Category Archives: dishes

Four Ingredients — Pun Intended — Cookstr Needs To Be a Truly Viable Recipe Site

I recently interviewed for a position at the recipe site Cookstr.

And…I made this joke on Facebook at the time, so, friends, bear with me: Like the Buffalo Bills in the 1990s and the Chicago Cubs in the 2003 NLCS, I have a history of choking when it counts…so I spent a fair amount of time reviewing the site beforehand so I’d be as prepared as possible at the moment of truth.

And…I gotta say: I like what I found. I think it’s a really good concept — and I’m not just saying that.

Here’s why:

In this NY Tech Meetup video from CenterNetworks, Founder and CEO Will Schwalbe shares his love of cookbooks and explains that the major online recipe databases, Epicurious and FoodNetwork.com, are focused on Conde Nast and Food Network content, respectively, but chefs and cookbook authors don’t really have a place on the Web where they can share their recipes and drum up interest in their books.

And thus, as Schwalbe tells it in the video, Cookstr was born.

It sort of reminds me of Birchbox, actually. I talked to one of the start-up’s founders for a ClickZ story in January. Basically, for $10 a month, Birchbox members receive high-end samples of hair, makeup and/or skincare products from partners like Benefit, Nars, Cargo and Laura Mercier. Birchbox, in turn, talks up all of the samples it includes in each monthly box…and gives members the opportunity to go back to its Web site to order full-size products. So…the partners give away samples, but, in turn, reach a wider audience and gain yet another online space where they can hawk their wares.

That’s essentially what’s happening with Cookstr, except there’s no monthly fee. Cookstr has partnered with a slew of chefs and cookbook authors, who are featured on the site. These recipe-producers allow a sample of their content to appear on the site…and each recipe is displayed alongside an image of the cookbook it originated from…and, if you click on it, you are given multiple options for purchasing the book from retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

It’s pretty smart for all parties involved, as I’m sure Cookstr has revenue-sharing agreements with each vendor. And the cookbook authors and publishers don’t have much to lose — just a few recipes.

I think Cookstr has really great search options — I especially love the cost feature — and, frankly, I like a lot of the chefs.

But Cookstr is not perfect.

According to Compete.com, Cookstr had slightly more than 57,000 unique visitors in January. That’s versus 1.8 million for Epicurious and 11.3 million for FoodNetwork.com

Granted, Cookstr is still quite young and can’t be expected to compete on a level playing field with two major media companies. (According to Wikipedia [after a very cursory Google search], Food Network had revenue of $1.5 billion in 2008…which is when Cookstr was just a baby.) But I honestly think Cookstr *could* give Epicurious and FoodNetwork.com a run for their money…if it only implemented a few small changes.

I always spend hours prepping for interviews and thinking up answers to potential questions and most of this stuff never sees the light of day…so here is my response to, “How could Cookstr improve and/or better compete with Epicurious and FoodNetwork.com?” if for no other reason than proving how passionate I am about food/words/online content and what a great fit I’d be for this site:

1. More feedback.

One of the things I love about Epicurious (my go-to recipe site) is that I can search for a basic recipe like, “apple pie,” and even though I end up with multiple results, I can quickly scan the ratings — 1 to 4 forks, from worst to best — to see how users grade each recipe, as well as what percentage of users would make the recipe again and what — if any — comments they have. The comments often include valuable information about tinkering with the recipe and/or tips for next time and help me narrow down my options.

If, for example, I was deciding between Rum Raisin Apple Pie and Lattice Apple Pie with Mexican Brown Sugar, I’d see that 95% of users would make the Rum Raisin pie again and that they’ve given it an average rating of 4 forks and that user mandica from Windham, Conn. decided to soak the raisins longer to make them plumper.

I know that the content on Cookstr is supposed to be trusted already…but I also think it’s fair to say that every recipe site — Epicurious included — is bound to have a stinker somewhere. Plus, Rick Bayless may assure me that his Smoky Chipotle Salsa with Pan-Roasted Tomatillos is as simple to make as it is delicious, but what about those of us who haven’t spent decades studying Mexican cuisine? How easy is it for us to produce? That’s where I think user feedback is so valuable. If I’m going to the trouble of actually cooking or baking something, I’d like a reasonable expectation that it will turn out okay. And seeing multiple users say, “Yummy!” Or, “Perfect! Just cut down the salt…” puts my mind at ease.

