Edible Lives: Farida’s Azerbaijan Cookbook

Two months have passed since Cynthia nominated Farida from Farida’s Azerbaijani Cookbook as my next participant in this Edible Lives series of conversations with food bloggers. The delay is all my fault – I went off to France and got carried away with being in holiday mode, and then my emails ended up in Farida’s spam and delayed our conversation further until they could be found again. Thank you for bearing with me throughout this time, Farida!

All images courtesy of Farida

All images courtesy of Farida

Before I met Farida, I knew little (aka nothing) about the food and culture of Azerbaijan. Through her blog and our conversation together, I have discovered not only a wide array of temptingly delicious recipes but also an affectionate portrait of Farida’s homeland. As Farida writes, it is traditional for the doors of people in Azerbaijan to be always open to guests. I’m honoured to have been invited to take my own place at Farida’s table in her journey to recapture and present the familar flavours and tastes of her childhood memories.

Here, then, is the story of Farida’s Azerbaijani Cookbook

Farida's Azerbaijani Cookbook

How did you get the idea of starting a food blog?

I got the idea to start a food blog a little after I took on writing an Azerbaijani cookbook. One day, I happened to listen to a radio program that talked about blogs and this was actually the first time I’d ever heard the term. I did a search on the Internet and was quite impressed by the number of food blogs out there and became immediately fascinated with the whole idea of sharing the recipes and stories online. A good friend of mine encouraged me to start a blog too and I didn’t wait any longer. My blog is primarily focusing on Azerbaijani cuisine, but I also post other recipes I love which are not particularly Azerbaijani.

Were there any food blogs in particular that inspired you at the start?

I can’t say that one or two blogs inspired me in particular, because there are lots of nice ones out there and a little bit from all of them somewhat inspired me to start my own blog. I especially loved the ones with ethnic foods from around the world. I find that one can learn so much about a culture by learning new recipes and by reading the stories behind them.

Yes, Cynthia commented on how she learns something new each time she reads your blog, yet at the same time she notices similarities between your culture and hers through the food you describe. Have you found that writing for your blog has helped you in the process of working on your cookbook in any way?

Writing on my blog absolutely helped me on working on my cookbook, and in more than one way. Since my cookbook is going to be a mix of food and culture, I wanted to know what aspects of the culture people would be more interested in knowing, what exactly draws their attention about Azerbaijani food, what it is that that they would like to learn more about and I found that comments I have been receiving on my blog are really helpful in this respect.

Stuffed Grape Leaves

Stuffed Grape Leaves

Through my blog, I have also met wonderful people who have volunteered to test the recipes that are going to be in my cookbook. And what is most important is that receiving feedback on my posts from all over the world really motivates me to go that extra mile and work harder on my cookbook.

You say on your blog that you only cooked occasionally when you were living in Azerbaijan. How did you go about compiling your recipes and putting together all of the background information that brings your posts to life so vividly after your move to California?

Yes, it is true that I didn’t cook much back in Azerbaijan. My cooking was limited to salads, appetizers and some cakes and sweet pastries that my family made quite often, especially for special occasions, like birthdays or holidays. But I was familiar with food. I saw food being cooked on a daily basis. I was familiar with ingredients and which ingredients were used in what dish, but I never put it into practice.

This is to say that I grew up in a culture where food is a very important part. Azerbaijanis do not eat out much except for special occasions, when extended families get together to celebrate an occasion. There is somebody in every family who cooks every single day. It is usually a mother or a grandmother. Since receiving a higher education is very important in Azerbaijan, parents would rather see their children reading a book and going to libraries than spending their time in the kitchen cooking for the family, or better yet, inventing new dishes. Such was my case too.

Carrot Salad

Carrot Salad

I would like to mention that I’ve always had a passion for recipes and I’ve been collecting them since I was about 11-12. Sounds contradictory, right? I know, but this is true. I kept collecting and being fascinated by all the ingredients and methods of cooking described in recipes, but I rarely used them. All until I came to the US in 2002. Away from Azerbaijan and my family, I missed homemade food and had no other choice than to begin cooking myself. Later came the idea for a cookbook, then for a food blog. Most background information on recipes I provide on my blog is coming from my everyday exposure to those foods back in Azerbaijan.  Today I cook Azerbaijan and Turkish food on a daily basis, and I love to experiment with other international foods as time permits.

What do your family and friends back in Azerbaijan think of your food blog and does it help you to keep in touch at all?

My family was a little surprised when I told them I would write a cookbook and start a blog, but they were very happy and supportive of the idea and believed in me from day one. My friends support my initiative too.

Shekerbura - Making a Novruz Dessert Step by Step

Shekerbura - Making a Novruz Dessert Step by Step

I receive emails from friends or relatives who have tried some of the recipes from my blog and it is especially encouraging to hear that my recipes actually work. So, in a sense, my blog does help me stay connected with people I love but who are far away from me. More than anything, my blog helps me stay connected with my roots and with the culture I grew up on.

As well as staying connected to Azerbaijan through the recipes you post on your blog, you also say that you like to experiment with other international foods and to write about these too. What are your favourite sources of recipes for these other foods?

I love to learn about cultures though their foods. In the past, I used to experiment with them more often but now that I am concentrating on my cookbook, I have less time to do so. My favorite sources for the recipes are ethnic cookbooks and blogs. I am an avid reader of quite a few blogs on ethnic cuisines, and here are some of my favorites: Marija’s Palachinka on Serbian cuisine, Peter’s Kalofogas on  Greek cuisine, Sunita’s Sunita’s World, Cynthia’s Tastes Like Home on Caribbean cuisine, Zerrin’s Give Recipe and Banu’s Almost Turkish Recipes, both on Turkish cuisine.

Another favorite blog of mine is Elise’s Simply Recipes. Elise is one of the bloggers who warmly welcomed me to the blogging world where I had just stepped back then. Her blog is a fantastic source for great recipes.

