New York Times food columnist Amanda Hesser and food writer/recipe tester Merrill Stubbs are the founders of food52.com, a new web site aimed at home cooks. Each week, the site runs two recipe contests (this week it’s best fig dish and best mushroom soup) and at the end of a year the winning recipes will be compiled in a book to be published by HarperStudio. Over bowls of Pain Quotidien gazpacho—which they like for its unexpected use of cumin—the two dished to W about their latest venture, their adventures in cooking and Gwyneth Paltrow’s culinary chops.
There are so many cooking sites on the web but Food52 is really a unique concept. How did you come up with the idea?
Amanda: When I started working on the update of the The New York Times Cookbook [due out next September] I put an author’s query in the paper asking readers to write in and tell me what their favorite Times recipes were. I was flooded with emails and when Merrill started working with me she created this enormous document that tabulated which recipes were most often picked.
Merrill: We noticed this interesting pattern: that more than half of the readers’ favorites—and a lot of the recipes that we just really liked, after testing 1,200 of them—actually came from home cooks. Back in the 1850s, the Times was full of recipes that home cooks mailed in, and in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when Craig Claiborne was running the food section, he often included recipes that were passed along to him by friends or people he met. We realized that there’s this history of great home cooks and feel that there are still great home cooks out there today.
The site is called Food52, as in 52 weeks. Does that mean you’re planning on keeping it around for just a year?
Amanda: Not at all. We have a two book deal with HarperStudio so there will be another book of next year’s recipe contest winners and, in addition to the contests, we have other interesting things planned for the site. In a few weeks we’ll be posting our tournament of cookbooks. We chose 16 cookbooks and had 17 experts cook from them and judge them in rounds, like a tournament. It’s modeled after themorningnews.org’s annual tournament of books, which judges novels the same way.
Who will the judges be?
Amanda: It’s a wide range, everyone from Grant Achatz and Dan Barber to popular food bloggers to Gwyneth Paltrow.
Merrill: She was a model judge actually. She really got into the kitchen and cooked. I wish everyone was as into it as she was.
You’ve both logged countless kitchen hours. Have you ever had a real cooking disaster?
Merrill: Yes! It was two weeks after I moved into my new apartment and I was trying out a new recipe. It involved deep-frying eggs, basically poaching them in oil so they end up soft and crispy. I turned the heat on under the pot, put on the lid, and then forgot about it because I was doing something else. When I finally remembered, I went back into the kitchen, turned off the stove, and thought, “Maybe if I take the lid off the oil will cool more quickly.” And of course the whole thing erupted into flames. There was literally a column of fire shooting out of this pot on my stove. I called 911 and the firemen put it out with a fire extinguisher, then turned a hose on it and finally threw the pot of oil across the room into my sink, sending oil flying everywhere. I ended up with burnt oil stains all over the place, a water-damaged floor, scorched cabinets and soot from my black plastic microwave—which melted—throughout the apartment. I had to get the whole apartment painted and my kitchen had to be completely redone.
How about you, Amanda?
Amanda: A friend was helping me clean up and stacked two pots together, which got stuck. They were suctioned together and there was a little bit of oily water in the bottom pot. I was on the phone with my mother and she said, “Just stick it in the freezer. Maybe the metals will be different and one will shrink.” But my freezer was really tiny and really full so I thought, “Nah.” But you know how if a lid is suctioned to a pot you just turn the heat on under it and it lifts right off? I thought the same principle would apply. So I had the heat on high and I’m sitting right next to my stove and all of a sudden BOOM! I had basically created a bomb. The pot hit the ceiling and the oily liquid flew all over the room. I had second degree burns and I had to go to the hospital.
Finally, what are your guilty pleasures when it comes to food?
Merrill: I love Swedish Fish and Pepperidge Farm Goldfish, but I only eat them on roadtrips or airplanes.
Amanda: I like Fritos—but I don’t feel guilty about it.
Photos: Sarah Shatz