Michael Harlan Turkell, Photographer, Host of The Food Seen on HeritageRadioNetwork.org

Michael Harlan Turkell, Photographer, Host of The Food Seen on HeritageRadioNetwork.org

Happy new year, Pantry Confidential readers! We hope 2014 brings you an abundance of happiness, health and opportunity. We're grateful to have such a dedicated audience and we'll strive to continue introducing you to exciting folks and the unique kitchens they call their own.

We're kicking off January with someone who can usually be found both behind the lens and behind the mic - Michael Harlan Turkell! The photographer and host of Heritage Food Radio'sThe Food Seen has his finger on the pulse of all that is percolating in the culinary world. Whether he's interviewing chef heavyweightsfood artists, or celebrity heartthrobs with a passion for wine, MHT lends a laidback air - and his signature laugh! - that puts everyone at ease. Join us in his Brooklyn home where he brings to the fore cooking en papillote, a classic technique we can all benefit from in our busy lives as we start 2014 with a bang.

Read on to check out Michael's awesome homemade vinegar collection and to peep some unapologetic kitteh shots!

Hi Michael and happy 2014! Please tell us a little bit about yourself and The Food Seen (TFS) - how did the show come about?

When I was photo editor at Edible Brooklyn, the magazine had started a show. I was going to do an episode about food photography, but had a lot more to say than solely on that subject. I've always been interested in the intersections of food and art, so I pitched the show idea, and was given a chance to explore radio. It's been three and a half years now, and more than 170 episodes. I guess I had a lot more to talk about that I even thought!

Who and what inspires your interviews? How do you approach your subjects and which has been your favorite so far?

An interest in the indirect, the artisans working outside the common scope of what is food. Those that influence it profoundly, either by action, product, theory, etc. I research my eccentricities, I ask around, word of mouth, not really sure how I find subjects, or get them to agree, but the first step is just that initial inquiry.

Fave TFS interview? Hmm, so many, but the Nathan Myhrvold one recently was kind of a dream. I love math/science, went to school for that, so my brain works in a logistical/analytical manner first, then I can be creative and emote; but I've always been process-oriented. He's the pinnacle of that for me. That next week had Kyle MacLachlan on and that, too, was quite the treat. We talked about his wine-making, sipped on his Cabernet while eating Roberta's pizza! Talk about surreal. I'm a huge Twin Peaks fan and do that with Special Agent Dale Cooper, come on! But truthfully, and not to be judicious, but all my TFS are special, as I get to engage with people I admire and respect, you two included. Really a dream job in that sense. When else do you get 30 to 45 minutes of pure inquiry like that?

Oh, hello! Hamming it up on-set during our interview with MHT on The Food Seen ! Photo credit: Joe Galarraga

You have an interesting background with stints in both the professional kitchen and in photography. Are you able to draw any parallels between these two worlds?

Absolutely. The have similar systems. Their protocols seem parallel. First you master a craft, then you create through art. It's an expression, a personal point of view. I like to work in-depth on projects, really study and know as much as I can about a topic. I am that way with both food and photography. I like to follow a subject, and return, and try different angles, until I'm comfortable enough to start exploring alternative ways of seeing something.

Some of the cookbooks Michael has photographed.

MHT's handsome cat Mason (check out #MasonToday on Instagram)

Congratulations, newlywed! How much do you and your wife (Food & Wine's Senior Wine Editor Megan Krigbaum) cook at home and where do you shop for groceries?

Often. I try and cook at home five nights a week at least. I see things in kitchens and try to recreate recipes, processes, find new ingredients and try to add them into my cooking repertoire. I cook in parts. Like mise en place without a final composed dish in mind, so we have a bunch of the elements, and we build meals from there. I shop a little here, a little there. Have my fave places for everything specifically, but often like trying new things, so it's a real mishmash. Markets all year-round, even in the winter. I try and support local farmers even outside of their growing season, from apples and tubers until the first buds of spring. I like spice shops like Sahadi's and Kalustyan's . I travel and bring back edible gifts. I order products online. It's also about supporting the global culinary economy and not limiting myself to regionality.

You'd mentioned your love for pizza and pizza-making. Please give us a couple of your favorite tips to ensure the tastiest pies at home. What are some of your favorite flavor combinations?

Depends on your dough. I make a dough that can be shaped and baked on cold sheet tray, and doesn't need the oven lift of fire brick or a pizza stone. It's more like the best parts of Stouffer's French Bread Pizza, that great crunch, airy dough; but it's firm, without a ton of chew. So more like a New York slice. It's the convention of conventional ovens. I built a wood fire oven last year and that's where I do more Neapolitan-style doughs.