In terms of your own culture, what have you discovered that people like and want to learn about Azerbaijani food?

I think people who visit my blog, particularly non-Azerbaijanis, like to read stories behind traditional recipes. This is where they can learn about a particular tradition, or a ceremony, or just how and when a certain dish is eaten. Anything that would help them catch a glimpse of culture along with the recipe sounds interesting to readers.

Ceremonial Rice Pilaff

Ceremonial Rice Pilaff

How close are you to completing your book?

My goal is to have it published by the end of this year, or early next year, at the latest. I am almost done with the recipe writing part of it and what is left is mostly the cultural, historical information that will appear at the beginning of the book as well as throughout it.

What’s your own favourite recipe on your blog, and what’s your most popular post?

My favorite recipe on my blog is for stuffed grape leaves and this is only because it happens to be my favorite dish.

The most popular post must be that that on zebra cake.

Zebra Cake

Zebra Cake

Although it is not a traditional Azerbaijani cake (most cakes are a European import to Azerbaijan but Azerbaijanis have wholeheartedly accepted them into their cuisine) it is definitely not a stranger in the country. I have received numerous comments on that particular post and continue to receive emails from people who have tried the cake. This is a great honor and I am very flattered that my zebra cake is being made in different parts of the world.

And finally, who do you nominate to be the next person I invite to talk to me about their food blog, and why?

I would like to nominate Marija from Palachinka to be your next interviewee. Marija and I met (virtually) when I had just started my blog and have become good friends ever since. Her blog has taught me a lot about Serbian food. Marija is an amazing photographer and food stylist. Her blog is truly inspirational.

As is your own, Farida 🙂 . Thank you ever so much for talking to me. I’m looking forward to being able to buy your book and reading more of your fascinating stories behind the food of Azerbaijan.

Edible Lives: Tastes Like Home

Sue told me that I was in for a treat when she nominated Cynthia from Tastes Like Home to be my next participant in this Edible Lives series of conversations. She described how Cynthia would give me a window into many cuisines and retell fascinating stories about her travels and experiences of food in the Caribbean. And once again, Sue was completely, utterly right 🙂 .

All images (except where noted) courtesy of Cynthia

All images (except where noted) courtesy of Cynthia

Throughout my conversation with Cynthia, her warm and open personality spoke directly to me as we probed deeper and deeper into the layers of meaning behind a ‘taste like home’. I have not only been treated to a mouth-watering introduction to the wide variety of cuisines in the Caribbean, I have also gained an understanding of how the interplay between our food and our social lives is at the very heart of our sense of community and belonging.

Here, then, is the story of Tastes Like Home

Tastes Like Home

You wrote in your column for Guyana’s Stabroek News that you started Tastes Like Home because you missed the food of your homelife. What led up to your having this idea for starting a blog?

The blog is an extension of the column, an avenue for readers to give feedback in the form of sharing their own food memories of home, and here I’m speaking primarily about Caribbean people. I also thought that it was a good way to introduce a wider, non-Caribbean audience to real Caribbean food, the food that we cook and eat regularly, not just the stereotypical things that are advertised such as coconut shrimp.

Hassar Curry

Hassar Curry

It was my best friend Susan (no, not FN Musings Sue :)) that insisted I start a blog.

Did you make any plans at the start about how frequently you would post and how you would establish your ‘blogger’s’ voice?

The blog started the same time that the column started – January 2007. I decided that I was going to post weekly to coincide with the publication of the column.

I always figured that my “voice” blogger or as a writer would be unique for a variety of reasons depending on the audience: I’m from the Caribbean. I was born in the only English-speaking country in South America. I come from a bi-racial family: Dad: Black and Mom East Indian.

That’s quite a balancing act, to start a new column and a new food blog at the same time! With such a wealth of backgrounds to draw from, how did you choose the specific things you would write about each week, and how did you parcel them up between blog posts and your newspaper column?

Yes, it is indeed quite a balancing act as I did and still do all amidst my day job – I teach Mass Communication (Media Studies) at the Barbados Community College.

Like other writers I have many note books that I accumulate my ideas into. Given that the premise of the column was a taste like home, setting out to cook and recreate the food I missed from my birth-country (Guyana) and having moved to Barbados where many of those ingredients were not available or not readily available, it was not difficult to come up with ideas. The real challenge was sourcing the things to cook but things have definitely changed on the food scene here in Barbados. That’s the subject of one of my upcoming columns. The whole concept behind “tastes like home” has changed also, I am in the process of formulating and writing what that change is.

Pumpkin Pudding

Pumpkin Pudding

I did not parcel the topics between the blog and the column; you will notice that I link the two where I give people the option to read more at the column so it’s a tie-in. The trick is to do two things with the intro – make the lead really attention getting on the blog so that people feel the urge to click through to read the column. At the same time, it is to make the lead for the blog post interesting and complete enough so that if someone does not have the time to read the column, they can still feel satisfied from just reading the blog post.

I am not too fussy if blog readers (I understand busy) do not have the time to read the column because the primary audience is in Guyana where the paper is published and also the large Caribbean online readers.

I understand and appreciate that my fellow bloggers may not have the time, though I know that many of them do read the column.

I know first-hand how even moving from the North to the South of England can displace you with regards to food and culture. My husband and I still disagree about whether something is a swede or a turnip! What did you find specifically about the food in Barbados that motivated you to write about the food of Guyana?

Home for many of us living abroad is a merged space that is made up of Guyana and the country we now live in. We’ve combined the two spaces and made them our own unique home. We enjoy all the trappings, sights, sounds and activity that go with the country we live in but inside of our homes we conduct ourselves as if we were in Guyana by the foods we cook, eat and share, and by the traditions and customs we uphold.

Chicken Curry

Chicken Curry

When I was growing up there was a clear distinction between weekday food and weekend food. In my home, weekday food referred to the simple fare one would eat during the week. It was simple for a number of reasons – less time to spend in the kitchen, economics and the need for a different kind of sustenance when at work and school. During the week we always ate vegetables and seafood – shrimp or fish.

