Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Guess What? I’m a Food Writer! A review of "Will Write for Food" by Dianne Jacob




Some people set out to be food writers. They write a business plan, craft their branding message, call their accountant, save the receipts, and print up the business cards. That would not be me. Five years ago I was just a girl who liked bakeries…a lot. So I started a blog and reviewed every single bakery in Boston (the blog is still up, here). I had no advertisers, no affiliates, I didn’t save receipts or print business cards or make a penny. I just liked bakeries….a lot. And I was already an editor and writer, so waxing poetic about scones was like playtime for me. It turns out, a lot of other people wanted to know where to eat in Boston too, and the blog had 50,000 visitors during the three years it was active.

When I moved back to California and started this blog, I knew food was (and always will be) the thing I wanted to talk about. But it wasn’t until I was leafing through a housemate's magazine (Food & Home), drooling over a picture of roast salmon and spring potatoes, that I thought, “I can write just as well as this.” To me, being published used to have a heavy mystique, like only those who have been granted a gold star by the foodie gods are allowed to write about food. But something kept prodding me to try Food & Home. So I emailed the editor, told him about my blogging experience, and asked if I could write a piece about food in Santa Barbara. The editor turned out to be a lovely man who gave me a shot at a 60-word piece on a Pimm's cocktail. I agonized over every word. And it was far from perfect. It didn’t even occur to me to include a quote from the bartender. But I listened to the editor’s feedback and the next issue he gave me a bigger assignment, and the issue after that two assignments. And after a year, he offered me a column about my food adventures in downtown Santa Barbara. Each issue that comes out, I am like a kid at Halloween, emptying my candy out of the plastic pumpkin and catching a sugar high. It truly is a thrill to see something I have conceived and written out in print. And I hope it always will be. 

Why am I mentioning this here? For two reasons. First, it only recently occurred to me that I’m a food writer, five years in. And second, the reason I realized it is that I read Will Write for Food, by Dianne Jacob, and it changed my entire perspective on what it is that I do and how I can do it better. A good buddy of mine saw the book on a trip to San Francisco and brought it back for me. It is described as “The complete guide to writing cookbooks, blogs, memoir, recipes, and more.” I will admit, I thought, “I bet none of this applies to me.” But Anthony Bourdain praises the book as “A concise, illustrative, and eminently useful guide to the nuts and bolts of professional food writing.” And being as he is an unhinged foodie assassin, I take the chef’s opinion seriously. 

So, why did this book blow my sugar-addled mind?

I have been participating in a craft and a profession without realizing that is what I was doing. I described myself as a foodie to friends, or possibly a blogger, but only recently as a food writer. And the more I say it, the happier I am. It is like spending your life in the ocean with a fish tail and string of pearls, only to find out that what you are is called a mermaid. And there are mermaid associations you can join, and ways to up your mermaid game. 

Here are the things I took from her book: 
*There are gods in the pantheon of food writing, and most of them I’d never heard of, because it never occurred to me to seek out books of food writing. I read cookbooks from front to back and delight in them, but I had no idea about M.F.K. Fisher, Edna Lewis, Laurie Colwin, or even James Beard…the tribe is immense, and I didn’t even know I had a tribe until now. It didn’t occur to me that Julia Child counts not only as a chef, but as a food writer. I’ve cooked no more than five Nigella Lawson recipes in my life, but I have read and re-read each and every cookbook of hers with delight and abandon. I never cooked a single tart from Tarts With Tops On by Tamasin Day-Lewis, but I devoured every word in it. Do I want to read Blue Trout and Black truffles: The Peregrinations of an Epicure? The Unprejudiced Palate: Classic Thoughts on Food and the Good Life? God, yes! My reading list for the next year is now stocked with Dianne Jacob’s recommendations for food classics.

*She gives a lot of solid advice on food blogging, the highs and lows of it, the logistics of it, how to pick a title for your blog, what to write about. What I really appreciate is that she treats blogging as a part of food writing without qualification…I didn’t realize I had a blogger’s inferiority complex until now, but I do. Blogging is self-publishing. Anyone can do it. Anyone with ten dollars and access to a computer can say they are a blogger. But I now embrace the idea that if you are blogging about food on a regular basis, you are a food writer, period. The advice on how personal to be, how often to post, what kind of voice to adopt is all quite good and very practical as well.

*Dianne has a good section on freelance writing, which is what I do. And I’d like to do more of it. So I was hanging on every word as she guided me through the process of picking topics, querying editors, and finding the right market.

*I put a lot of thought into my reviews. Every restaurant is somebody’s baby, and I think very carefully before I say something unflattering about that baby. But reading about professional food writers testing a restaurant three or four times to be sure they have a clear picture of the food, and the work that goes into developing the palate and culinary sensibility, I now realize that a fork and enthusiasm are certainly needed, but there is a lot more to learn in this craft I’ve stumbled into.