But, sadly, there doesn’t seem to be much commenting on Cookstr recipes. Of the 25 recipes I added to My Cookstr, only four had comments. And just one apiece. I suppose the number of “favorites” each recipe has helps…but not as much as forks or percentages.

I think Cookstr needs to implement some sort of promotion or go on some sort of social media spree — or both — to encourage users to comment on recipes. Maybe they can reward comments with points and a certain number of points yields a discount on a cookbook…or, since the site already has partnerships with publishers (I think), why not give away some cookbooks to the most prolific commenters? Or, at the very least, tempt those commenters with a feature on the Facebook page?

Simply put: If Cookstr wants to be a trusted recipe site, it needs more user-generated feedback.

2. A dinner newsletter.

The Cookstr 10, a list of ten recipes that is sent out each week, seems pretty focused on holidays or major events. And while that is helpful, to a degree, I feel like eventually you’re going to come to a time of year when there aren’t any holidays or events nearby and you’ve already done warm weather or cold weather recipes…so…what then? I guess focusing on one particular cooking technique isn’t a bad alternative…and I’m not arguing that the Cookstr 10 should be done away with completely. I just think Cookstr users could be better served by a newsletter that helps solve the problem of what to make for dinner. (This is actually what the Cookstr 10 focused on last week…I don’t see why they can’t do it every week.)

It’s not an original concept. Everyday Food and Good Housekeeping do it. And there’s good reason. When I look at magazines or cooking websites, I’m often looking for inspiration. I need to go to the grocery store, but I have no idea what to buy. And I don’t think I’m alone.

That dinner void is exactly where Everyday Food and Good Housekeeping step in, and I see no reason why Cookstr can’t do the same. All they need is seven dinner recipes once a week — it could even be a compilation of all the Recipes of the Day that week.

If the majority of people do their grocery shopping on weekends, Cookstr could send out this new newsletter, on, say, Friday. It could still focus on the time of year and what’s in season and what holidays are coming up…but it would be a much more practical way of saying, “Hey — here are our suggestions for this week. Now you don’t have to think about it,” which, I think, in turn, conjures up a sense of trust — but only if the recipes are good — and the consumer begins to rely on it more and more (if the recipes are good). Another win-win.

3. Play to the crowd.

There are certain dishes that only come up once a year…but they are reliable bets annually.

Last week, for example, a friend on Facebook posted a request for king cake recipes.

However, if I search for “king cake” on Cookstr — which I did — I get Kathleen’s Wheat-Free Fudge Brownies, Flaky Scones and Rosemary Foccacia Sheet. None of these recipes are even remotely close to king cake.

Epicurious, on the other hand, has three viable king cake recipes; FoodNetwork.com has nearly ten.

With Easter coming up, I imagine folks will also be looking for hot cross buns. But, sadly, when I look for “hot cross buns” on Cookstr, I get Jamie Oliver‘s Bun and Butter Pudding.

I realize these are two heavily Christian examples and that the world is made up of lots of different faiths and that Cookstr can’t possibly accommodate every single holiday. But…I think they need to do some research to make sure they have their bases covered for the most popular ones.

Sure, king cake and hot cross buns may not come up super-often…but the absence of recipes in cases like this will alienate those who *are* looking for them and send them right into Epicurious and/or FoodNetwork.com’s arms. I, for one, get quickly discouraged if a site offers no options for what I’m looking for…and I move on.

In short, I think that if Cookstr wants to gain and/or retain the trust of consumers who are searching for recipes, it needs to better anticipate what they are searching for — and accommodate them.

4. More tweets.

As of Sunday afternoon, Cookstr‘s last tweet was on March 4. That’s nine days ago. They simply can’t go that long without any updates.

For one, the site features a Chef or Author of the Day every single day. At the very least, that’s prime tweeting material.

The site also features a Recipe of the Day. Why are these recipes not tweeted daily, too?

