Monday, April 30, 2012

Secrets to Successful Food Blogging--Cheryl Sternman Rule of "5 Second Rule" Shares Her Tips

Recently I began writing a series of blogger profiles to spotlight food bloggers whose work I greatly admire.  Like you, I'm always interested to get to know the people behind each blog a little better. Plus, I'm eager to hear their tips for standing out and succeeding in what is an ever more crowded food blogging world.

This month I'm excited to introduce you to Cheryl Sternman Rule of the very popular blog,"5 Second Rule." I'd already planned to interview her before her blog was awarded the "Best Food Blog of 2012," by the International Association of Culinary Professionals, and fortunately, she wasn't too busy to find time to share some information about herself and her work with me. She is a graduate of the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, has worked in a commercial bakery, and served as both a professional recipe tester and developer.  Cheryl also holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a Master’s degree in education from Harvard University.

She describes her career as "a happy mess, a colossal grab bag of experiences whose contents, while colorful and lively, were disconnected from one another in every conceivable way."  Prior to entering the culinary field, she was a researcher at Harvard, where she co-authored a three-part book series on higher education. She also spent two years working for the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, DC and two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Eritrea, East Africa.

Besides hosting her award-winning blog, Cheryl has written about food for Cooking Light, Sunset, Body + Soul, Health, Vegetarian Times, Edible San Francisco, Culinate.com, The Kitchn, Nourish Network, and Serious Eats; and in several books published by the American Heart Association and the EatingWell Media Group. Cheryl also served as a contributing editor at Eating Well Magazine and a daily food news blogger at iVillage.

Available on Amazon.com
Cheryl's first cookbook, Ripe: A Fresh, Colorful Approach to Fruits and Vegetables, a collaboration with photographer Paulette Phlipot, was published last month by Running Press. It is already garnering highly favorable media and reader reviews.

Like many successful bloggers, Cheryl is aware of some of the reasons people enjoy her blog--for example, that she covers a wide range of interesting topics. And  often that she starts from an unexpected, even quirky perspective. One such post in this vein that she mentioned is called "I Want My Children to Eat Za'atar," A more recent zany post that I really enjoyed was called, "To Each Her Role." It begins as follows:

"Does a beet ever wish it were a pea? 

Does it wake up, stuck in the hard ground, and long for the kiss of the midday sun? Does it curse the grapes on the vine, the pumpkins in the patch, the plums on the tree and wonder if it deserves more? Different? Better?

Perhaps. Or perhaps it's just grateful for the dank earth, for the calm, unbroken solitude."
 
Not only did this story surprise me--I'd never, ever contemplated veggie inter-species rivalry--but it made me silently giggle at the thought. Is the sweet potato orange with envy that the plain old Idaho is everybody's fave? Does the asparagus spear look down on the green bean? I don't know, but it strikes me as a funny notion.

As for the humor element, Cheryl says she doesn't care to dwell on this aspect of her writing: "I always think it's weird when someone whom others find funny explains how they try to be funny. It seems arrogant and presumptuous for me to address it myself (because there are probably many people who DON'T find me funny!)." One thing I've noticed is that Cheryl often uses personification and to great effect.

Here's what she has to say on other aspects of her blogging:

Why did you start your blog? Has the experience been what you expected?
I started 5 Second Rule in 2008. At the time, I remember thinking I was way too late to the game to ever gain any meaningful traction. Over time, though, I started to focus less and less on where my blog was positioned and more and more on making it a meaningful place for people to spend a few minutes of their time. The experience is much more than I ever anticipated. The blog has become my most joyful and reflective space in which to create.

What you think is most special/unique about your blog? 
I think the mix of content, and the lack of predictability from post to post, are pretty unique. I completely reject the common advice to focus on a particular niche and, instead, I go wherever the wind blows me. I think my readers like not knowing what they'll find when the page loads in.

What would those who follow your blog be most surprised to learn about it or you?
I always turn the wrong way off elevators but I pick up new languages very easily. Also, I got carded when trying to get into an R-rated movie when I was 27.

 What are the greatest satisfactions you get from hosting your blog? Being playful and contemplative, and having it count as work.

Do you have any secrets to success or advice you could share with other food bloggers?
Don't listen to too much advice from people like me. It's not that we can't learn from one other -- we can, of course, and I love both learning from more experienced bloggers and teaching those newer to the fold. But I do think we can be fooled into thinking there's a secret handshake; there's not.