Weekend meals were plenty-ingredients; fancy-dancy dressed up dishes that one created when there was more time to cook, to experiment, to entertain and to take delight in after a hard week at work or school. That’s when we’d make Spanish rice, potato salad, fried rice, baked chicken, macaroni pie, duck curry, dhal puri, roast pork, pot roast etc.

Dhal Puri

Dhal Puri

Even the beverages we had were different. During the week, my mother insisted that we drink water although there would be juices in the fridge. On the weekend, we got to have sweet drinks – homemade fruit juices; no bottled drinks for us. Homemade meant that mommy knew exactly what was going into the drink, and it was a smart way to monitor the amount of sugar we consumed.

Whenever mommy cooked something that was considered a weekend food during the week it was like a treat. I remember being totally elated one afternoon when I opened the karahi and found curried chicken, one of my favourites. She used to do this for us every now and then – treat us to weekend food during the week – we loved being surprised by it, and I think that mommy enjoyed the looks of pleasure on our faces as well.

Years later, having moved to Barbados, I had to adjust my food. No longer was there weekday food and weekend food and that’s because, it’s a different place, different food culture and a different way of eating.

For starters, when I had just arrived, the abundance and variety of vegetables to which I was accustomed and familiar with was not readily available and when it was, it was pricey. There was a time when you could not find bora (snake beans, yard-long beans) in Barbados so the first time I walked into one of the supermarkets and saw bora I trembled with excitement, I was momentarily breathless as I caught sight of the long, green vegetable. I stood there admiring the bora for a long time and whispering to myself: oh my gosh, I can’t believe they have bora here, I can’t believe it. I grabbed two bags, I headed for the cashier and dashed for the car to race home and cook the bora. In no time, the bora was cut up. I “fry it up” (sautéed) it with onions, tomatoes and fresh herbs. I did not add any meat, chicken or shrimp because I wanted to taste the bora alone.

Yardlong Beans by Paul Goyette

Yardlong Beans by Paul Goyette

Also, the bounty of imported Caribbean seafood that we now get in Barbados was not available when I came here more than a decade ago and so I adjusted. Pork, beef, chicken, lamb and veal became regular weekday food. Vegetables when consumed consisted of carrots, cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli. I quickly learnt that macaroni pie and baked chicken were everyday fare.

Sunday lunch, as it is called here, comprises of all the weekday dishes with the addition of baked pork, and stewed lamb.

These days, things have changed yet again. With the influx of regional farmers into Barbados, a variety of vegetables are readily available at the weekly markets. Fish and shrimp from other Caribbean neighbours are stocked in the supermarket freezers. However, my weekday cooking has not gone back to the days of my growing up. Yes, there are vegetables everyday but now I have them with beef, chicken, pork, lamb or veal – whichever meat I feel like having on any given day.

Cheapside Market, Bridgetown, Barbados

Cheapside Market, Bridgetown, Barbados

When it comes to food, it is impossible to live in a country and not adopt a few of their dishes as your favourites or merge some of them with your own to create one that truly represents the new hybrid home – the home on a plate. The strange thing is that while “home” means many things, the answer, we almost always give when someone asks us: where is home, is Guyana. The reason is simple really – it’s because it is the only home some of us have known; some of us are never really comfortable in our new surroundings; and much of who we are as individuals, our identity, is that of being Guyanese.

How do you think these differences can be reconciled when writing about the food of the Caribbean as a whole?

The food in countries like Guyana, Trinidad, Jamaica and Suriname unlike places like Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean Islands (Dominica, Grenada, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, St. Kitts Nevis, Antigua) is an excellent representation of the diversity of the Caribbean in terms of Portuguese, Indians, Africans, Syrians, Lebanese, Chinese, Javanese, Indigenous peoples. Places like Barbados (though this is changing a little) and the other islands I mentioned, invariably only have a particular influence to their cuisine and that is primarily African with very subtle hints of the other influences. Therefore writing about Caribbean food as a whole was a no-brainer so to speak.

You describe the possible influences on the food you encountered in Barbados as having been largely subsumed by a dominant African cuisine. It strikes me that there is an implication that any attempts to introduce influences from a different food culture would therefore be either difficult or even perhaps actively resisted (and I mean beyond the difficulties you faced in sourcing ingredients). Have you found any truth in this, either through your own experiences or through comments and reactions from readers of your blog?

As with most things, when something new or different is introduced, there is resistance, cause for fear, all due of course out of ignorance in some cases and the presumption of “losing what is ours”. As with new things also, some people quickly discard their own or put it aside and jump on the new band wagon, and this is where the second part of the fear come in, of “losing what is ours”. Wherever you go in the world you will find people who refuse to eat or try new foods or dishes. That is not something new and it certainly was and is no different here in Barbados or elsewhere. Take curry for example, I’ve seen my students turn up their noses and talk about curry as if it is the most disgusting thing in the world. I had another student tell me that soon everyone will be eating curry and roti instead of baked chicken and macaroni pie (2 staples in the Barbadian diet).

If I have to be frank much of this sort of resistance has to do with a racial group that is growing in Barbados (Indians). There has been considerably less resistance to the influx of the Italian cuisine because (as I will write in one of my coming columns), Barbadians are big into anything with pasta. I even had a friend tell me when I asked about Barbados’ national dishes, that pasta is one of their national dishes! (It is not).

Lasagne Bolognese

Lasagne Bolognese

The food scene in Barbados and elsewhere is changing though and has changed (again, another column I’m working on). Things I can find here now – both at the farmers market and supermarket – I could not find in 1998 when I first moved here. There has been a huge influx of Chinese into Barbados as well and you can see quite a few Chinese restaurants. There is also Thai and more recently a Korean restaurant has opened up. There are many restaurants and bistros that cook English food, there are French Restaurants as well and yep, there are fine-dining Japanese restaurants. As Barbadians travel, they are willing to try new things but there is still a hard-core that refuses to budge.