What’s more, tons of folks are talking about Cookstr recipes on Twitter. Check out these search results. There’s no reason for @Cookstr not to reply to — and follow — these users.

Simply put, the site needs better engagement with this audience. @Epicurious and @FoodNetwork don’t miss a day — neither should @Cookstr.

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Filed under blogs, books, cake, dishes, entrees, Food Network, Uncategorized

Road Trip Roundup, By the Numbers

2029: Miles we drove.

7: States we visited. Also, the number of days we were gone.

9: Episode of Dexter Season 5 that I found profoundly disappointing after watching it in hotel that had cable because I couldn’t wait for it to come out on DVD and which I hope is not a harbinger of the entire season.

4: Chicken wings in the “Midnight Train” entrée at Gladys Knight Chicken & Waffles.

13: Years since I’ve had the Beverly at the World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta.

239: Age of the Old Pinke House in Savannah.

14: Miles over the speed limit I was driving when pulled over for the first time in South Carolina by cop who said he’d have to take me to jail if he wrote me a ticket because I have an out-of-state license and, who, thankfully, let me go.

1: Tire change on a national holiday in a Waffle House parking lot.

24: Jeff Gordon’s number, which I learned at the Nascar Hall of Fame in Charlotte.

12: Cans of Cheerwine we brought back with us.

25: State license plates we counted.

36: Dead animals we saw on the side of the road.

And…about a zillion: Number of Led Zeppelin songs I heard.

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If I hadn’t been writing about Frank Bruni, I wouldn’t have known it’s Ann Coulter’s birthday…

So…I got home last night around 8:00ish and all I had consumed was coffee and water on the planes (I had, like, the perfect amount of time to get from Terminal A to Terminal C in Dallas…without a ridiculous amount of waiting time *or* having to run with my cat-in-a-bag…but it *also* meant I didn’t have a chance to procure sustenance). So. All of this is to say that I was pretty hungry by the time I got back to my apartment…but I obviously didn’t have anything on hand. (Except milk that didn’t spoil! Like magic! Coffee was SO GOOD this morning!) So…SeamlessWeb! (And, like silver white winters that melt into springs, it is one of my favorite things…)

And, you know what? I really wanted Thai food, so I ordered Thai food…and the Thai place near me is one that the Bartender liked a lot, but ordering from there didn’t make me sad *at* *all* (See?? Progress!)…*and* I saw this thing with peanut sauce on the menu that I *had* to order because I was reading Frank Bruni’s latest book on the plane(s) — Born Round…in which he discusses what it’s like to be the proverbial fat kid with an endless appetite who grows up to be the restaurant critic at the New York Times…and I’m only up to his stint at the Detroit Free Press, so I certainly don’t know how it ends yet…but he *did* have a torrid relationship with cold noodles and a peanut-y sauce that he discovered during one of two internships at Newsweek…and so when I saw the peanut thing on the menu, I couldn’t not get it.

And…Frank Bruni is fun to bring up because…I had a coworker once who knew a guy who works at the Times…and who was being relocated to a bureau outside of New York and so Frank Bruni threw a going away party for said coworker’s friend at his apartment. And…I was lucky because my coworker said I could come with him…(as if, after meeting me, Bruni would be instantly enchanted and ask me to be his #2. Or something.) So…what a strange moment it was to be in Frank Bruni’s apartment…and marveling at, you know, the framed photos of him with George W. Bush and whatnot…and my coworker and I were in his living room because there were fewer people in there (read: none. I am nothing if not antisocial…)…and Frank came in to talk to us for a little bit and that Lisa Kudrow show — The Comeback — was on in the background and I remember Bruni talking about how he thought it was an underrated show…and then his phone rang and he excused himself…and he came back and said something like, “I have this friend and I’m not sure if she’s going to show up, but I really hope she comes…and if she does, you’ll all know who she is.” And so we said, “Who is it?” and he said, “Oh, I can’t tell you that! But you’ll know as soon as you see her.”

