The community-based food website Food52 started in 2009 as a project meant to scare up brilliant recipes heretofore confined to the kitchens of home cooks and collect them all into one crowd-sourced cookbook. After the first book was finished, the community kept growing and growing, and these days, one of the site’s gems is Genius Recipes, which collects ideas, often from famous chefs, that have the potential not just to generate a delicious meal, but "surprise us and rethink cooking tropes."
Week after week, Food52’s senior editor, Kristen Miglore, shares recipes that are often so simple—soup that requires only cauliflower, onion, salt, and water or ice cream made of nothing but bananas—that it’s impossible to believe how good they are until you try them. Brainiac talked to Miglore about the task of identifying life-altering recipes week after week - and the limits of genius when it comes to the kitchen.
Brainiac: Your original definition of a genius recipe was one that would "get us talking and change the way we cook." How has your definition of a genius recipes developed after a year of writing the column?
Miglore: In the beginning, I only wanted to find hidden gems that hadn't been talked about much. But I've realized that it's sometimes fun to write about recipes that have already made the rounds in the blogosphere (like Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter), because it gets a lot of good conversation going. I'm still partial to the hidden gems though. Otherwise, my definition hasn't really changed. After doing this for over a year, I've been amazed that they just keep coming -- I just have to pay attention and make sure people know I'm looking.
Brainiac: How often do you end up disappointed by a genius recipe candidate that's just short of genius?
Miglore: Often. If I test three on a given day, I'm happy if I get a genius one out of it (really happy if I get more). But I have a built-in no-nonsense filter -- I work out of a really tiny kitchen so even if a recipe is good, if it's needlessly fussy and makes me spill into my living room, it's probably not genius.
Brainiac: I have to admit I'm skeptical of the one you just posted—the Michael Ruhlman fried chicken. Mostly because I've made that recipe before and it came out only ok. (The crust wasn’t crusty!) Can a recipe still be genius if it's possible for the cook to screw it up?
Miglore: I hate when this happens, but it does happen. No recipe is going to work exactly the same in every kitchen, for every cook, with every set of ingredients -- even a genius one. Luckily there are lots more happy responses than disappointed ones. And the fear of disappointing people, especially beginning cooks, just drives me to be keep being careful and picky with the recipes I feature.
Re: the chicken: that's really sad. Maybe defunct baking powder in the flour mix? Maybe faulty thermometer when frying? If the temp was secretly too low, the crust would get soggy. The crust was ridiculously crusty the times I've made it.
(Note: She’s almost definitely right. I’m going to blame the baking powder.)
Photo courtesy Nicole Franzen & Food52.
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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.