Writing is a craft, and an art, and a discipline, and I believe blogging can be those things as well. How you choose to exercise your craft, express your art, or practice your discipline are within your control. That's the beauty of it. Drink in what others say, reflect on it, process it, but always, always forge your own path in the end.

 Do you have a clear-cut plan for topics and work on them ahead or is the process more spontaneous and organic?
I generally cook what I want, when I want, and I photograph it only if it's especially pretty. I never have any clue about whether or how it will turn into a blog post. It's only after I stare at a picture for a few hours or a few days that I figure out whether I have anything meaningful to say about it. Some times I do, and then it's a post. Often I don't, and then it's not. I don't post just to post.

How does your background or experience influence your blog?
 My background is eclectic, and 5 Second Rule is eclectic, too. We are one, and sometimes we make out.


For my interview with Jamie Schler of  "Life's a Feast," go here.

For my interview with Dianne Jacob of "Will Write for Food," go here.
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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Simple Peasures of the Spring Perrenial Garden



For me, the simple words “spring garden” bring to mind many impatiently awaited pleasures: Perennials like primroses, jonquils, hostas and ferns suddenly springing to life and unfurling from a stark, seemingly  barren landscape.  Bright sun, a warm breeze, and scents of earth, mulch, and tender herbs beckoning whenever I step outdoors. The soothing rustling sound of newly-leafed maples and oaks and twittering of returning bluebirds reminding me that another cycle of growing and renewal  has begun. 




There is a predictable, yet still exciting order of appearance of  the flowering plants that pop up. First crocuses, daffodils, and violets, then primroses,  trilliums, azaleas, and wood hyacinths appear. Soon, we'll be on to the bigger, bolder bloomers, like peonies, irises and finally, my beautiful blue hydrangea.

The quiet seasonal drama that unfolds here always makes me feel refreshed and invigorated, expecially after too many hours at a computer screen or stove.  My neighbor's white bench, shown in the very back of the pic at left is a fine spot to sit, soak up the beauty and breathe in the fresh air.

I hope that these images lift your spirits and tempt you to revel in nature's spring show where you live. Enjoy!






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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Raising Rhubarb, Plus Vanilla Yogurt and Rhubarb-Strawberry Breakfast or Brunch Parfaits



There’s high excitement on my personal gardening front: I just harvested this season’s first rhubarb from my yard!  Now those five stalks might not impress most folks, but I’ve been waiting for my two plants to mature for several years, so am very ready to reap what  was sown. (Since we live in a suburban community, we aren't supposed to have a real vegetable garden, so I just tucked my rhubarb plants in among some big-leafed hostas!)


Well, to be completely accurate I'm reaping what was rooted, since my rhubarb plants  started from  gnarly clumps called crowns, not seeds. Unless you have extraordinary patience and a penchant for garden puttering, crowns are a better choice. Even so, expect about a three year wait (yikes!) before your crop amounts to more than a few stalks! (Tip: They will grow a little faster if fertilized now and then.)

Most sources say the rhubarb stalks should be at least 1/2 inch diameter and 10 inches long before they are pulled. (Those at left are not quite big enough; those below right are about 1/2-inch.) Yes, that's right--you're supposed to pull the stalks away from the crown, not cut them.  (Look closely at the ends of the two stalks shown below.)

And, even after the plants mature, the basic rule is that to avoid over-stressing the plants, be sure not harvest more than one-third of the stalks from any one crown. This can cause them to die back and not produce again till the coming year.


I rushed out and turned my first bounty into the simple, but so-pretty and delectable yogurt parfaits. I ate one for lunch after taking some pics, but in fact they are designed to serve for a festive breakfast or brunch. I promise they'll be a hit! (The rhubarb-strawberry duo is always spectacular; try it in this irresistible freezer jam as well.)



Vanilla Yogurt Parfaits with Rhubarb-Strawberry Compote
If you haven't ever seen rhubarb stalks with their leaves still attached, there's a reason. They  contain oxalic acid, which in large quantities will make you sick. So, the first step, which greengrocers normally perform for you, is to trim off  the leafy parts and throw them away.  That is unless they'll be featured in a photograph!