Many of the foods made in Barbados are already made in Guyana given the diverse make-up, though they were/are slight variations. Yes, Guyanese are more than likely to try the Barbadian food but soon there is the longing for the diversity of cuisine for which Guyana is known.

Have you found that the process of writing ‘Tastes Like Home’ has helped you to cushion any feelings of homesickness or general displacement you may have felt following your move from Guyana to Barbados?

Yes, yes, yes! I wrote in one of my columns where cooking the foods of Guyana in my home has not only been comforting but I’ve also felt protected by it, away from the outside (meaning Barbados) which can sometimes be unwelcoming and accepting. The other part to this also is, (as you can tell by my blog and the foods I make) that I am one of those people open to trying and experiencing new tastes and flavours for I firmly believe that each dish has its own story, its own history and I want to understand that, I want to part-take in it because it is going to enrich my life. Therefore, embracing and making Barbadian food was always a part of my plan for Barbados was now home also. But this had its drawbacks as well in that I’d excitedly tell my friends about the Barbadian dishes I’d make and they’d shrug with that “yeah, right” answer. In other words, I may attempt to make it but I could never truly make their food, not to their standards. So, even making Barbadian food and eating it within the confines of my home became comforting and protective from the unwelcoming outside.

Macaroni Pie

Macaroni Pie

The irony to this is that these days I get a lot of emails from Barbadians living abroad asking for the recipes of the Barbadian dishes I have written about and that are on my blog. Life is something else, isn’t it? 🙂

On a practical note, I can imagine that your background as a teacher and journalist prepared you well for the writing aspect of keeping a blog. Have you learned any new skills through your blogging experiences?

While I always had an interest in photography, I only really got into it when I started blogging. Blogging has also led to an increase in my cooking skills and confidence and my education about food on the whole.

What part did your blog play in the inspiration for your book, My Caribbean Cookbook: Tastes Like Home?

Often when I think of my blog, I think of it as a part of my column. It is through the interactive nature of the blog (comments and emails) that I got many requests not just for recipes but people wanting the work in a collection, in a body that they can call their own and share with their friends and families (and here I am speaking about Caribbean people living abroad and their spouses … actually most people who felt some sort of connection to the region, even visitors).

Cynthia's Cookbook

What’s your own favourite recipe out of those that you’ve posted on your blog, and what’s your most popular post?

Hmmmm, let me see. I’d have to say that my favourite is the post with the roast breadfruit. It is something I was introduced to in Barbados and I fell completely in love with it.

Roast Breadfruit

Roast Breadfruit

I’ll measure the popular post based on the fact that I first wrote and posted about dhal puri in June 2007 and to date I still get requests for the recipe! It is also one of the things many people come in search of through search engines and these requests are wide, not just from Caribbean people but a lot of the requests come from people in Australia, Europe etc who have been in the Mauritius and had dhal puri. Dhal puri is a spiced-split pea stuffed flat bread (roti).

And finally, who do you nominate to be the next person I invite to talk to me about their food blog, and why?

Farida of Farida’s Azerbaijani Cookbook . The reason is very simple, her food is different and yet through this cuisine we can see how there are similarities in some dishes such as her Pirojki . Each time I visit, I learn something new.

Thank you for sharing your stories and reflections with me, Cynthia 🙂 . I’ve thoroughly enjoyed talking to you and I’m looking forward to tasting the recipes you’ve described with such passion in my own home!

Edible Lives: Food Network Musings

When Emily nominated Sue of Food Network Musings as my next participant in this Edible Lives series of conversations, I have to confess that I was slightly worried. The thing is, as I explained to Sue at the outset, we haven’t had a television since moving to the South of England in 1997, my knowledge of food programming on UK television is hazy at most and the less said about my awareness of television across the Atlantic, the better!

As its name suggests, the greater part of Sue’s posts on Food Network Musings are inspired by her opinions of the various food shows she watches in the US. Given my general cluelessness about all things TV, I didn’t feel at all suitably qualified for the conversation I was about to initiate.

Sue kindly told me that it didn’t matter – one of the reasons she writes about a show in such detail is so that anyone reading her blog doesn’t actually have to have seen the show at all. And she was completely, utterly right.

All images courtesy of Sue

All images courtesy of Sue

As I delved into her blog, I became captivated by her vivid and often hilarious style of writing and the way in which this becomes such an effective vehicle for teaching about food and cooking. Emily claimed that she had learned so much from Sue’s blog. I can now put up my hand and say, “Me too!”

Here, then, is the story of Food Network Musings

Food Network Musings

How did you make the leap from yelling at food shows on television to writing about them on a blog?

I was a religious Food Network viewer. Saturday morning/afternoon was my MUST SEE TV – particularly Michael Chiarello, Ina and Giada. I would sit in front of the TV and exclaim (to myself) about how great that tip was or how something was so completely wrong.

At the same time, my wonderful nephew, Josh, started blogging. He has Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy, and after graduating from college, he started a blog to talk about disability issues and the book he was writing. I was so impressed with what he was doing (all with a headset that controlled the cursor on his computer!) that I decided to try it. He was my guide and early advisor.

I started with a yellow pad and pen and the words literally just flowed. I had TOO much to say. I loved using the shows as teachable moments. I’m sure others do the exact same thing as they’re watching, they just don’t write it (all) down.

Blogging is addictive and when you’re writing about something you have such affection for, it’s easy. The mechanics weren’t easy, however. Thank goodness, I had my nephew and 2 twenty-something kids to answer my really dumb questions. Most of the time, though, I would just type a ridiculous question into Yahoo (I really don’t like Google, which just shows how out of it I am) and figure out the answer. The writing and cooking comes easily…the blogging and computer issues less so and are self-taught.