So…fast forward a little bit. Doorbell rings. And who do you suppose it was? Why, none other than Ann Coulter! (Ack! I just Googled her and it turns out that today is her birthday! Weird, right??) And, folks, she was the most freakishly skinny blond woman I have ever seen in my life…

My old coworker *swears* that Ann Coulter proceeded to hit on him…but *my* memory of the exchange is merely that she said, “You look familiar,” or the like. And — who am I to judge? — perhaps in old, skinny, blond, conservative ladyspeak it’s the equivalent of, “What’s your sign?” (And, who am I kidding? If Glenn Beck said something comparable to me, I’d be tweeting all over the place.)

And, I mean, sadly, that’s basically the end of my story: I went to a party at Frank Bruni’s place once and Ann Coulter showed up. And peanut sauce makes me think of him now…which made me think of her. Which turned out to be on her birthday, of all days. That’s it.

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Filed under birthdays, dishes, eggs, entrees, feminism, Palin, parties

Julie and Meat/Infidelity

I had hoped to actually post this before Cleaving’s December 1 publication date as I have friends in high places (…sorta…) and got an early copy of Julie Powell’s second book…and wanted to rub it in your collective faces a little bit. (But in the nicest way possible.)

But, alas, it is now December 5, and for all you know, I could have spent the last four days feverishly reading it and composing dark lies.

But *that*, I suppose, is sort of beside the point.

I had *heard* Cleaving got bad reviews…and I understand why. I hadn’t actually read any of the critics until I sat down to write *this.* But as I was reading the book, I definitely thought, “People are not going to like this…”

And because of the kinship I felt with Julie in Julie and Julia (and that I still felt — albeit to a lesser degree — in Cleaving), I’m going to go out on a limb and play a little devil’s advocate here. Which is not to say I liked the entire book. I initially thought it was hard to get into — the text really just goes back and forth between Knives/Meat and Marriage Falling Apart/Affair over and over again. Neither topic is really pleasant to encounter…(especially for those of us who saw Chris Messina valiantly play the role of Eric in this summer’s movie…)

But first I’ll tackle the meat: I’m hardly a vegetarian (those vegan blog posts last year were really just a buddy at HuffPo hooking an unemployed girl up…), but, put lightly, some of those butchering passages were really hard to read. (It was sort of like when I was watching something on TV with my parents about bison that mysteriously died in a national park..and it turned out that they were already sick…and because of the cold weather, they got trapped in some sort of gassy something-or-rather out on the plains…so, it was unfortunate, but they would have died anyway. And the national parks guys proved this by cracking open one of the bones and showing this really gooey bone marrow…and my mother and I saw it and immediately exclaimed, “EWW!” and my dad just said, “What? It’s bone marrow.”) So…Point #1: I may eat steak, but that doesn’t make it easy to read about how a cow *becomes* steak. Which maybe means I *should* be a vegetarian…but that’s a topic for another post.

Point #2: After such phenomenal success with her first book, I sort of have to give Powell props for not following a similar pattern and writing the same thing again, but with Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume Two. I would imagine the temptation would totally be there with something that has already been established as a successful model…*especially* when that model has been turned into a Nora Ephron movie and you KNOW that plenty of people will buy the second book on name recognition alone.

I think London’s Sunday Times put it best, actually, in this review that asked how Powell could possibly top herself after Julie and Julia…and then answers itself: “The answer is, of course, that she couldn’t. But she has had a jolly good stab at it — literally.”

I like that — “a jolly good stab.” We should all be so lucky…

But…it *is* gross. And disconcerting. And, as noted, I basically agreed with everyone who didn’t like it…until D — the man with whom she is having the torrid affair that threatens her marriage — disappears. That was the moment Julie became a sympathetic character to me…and I started to identify with her more and more…and even recognized some of my own behavioral patterns in the things she does for him…even though she knows she’ll never hear from him. This may officially make me a crazy person, but…1. Who among you didn’t think that anyway? And…2. I totally understand that compulsion…and that desire to maintain a connection with someone no longer in your life. Small case in point: There is perhaps no one (aside from myself) who loved my cat more than the Bartender. And so, for example, when I finally got the cat fixed and the vet told me that he was the most well-endowed feline she had ever neutered, I *knew* the Bartender would appreciate the story…perhaps more than anyone else. And so I emailed him about it…even though I knew he wouldn’t respond. I guess part of me is stubborn enough and/or hopeful enough that somewhere out there, he read my message and it made him happy and he remembered that we had good times together. (But when I read Christine Muhlke’s review in the NYT, I felt really bad about myself. I can’t help but feel she’s calling me pathetic, too: “Powell’s not kidding about the ‘obsession’ part: she pathetically texts and e-mails into the ether for almost a year, then fleshes her longing into a book that doesn’t spare the reader a single full-frontal flashback.” [For the record though, I spared y’all plenty of full-frontal flashbacks. So count your blessings.])

