Tag Archives: FoodNetwork.com

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

Goodbye, Libby’s (At Least For Now)

This year, I carved my first pumpkin in a long, long time. The last pumpkin I carved was based on advice from Martha Stewart (or the like) when I was working at a credit union in Fairbanks. My office held a carving contest and my pumpkin was truly something to behold – I made a leaf pattern and cut out leaves around the pumpkin, carved veins in them, and then pushed the leaves partially back through the holes in the pumpkin so that when I lit it up, the leaves looked like they were floating around said pumpkin and glowed. But — story of my life — the pumpkin rotted and liquefied the night before judging and I lost.

I can’t say this year’s pumpkin was a triumphant return, but it was nice to feel festive again.

I *also* decided that for the first time ever, I would roast the seeds instead of tossing them out…and, boy, am I glad I did! It was sort of hard to find a recipe I liked…so I ended up just rinsing them, tossing them in olive oil, adding salt and roasting on a sheet pan at about 300 degrees for 45 minutes. They were perfect! My mother said it was really hard to get all the orange pumpkin gunk off of them, but I didn’t think it was actually that bad. And it turned out that T’s favorites were the ones that were a little darker because they were roasted with gunk on.

I also heard that you should consider boiling the seeds first…but I thought the roasted seeds were fine sans boiling.

Now my goal is to make a pie from an actual pumpkin. I’ve never done that before either. And even though my baking enthusiasm has dimmed considerably and may never be what it once was, I’d still like to try out real pie this year. Another friend had a taste test last year in which she made a pie from scratch and a pie from a can and asked guests to guess which was which. It seemed obvious to me — the pie made from real pumpkin was a darker color and sort of less pleasant to look at…although I don’t actually remember how they tasted (…which may actually be because I thought the canned pumpkin pie tasted better, but I am too ashamed to admit it).

But, as a general rule, I’ve been perfectly happy with Libby’s all my life. There – I said it. If that makes me Whiskey Tango, so be it.

So I’m not sure I’ll turn pie-from-an-actual-pumpkin into a holiday tradition for years to come. But, like seeing Mount Rushmore or going waterskiing, it seems like something I should do once in life.

And yet…the Web seems to be barren of useful pie-from-a-pumpkin resources. Could it be that the difference is negligible and so no one bothers?

Granted, my research was not as exhaustive as it perhaps could have been, but every pie recipe I saw on Epicurious.com (my favorite!) called for canned pumpkin. Ditto FoodNetwork.com.

And I’m surprised that given the annual food mag task of making old Thanksgiving news new again that they haven’t jumped all over this. I would think that Alton Brown of all people would have made a pumpkin pie from an actual pumpkin at least once — after all, I saw him harvest coconut using a power drill — but, alas, I cannot find a recipe from him either.

Thankfully, my go-to cookbook when the Internet fails — The Joy of Cooking — has perfect instructions. I will give it a shot soon (and maybe make a Libby’s pie, too, just for old times’ sake) and report back.

And…just a reminder: There are rumors of another canned pumpkin shortage this year…so if you don’t want to experiment with real pumpkins, make sure to pick up a can of Libby’s before the Thanksgiving rush!

Image via cardamom/Flickr

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Filed under Alaska, books, Food Network, Halloween, holidays, pie, pumpkins

Simple Bruschetta and Less Interesting Apples

I have found that my posts about food — allegedly the, ahem, bread and butter of this dog and pony show — don’t receive quite the same attention as those about my life. Perhaps I have inadvertently found my calling.

Nevertheless…I feel it would be remiss to not talk about 1) the bruschetta; and 2) the apple tart.

1. I’ve wanted to make bruschetta ever since I saw that food porn scene — you know which one I’m talking about — in Julie & Julia. I should have just Googled those precise terms, I guess…as I would have come up with this: Bruschetta alla Julie and Julia. As you know, Epicurious is my go-to site…but they really didn’t seem to have any basic bruschetta recipes — everything had lots of stuff and I was really looking for something simple. So…FoodNetwork.com is always Choice #2…but, same deal. (Alton Brown’s is simple, yes, but it lacks tomatoes…) Finally, I looked in my cookbooks, et voila: The Joy of Cooking had the very simple recipe I was looking for. I kind of monkeyed around with it a bit and added the garlic to the tomato/basil mix instead of rubbing it on the bread (which perhaps means I did not make proper bruschetta at all, but I can live with that…) and I decided to go with a little onion, too. In the end, it was really amazingly delicious…but very heavy. I wanted to be able to eat, like, an entire loaf of the stuff, but just couldn’t stomach it. And when I woke up the next morning, I could still sort of taste the garlic…which I know is totally gross to admit…but, it’s true. (And thanks to some little writer figurines that my friend Frani gave me yesterday, I know that Virginia Woolf said, “If you do not tell the truth about yourself, you cannot tell it about other people.”) It was really good stuff though…and I still have enough tomato goods to make it three or four more times, I’d say.

