As the editor of a food section, I constantly think about the best recipes to feature in these pages. What will be most useful to our readers, both the ones who have been cooking for decades or want to challenge themselves, and those beginners who could use some help? We try to strike a balance, but the fact is not everyone is going to get maximum satisfaction out of every recipe.
An article published last week on the website Slate helped explain why, with an interesting look at one of the Internet's most popular food sites: Allrecipes. The article's premise is that there is a large gulf between the food (and, more broadly, the culture) we talk and write about and the food people actually make in their homes each night. Like how music or TV shows that get the most critical acclaim are, more often than not, ones that have smaller wide appeal.
The article reports that "Allrecipes is the most popular English-language food website in the world," with almost 50 million visits to the site last December, the most monthly views for any food site by far. A lot of this is due to Allrecipes' uncanny ability to appear high up in Google search results. Next time you search for a recipe, notice how the site is almost always within the first five results.
And for home cooks, the site is especially appealing because user feedback plays a vital role. Readers can give each recipe a star ranking, and a comment, and recipes often become popular (or not) because of their ratings. It fosters a sense of community, a feeling that if your fellow home cook liked this recipe, you will, too.
There are recipes like the Slow-Cooker Chicken Tortilla Soup, which has more than 3,000 reviews and a 4 ½ star out of 5 rating from the more than 5,000 people who have made the dish. Comments range:
"We live in Mexico and this is AS CLOSE TO AUTHENTIC as possible."
"This recipe, unfortunately, is only worth two stars — barely. Too watery, too spicy, and tasted just like liquid enchiladas."
A very simple dish, eliciting thousands of opinions.
As Slate points out, the majority of recipes on this site are not glamorous or elaborate. They're convenient, with simple ingredients and steps that involve little more than chopping and moving things around in a skillet. As you make many of the recipes — and I have made some in my kitchen over the years — you start to notice that a lot of the ingredients are canned, or otherwise more convenient versions of fresher products. Shortcuts to help get dinner on the table quicker.
I get it, but personally, this reliance on convenience is a reason I don't frequent this site anymore. As someone who considers herself a solid cook, the process of working with ingredients — grating a block of Parmesan cheese; dicing a fresh tomato; turning flour, butter and cheese into a sauce — is vital. The reasons you cook may be different. For some people, it's a task. For others, it's a process of exciting discovery. And sites like Allrecipes tend to not gin up a ton of excitement in my kitchen.
This week's recipe
It's with all of this in mind that I recommend this week's recipe, a panzanella salad. It's an example of a dish that sounds fancy, complicated, not like something you could whip up in the middle of the week — but it is actually a simple amalgamation of very common ingredients.
And, in keeping with the theme of our cover story, it's kind of like a deconstructed sandwich. Panzanella is a Tuscan bread salad traditionally made during the summer. It usually involves tomatoes.
It is a good way to use up older, softer tomatoes, herbs and bread that may be past its prime. Chop them all up, add some cheese and some olive oil, and you've got a hearty salad fit for dinner. No oven, or complicated instructions, required.
Contact Michelle Stark at [email protected] or (727) 893-8829. Follow @mstark17.