Ingredients


  •     3 to 4
        tablespoons granulated sugar

  •     1 teaspoon
        cornstarch

  •     1 1/2 cups
        1/2 inch pieces rhubarb

  •     1 tablespoon
        water

  •     1 1/2 cups
        coarsely sliced strawberries

  •     2 to 3 cups
        vanilla-flavored sweetened yogurt

  •     1 to 2 cups
        honey or almond granola

  •     3 to 4 sprigs
        fresh mint, for optional garnish

  •     3 to 4 small whole sliced
        strawberries, for optional garnish
Cooking Directions
             

  1. Thoroughly stir together the sugar and cornstarch in a medium non-reactive saucepan. Stir in the rhubarb and water and bring the mixture to a boil, stirring, over medium heat. Cook, stirring, until the mixture thickens and turns clear and the rhubarb is barely tender when tested with a fork, about 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in the strawberries and cook, stirring, until they are evenly incorporated and just start to soften, about 1 1/2 minutes longer. Set aside until cool, or cover and refrigerate up to 24 hours, until needed.
  2.     
  3. Using parfait glasses or other clear dishes or individual bowls, neatly layer the ingredients as shown or as desired. Top with strawberry slices and mint, if desired.  May be made an hour or two ahead, then refrigerated, if desired. (Don't store much longer, as the layers will begin to bleed together.)        
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Friday, April 13, 2012

A Peek into the Kitchen at Saveur Magazine



Last week during the IACP convention in New York City, I had the good fortune to go with a group to visit two major food magazines. The first was Food & Wine, which I loved and posted about already. The second, featured here and equally as spectacular, is Saveur.

As you can see, the gleaming, comfortably contemporary kitchen is light-flooded and huge. It's also filled with the energy of a busy yet laid- back and friendly staff. At right above is  Todd Coleman, the executive food editor, and the current crop of young interns who come for three month stints to work and learn.

Todd briefly shared with us Saveur's approach to cooking and food: "We're about great home cooks and their stories, not about chefs," he says. "But we never dumb down. And we're not into convenience products." He adds that the magazine is "art driven," noting that every recipe published is accompanied by a photograph. He emphasizes that the focus is on food that's good and timeless, not on trends that come and go.
That's our little group drinking a wine punch and listening to the kitchen director Kelly Evans (shown below right), who says the recipe testing process is pretty straightforward: "We test as many times as it takes--we keep going until we think the food is right. Though the kitchen may look intimidating, she and Todd both stress that nothing is called for that the home cook couldn't have and use.  If recipes requiring "weird" ingredients can't be adapted to accommodate what's available to home cooks, "we don't run them," Todd says.

Todd, Kelly, and associate food editor Ben Mims do most of the food styling right in the test kitchen, using a mix of natural, tungsten and strobe light. Todd says he likes photos that present "mini-scenes," as these can help amplify the story told in the text. "Practically everybody" on the staff  likes to write and takes on story assignments, he says. "We have a habit of doing it ourselves!"

His advice to freelance writers interested in pitching articles: Start with queries for the "Ingredient," "Classic," "Source," or other shorter features at the front of the book. "Tell us what's your expertise, what's your personal connection to the food. What is it you in particular have to tell our readers?"
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Friday, April 6, 2012

Homemade Violet Decorating Sugar--Naturally Beautiful, Dye-Free Pastry Decorating


Spring has sprung! The garden and woods where I live are full of seasonal ephemerals, especially my favorites, the gloriously colorful and completely edible wild violets. To capture and hold their beauty beyond their short season, I harvest blooms from the purple carpets along the walking path behind my house and turn them into breathtaking garnishing sugar for vanilla-frosted cupcakes and cookies.

Dye-free violet decorating sugar.

Depending on the particular shade of the violets, the sugar will have a lovely eye-catching purple or lavender color that can greatly enhance all kinds of baked goods, yet completely avoids the use of commercial synthetic food dyes. (For more on my use of natural botanical decorations, go here. Note that if the frosting has a lot of lemon or lime juice in it, their acid will cause to sugar to turn slightly pinkish. If garnishing cookies, sprinkle it on after baking, as the heat will cause the pretty color to fade.

Use organic wild violets for decorating pastries.


Creating a violet sprinkling sugar involves
nothing more than plucking the petals from the flower heads and grinding them in a food processor with granulated sugar (and a pinch or two or lemon zest if desired). Since violets have only a hint of floral aroma and flavor, the citrus adds a pleasing dimension, though it is entirely optional. Substitute the violet sugar for purchased garnishing sugar whenever you like.

Au Naturel Violet Decorating Sugar

Be sure to use only unsprayed woodland violets like those pictured (or ones with a slightly different purple hue). African violets are not true violets and are not edible. It's best to pick the violets early in the blooming period, as their color and aroma are most intense then. Plan to use them promptly, although they will keep placed in water and kept in a cool spot for up to 12 hours if necessary.