*One of the key points she makes is that food writing is writing. I know, duh. But really, if you are a not a good writer, why in the world would you drag a bunch of innocent turnips and celery root into your mediocre prose? So learn to write well, if you don’t already know how.

*There is a large section of the book about writing cookbooks, developing recipes, and the different ways to make a living by the spatula and pen. Hell will freeze into a devilishly tasty granita before I come up with a recipe worth printing, so I didn’t linger in those chapters. But if you’re a cook with a lot of good ideas, it’s a section worth reading. 

*Bringing Home the Bacon. This chapter was really helpful, because it talks about the many paying gigs out there: columnist, recipe developer, ghost writer, cooking-class teacher, etc. I appreciate that she is upfront about the difficulty in making a full-time living in this field, and she encourages us to branch out and create multiple revenue streams.

*There are others out there! The appendix is worth the price of the book alone. I didn’t know that there are associations for food writers, writing workshops for foodies, entire conferences for food writers…there’s no need for Mario Batali to descend on fluttering wings and bless you with his orange crocs…you just have to sign up. So I’m going to sign up! If I have to pick one thing to thank Dianne Jacob for, it is the roundup of resources in the appendix.

Which is to say that this book, in my opinion, is an essential road map for food writers, and I'm so glad that I lucked into it. The Pioneer Woman Ree Drummond says, “I wish I’d read Dianne’s book before I started a tiny little food blog on a whim a few years ago. For current and aspiring food writers, it’s positively dripping with helpful advice and information.” Amen, Ree, Amen.

If you'd like to learn more about Dianne, you can visit her website here.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Colcannon: National Dish of Ireland and...the dog's dinner?


Happy St. Paddy's Day! May the luck of the Irish be with ya! Today I am going to a St. Paddy's Day party for a dog. That's right. Because if a dog is born on March 17, and he's a special pooch, he gets his own shamrock-filled birthday party. There will be corned beef and boiled potatoes and green cider. But as I am Ms. Veggie Pants, I googled a bit to find something vegetarian to bring to this feast, and came up with Colcannon. It is the Irish masterpiece of mashed potatoes with fried cabbage, onions, and leeks mixed into the fluffy mash, inundated with as much butter and cream and milk as it can hold without dissolving. In short, it is a dish that even I can make. BUT...I didn't calculate the sheer brute force it would take to cook, peel, and whip ten pounds of potatoes, or chop two heads of cabbage, three onions, and three leeks. It didn't occur to me that a pot big enough for ten pounds of potatoes would take 40 minutes for the water to boil. Or that I would need two giant paddles and biceps of steel to mix it all together. But fortune favors the fool, I suppose.






I used three sticks of butter...one of which I melted in the cabbage and onions as they were frying...


This is the kind of cooking that makes me feel deliciously lavish. Sure, why not throw another stick of butter in? Maybe another cup of cream? Yeah, go for it! And my ten pounds of russets turned out to be thirsty, thirsty tubers, because it seemed no matter how much liquid gold I added, they held together. I swear, I wanted to face plant into the pot of this:


And once it was all mixed together, I have to say, it was not bad looking.


The end result is perhaps the emperor of comfort foods. Creamy, decadent mashed potatoes, the bitter and the sweet of fried onions and cabbage...my research suggests that as calorie dense as this is, the Irish take great glee in making a well in the middle and adding a small lake of melted butter. It is, of course, far too rich for a pooch to eat, but the humans at his birthday party will partake. 

Here is to a happy Paddy's Day, whatever it is you may be noshing, nibbling, or swigging!






Thursday, March 16, 2017

Stackology: The perfect stack at the salad bar



I'm a reasonable woman. I understand that with a $9 lunch special that includes a personal pizza, a drink, and a trip to the salad bar, that they are not going to hand you a tureen the size of Idaho and invite you to haul away fifty pounds of lettuce and croutons. And yet...to hand me one of those wooden bowls from 1959 and tell me that I get one trip, and one trip only, to the salad bar...well, it's nothing short of throwing the gauntlet down. Because I am a master engineer of the salad stack. Or rather, I hung around the pizza parlor enough times that one day I noticed an enterprising young man who literally doubled the size of his salad bowl, using one innocent-looking secret weapon...the cucumber slice. He filled his bowl to the rim with lettuce and whatnots, then he tucked cucumber slices between the lettuce and the side of the bowl, thus extending the wall of the bowl by another inch. Stackology, we'll call it. This method worked well for me, and on more than one occasion I noted pizza parlor staff bugging their eyes out as I walked by with a tower of salad in a iddy-biddy bowl. All's fair in love and pizza war, I say. Until, of course, someone in the back got wise. And now they cut their cucumbers into half moons. However, the basic principle is still sound. If there are large radish or carrot slices in the salad bar, you can use them just as well.


