If you’re like us, you probably have shelves lined with cookbooks, from the tattered paperback Joy of Cooking you bought when you moved into your first apartment to the latest, lavishly illustrated volumes of food porn to roll off the presses. Yet when you buy that perfect leg of lamb from the butcher or the lemons on the tree in the backyard suddenly start ripening by the dozen, you just can’t seem to find a recipe that matches both your mood and the ingredients on hand.
It’s time to flick the switch on the old PC and head for the World Wide Web, where you can find more food-related information than you could ever imagine. Hit the right Web site and you can learn how to boil an egg. Link to the next one, and there are instructions for cooking African-style mustard greens and peanut sauce. And if you ever need to know how long to marinate bear steaks before you pop them on the barbecue, that’s out there too. (Hint: a long time.)
Like everything else on the Internet, finding recipes is a matter of perseverance, curiosity, and luck. Links lead to links that lead to links, and more than once we’ve noticed “recipe” buttons lurking inconspicuously in the corners of some pretty unlikely home pages. Like everything else on the Web, the sheer volume of food info is overwhelming, but here’s a totally subjective, random look at some of our favorite sites.
First, the biggies. These are sites that contain thousands of recipes, with no specific theme or focus. Overall they’re the most useful ones for general browsing. Epicurious (Epicurious.com) is sponsored by the Condé Nast empire, and includes the archives of both Gourmet and Bon Appétit magazines. The Recipe Source may well be the largest food site in the Internet–it claims to have seventy thousand recipes listed, while Epicurious lists a relatively paltry twelve thousand. Still, Epicurious is a pretty slick site with stories, cooking techniques, and online sales of culinary equipment. The search feature is well thought out and even has suggestions for finding what you want. For example, type in the word “lamb” and you get a list of 232 recipes, which may be a bit more than you want to deal with, especially if the dinner guests are due in twenty minutes. If you enter additional ingredients, however, things narrow down quickly. “Lemon and lamb” yields 55 recipes, and if you add “couscous” to the mix, you get just 3. Navigation can be a bit tricky (when we inserted commas between the ingredients, we got an error message), but with practice, you’ll be cruising with ease.
The Recipe Source (recipesource.com) started out as the Searchable Online Archive of Recipes (SOAR), which was originally affiliated with UC Berkeley. It’s a volunteer labor of love that dates back to 1993, and the Source is still a work in progress. For instance, at present, you can’t search for recipes by ingredient. They’re only listed by title, which can make it tricky, but often entering one main ingredient will get you more than you’ll ever need. You can also browse the type of dish you’re looking for (e.g., “main dishes,” “soups and stuff,” and “on the side”) or specify regional cuisines. Be sure to check out the “Extraterrestrial and Bizarre” section, particularly if you’re looking for ways to prepare Apple Roast Hadrosaur (you can substitute lean pork if your butcher is out of dinosaur meat), ground pork and peanut butter cookies (purportedly from the Heart of Iowa Cookbook), and something called Chunky Cat Barf, which we couldn’t quite make ourselves click on. There are tons of genuinely tempting dishes, too. A nice feature is that the recipes are available in plain text format for more convenient printing.
Okay, so now you’ve got access to something like 82,000 recipes–enough to last you nearly 225 years, if you cooked a different one for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every single day. So why look for more? For the same reason we have so many cookbooks–not that we actually expect to use them on anything like a regular basis, but because there’s a certain vicarious thrill in reading them, a sensual pleasure as you imagine what an exotic dish will taste, look, and smell like.
Besides, it’s fun. Scrolling through these Web sites is an adventure, a chance to turn up something unexpected, possibly delightful, and maybe a bit strange.
Ever look on a can of green beans or box of frozen pizza and noticed the “Visit our Web site at Geneticallymodifiedprocessedfood.com” printed on the label? You probably weren’t terribly tempted. But some of them are pretty interesting, and good sources for yet more ideas about preparing meals. At first glance the Gorton’s of Gloucester Web site (gortons.com) looks like what you’d expect–an advertisement for the company’s fish sticks, “crunchy stuffed fillets,” popcorn shrimp, and other mainstays of the frozen food section. But way down at the bottom of the page, on the left, there’s a link to the “Fisherman’s Cookbook” which has some of the most useful fresh fish facts that we’ve found anywhere. The “fish glossary” lists dozens of species (along with their alternate names–did you realize that tilapia is also known as St. Peter’s fish, mouthbrooder, and ngege?), and has tips about buying and preparing each one, along with links to specific recipes. (By the way, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has info about buying the least environmentally damaging types of fish. Check the “Seafood Watch” section of montereybayaquarium.org.)
Dole.com is similar. The company sells a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables, so its recipe section has listings for apricots, bananas, artichokes, Brussels sprouts, and, as you might expect, pineapples. Naturally, each recipe specifies “Dole” produce, but who’s to know you got yours at the farmers’ market? There’s some pretty good basic nutritional information about the various fruits and veggies, too.
Bakers can click onto the home page for King Arthur Flour. The small, Vermont-based, employee-owned producer of baking products has a plethora of recipes for breads, cakes, pies, and so forth (two dozen different coffeecakes, nine kinds of pancakes, and specialties such as injera, Portuguese sweetbread, and dog biscuits). Even better is the “Online Baking Classes” section, which has very basic, very detailed instructions for making breads, pies, and more. Beginners, don’t bother to buy a specialty baking cookbook–save your money and log on to the kingarthurflour. com. More experienced cooks can find ways to improve their technique, such as adjusting the ingredients of your next apple pie depending on the type of apples you’re using.
