley Lentil Grain Bowls 

Barley Lentil Grain Bowls

Serves 2


- 1 cup barley grains & 1 cup of lentil grains
- 2 cups of spinach leaves chopped
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 1/2 cup of Kimchi
- 2 medium tomatoes on the vine
- 2 large eggs
- 1 small sheet of Nori/ Japanese seaweed, cut into small strips
- 1 Tbs white sesame seeds

Marinated artichoke hearts & giant white beans
- 1 cup cooked baby artichoke hearts, cut into quarters
- 1/2 cup cooked giant white beans
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tsp sea salt
- 1/2 tsp dried thyme
- 1/4 tsp red chile flakes
- 2 Tbs fresh lemon juice

Horseradish beet Tahini cream
- 3 Tbs Tahini
- 1/4 cup boiling water
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 1/3 cup plain Greek yogurt
- 1/2 tsp sea salt
- 2 Tbs olive oil
- 1 1/2 Tbs Gold's brand prepared horseradish and beets
- 3 Tbs fresh lemon juice


1.  Combine all the ingredients for the marinated artichokes and beans in a glass jar, mix well and let it sit in the fridge for at least a couple of hours or up to one week to get the flavors in.

2.  Rinse the barley & lentils under cold water and drain.  Place the grains in a medium sauce pan with a ratio of 1 cup grain to 3 cups of water or chicken stock and some salt to taste. Bring to a boil then cover and simmer for about 25-30 minutes(or per package instructions) till tender.  Take off the heat and let stand for 5 minutes.  Set aside.

3.  Heat 1 Tbs oil in a skillet over medium heat, add 1 minced garlic clove to the pan till fragrant.  Then quickly toss in the spinach leaves and sautée for 3 minutes and remove from the heat. 

4.  Heat 1 Tbs of oil in a skillet and stir the tomatoes till the outside skin is nicely blistered. Season with a little salt.  Set aside.

5.  Place eggs in a pot of water bring to a gentle boil, remove from the heat, cover and let the eggs sit in the pot for 6 additional minutes.  Remove cooked eggs immediately and peel the shells.

6.  In a food processor, combine all the ingredients for the tahini cream, blend to a creamy consistency.

7.  Set out 2 bowls, divide all the prepare ingredients equally into each one.  Start by laying down the cooked grains, then top with spinach, kimchi, tomatoes, artichokes and beans, egg, sprinkle nori and sesame seeds.  Serve with generous spoonfuls of the horseradish beet tahini cream, mixing into the bowl contents.

Ginger Peach Cardamom Shortbread Cobbler 

Ginger Peach Cardamon Shortbread Cobbler

(3-4 servings)


1 stick of unsalted butter, softened
¼ cup loosely packed light brown sugar
¼ tsp ground cardamom
a pinch of kosher salt
1 cup all purpose flour, plus 2 Tbs more
½ cup turbinado sugar
½ inch piece of fresh ginger, with skin peeled
5-6 medium size peaches, cut each into 8 wedge slices
2 Tbs lemon juice
1 tsp granulated sugar
1 large egg white, beaten


1.   Preheat oven to 400 degree F.  In an electric stand mixer bowl, combine butter, light brown sugar, cardamom, salt and 1 cup flour.  Turn the mixer to medium speed and mix till the dough is just combined.  Place the dough onto a lightly floured working surface, roll it out to about ¼ inch thickness.  Use a 2 inch diameter scallop edged cookie cutter, stamp out about 16 rounds from the dough.  Place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.  Chill in the fridge till ready to use.

2.   In a food processor, combine ginger and 1/8 cup turbinado sugar, pulse for about 7-8 times to blend.  In a large bowl, stir together the ginger sugar mixture, remaining 3/8 cup turbinado sugar, lemon juice, 2 Tbs flour and peach slices and toss well. 

3.   Into each of the two petit iron skillet (6 ½” in diameter), place half of the peach slices in an over lapping circular fashion to fill up the skillet.  (Alternatively, you can use one large 10-inch diameter iron skillet).

4.   Place iron skillets on a baking sheet and into the oven.  Bake for 15 minutes first.  Remove from the oven, nestle the cardamom shortbread rounds among peach slices.  Brush each shortbread round with egg white and sprinkle liberally with granulated sugar.  Continue baking for about another 15-18 minutes till the shortbread turns golden brown and the peach juice starts to bubble.

5.   Remove the skillets from the oven, let them cool off a bit and serve immediately.

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