However, when I told my friend J that I sort of got Julie’s sadness about D, she said, “But you don’t have a husband!!” which is a fair point. And, Julie, as much as I’d like to defend you (you’re the one, after all, who gave me hope that it *is* possible to be at a point in life in which you feel absolutely nothing is going right, but you can still suck it up and make positive changes and turn everything around…), I gotta say that it *is* hard to have real, total, complete sympathy for you knowing that you have Eric at home. And, sure, he goes out and has his own affair, too…but…I found myself asking, “Why not just get a divorce?” repeatedly. And, sure, he’s been a part of your life for a super-long time and you know each other so well that you’re basically the same person and you always know what the other one is thinking…which is why you can’t hide the affair from him in the first place, but also why you can’t bear to part with him, and…well…I don’t know. It just sort of gets to a point where it seems like a tough decision needs to be made…but nobody is willing to make it and it kinda feels like you guys are making your own beds. Either get divorced or don’t, but, for the love of god, stop complaining about the uncertainty. (Which, ultimately, she does.) (And all of this, “But I love/know him more than I love/know myself…”-business sort of makes me think of the fourth book in the Twilight series and that half-vampire baby that resulted from Bella and Edward’s union. UGH. But, again, another post for another day.)

Point #3 is that when you write something like this, you have to be honest. (Or at least that’s what Dale Maharidge taught me…) And, sure, some of Cleaving is a little saucy and/or, you know, what kids these days (or kids from days of yore) might call TMI…but, at the same time, I also think it’s kind of brave. She wrote about a topic that clearly does not paint her in a positive light…but she doesn’t gloss over any of it. She sort of offers herself up — flaws and all. And that takes guts. And to touch on Point #2 again briefly, all the saucy stuff takes her further out of her Julie and Julia Comfort Zone…and I gotta give her props for being brave enough to do that, too. (But, then again, I don’t know how much of it was actually flexing writing muscles and how much of it was, “See?? I can write naughty words! And lots of ’em!”)

I also think confidence plays a big role in all of this…and it is where, again, I feel a certain kinship with Ms. Powell. I was just at a little J-school classmate reunion-y thing, in fact, when I was talking about making slow progress on my book and one of my classmates grabbed me by the arms and shook me a little and said, “You’re so talented! Do you know that? You have to know that and acknowledge it and understand that someday you’re going to do great things!” and it was sort of like, “Yes! Sure. Okay!”

I like the way the NYT put the confidence issue best: Muhlke writes that D’s enduring power over Julie exists, in part, because his presence in her life “instills the confidence that being played by Amy Adams in the movie apparently did not.” And…I don’t know. But I get that, too. And, heck, I can only assume money is no object for her now and I don’t really see anything wrong with looking around and saying, “Hey! I have a lot of freedom!” and then trying butchering on for size and going to Argentina, Ukraine and Tanzania…in order to clear her head or spark something within her or simply to delay the inevitable. Obviously she’s still a person trying to figure out who she is and what makes her tick…and I’m not sure we should all be so quick to judge. She has an amazing opportunity sans financial pressures to actually figure out all that stuff on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs…that a lot of people never get to do. I have no idea what I’d do with myself if I didn’t have to worry about paying rent or bills or anything (aside from blogging for all of you, natch). While visiting my parents for Thanksgiving, I went to a thrift shop with my mother and found a giant silver clock that was lined with velvet and contained a hologram of the Last Supper and some fake flowers. And it was just the most amazing clock ever…but there was a slight imperfection in the velvet lining…so I bought some additional fake flowers and glued them on the inside and then I decided I might as well touch up the silver paint while I was at it, too…and I pretty much had the time of my life. So…perhaps I would fix up old clocks. But would I really be fulfilled by that forever and ever? I have no idea. (See? Creating a fulfilling life for oneself is a toughie.)