I get the impression when I read your blog that I’m sitting there with you, watching the shows and hearing your running commentary. We’re laughing together like old friends about what’s going on, whilst you’re also my mentor, slipping in extra teaching tips as the opportunity arises. It’s a very compelling style of writing and it’s present right from the start in your very first post. What inspired you to write in this way, and did you consider any other styles of presenting your opinions before publishing your first post?

That’s so interesting that you say that. After I’d been blogging for a week or so, I sent my blog around to some friends. One was even more clueless than I was about internet matters. She said to me that person sounds exactly like you. I said, “Thank Goodness, because it IS me!”

Dacquoise sandwiched with chocolate souffle cake layers, coffee buttercream and whipped cream

Dacquoise sandwiched with chocolate souffle cake layers, coffee buttercream and whipped cream

I can’t say that my writing style was a conscious decision…exactly. As I said before, really, my first posts wrote themselves. I liked the idea of stopping the action in the narrative to interject what was wrong OR right with a given recipe or host. I also love having AH-HA moments and sharing something I’ve learned that’s new and fabulous.

So, no, I never considered writing any other way. I do want my posts to be very much how I speak. MY favorite blogs are ones where the author has her or his own unique voice. I definitely decided early on to never couch my opinions in vague generalities. I think one thing you can say for good or bad is that you know where I stand. One thing I learned teaching cooking and also organizing classes for chefs is that people WANT you to have an opinion. That’s why they’re there. They can get namby-pamby anywhere. BUT I also have absolutely no problem admitting if I get something wrong. In fact, I LOVE to be given new information or an improved way of doing something. And in cooking, that happens all the time!

What new things have you learned through your experiences of blogging, in terms of both culinary and computer-related skills?

Kate, you may really wish you never asked that question. Do you have about 2 years? That’s as long as I’ve been blogging and I’ve probably actually learned TEN YEARS worth of stuff.

Some specific things I’ve learned cooking-wise:

Add mushrooms to hot fat (which I already knew), but then LEAVE them alone (which I never did) to get nice and caramelized on the first side.

DON’T add salt to the above, at first, or it will draw out the moisture and negate all you’re trying to do in the browning department.

Mushroom Risotto

Mushroom Risotto

Refrigerate chocolate chip cookie dough for a day before cooking. Why? I can’t remember, but it works for me.

You don’t need tons of water to boil pasta. You can use just enough to cover, but make sure to keep stirring.

Don’t use no-bake lasagna noodles if you’re making the recipe in advance.

Lasagne Rolls

Lasagne Rolls

GREEN plantains should be twice-cooked. (There I go with my fancy hyperlinking…see below.) They are cooked once, then flattened and cooked again. Ripe plantains…just once. (That’s handy for the once a decade that I cook plantains.)

Computer related skills? Although I could fill several books with what I DON’T know, I could also fill a volume or two with stuff I’ve learned (mostly by teaching myself) that relates to technical aspects of blogging.

The very first thing I taught myself was how to edit a hyperlink. I was really proud of myself when I could write stuff like “RR made something really appalling today.” It adds an entire new layer of information to a post.

I actually took an HTML class last year, because I was so frustrated with Blogger and its weird line spacing and occasional other glitches. But I’m far too scared to move away from Blogger, because it’s perfect for computer newbies like I am.

Digital photography is where I’ve had my other HUGE steep learning curve. I had no idea what a macro setting was and I couldn’t understand why my close-up pictures were always out of focus. I used to (and sometimes still do) set whatever I was photographing 20 feet away from my camera. Then I would zoom in and get a clear close-up that way, instead of using the macro setting on my camera.

I still have so much to learn about taking pictures. From all I’ve read, I know natural sunlight is the preferable lighting, but unfortunately many of the food pictures I take are about to be put on the table for dinner. And I just can’t see cooking at 11 in the morning, so lighting is something I still struggle with.

I know you’re supposed to compose the shot BEFORE you shoot and leave editing to a minimum. But I often edit my pictures the way I edit my prose – slowly and carefully and making tons of changes.

I made some early mistakes in blogging etiquette. Just when I started, I found these message boards, for the Barefoot Contessa, Nigella Lawson and Giada. They all had identical rules – nothing nasty could be said, they were for fans only etc.

Well, I was thrilled. I thought who better than stalwart fans for drumming up interest in my blog? I registered and joined in the chats. I posted something like, “Oh, I love this site. For lots of discussion about the Barefoot Contessa, come on over to FoodNetworkMusings.Blogspot.com.”

Ina's and Sue's Baked Applesauce

Ina's and Sue's Baked Applesauce

I did the same thing on all three message boards and I waited for the enormous response that I was sure I would get. Well, it was enormous alright, but not in the way I had thought. I had no idea that I made a HUGE error in blogging conduct, maybe one of the biggest…with the exception of stealing content, I guess.

I had gone to a site ONLY to plug my own site without engaging in the conversation. Honestly, I had no clue that that was verboten. I thought these folks would honestly be interested in what I had to say.

I received an email, shortly after I posted my larcenous comments. It was ALL IN CAPITALS and it said something to the effect of “HOW DARE I COME ONTO TO THEIR SITE TO DO NOTHING BUT PROMOTE MY OWN SITE!!! Henceforth I would be BANNED and forbidden to ever return.” After I finished hanging my head in shame, I decided to see what would happen if I tried to enter their site again. It said, “YOU HAVE BEEN BANNED.”

Honestly, I was gobsmacked. I had no idea you weren’t supposed to do that. And I was appalled at their lack of grace in explaining my transgression. I actually sent them an email, apologizing, explaining that I was a complete newcomer and had no idea that was so frowned upon. I got a screaming email in response and never darkened their door again.

I have to say there are plenty of times when I, as a blogger, get emails that say, I’ll link to you if you link to me. I admit, knowing what I know now, that is a little irritating, especially when the other blog is about outboard motors. But, of course, I never yell, I usually just don’t respond.