Warm weather and long days signal the start of barbecue season. Log on to the “World Wide Weber,” sponsored by the prominent grill maker. Weberbbq.com
contains pointers for grilling and smoking, and recipes take you far beyond the standard burgers and chicken territory. In fact, you don’t even have to be a carnivore. Weber’s recipes include fruits, vegetables, and desserts, in addition to the extensive and sophisticated meat selections. It has one of our personal favorites–grilled asparagus, one of the simplest, most scrumptious dishes on the planet. There’s also an intriguing recipe for grilled peaches that we’re going to try as soon as the fruit makes its appearance at the farmers’ market. The grilling tips section is well thought out, with clear directions, and the page about smoking foods has helpful suggestions about what types of wood match up well with different foods. The site does have one odd feature–it’s subdivided into separate US and Australian sections. In order to get into the Aussie side, you have to type in a legitimate postal code from that country, so we don’t know what they’re telling the folks down under.
It’s become almost de rigueur for a winery to have its own Web site. Many of them, especially the smaller ones, do little more than reproduce the print versions of their newsletters. Even so, they can be worth checking out, because they often include recipes that the vintner feels will match up especially well with a particular wine. Some of the larger wineries have more extensive Web sites with lots of food info. Napa’s Robert Mondavi (robertmondaviwinery.com) has some good recipes, though you have to look carefully to find the “Food and Wine” button in faint type along the very top of the home page. The site does have a good search engine, which lets you find recipes by main ingredient, course, style, and season. You can also pick a varietal wine, and let the computer suggest matchups. Naturally, the varietals mentioned are all made by Mondavi affiliates, but you can work around that easily enough. It’s a fun feature to play with, and the matchups can be pretty imaginative. Sweet-potato-and-roasted-garlic puree with riesling? Zinfandel with an arugula-lemon pesto? Most of the recipes were developed in Mondavi’s own kitchens, and range from the very simple to the super-sophisticated.
Mendocino’s Fetzer Vineyards (fetzer.com) has a large organic fruit, vegetable, and herb garden, so it’s not surprising that their Web site is so food-oriented. Fetzer’s wine-and-food pairing feature isn’t as high-tech as Mondavi’s but it’s still useful. You scroll down through the different varietals, and listed across the page are suggested main ingredients, along with suitable herbs and spices. Each recipe also lists suggested wines.
Almost any product made or grown in this country has its own “institute” or “council” or “advisory board.” Most of these are combination trade association, lobbying, and promotional groups, and they may or may not have any cooking information on their sites. Some are good, tossing in lots of esoteric facts and figures. For example, there’s the National Potato Promotion Board’s potatohelp.com
Web site. Did you know that in 1999 the average American consumed 147.7 pounds of potatoes, up from just 137.9 in 1995, or that Sir Walter Raleigh introduced potatoes to Ireland in 1589? It has tips for baking, mashing, frying, and roasting spuds, and its search engine allows you to get recipes based on how much time you have to spend cooking. Nice touch.
And you really can learn to boil an egg, courtesy of the American Egg Board Web site (aeb.org), which also covers baking, frying, poaching, and scrambling in its “Basic Preparation” section. There are also plenty of more advanced recipes, including the proper techniques for making both a hard and soft meringue. It also gives instructions for handling eggs safely, and ways to make cooked mayonnaise, hollandaise sauce, and Caesar salad dressing, which were made from raw eggs back in the less salmonella-conscious days.
If you happen to have catfish on hand, you can head for catfishinstitute. com, which insists, “You don’t have to fry it to love it.” Recipes include the winners of the institute’s annual contest, so you can learn to cook Classic Moo Shu Catfish Wraps, and Sundried Tomato-Parmesan Catfish, which sounds awfully good.
Don’t forget health-related Web sites. UC Berkeley’s Wellness Letter (berkeleywellness.com) has a small archive of recipes that don’t sacrifice flavor. The current edition even includes directions for cooking a relatively healthful burger.
Sometimes the easiest strategy is to simply type the name of a main ingredient into your general search engine (we’ve had the best luck with Google). This may lead you to the relevant trade association, or you may be pointed toward a small, noncommercial Web site that you never would have discovered otherwise. Looking for a way to cook mustard greens, we were directed to eatwell.com, the down-home site of a small organic farming operation in the Sacramento Valley. Its recipes center on fresh produce, and include one for “Maple Mustard Greens.” It also has a link to an affiliate, Lavender Farms, where there’s an intriguing recipe for a lavender stuffing for lamb.
Sandy does business research for a living, so she’s constantly skimming through oddball Web sites. Even so, seeing a “recipe” button in the “What’s New” section of remington.com gave her a start. That’s the Remington Arms company, folks, one of the oldest and largest gun manufacturers in the country. Clicking on the button was irresistible, although the recipes weren’t ones we’re likely to try anytime soon. But if you’re looking to learn how to cook Woodchuck Barbecue Burgers, Wild Grouse Deluxe, or the ever-popular Venison Stroganoff, this is the Web site for you. And of course, there are those bear steaks–use meat from the loin, mix together some cider, orange and lemon juice, onion, carrots, a little Worchestershire sauce, and so on. Marinate for 24 hours, broil and serve with mushrooms sauteed in butter.
Or, as Sandy’s mom used to say, “Chacun à son goût.” Happy hunting.