Fish escabeche for The Modern Potluck

My intern, Amelia, took this photo as she tested a fish escabeche.

After enlisting many, many volunteers to help test about half of the recipes in The Modern Potluck, I found myself backlogged with more testing and retesting. Recipe testing is a fun gig but cleaning up is less so. Plus, to be honest, I started to get tired of making the same dishes over and over.

Throughout the book writing process, people told me to hire an intern. The problem is, I like developing recipes by myself, with no one looking over my shoulder. Sometimes, my process involves a bit of puttering around; I don’t always come to the kitchen with a clear-cut plan so I wasn’t always sure what an intern could do.

Testing and re-testing written up recipes, well, that is something someone else could do. I didn’t have any budget left to hire a tester, but I remembered that one of my best early experiences post culinary school was helping a cookbook author organize her ideas and doing some testing. For free. Yep.

I decided to get over my anxiety about having someone work in my home kitchen and ask my alma mater, the Institute of Culinary Education, if they knew of a recent graduate who might like some experience testing recipes. Within a few weeks, they sent me the perfect person—a career changer and mom of two girls who had some serious grit and a great attitude. She was working full time at a Michelin-starred restaurant in New York and looking to transition away from the restaurant gig to a job with saner hours.

I couldn’t pay her in dollars, but I promised her tons of food, recipe testing experience and all the contacts she could ask for. She came to my house once a week and cooked through three or four recipes each time. The best part about having in her my own kitchen was that I was able to check in and taste throughout the process. I could immediately see where instructions needed to be better or where we needed to add more of less of an ingredient. And yes, she cleaned up the kitchen when she was done.

Best of all, she found a job as a test kitchen assistant almost immediately after she stopped working at the restaurant and with me. I’m thrilled I could be part of her journey, and I know she’ll continue to do awesome things.

If I ever write another cookbook, I will definitely hire another intern. It was an incredible experience for me, and one that has only made the book better.

Recipe testing for Modern Potluck.

Cranberry jam bars from Modern Potluck tested by one of my volunteers.

 

I love a loose recipe, one that’s written more to inspire you to try a certain flavor combination or method for cooking cauliflower than give you an exact road map for making a perfect dish. For my forthcoming cookbook, however, I wrote very specific recipes, often detailing exactly how root vegetables should be cut and how to plate the dish.

When crafting a recipe, there are a zillion factors to consider. For example, calling for 1 garlic clove might suffice if you’re cooking it until it mellows, releasing its flavors into the oil. But if you’re grating it raw for a salad, a volume measurement will likely serve you better, as garlic cloves can range from the size of a large shelled peanut to that of an in-the-shell walnut.

After I developed my recipes, taking copious handwritten notes, and then wrote them up as well as I could, I dispatched them to a bunch of volunteer recipe testers. I learned a ton, A TON from this process, including that it’s basically impossible to write a recipe that’s perfect for every person. Here are a few tips to consider if you want to enlist volunteer recipe testers:  continue reading

My recipe organization spreadsheet

There are few things I like better than taking a massive, overwhelming project and breaking it down into small, bite-sized pieces. This is probably why I found a great groove while writing my cookbook, which I just handed in this week. Phew! I still have tons of work to do–plenty of editing and recipe re-testing and re-testing, but it feels great to have a first draft off my desk and on someone else’s.

Here is how I approached the project, and yes, Microsoft Excel played a huge role.

continue reading

Writing a cookbook is something I’ve always wanted to do. But for years, I just didn’t feel ready. Sure, I had zillions of ideas but I still felt like I had tons to learn. About food. About recipe development. About marketing. (Because, hey, it turns out, writing cookbooks, like any craft, is also business!)

I’ve been lucky enough to have a literary agent for years, which I know, sounds fancy. In truth, he’s my friend who just happens to be a literary agent and we happened to meet as he was transitioning from selling fiction to selling food books. As an editor at Food & Wine, I sounded fancy, too, so he added me to his client list even though we had no projects in the work. Every once in a while, I’d float a book idea by him, and his response was often akin to meh. 
Last fall, I told him about how, ever since my daughter had been born 18 months prior, it was hard to throw dinner parties. I said, I need to have more potlucks. And man, there’s a genre of food that needs updating. *bing* The Modern Potluck, he said. Write the proposal. 

Oh, ok. I’ll do that, in the middle of trying to create a freelance career, build a business and raise a kid. No problem.

In February, he checked in. How’s the proposal.

Ummmmmm…

I’m a big to-do list maker. If it goes on the list, it has to get done. So I put it on the list for March. Every day, I worked on it for an hour or so. By the end of the month, I had a draft of a proper proposal, with sample recipes as well. We polished it for a couple of weeks and then my agent sent it to publishers. And then we waited. Several bites came. He set up meetings. I got my hair blown out and put on make-up. I brought some food and some lip balm, because who doesn’t love snacks and swag?

In the end, we decided to work with Clarkson Potter and I’m thrilled. So now I’m in the midst of writing my first cookbook. It’s a bird-by-bird process and I’m loving every second of it but more on that later because now, I’ve got to get back to it!