Bottom line: I think there’s a lot of be said about pursuing your passion no matter what. And I hate to get up on a feminist soapbox, but…I don’t think it’s totally unreasonable to point out that women face this tinge of selfishness when they want to do something purely for themselves that men never do. A man can pursue whatever career/passions he wants and he can still be a model family man. But a woman who puts her career and/or other passions at the forefront at the expense of family and/or children isn’t such a sympathetic figure. And that’s not really fair. (I am tempted to ask the “What if Julie was a man?”-question and bring up powerful men and *their* affairs and follow *that* thread for awhile…but I think Access Hollywood quite thoroughly beat me to that punch last week.)

And, I mean, I totally understand Julie’s excitement in having her own apartment. (Did Virginia Woolf not write that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”?) I’m really not good at sharing spaces. In fact, I think my own apartment may be the ONE thing I’ve done right in my life to date. So…yet another thing that makes me get Julie. If only Eric didn’t exist at all, she might be one of my favorite people ever…(or perhaps I should say, “The idea of her…” I just Googled and found an interivew on YumSugar and realized that she *is*, in fact, a real person and thought, “Yikes! What if she reads this?” Which she won’t…but, still…)

My final plus: It’s hard to travel on your own. Heck, I have trouble eating or going to movies by myself. (That’s one of the good things about working from home — I can go see movies in the middle of the day in the middle of the week and absolutely no one is in the theater…) So — even though I agree with the reviewers that her post-apprenticeship jaunts around the world *do* seem to have been tacked on without a firm idea about how they contribute to the book as a whole — I also think it’s really great she was brave enough to fly all over the world on her own.

The NYT felt otherwise — “She travels to Argentina, Ukraine and Tanzania, a 100-page exercise in self-indulgent writing, in which she dwells on how attractive the locals find her and how much Malbec, Cognac or goat’s blood she can drink…” — but, I mean, c’mon. What is memoir (or foodoir) if not an exercise in self-indulgence?

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Filed under blogs, books, Brooklyn, dishes, entrees, feminism, hot dogs, pork, vegan

MORE Competitive Baking…But One Roasting Pan and a Few Hours Short.

Last week, a former coworker (you may remember him as Chris) told me about the Great American Pie-Off…and not only was I determined to *go*, but also to bake something memorable (no apple!) and to win over the celebrity judges.

I put out a request and got a lot of good feedback for potential pies: strawberry rhubarb, mixed berry, coconut cream…but, in the end, it was banoffee — a pie I made especially for an English colleague once — that really piqued my interest. Surely no one else would actually go to the trouble of making toffee, right? (In the recipe it says: “This pie, an easy take on toffee with bananas [hence the name], made its debut at The Hungry Monk, a pub in England, in 1972. Traditional recipes involve boiling unopened cans of condensed milk, but since that sometimes results in explosions, we thought you might prefer our method.”)

So…this was my big weekend plan.

But…I had a heck of a week last week…and by the time I woke up on Saturday and had my coffee and realized that the contest began at 4 and that I really had only a couple of hours to straighten my hair and go to the grocery store and get a-bakin‘…my plan for baking dominance seemed rather ill-conceived. *Then* I read the recipe a bit closer and recalled that this pie actually requires a roasting pan (which I borrowed from a friend of a friend for Thanksgiving once upon a time and had for, like, a year…and so the last time I made this must have been during that roasting-pan-borrowing-period)…as well as TWO hours of toffee-making (in a pie pan that is on loan) and ANOTHER hour of chill time…I decided I simply didn’t have enough oomph to pull it off. I may have totally blown it — one of the celebrity judges could have been searching for a writer/baker…but that was the pie I really wanted to make. I found a recipe for apricot-raspberry pie that seemed kind of easy (and doable with what I had on hand)…but I just wasn’t as excited about it.

So…no pies this weekend. Cover letters galore. But no pies.

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