Q&A with Kristen Hartke, Food Writer and Photographer

From pastafits.org

For October’s Pasta Spotlight, we sat down with Kristen Hartke, a food writer, photographer, recipe tester and developer based in Washington, DC. We chatted with Kristen about what being a food writer and photographer entails, her inspiration for new recipes, and how to make your food more Instagrammable! Read on for all Kristen had to say, below!

1. Can you tell us a bit about your job as a food writer – what kinds of topics you’re inspired to write about or the experiences you get to enjoy?

Whenever I tell anyone that I’m a food writer, the response is usually “Wow, what a cool job!” My brother, a composer who has actually won a Grammy Award, says that people are always interested to hear about his sister’s work, which I think is pretty funny. I am lucky that I have the opportunity to meet chefs, farmers, and food entrepreneurs and sample really creative recipes, and I’m equally fortunate, as a writer, to have editors who give me opportunities to write about the people I meet and test new recipes for publication.

Food is a shared experience that all people have in common, across all cultures, so it becomes the great equalizer — pretty much every cuisine, for instance, has some version of a doughnut. And that really is where I tend to get my ideas for articles — I love to learn about the dishes that are native to certain regions, made with specific ingredients or techniques, whether it’s St. Louis-style pizza or Peruvian chaufa. No matter where I go, I like to wander into mom-and-pop grocery stores and farmers markets to see what’s local and fresh — it’s both fun and inspirational.

2. What are some of your favorite food trends you’ve written about?

I wrote about a vegan macaroni and cheese competition earlier this year and that turned out to be a fun assignment, because the home cooks who entered the contest came up with very creative ideas to provide that “cheesy” comfort food, using everything from sweet potatoes to cashews. That’s definitely a trend to watch, because even people who love to eat dairy and meat products seem to be looking for more plant-based options, just to mix things up a little. On the flip side, I recently wrote about easy recipes for college kids to cook in their first apartments — lots of blender and sheet pan recipes, which really make whipping up dinner a snap!

3. We see that you’re also a food photographer! Do you have any tips for our readers to make their food more Instagram worthy?

Photographing food is surprisingly difficult, but smart phone cameras are getting pretty sophisticated, so you can get really great shots if you follow a few tricks. Opt for soft, natural light — I shoot most of my food photos on my kitchen counter next to a south-facing window, and sometimes I use an 8” x 10” piece of white cardboard to help reflect additional light onto the subject if it’s a very cloudy day — just angle it opposite the light source. If you’ve noticed that most food photos seem to be taken from above, that’s for a good reason — it’s difficult to shoot from a 45-degree angle with a phone camera, as it can distort the image, so shooting from above provides a cleaner result. And always remember that less is more — the food should be the focus, so any accessories should enhance the food, not distract from it — for instance, a napkin in a contrasting color can provide a nice, simple counterpoint.

4. As a recipe developer, where do you get your inspiration to pair different ingredients?

When I’m working on new recipes, I’m usually starting with a single ingredient — like hubbard squash — and then I’m building something around that flavor. A good rule of thumb is to have varying degrees of sweet, savory, spicy, and sour. If I’m working on a recipe for another chef, then I’m taking into consideration what cuisines they prefer, so if it’s a chef trained in classical French cooking, then I’m probably adding notes of fresh thyme and tarragon, leeks and shallots, white wine and white beans, and plenty of butter. For a more rustic Southern-style recipe, I’ll gravitate toward sweet onions and corn, bitter greens, nuts, and a smoky element like bacon or chipotle (and, yes, even though I’m personally a vegetarian, I cook whatever my clients like).

5. As a vegetarian, what kinds of foods do you incorporate to complement your pasta for extra health benefits?

In general, a colorful plate is a healthy plate for either omnivores or vegetarians, so my goal is always to have plenty of variety in my pasta bowl. I often joke that I could eat pasta for pretty much every meal — even breakfast! For instance, a pan-fried shredded zucchini and spaghetti cake is delicious when topped with a thick slice of fresh tomato and a poached egg — it’s a fun alternative to a traditional eggs Benedict but is also packed with the carbohydrates, vitamins, and protein that you need to start your day. Raw cashews, when boiled for 10 minutes and puréed in a blender with a little of the cooking liquid and cooked carrots, broccoli, and garlic, make a great quick sauce for penne or cavatappi. My go-to pasta dish is probably capellini with currants, chick peas, fresh lemon juice, hot pepper flakes, and olive oil — a perfect combination of sweet, savory, sour, and spice.

6. Finally, can you share one of your favorite pasta recipes with us?

If my family has one favorite pasta dish, it’s definitely Linguine with Broccoli and Tofu — it’s usually the first meal that my daughter requests when she comes home from college. I stumbled across the original recipe many years ago in a cookbook called “From a Monastery Kitchen” and it caught my eye because you rarely see tofu recipes that include cheese; I actually think it’s a delicious combination of flavors — unless you’re a vegan, there’s no reason why tofu and cheese can’t be presented in a dish together, and it’s a nice way to introduce people to tofu that doesn’t seem so hippy-dippy. The original recipe was somewhat soft in texture — steamed broccoli and tofu with cooked pasta — so I think I’ve improved on it by giving the tofu and broccoli a little more crunch!

About Kristen Hartke:

Kristen Hartke is a food writer, photographer, recipe tester and developer based in Washington, DC. Growing up all along the Eastern seaboard, she gained professional restaurant experience in central Florida before going on to study photography and fine arts at the Corcoran College of Art and Design; Kristen’s writing has appeared in both regional and national publications, including the Washington Post, Flavor Magazine, Parenting Magazine, the Culinary Trends Tracking Series, and Edible DC, and she is the website editor for Chef Carla Hall. She lives in DC’s Capitol Hill neighborhood with her husband and two dogs, one of whom is always underfoot in the kitchen.

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