But the truth is that online relationships are really like any others. The most successful ones show courtesy, empathy and interest in the other party. Close bonds don’t happen overnight.

What I know NOW is that you read a blog, feel a connection, leave germane comments. The other blogger does the same. And eventually, over time, you have a relationship – built on mutual interests, appreciation of the other’s talents and some kind of chemistry.

MY blunder, of course, was bypassing all that in a coarse attempt at publicizing my blog without taking the time to develop a relationship first. I didn’t know that then, but it’s probably one of the most important things I’ve learned from blogging and the thing I value the most.

How have you built up relationships with your own readers, and what have you learned about them?

I don’t want to go into too much detail here and tell other people’s stories, but there are quite a few bloggers that I feel very close to.

Let me answer that question first as a READER of other peoples’ blogs. Reading their posts is almost like having a quick phone call with them. You hear what they made for dinner or what their father-in-law barbecued last weekend or about a long lost recipe from Grandma. It really is like being a part of their world. Big events are inevitably posted about and it’s always nice to hear happy news or to be able to reach out when someone is having a hard time.

Send Emily to New York

Send Emily to New York

And, as a BLOGGER, building relationships with readers is what it’s all about. If there are no readers, there is no blog. It may be hard to believe after word 2000 in some of my posts, but, in large measure, I write to hear what readers think. I love to know how they react to my meanderings.

Readers without blogs who comment regularly are the best! They really are interested in what you have to say and manage to tell their stories within the confines of a comment box and not in long-winded posts (like mine!).

Have you ever had any feedback from the people you are writing about – the chefs on the television shows?

That’s interesting that you ask that. Of course, I always wonder if the folks I’m writing about ever check out my blog. It would be interesting to know what Michael Chiarello thought as I was gushing, REALLY gushing about him, when he was on the Saturday lineup of the Food Network. I wouldn’t have been surprised if his wife banned him from reading me.

The only one I’ve ever heard from is Sunny Anderson and I was sooo thrilled to hear that she looks at my blog. She’s responded to most of my posts about her. She’s cool too, she answers various points I make in my posts. She actually sounds exactly the way she comes across on television – really friendly, down to earth, with a lot of cooking experience and some awesome recipes.

Sunny's Mini Espresso Cakes

Sunny's Mini Espresso Cakes

Have you ever felt like just turning off your television and giving up on your blog?

I have certainly felt like turning off the television, but NEVER giving up my blog. It actually informs so much of what I do. I always think in terms of to blog or not blog about that meal, that restaurant or that show. I also always have my camera ready. You never know when you might need a photo of a certain dish. I know I’m not unusual in having many times more pictures than I actually post. (The post by your first interviewee about going to a food blogger’s house for dinner was a RIOT and sooo true.)

What’s your own favourite recipe out of those that you’ve posted on your blog, and what’s your most popular post?

My favorite recipe is my Carrot Vichyssoise. I’ve written about it twice – the first time when I needed a pick-me-up; the second about how it becomes transformed in the blender. It’s the BEST soup in the world and I call it a vichyssoise, even though I know that’s reserved for cold soups. (This is wonderful cold too, but incredibly satisfying when hot.)

Carrot Vichyssoise

Carrot Vichyssoise

My most popular posts Call The Cardiologist, The Neelys Are Cooking and 2 Ingrid Hoffman ones – Ingrid Hoffman: Simply Delicioso Or Just A Giada Wannabe? and Comments on Ingrid Hoffman – were ones that caused some anger amongst readers. It may not look like there were tons of comments, but I didn’t publish most of them, because some folks actually had the nerve to disagree with me. I’m kidding…actually, I love a good debate, but I won’t publish obscene, overly angry or racist comments, of which I got many.

I had previously written some nice things about the Neelys – I like THEM, just not their often fatty, junky recipes – but many people interpreted my criticism of their food as  a criticism of their race. And some of the people that agreed with me came to their conclusions in a way I couldn’t support. THEY were racist. Similarly with Ingrid Hoffman, I was thrilled at the prospect of a new Latin show on the Food Network. But this hoochie mama really couldn’t cook and Jello shots as a dessert one week just confirmed that.

My favorite post (I’m pretending you asked) is, of course, about my wonderful Barefoot Contessa and her fantastic Jeffrey – Ina and Jeffrey Sitting In A Tree. I just love their easy relationship. It goes so well with her informal, comfortable style of cooking.

Ina and Jeffrey

Ina and Jeffrey

Another favorite one is Michael, Will You Marinate Me? It’s so easy writing about Michael, because he has so much to teach us.

And finally, who do you nominate to be the next person I invite to talk to me about their food blog, and why?

Kate, you’re the best. I don’t know how you do it, but you come up with the best open-ended questions and everyone knows that bloggers DO love to go on. Okay, maybe it’s just me, but I really enjoyed our conversation and look forward to many mini-chats in the future.

The blogger I nominate for you to talk to next is the warm and wonderful Cynthia from Tastes Like Home. You’re in for a treat. You’ll get a window into many cuisines – Caribbean and others – that I know will interest you. Plus she has many fascinating stories that I’m sure you’ll find a way to get out of her.

I’ve had a wonderful time talking to you too, Sue. Thank you ever so much for such entertaining and honest replies. I’m sorry this conversation has come to an end – but I’ll certainly be keeping in touch with you 🙂 .

Edible Lives: Sugar Plum

At the end of my conversation with Aimée from Under the High Chair, I asked her to nominate the next person I would invite to talk to me about their food blog. She chose Emily of Sugar Plum, describing her as a young blogger with a sense of humour, a ‘who cares’ attitude and big dreams for the future.


All images courtesy of Emily

I hadn’t come across Emily’s blog, Sugar Plum before, so I was keen to explore. I discovered an incredible number of highly original and extremely tempting recipes, all created by Emily herself and presented in a charmingly quirky style. And that’s from someone who is still in her early twenties and hasn’t yet had any formal culinary training!