What other salad bar tips do I have? I think it's an amateur's mistake to begin with lettuce, add toppings, and them drizzle on a little dressing. That's for people who are trying to lose weight or something. I begin with a ladle of salad dressing (thousand island, of course), then add a modest sprinkling of toppings (celery and boiled egg perhaps)...and then I add the lettuce. On top of the green stuff, I then pile on the beets, onions, and croutons with a mad vengeance and drape the entire thing in more dressing. This avoids running out of flavor as you work your way to the bottom of the bowl. Trust me, put some dressing on the bottom!


Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Happy Pi Day? Misadventures at Blaze Pizza

 
Pi. As far as I can tell it’s an unending number worshipped by scientists that has the sole purpose of perplexing and annoying the rest of humanity. Because 3.14 is never quite correct, you know. It’s got like 100,000 numbers more after that. Whenever Pi showed up on a math test it meant I was going to get a C-. So says the slightly bitter liberal arts major. Pi shmy. Pie, on the other hand, of any variety except meat pie, is something I am willing to contemplate with the patience and deep thinking of a Greek philosopher. Well, some people dabble in nuclear physics…and I dabble in pie! Happily enough those two disparate interests converge today, March 14 (3/14, get it?), otherwise known as Pi day.


Blaze, the new pizza place in Santa Barbara celebrates Pi day by charging $3.14 for one of their personal pizzas. I was reading Will Write for Food on the bus ride home, getting more and more excited about developing as a food writer, and was absorbed in the chapter that says, accurately, that most bloggers go by the rule that you shouldn’t ever say something mean about a place in your blog. If you have nothing good to say, just don’t say it. Apparently, real food writers must break it down like a bull-dog prosecutor, otherwise our voices are just not believable. How lucky for me, then, that I was about to have a truly mediocre food experience, with a zinger of a punch line (wait for it). In I went to Blaze Pizza, a chain vaguely associated with basketball player James LeBron, and put down my $3.14 for a thin crust pizza with mozzarella, basil, olives, and mushrooms with a brush of garlic pesto on the crust. I was suspicious of the fact that they just stick a lump of dough in a press…like they are trying to press the life out of it. Tortillas are made like that, but pizza should be spun in the air, fussed with, stretched, and treated like royalty. Not crushed to an inch of its life. But still, once the toppings were on, it looked charming enough.


I will grant you that there was a long line, and the oven man appeared to be flinging pies in and out like a pizza devil-octopus. But the minute I laid eyes on my pizza, I knew I was in trouble. Little puddles of water around the mushrooms and not a brown bubble in sight on the pizza or the crust. And yet, the bottom of the crust was catastrophically cooked and the texture of the overall structure was pretty much a Frisbee. As in, I could’ve tossed it across the room and it would’ve caught a lot of air. It would’ve flown, while Bette Middler sang “Wind Beneath My Wings.”



The ingredients were fine, although the sauce was a little vinegary, but the crust was beyond redemption. Even the Pope would not forgive that crust. As for the punchline, the zinger….I had several pieces left and took them in a to-go box. At the bus stop, there was a man sitting next to me who was clearly down on his luck and had his possessions in plastic bags. I asked him if he would like my pizza, and his eyes brightened up. But as I handed the box to him, he took a closer look, and decided that he didn’t want it. Yes, the homeless man rejected the Blaze Pizza, because he has his principles. That, I think, ends this review.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Purple Party at Apiary Ciderworks & Meadery



I love a party. Especially a theme party. So why not a purple party in honor of the First Lady of Frosting's birthday? Purple balloons, purple cake, and purple costumes, of course. The folks at the Apiary were dolls about accommodating a roving hoard of purplish things. One of the neat features of the Apiary is that it inhabits an industrial space in Carpinteria. With a little love, it has been transformed into a farmhouse vibe.




As there is no kitchen, you are invited to bring your own food or even have dinner delivered. What bar do you know that has a pizza phone?


My contribution to the evening was crostini (see previous blog post for recipe).


With nibbles set, the remaining task of the night was to pick the beverages. And boy oh boy, they do mead and cider right!


They started the birthday girl off right with a glass of jun mead with a float of elder flowers. Sweet, floral, and deliciously purple! Fermented sage honey fermented with jasmine green tea. You cannot go wrong in ordering this by the bucketful.



But I am a foodie for the people, and I knew you, my readers, would need to know how the other varieties ranked. So I went for a flight of six.


My absolute favorite was the orange blossom cider, which tastes as you might expect anything originating with orange blossoms to taste: like sweet, sweet manna from heaven. I could drink this all night!



