Tag Archives: recipes

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

Mad Classics…and Tips for Feeding Trashy, Homesick Interlopers.

(Thanks, LehighValleyLive.com! I found this by Googling "Jersey Shore food.")

In honor of last week’s Mad Men premiere and the much anticipated launch of Jersey Shore’s second season, I thought I’d take a moment to ponder which particular foodstuffs would go best with each show.

I’ll start with the much-lauded Mad Men.

I was lucky that the Next Food Network Star included modern twists on ’60s favorites the week *before* last, making it very easy for me to (eww…gross!) regurgitate them this week.

I’m not actually very good at cooking without a recipe (It’s the baker in me?) — Reason #2 I will probably never be on the show. Instead, I found some recently updated versions of these classics, thanks to Epicurious and the Food Network (mostly).

Tuna Casserole

  • Tuna Noodle Casserole — I actually made this recipe once when I was hankering for comfort food. It seemed the most interesting spin with the mushrooms and the sherry and whatnot. It was good…but I haven’t made it since (and I’ve had half a bag of egg noodles in my cupboard, patiently waiting for the day I feel nostalgic enough to try it again…).
  • In general, I am wary of Rachael Ray recipes — I feel like they’re too bland for the required effort and if you really want something “easy,” you might as well really go hog wild and just microwave something (or order in). But…her Retro-Metro Fancy Tuna Casserole sounds okay. And I wonder what using actual tuna steaks would do to a tired-out casserole recipe. Jazz it up? Or would the steaks be lost in the faux-mushroom-soup sauce? That’s basically what Brianna did in that particular episode…but, then again, — spoiler alert — she got the ol’ heave-ho.
  • I feel basically the same way about Martha’s recipes, but her Mediterranean Tuna Casserole sounds like it has potential. I don’t know what makes it Mediterranean though — seems like you’d need to add capers and/or olives or something.

Pigs in a Blanket

First off, I am astounded by the variety of names in the Wikipedia entry. Who knew?

Lobster Thermidor

I confess I didn’t actually know what lobster thermidor was before that fateful Food Network Star episode. I mean, I’d heard of it…but I didn’t know anything about what actually went into it. And…now that I do, I gotta say it sounds pretty gross — egg yolks and cognac?? — and I’m not sure why Tom picked it.

  • I’m also not sure if it’s a recipe that has stood the test of time. Gourmet only has one recipe for it…and it’s from 1940.
  • Emeril has his own version — and it got really good reviews…(although I had to Google “bouquet garni,” so I feel like perhaps I am too ignorant to make it).
  • And…believe it or not, Oprah has a recipe, too…although it’s only because she, too, jumped on the Julia Child bandwagon last year. (Although I guess I have to give her props for not reprinting the Boeuf Bourguignon recipe that was absolutely everywhere…)

Deviled Eggs

I won’t spend too much time here as I have made no secret about my hatred for eggs…and I would never in a million years devil them.

Pineapple Upside-Down Cake

I actually remember eating this as a kid — I think my grandmother made it. Which makes sense. I don’t think there’s much modern or new about these recipes though — just plain cake. Which is maybe as it should be?

Okay…got that out of your system? Ready for pickles and Ron-Ron Juice?

I am officially thrilled that Snooki discovered fried pickles while driving through Savannah, Georgia en route to Miami in Episode 1. (I’m a little sad that they let one guy represent all of Georgia and dismissed him as a giant hick, but…that’s a post for another day.)

You may recall I once wrote a heavily edited story about fried pickles that made me sound like a complete ditz. I won’t link to it here as I was completely aghast by what the editor did in trying to assume my voice, but…let’s leave it at this: fried pickles are kind of amazing. (Snooki said it was a life-changing experience that put pickles on a whole other level! She’s not far off.)

Other than their family dinner nights, I imagine the cast of Jersey Shore has better things to do than find good food. (Didn’t J-Woww buy ham at a late-night grocery store and eat it in the confessional room to avoid cheating on her boyfriend once?) So…it’s kind of a short list. And then there’s the whole issue that only one of them is actually from Jersey anyway…so it really should be a post about New York and Rhode Island food?

But…my new ball and chain is from Jersey…so, in his honor, I’ll share all that I know about Jersey food — most of which I have learned from him — should Sami want to seek solace in empty calories or something as she embraces singlehood in MIA.

1. Diners. Jersey is famous for diners. So…typical diner food.

2. Taylor ham. I tried to call this “pork roll” and was corrected. He also thinks it’s fascinating that, like Kleenex, Taylor is a brand name that has come to represent the product itself. And you have to eat it in some sort of sandwich form?

3. Gravy fries. (There’s a bar near me that calls them “Disco fries.” I think this is a substantially more fun name.)

4. Clams? Or is that just my warped memory of Sam Sifton’s piece?

And…there you have it.

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Filed under Brooklyn, eggs, entrees, fish, Food Network, hot dogs, Martha, pickles, pork, Uncategorized

She hated monkeys, pants and rock and roll…

And she also hated to cook.

That was my grandmother. And it’s totally true. In fact, some of her closest friends owned a Chinese restaurant up the street from her house in San Francisco and she ate there virtually every night of the week. But…she had one specialty and would inevitably make it when I visited as a kid because I could sort of get her to do anything. (But every other night we had chicken chow mein at the Wongs’.)

I seem to remember this recipe having some sort of secret — the cream? — which may be gross and disgusting by today’s standards…but I have fond memories of it. And I feel like there was an interesting story about how she came to acquire the recipe — from one of her neighbors? — but I can’t remember what it is exactly.

*I* only just got it from my mother — I inherited all my grandmother’s recipe books, etc., etc…but they’re mostly meal plans and budget notes…which were actually really fun to look through. Want to know what the Lacys had for dinner exactly 50 years ago tonight? I can tell you. Care to wager how much it cost? I’ve got that info, too.

I was thinking of it recently and asked and my mom sent it, so…without further ado…here’s how to make Helen Lacy’s spaghetti:

Add 1/2 lb ground round and 2 T olive oil to a skillet. Brown meat.
Add 1 clove garlic and lightly brown together further.
Add 2 T whipping cream, cook down 5 mins then add 2 T more (or less).
Grate 1/2 onion, 1 small carrot and celery, add to meat mixture and let cook 5 mins.
Add 1 t Italian seasoning.
Add 3 (small) cans tomato sauce, one at a time. Let each can heat before adding another.
Add some Parmesan cheese if you wish.
Cook for 1/2 hour (more or less). Serve with elbow macaroni.
She always made spinach or squash with this. Aww…

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