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Professionally Californian - a blog

"Queen of California Cool Cooking, Patron Saint of Vegetables" Lauren Kodiak/Kitchn

I have a list of blog sites I come across now that might be interesting to write about someday. I haven't done one of these for a while, so here I go with the next one on the list - 101 Cookbooks - which is the brainchild of the lady shown here - Heidi Swanson - a Californian, vegetarian/vegan. However, the website, curiously enough is not really about 101 cookbooks, as you might have thought, but a collection of vegetarian and vegan recipes which she herself has mostly written. There are not many from others, or as far as my brief perusal shows, not much on those 101 cookbooks that started it all.

So why is it called 101 Cookbooks? Well in her About Me piece she says:

"101 Cookbooks started in early 2003 when I looked up at my huge cookbook collection one afternoon and realized that instead of exploring the different books in my collection – I was cooking the same recipes over and over. This site aimed to change that ... I think I was 29 or 30 at the time. I had a lot of cookbooks that I loved to browse. There was lots of browsing, less actual cooking. Then, as a creative exercise, I decided to install one of the early blog platforms on my server, and started to keep a recipe journal – as an incentive to cook more."

I must say I agree with the concept. Indeed, as you know, of late I have been trying to incorporate recipes from my own vast collection of cookbooks into my weekly cooking much more than I used to. However, with reference to her website, I'm not sure that many of the recipes from her 101 cookbooks collection, make it to the website. Maybe they just inspire her instead. And incidentally the recipes from her cookbooks do not appear to be on the website either. Which is very canny of her, but a tiny bit ungenerous. Ottolenghi et al. after all have lots of their recipes online and Delia has virtually all of hers online.

It is, however, a very professional website. This is the Home Page, which as you can see is minimalist. I didn't bother reproducing the logo because it's hardly a logo really. Just a heading. And the menu is one of those very discreet little icons of a square of lines. She grew up in Silicon Valley before it became Silicon Valley, but she definitely seems to have absorbed the minimalism and style of Apple and co. And of course there are ads. Too many ads - scattered all through the text in the recipes as well as down the side of the page. This is a money-making venture.

I no longer remember how I came across her site, and I have to say that it's general thrust, as it were, is not one that appeals hugely to me. I'm not a vegetarian of course, although I do cook many more vegetarian meals these days and am always on the lookout for something new. And anything that touts 'healthy' tends to make me recoil. Not, I hasten to add, that I don't believe we should live a healthy life - eat healthily, exercise, etc. But I guess the health gurus and influencers are so darn polished and glowing, so enthusiastic, so Californian, that I cringe.

Anyway I browsed a bit hoping that like Ottolenghi, Ixta Belfrage, Jamie and all manner of other excitingly modern cooks, I would be inspired. However, I wasn't really. When I open an Ottolenghi or Ixta Belfrage, Nigel Slater ... book - well you know all my favourites - I see lots and lots of recipes that are so compelling that I want to make them then and there. And when I do they are virtually all mind-glowingly good. I can't say I felt that way about any of the, admittedly few, recipes on the website that I chose from my also limited, browsing. Although various commentators talked about her unusual pairings, I'm not sure I saw many of them. But it's probably just me.

She has written five books some of which have won the coveted James Beard Award - this, I think her first one - was one of them. And so one would expect greatness. For me I think her recipes are just above average but not wow, and I assume the books are the same. However, I confess I have never seen one. Well I now see that the awards, were not necessarily as great as I thought. They are:

Winner, Photography 2016

Winner, Focus on Health 2012

Nominee, Healthy Focus 2008

Still an award is an award, and Epicurious - a prestigious American food magazine - named her in their top 100 greatest home cooks list. Her books make the best-selling lists in America though and all praise to her for promoting healthy eating - well she is Californian - in a country plagued by obesity.

I'm probably being a bit unfair, so here are three recipes that I found which are possibly worth trying:

I found this - A really great mushroom casserole - on the website Kitchn where they raved about it:

"Maybe it’s because the simple ingredient list lets you really taste each flavor in the dish (no one thing is outshined by the other), maybe it’s because it strikes the perfect balance of textures, or maybe it’s because it never comes out of the oven dry. Whatever it is, this unassuming, humble recipe has surely cast a spell on us." Lauren Kodiak/Kitchn

The other two that I found are a soup and a pasta - both of which genres are heavily represented on the site. The soup is Slow-cooker miso corn chowder and the pasta is Pasta with smashed zucchini cream one of whose attractions is the fact that it uses a lot of zucchini - if you grow your own and have a glut. They do look rather beautiful.

The photography, I have to say, is excellent, but then she trained in media, art and photography and worked for a magazine before becoming disillusioned, which is when she began the website. It has been going a long time now and she does a whole lot of other media stuff as well as writing cookbooks. There is a newsletter, or you can find her on her personal website, or via the usual Instagram, TikTok and Pinterest. Or you can buy one of her books. In fact the name was vaguely familiar to me.

She now lives in Los Angeles which to my ignorant mind, whilst still being California, has a whole different vibe to San Francisco.

Interesting to see such a professional website, that is almost a cliché of both California Dreaming if you like, and also of the modern healthy life-style goddess.

Indeed I just found an article in Food 52 about a joint book signing by Heidi Swanson and Yotam Ottolenghi in 2015 which they open with these words:

"Last Friday, the king and queen of the today’s food world came for lunch."

I will not argue with the Ottolenghi title but I'm not sure about Heidi Swanson. A bit of flattering hyperbole perhaps. But then I don't live in America and am definitely less familiar with the American celebrity chef world.

In an interview she had with Apiece Apart, she had these words to say about writing a blog which did strike a minor chord with me. Not that I'm aiming to be the queen of anything.

"The practice of regularly putting yourself out there is powerful. Learning in public is a great teacher. If you do your best every time you show up, and if you don’t let imperfection be a deterrent, you’ll improve every time."

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