Putting ingredients on the pizza while at room temp is a good rule of thumb. Also less is often more. You don't want a soggy pie. You can always add grated cheese, a little more olive oil… My house specialty is a smoked mozzarella, jalapeño, preserved lemon pizza that tastes a bit briny like the sea. I also love interpreting a sandwich into a pizza, like the "Bahn Mizza." Or have done a "Reuben" as well (made with a rye/caraway crust). I do an "Everything Bagel" with crème fraîche, salmon roe, everything bagel spices and chives that I love too.

You're used to being behind the lens and behind the mic. Now that we're blowing open your cabinet doors, is there anything surprising or secret you'd like to share about yourself?

That I'm a bit OCD? Not really. I still use FIFO (First In, First Out) in my home kitchen. I try and label and date everything. I make preserved citrus year round, love salty acidic things. I make an array of vinegars in barrel. Hot sauces. Big into spices and condiments that add heat. I try a bunch new products, like freshly milled flours and whole grains for baking bread, Mediterranean spice blends (e.g. zaatar, dukkah, ras el hanout), savory herbs as accents (e.g. lavender in more than just herbs de Provence), an array of finishing salts, finishing olive oils, finishing vinegars.

Tell us how you got into making specialty vinegars.

I love acidity and wanted to figure out a non-citrus way to bring it to food. Plus, I wanted to make a food product that I didn't have to tend to all the time; vinegar is a lot of hurry up and wait. I taste them almost weekly, take notes, tweak; but really, it's all about time, and that's why we call them "+ Patience" or "Plus Patience" vinegars. I'm a long time-customer at Stinky, know owner Patrick Watson and had been making vinegars in my backyard barrels. He loved them and suggested we collaborate. It's around the corner from my house and they've had a nice response so far. On the shelves right now we have the last of our Double Chocolate Stout vinegar and a Pear & Apple Cider vinegar. Next up/in barrel: maple/coffee vinegar (kind of like my riff on red eye gravy), a "hot toddy" vinegar with whiskey, honey and lemon; there's also more honey vinegar on the way, from local Brooklyn rooftops. And more dark beer vinegars to come.

Handmade vinegar made in barrel with pride and love - right in Michael's backyard!

How would you describe your cooking style?

Experimental, not in the molecular gastronomy/modern cuisine sense, or esoteric ethnic foods, but I'm not afraid to make a bad dish, or fail when it comes to cooking. It's not a fatalist thing. You can try again, and improve, but often I do this on my own. Not that I don't learn from others, but I try to self educate, and use professional insight and opinions to inform my decisions; but not fully direct where my tastes may go… so to many, my style is consider autodidactic?

Favorite kitchen utensils or gadgets?

My hands. I like the tangible aspect of food. I like feeling how things react and figuring out how they're put together before I try and deconstruct them. My eyes: I like to watch how things change over time, with applications of heat, cold… I'm not saying I don't like using a food processor every so often, or a stand mixer, but I like to know how to make something if I didn't have those devices handy. I also love a good sturdy Microplane, not only for grating cheese, but it can change the texture and way flavor is distributed for so many things. I also love a thin fish spatula and a cooking weight, to hold fish down for a crispy skin. I cook a lot of seafood.

Top pantry essentials in your kitchen?

Salt. Sweet (trying to use less refined sugars and find alternatives in syrups, dried fruits and vegetables). Sour/acid (citrus or vinegars). A beverage to enjoy while cooking.

Who is your biggest food inspiration?

Bread bakers. The patience and touch that it takes to make a great loaf takes tremendous forethought and skill.

Favorite restaurants, high and low?

I'm not sure about the high end, have been in many a kitchens as a cook and photographer, but haven't eaten in a ton of that style of restaurant. No. 9 Park in Boston will also have a soft place in my heart, was one of the first places I got a taste of fine dining. Clio as well, but there I saw an experimental side that was contemporarily playful but classically rooted. Noodles of all types, from Italian pasta shapes to ramen, soba, udon to Chinese hand-pulled to rice vermicelli, and even spaetzle! I like bar seats, solo dining during the day. Great lunches. Wonderful breakfasts. Most restaurants are dinner first when they go into business, but I like the idea of a place that can do it all. Those are the places I'm most impressed by. And atmosphere is important, has to have an ambiance.

Favorite cookbooks and sites?