Sunlight causes the beautiful color to fade so be sure to keep violet sugar in a cool dark spot. The color does dull down after about a year--just in time to make a new batch when violets are in season again!
Woodland violets make a beautiful decorating sugar.

A large bunch of fresh purple violets, enough to yield 2 tablespoons petals
1/4 cup granulated sugar, plus a little more if desired
A pinch of very finely grated lemon zest, optional

Gently but thoroughly wash the fresh violets in cool water, then pat dry on paper towels. Pluck the purple petals away form the green part of the flowers and measure out enough petals to yield 2 tablespoons. Combine them in a food processor with 1/4 cup sugar and lemon zest if desired. Process for several minutes, stopping and scraping up the bottom and down the sides once or twice. If the mixture becomes wet, gradually add a little more sugar until it is less clumped. Continue processing until the violet petals are very finely ground and the sugar is bright purple.

Wild violet petals, sugar & lemon zest for violet sugar.
Turn on the oven for 1 minute only, then turn it off again immediately. (You want only a faintly warm oven, as too much heat can cause the sugar color to fade.) Turn out the sugar mixture onto a baking parchment-lined baking dish; spread it out thinly over the sheet as this promotes the drying.

Place the sugar in the oven and let stand to dry for at least 1 hour and up to several hours, if convenient. If  the sugar still doesn't seem completely dry, once again turn on the oven for 1 minute, then turn it off. Let the sugar dry for another hour or so.

 Scrape the dried sugar into the processor again. Process until any clumps are removed and the sugar is fairly fine or powdery, if preferred. If you wish to remove any remaining rough flecks of the petals (or the lemon zest), strain the sugar through a very fine sieve; this step is optional. Place the sugar in a bottle or jar and store in a cool, dark spot.  It will keep for up to 9 months, though the color will gradually fade a good bit.  Makes 1/3 cup violet decorating sugar. The recipe can be doubled if desired.

For my au natural raspberry and orange buttercream frostings decorated with violets go here.  For my candied violet recipe, go here.  For more spring garden pictures featuring violets go here.



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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A Peek into the Kitchen at Food & Wine

Yesterday during the International Association of Culinary Professionals convention in New York City, I had the fun of  going with a little group to take a tour of the kitchens and editorial offices of two major American food magazines. The first, featured here, was Food & Wine.  (The details on the second magazine, Saveur, are in a follow-up post.)

I was really excited to visit Food & Wine because although I'd written a couple of stories for the publication some years back, I'd never been there. It definitely exceeded my expectations--and I absolutely loved the test kitchen.

The first pic is of editor-in-chief Dana Cowin, who explained that all  recipes published by the magazine are tested in that kitchen and that some are created there from scratch.  Though Dana commented that the space isn't new and is well worn, I think you can tell that it's beautiful, comfortable, and roomy and that most food writers would be thrilled to work in it.  (I do enjoy my fairly recently made-oven kitchen, but given a choice, I'd go with theirs!)

The pic at right shows Tina Ujlaki, the executive food editor, giving an overview of the usual testing process. The magazine's readers tend to already be fairly knowledgeable about cooking, she and Dana emphasized, so the recipes are designed to be not only tasty, but to offer a little something extra in terms of technique or flair. Yes, both Tina and Dana were as warm and cordial as they look; the whole staff acted as if they were utterly delighted to take time from their busy schedules to show us around! Which was very kind indeed.


 They also went to the trouble of feeding us while we were there! The test kitchen was in the process of creating some pumpkin scones (shown in the basket), and these were set out with some shaved prosciutto for lunch. I'm not easily impressed when it comes to baked goods, but rated those scones an A. (And also ate two of them!)


Test kitchen supervisor Marcia Kiesel was creating a butternut squash recipe when we arrived and said that she really enjoys working with vegetables. She then showed us a veggie story she'd done for a previous issue. The idea was, of course, to spotlight the visual as well as taste appeal of the produce used.

Our last stop was to take a peek into the wine and spirits room, which was crammed with hundreds of bottles from relatively ordinary to rare.  (One person in our tour group was  looking longingly at a favorite $100 plus bottle of cabernet!) Dana assured us that the area was in fact more organized that it looked--that the various offerings were carefully grouped by categories and regions. She added that very few items were ever overlooked or went unopened, not surprising since the magazine is about food and wine!





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