Fortunately, Emily was happy to take part in Edible Lives and we began to exchange emails discussing her experiences of food blogging.

Here, then, is the story of Sugar Plum

Sugar Plum

I love the post on your blog where you reveal your notebooks of handwritten recipes, all created and tested by you. You say that you started writing recipes when you were around seventeen years old. When and how did you get the idea to present them to the world in a blog?

I had been writing recipes for a year-or-so, for cooking contests. I had never heard of a food blog until I stumbled across Cookie Madness, which is a blog about cookies and desserts. I fell in love with it instantly, and it’s my favorite blog to read to this day. I loved baking and cooking, and I knew I had a lot of recipes to share with the world, so I decided to start my own food blog. Now it’s almost like a journal for me, where I can share the things I create and cook, and also get to talk about what’s going on in my life.

Aimée described you as having “big dreams for the future”. What part does your blog play in those dreams?

I hope someday maybe I could write my own cookbook full of dessert recipes. That’s basically what I’m doing with this blog; creating a virtual cookbook. I think having a baking blog with recipes is a great platform in achieving a book deal. I know it might take some time, but I hope one day it will happen.

So, how did everything start – how did you organise your thoughts, design your blog and choose which recipes to present first?

Well, let me see. I knew I wanted it to be a baking blog, featuring all kinds of desserts – anything from gourmet, to classic, to comforting. I wanted to create all of the recipes myself, and add interesting twists to them. The writing and humor kind of came along after. Now I have to add some humor and quirkiness to each post, because that’s me! This blog reeks of me. I put my heart and soul into it.

Pecan Pie

Pecan Pie

I designed the blog myself, and it took me months to get it the way I wanted. ‘Sugar Plum’ is just a cute name I came up with to go along with my sweets theme. The name makes me think of ‘The Night Before Christmas’ and ‘The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies’ and it gets me in a Christmassy mood. I like the purple color scheme, and I also like the clean look. I don’t like a lot of clutter on the sidebar of blogs, because it distracts from the posts.

I don’t plan out what I’m going to make very well. It depends on the day, the week, and what I feel like baking. My favorite thing to bake is probably pie. I LOVE making pie dough! It can be so soothing, kneading butter into flour using your fingertips. Pie can be challenging, gourmet, but still comforting.

LIVE Pie Blogging

LIVE Pie Blogging

As you say, your blog reeks of you! It carries your personality, your thoughts and your dreams. Are there any boundaries – did you ever make a conscious decision about how much of your personal life you would disclose?

I don’t think there are any boundaries. As time goes on, my blog posts seem to get more and more personal. I’ve never made a decision about certain things I won’t share with my readers. I like to write about whatever I feel like writing at that time, and I don’t care what people think or say.

It’s what Aimée described as your “who cares” attitude – and your readers obviously love your approach! Your posts regularly collect a large number of comments from people keen to support you in reaching your goals. How have you noticed this blog community building up since the early days of Sugar Plum?

After my appearance on Food Network, my readership grew significantly. I had a little bit of a following before the show aired, but then it really took off.

Emily making Baked Butternut Four Cheese Farfalle with Sage

Emily making Baked Butternut Four Cheese Farfalle with Sage

The post where I announced I was going to be on the show was Ultimate Recipe Showdown. 105 comments! That’s the most I’ve ever received. I would say after that post was when my readership increased.

I think people are interested to see what the future holds for me in the culinary industry, and if I achieve my dream of attending culinary school in New York.

How close are you now to achieving that dream?

I’m not close to achieving my dream of culinary school. If I won the $25,000 on Ultimate Recipe Showdown I was going to go to culinary school in New York City, but I lost. I have money I’ve been saving since high school, but it’s scary to blow it all at once. At this point I’m not able to afford tuition and the expenses of living in New York. I’m not giving up my dream though; it’ll just be a few years before I can achieve it. I’ll be old and crippled from waiting tables, trying to earn money, but it’ll be worth it.

What’s your own favourite recipe and what’s your most popular post?

My favorite recipe is Kitchen Sink Bundt Cake and it’s a cake I created for a birthday celebration that I’ve made several times since. It’s a chocolate cake with chocolate chips, peanut butter chips and toffee chips in the batter. Chocolate ganache is poured over the top followed by bits of Oreo cookie pieces, peanut butter pretzels, peanuts and caramel sauce. It’s the richest cake you’ll ever eat, but it’s so good! My sister and I ate almost an entire cake ourselves!

Kitchen Sink Bundt Cake

Kitchen Sink Bundt Cake

My most popular post is the one announcing I was going to be on Ultimate Recipe Showdown on Food Network. 105 comments! People who usually don’t comment, commented, and I love that. I love hearing from closeted readers.

Wow, that’s some cake! And finally, who do you nominate to be the next person I invite to talk to me about their food blog, and why?

I invite Sue of Food Network Musings. She’s my very first blogging buddy and truly an inspiration. She graduated from London Cordon Bleu and has eaten and cooked all around the world. I have learned so much from her blog and it’s one of my favorites. She’s witty and hilarious when it comes to reviewing cooking shows, but she also teaches and gives you information about food and cooking.

That’s another blog I haven’t come across before! Thank you ever so much for participating, Emily – and I wish you the best of luck in attaining your dream. I’m sure you have a glorious future ahead of you.

Edible Lives: Under the High Chair

The more food blogs I read and the more I follow trails of blogroll links, the more obvious it has become to me that each blog has its own story to tell. From simple home cooking to exotic dining experiences, from regional dishes to universally-loved favourites, each individual voice weaves a unique thread through the tapestry of the food world.

A couple of weeks ago, I decided that I would like to present a series of email conversations with food bloggers about the life, or story, of their blog – how they were inspired to start a blog, its high-points/low-points, their plans at the start for their blog and how they feel they’ve lived up to their own expectations … how their blog has changed them (if at all) … and everything else that may turn up in the course of a conversation between two food bloggers.