I was warned against anything that listed avocado honey as an ingredient, and perhaps I should've listened. The only bad apple in the bunch, if you'll forgive the phrase, was the Hopacado, of avocado blossom honey and "mystery hops." The quantity and quality of facial expressions that resulted from its tasting were worth the price of admission, however. And glasses of the aromatic Damiana and cheeky Avec un Singe more than made up for it.


You might think that a little brewery out in Carpinteria might suffer for customers. Perhaps their secret to success is limited hours of operation, but the purple party was far from being the only customer, and it was jolly and packed on a Saturday night. Add in a little birthday cake, and you are ready to go. I highly recommend the Apiary for a unique, delicious food adventure that will take you a little off the beaten path.


Visit the Apiary here.
For more fun shenanigans, visit the First Lady of Frosting here.


Spring, and Success in the Kitchen at Last!



I fail at baking and cooking. A lot. Enthusiastic for food I am. A chef I ain't. But life is filled with ironies. And the irony of the week is that the absolute simplest thing I made, really more assembling than cooking, turned out to be a big hit. Where has crostini been all my life? It is so easy that even I can make it! And I didn't even have a recipe.

Here's the lowdown: Slice a ciabatta loaf fairly thin. Brush with olive oil, salt, and pepper. I put them on a tray and baked them at 350 for 9 minutes on one side and 7 minutes on the second. A little crisp but not like Melba toast...it still had the tender "breadiness" on the inside. Then I mixed a giant Trader Joe's log of garlic and herb goat cheese with a block of plain cream cheese. I chopped an entire bunch of green onions, a packet of chives, and maybe half a cup of fresh basil. I mixed about a fourth of that green mixture into the cheese. Then it was as easy as spreading the cheese on the toast, sprinkling with the rest the greens, laying a bit of sun-dried tomato on top and drizzling the orange oil from the tomato jar across the top. I wager you could use any fresh herbs you want and this would still taste good.

Some part of my brain said "You are literally making toast with cream cheese and foisting this off as a dish on your friends." But you know what? A huge plate of it went like hot cakes. Tangy goat cheese cut with fresh onion, perfumed with basil, and topped with chewy, sweet nuggets of tomato. Hey, I'm calling this a recipe and a dish to make often!

As if to celebrate my success, because mother nature and the entire celestial constellations all hinge on my baking habits, Spring has sprung here in California!


After the massive rain storms of the winter, California is blooming!




So here is to a beautiful Spring and easy appetizers!

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

A Tale of Two Cookies



You may know a friend for some time, and feel you know them well, and you probably do...until that one moment in casual conversation where you realize that massive gaps in your personal philosophies exist. It can be as seemingly simple a statement as "Peanut Butter cookies have to be crispy." Thus declared the First Lady of Frosting this week as we pondered recipes for our next baking project. Crispy? Crispy peanut butter cookies? Not as crispy as ginger snaps, she clarified, but still, crispy. To me, a peanut butter cookie needs to be moist in the middle, salty and peanutty, mostly soft on top but a little bit of a crust on the bottom. Crunch from peanuts is expected, but it is not a crispy event. Being sensible souls we turned to Joy of Cooking to guide us in the matter of just what is a peanut butter cookie. After all, if Joy of Cooking doesn't know what a peanut butter cookie is, then the civilized world should crumble...like an over-baked cookie!

But it seems even Joy of Cooking can have differing opinions, and they offer two recipes, with fairly different ingredient lists. One is the classic, which you can see on their website here. The other recipe is from their Fourteen in One Master Recipe, which forgoes rising agents and uses superfine sugar.


Both use only 2/3 a cup of peanut butter, which did not seem right to us. Regardless of our texture requirements, we both like a very peanutty flavor in our PB cookies. But off we went, the First Lady of Frosting on Kitchen-aid duty and I was left unsupervised with two defenseless jars of peanut butter, some of which went into the measuring cup, and some of which disappeared under mysterious circumstances...I contend that abduction by aliens is the only explanation.

 
We mixed, measured, and deployed the FLOF's patented crisscross technique (dip fork in sugar, then crosshatch with it).


I have to say, both recipes yielded cookies that looked pretty much the same. Except when baked, the classic recipe resulted in loosely bonded particles of sand that, when bitten into, exploded into a cloud of peanut dust. They broke apart if I even glanced at them. Very tasty and very pretty, don't get me wrong, but likely to sail away in a light wind. The master recipe yielded cookies that were a little denser, and we speculate that is because the dough spends half an hour in the refrigerator. The taste was pretty much the same as the other recipe, a bit lacking in peanut flavor, and very light and sandy. On the other hand, I can't stay mad at something that looks this pretty:



I cannot help but feel that further forays into other cookbooks will be necessary to find the perfect peanut butter cookie recipe. But such is my commitment to the cookie quest, that I'm willing to soldier on!