I love bread baking books because a lot of it is about community, how ovens were once central parts to a town, city, and how people interacted. Books that carry a sense of sharing and have historical stories to boot. Lately I've loved Vincent Price's A Treasury of Great Recipes. He and his wife, Mary, traveled far and wide, but it's a stunning reliquary of the world at that time. It's so international without seeming pan-cuisine/fusion. Oh and my favorite cookbook is that of the Italian Futurists, The Futurist Cookbook. It's their manifesto that said no more pasta, defied convention, and introduced the idea of synesthesia into dining. Love Heidi Swanson's 101 Cookbooks; she's such a curious soul. Still love Americana through the eyes of Jan and Michael Stern's Road Food. I listen to a lot of food radio, too.

MHT's sturdy Ambatalia apron also functions as a furoshiki, or Japanese wrapping cloth. 

Fun and inspired home finds from San Francisco's Bell'ochio notions shop.

What would your ideal last meal look like?

Oysters, champagne, good bread and butter, a simple salad with bitter greens and soft herbs, roast meats touched by smoke, grilled fish, potatoes from crispy to aligot, and fruit pies or peach cake for dessert, all by a body of water, be it an ocean or a lake, friends and loved ones. My wife and I love entertaining. Even our wedding was just a big dinner party when you stripped it on down. A moveable feast. From rooftop pizza, to Brooklyn backyard family-style Italian, to a throwback soda fountain brunch. It was all about sharing our favorite places and bites with our favorite people. And a Negroni nightcap for sure.

Whose pantry would you like to raid?

Like how in movies you see characters looking through medicine cabinets, well, I do that to most people's kitchen pantries. There's almost something telling in there. I'm not sure it's about a famous person, or a renown chef, or a quirky artist, it's about seeing how people use common materials to make unusual combinations. Or seeing national or regional brands of staple ingredients and tasting their iterations. My favorite pantry at the moment is at Bar Tartine where they're fermenting everything, from dill-brined pickles to year-old cultured squash. They make koji, miso, yogurts, cheeses, kefir, krauts, vinegars, etc.

Mason hanging out and keepin' it real. Till next time!


Bluefish en Papillote with Herbed Cous Cous, Fennel, Preserved Lemon, Chili and Mint

1/2 cup water
1 to 2 teaspoons dried herbs (e.g. rosemary, thyme, oregano)
1 tablespoon and 2 teaspoons olive oil, divided - plus more for plating
1/2 cup dried whole wheat couscous (makes about 1 cup, cooked)
6 ounces of bluefish filet, skin-on
Freshly cracked black pepper
1/2 fennel bulb (approximately 1/2 pound), cut in half with some of root end intact so that fennel doesn't fall apart, thinly sliced on mandolin
1/2 lemon, zest and juice
1/2 tablespoon preserved lemon, roughly chopped
1/2 small red Fresno chili pepper (approximately 1/8 cup), thinly sliced
Few sprigs of mint
1 10-inch x 10-inch piece of parchment baking paper
Flaky sea salt, to finish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Prepare couscous:
To a small pot, bring water, dried herbs, 1 teaspoon olive oil and a bit of salt to a boil. Stir in dried couscous and cover. Let stand for 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork and let cool.

Prepare bluefish:
Season both sides of the filet with salt and pepper; set aside.

Prepare fennel:
In a small bowl, mix together sliced fennel, zest and juice from 1/2 lemon, and 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.

Prepare preserved lemon, chili and mint mixture:
In a small bowl, mix together chopped preserved lemon and 1 teaspoon of olive oil. Add thinly sliced chili and mint leaves.

Place parchment paper on a baking sheet. Pile cooked couscous in the center of one side the paper. On top of that, place sliced fennel, bluefish (skin-side down) and preserved lemon, chili, mint mixture.

Fold in half and then start making small folds along the edges (about the size of your fingertip) until you've make a half circle shape, and the packet is sealed.

Put tray in the oven. Bake for about 10 to 15 minutes, or until fish is cooked (feels firm when squeezed from the sides). Remove and let sit for 1 minute.

To serve:
Place packet on a plate or in a bowl. Unfold slowly as steam may release when opened. Finish with a little more olive oil and flaky salt to taste.

Remove the core for easier handling. Don't forget to bag and freeze fennel stalks for stock-making! 

Be sure to catch Michael's show, The Food Seen, on Heritage Radio Network. You can also find his work here, and follow him on TwitterInstagram, as well as Facebook.

*Photos by Christine Han Photography for Pantry Confidential. All photos on Pantry Confidential are original and copyrighted. Please credit and link back to our site when using our images, thank you.