Luckily for me, Aimée from Under the High Chair liked the idea and was happy to participate.

All images courtesy of Aimée

All images courtesy of Aimée

Like me, Aimée also has young children who feature regularly in her posts. Unlike me, Aimée knows what she’s doing in the kitchen – she spent ten years in the professional cooking industry and worked as a personal chef before motherhood. I love how she combines her passions for food, nature and her children in her writing, and was keen to talk to her about her experiences of blogging.

Here, then, is the story of Under the High Chair

Did you ever plan or think about writing a food blog before you had children, or was your ‘change of scene’ the strongest push into getting started?

I didn’t even know what a food blog was when I worked in the fine dining industry. There was no time for net surfing and I just wanted to crash and get a foot rub after completing a fourteen hour shift!

When I decided to stay home with my baby (now ‘babies’!), I felt like I still had a lot to offer the culinary world. The blog was the perfect platform for that and became something I could express myself with and connect with other gourmands. I’ve always worked best on my own, so it’s kinda nice to set my own deadlines and goals.

I never imagined I would actually form relationships and friendships with my readers, though. I think I’m still surprised people read Under the High Chair!

So … which were the first food blogs you read – the ones that gave you the idea of starting one for yourself?

Funnily enough, I honestly never read a food blog before I started mine! A few of my geekier friends had kept saying ‘you should put your recipes online’ and I figured that since I could talk all day about cooking, I could easily find enough to say for a blog. I probably should have done a little research first, as those first few months are pretty rough, but some of my original features such as Foodie Facebook and Top Ten have passed the test of time so it wasn’t all bad! Initially I blogged about anything food related that came to mind, but eventually fell into the rhythm of Photo-Story-Recipe, as that seemed to get the best response.

Top Ten Things To Expect When Dining With A Food Blogger

Top Ten Things To Expect When Dining With A Food Blogger

Shortly after starting UtHC, I remember clearly the very first food blog I did come across. I opened my dashboard and Blogger had listed Tartelette as one of their Blogs of Note. I gaped at the photos, sighed with pleasure at the recipes, and chortled at her stories. I was hooked. I swarmed her blog roll and the rest is food blog history. Although I probably follow close to a hundred blogs now, Helen is very dear to me and I am thrilled with her success.

It’s incredible how you launched into the food blogosphere without the inspiration of other food blogs! You say the first few months were pretty rough – why was that?

Oh, just in a ‘rough around the edges’ sense! The photos are atrocious and the formatting sloppy. There’s not a lot of focus, although the humor and creativity is ever present.

I had very little culinary experience when I started my own blog, and most of my posts are about things I’ve been making for the very first time ever. With a background in fine dining, you must have had quite a lot of ideas to draw on already when you started ‘Under the High Chair’. How does your previous life as a chef inform what you do now and how, if in any way at all, does your blog represent a learning experience for you, too?

I’d be lying if I said my blog has not been a learning experience; however the new territory is in every aspect other than cooking! The photography, networking, web design, and business aspects have all been new to a girl who’s spent the last ten years with a chef’s knife permanently attached to her hand!

Foie Gras Sushi

Foie Gras Sushi

I often experiment in the kitchen, but tend to post only my utmost tried and true recipes. I’m blessed to have a wide repertoire of recipes and techniques to draw from and I haven’t even begun to exhaust them. Since most–if not all–of my readers are home cooks, I try to share restaurant and catering cooking tips in a way that they can be practically applied at home.

Seafood Creole Tagliatelle

Seafood Creole Tagliatelle

How did you learn about all the things that were new to you – the photography, networking etc – and how do you see your progress reflected in your blog over the years?

Progress was slooow! I should say that for the first few years, my blog was about fifth on my priority list and I didn’t put much effort into photography or networking. I had just had a baby, bought a house, planted a garden and there was always something else to focus on! One day I realized “Hey, people are actually reading this and connecting with me, I better take it a bit more seriously” and I smartened up. I bought a better camera (which I still know precious little about) and started actually reading the email offers/opportunities. Thanks goodness I did, one of the offers was for a position as food columnist for the hugely popular SimpleMom blog and I love partnering with her!

I enjoyed reading your post at SimpleMom about Six ways to thrive in the kitchen with kids – perhaps you could write one next about how to survive when they argue with their siblings about who got the largest egg to crack or who sieved the most flour (or whether sieving flour is a better job than weighing sugar!). I sometimes think it might be easiest just to make four separate cakes so that everyone gets to do everything all on their own!

Getting back to your own blog – what’s your most popular recipe and what’s your own favourite post?

After lying awake for a few nights, I’ve concluded that it’s impossible to pick my favorite post! I could no easier play favorites with my boys. I can tell you, however, that should you happen to stay for dinner I would probably tickle your palate with some Foie Gras Sushi then serve you Seafood Creole Tagliatelle, and finish with my Citrus Cheesecake for dessert.

Citrus Cheesecake

Citrus Cheesecake

One of my most popular posts has no recipe, oddly enough! I wrote a tongue-in-cheek list of what to expect when dining with a food blogger and hoped people would see the humor in it. It gathered a fantastic response as people opened up in the comments section and shared all sorts of hilarious food blogging confessions.

My most popular recipe is probably my Lemon Ricotta Pancakes and I love what that says about my readers-comfort food rules!

Lemon Ricotta Pancakes

Lemon Ricotta Pancakes

And finally … who do you nominate to be the next person I invite to talk to me about their food blog, and why?

I’ve so enjoyed this conversation series and the trip down memory lane. Thank you for inviting me to participate!

I would love to read an interview with Emily of Sugar Plum.

She is certainly a young blogger to watch! I love her sense of humor and her ‘who cares’ attitude. All her recipes are original and she has big dreams for the future…

Thank you ever so much, Aimée. It’s been lovely talking to you (and I’m looking forward to dropping in for dinner one day …!).