Merrill Stubbs and Amanda Hesser, the food writers who founded food52.com (and are pictured at left), always knew they would be “writing” a second cookbook (I say “writing” because everything about Food 52, the site and the new cookbook, is heavily, creatively crowdsourced). Their first cookbook appeared in 2011 and it, like the new The Food 52 Cookbook, Volume 2: Seasonal Recipes From Our Kitchens to Yours, is a more glamorous, more democratic, and more international cookbook than the community cookbooks so many of us grew up with.
But community is nonetheless the primary element of this cookbook. Everything at Food 52 has something to do with community: the weekly contests the popular site administers, the volunteer testers the site benefits from, the way other home cooks will comment insightfully on each other’s recipes (and nicely too! Food 52 is that rare oasis of kindness in typically snarky internetland).
“The thing about our approach is, people don’t just reach into their recipe box and cut and paste something” onto the site, Hesser says. They’re encouraged to not only be creative but also to compete in the weekly cooking contests (“your best recipe with cardamom,” for example, or “your best dish you (intentionally) set on fire”). “So you get completely accessible home-cooked recipes but they’re infused with creativity and interesting techniques.” Stubbs and Hesser place the winning recipes of various contests from the site into the cookbook but they also gave themselves the editorial freedom of a “wildcard” category that basically allowed them to pick any recipe submitted to the site–whether in a contest or not–and feature it in the cookbook. So Roasted Butterflied Chicken with Cardamom and Yogurt didn’t win any contest, but it’s funky and original enough to land in the cookbook.
Food 52 is a telling barometer of cooking trends. In volume one, smoked paprika was popular, for example (2011 was smoked paprika’s big year, after all). This year, with volume two, shaved vegetables, less expensive cuts of meat (like flank steak), and pestos are the cravings. Hesser points to the Roasted Carrot Soup recipe, which she says is “emblematic of people trying to take from chefs this idea of being able to extract a ton of flavor instead of throwing in butter and cream to make it flavorful and rich.” The only crucial ingredients in the soup are carrots, vegetable stock, garlic, thyme, and ginger. Reeve, the Food 52 member from Los Angeles who won the “best carrot recipe” contest, take carrots, cuts them into circles, and broils them until they’re caramelized on top. The technique “concentrates their flavor in such a great way and it’s such an easy step,” Hesser points out. You then simmer the carrots in broth briefly and puree the soup. “It has the most velvety texture and it’s the kind of thing that chefs are really getting into–extracting the pure flavors from an ingredient,” she says.
Hesser and Stubbs learned a few lessons from the first go-round, with volume one. “We wanted to make this cookbook feel less chirpy,” Stubbs acknowledges. This new, second volume is calmer and cleaner than the first volume, with fewer colors in the cookbook’s design. The cover is darker and gray colors are used in the book’s endpapers. Why does the color of the endpapers matter in a crowdsourced cookbook? “The food should do the talking” Stubbs says, not necessarily the book itself.
And “we have some very chatty food,” Hesser confirms.
Claiborne Smith is the features editor at Kirkus Reviews.