2. And…apparently I don’t like using apples as much as I thought. The same thing happened last year. I went on that standard fall-time I’m-in-a-couple ritual — apple-picking — and in theory, I should have been on cloud nine afterward, baking up a storm…and churning out pies and tarts and sauces faster than you can say, “The leaves are changing color!” But I never really used them all. And it’s not like I had many apples this year…I had plans to emulate my New Jersey friend and make an apple tart — as in singular! — but the recipe I wanted to use required cardamom and I couldn’t find any at my grocery store…and my mother actually ended up sending me some in the mail…and I checked on the apples yesterday and they’re kind of mushy now. So, I mean, I can still totally *make* the tart…it will just be with less interesting apples.

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Filed under blogs, books, Food Network, Modernism, tarts

Pie News: #4, Sniffing Around, Scary Crocs, BS Down Under, REALLY Fresh Breath, Sex on Skates, & Flying In for Some Crab Cakes

Hi! I’m back! More Pie News! *Slightly* dated, but still totally worth it.

First up: Vermont has become the fourth state to legalize gay marriage. So…surely some wedding pies are in order! Taste of Home — which the aunt-who-taught-me-everything-I-know-about-pie-baking says is gospel in the Midwest…(and *that* is perhaps apropos with Iowa’s recent change of heart as well) — suggests Bride’s Peach Pie for those who aren’t that into cake (or, I suppose, who are *really* into pie). Or! You could go with something slightly more exotic like Hawaiian Wedding Pie. Just think! It could taste like you are already on your honeymoon while you’re still at your reception!

And…a recent study finds that women have a better sense of smell than men do. (Insert obvious feminist joke here…) It goes on to say that this helps them find mates, etc., etc. So…what better way to acknowledge femalekind’s evolutionary gift than with a pie with harmonizing flavors (since superior sniffing is supposed to help women find, ahem, complementary partners)…like this Black and Blueberry Pie? (And…perhaps all the single ladies still out there can *make* one and it will help them get a ring on it?)

Bad segue, but…dying alone isn’t the only fear making headlines this week! A surge in the crocodile population has some South Florida residents concerned as well. If *you* are scared to go out, why not stay indoors and make Florida Pie? I hear it’s like key lime pie, but with coconut!

And…shifting gears from real animals to mythical ones: Our favorite pop tart continues her rise like a proverbial phoenix and may take her tour to Australia. To help her adjust to the way of life Down Under (don’t the toilets flush the other way?) I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest something I’ve never done before — a savory pie: Australian Meat Pie.

In other celeb news, not only did Javy Lopez‘s (two links!) former team beat the Yankees on Monday, they did so handily. Who knew birds could be that tough? “Never fear!” says one Cajun cooking website. You can actually make make Black Bird Pie with REAL birds if you want *and* you won’t have to worry about tenderness as long as you cook them long enough.

And…in odder news, in Germany, police are on the lookout for a man who tried to steal 68 tubes of toothpaste from a supermarket. A man willing to go to such lengths for dental hygiene deserves a one-of-a-kind pie! How about Guy Fieri‘s Breath Mint Pie?

And because no one cares about women’s sports and that is sad, I would like to point out that the Universities of Connecticut and Louisville were battling it out in the women’s national championship game last night (U-Conn won). And since I played basketball in Mississippi (or, rather, since I was on the team in ‘Sippi), why not make a Mississippi Mud Pie on behalf of female basketball players everywhere? Epicurious surprised me — it only has Mississippi Mud Cake…which got me thinking. I don’t think I’ve ever thought of Mississippi Mud as cake before…the phrase has always been followed by “Pie” in my head. Thankfully, FoodNetwork.com has a recipe: Mississippi Mud Pie.

And…speaking of lesser known parts of the globe, Wasilla, Alaska’s Levi Johnston appeared on Tyra (“Tyra mail!”) to tell his side of the preggers teen story and the Palin camp ain’t pleased. So, let’s throw another savory pie into the mix with some Alaska Salmon Pie (Aww…the Riverboat Discovery…) as we ponder what’s next for the guy New York mag called “Sex on Skates.”

And…speaking of not-so-far-off places, Southwest Airlines says it will begin service between LaGuardia and Chicago and Baltimore. So, while planning your next quick getaway from New York, why not prepare Southwest Zucchini Pie? (Just don’t drink too much.)

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Filed under Alaska, baseball, feminism, Food Network, Javy, Mississippi, Palin, pie, Sonoma County