Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Blogger Vanessa Balchen finds an international audience for her online journal of fresh, local whole foods

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
In Brava Magazine, May 2007
Column: Around the Table

Recipe: Strawberry Scones

The other night for dinner, Vanessa Balchen made snapper, and according to her, it was “the best fish I’ve ever made.” So she told the whole world about it.

“I rubbed it down with a mix of garlic, canola oil, cumin, and smoked paprika and then cooked it in a really hot pan with just a bit of oil,” she announced. She even took an enticing photo of her luscious entree, served on a salad bed of mache – “You should have seen me at the market when I realized they had it?it was rather embarrassing to be that excited about a leafy green” – and dressed with a sauce made from “a few dried berries, some fresh ginger, and a splash of white vinegar – so tasty I could have eaten it with a spoon,” and accompanied by “tender and flavorful artichoke served with an espresso cup of melted butter and coarse French gray sea salt. Delightful and oh, so decadent.”

That’s a typically exuberant, intensely first-person excerpt from Vanessa’s web log – “blog,” for short – WhatGeeksEat.com. And she’s not the only one out there chronicling breakfast, lunch and dinner on the Internet. Vanessa’s snapper entry credits recipes found on two other blogs as the basis for her menu, and considering today’s varied, vibrant, food “blogosphere,” that needn’t come as a surprise.

Though political bloggers might be the ones most often mentioned in the mainstream news media, food bloggers abound, ranging from cookbook authors and world-famous chefs to home cooks and enthusiasts of all types. One directory site, foodblogblog.com, lists over 1200 online journals that document and celebrate the philosophy, history, cultural significance and preparation of food.

Dedicated food blogger Vanessa Balchen, 46, is a marketing specialist by day who lives in Middleton with her computer programmer husband, David, and their two sons, Alex, 14, and Dexter, 12. Originally from Sullivan, a small town in central Illinois, Vanessa met her husband at college, Southern Illinois U at Carbondale. “I studied creative writing and English with an emphasis on poetry,” she says.

The Balchens lived in the San Francisco Bay area for 13 years, but, Vanessa says, “the schools were awful and Dave had a five-hour commute.” In 2000 they read about “the great quality of life in Madison” in a New York Times article. Just two months later, they were Midwesterners once more.

VVK: Why do you blog?

VB: Last year I started blogging because I was playing games on my computer. I figured if I had time for that then I finally had time to write for fun again. I love everything about blogging. I love the cooking, the technical tinkering and design improvements, writing it, marketing it. I love it all.

VVK: Why blog about food?

VB: Most of the food I make is original or an adaptation of an existing recipe. I've always cooked this way and I've always enjoyed it. But when we wanted to eat something again, I couldn't recreate it because I didn't write it down and I have a horrible memory for details. Now I have a written record of my recipes, I get to write – which is something I enjoy immensely – and if people want to read, then they can.

For me it's all about local, fresh ingredients. I buy directly from the farmers whenever I can. My blog features the food we eat and the people who grow it. I cook simply because the superb products I get don't need much to bring out their fresh, robust flavors. I have a list of my local sources on my blog and I'm always looking for more. I never worry about the safety or freshness of our food when I know where it comes from. Having a relationship with the people who grow your food is the best way to approach food, it's very satisfying and it's a win-win sort of situation.

Q: Who reads WhatGeeksEat.com?

I have about 200 readers a day now and I've been consistently growing since I started last September. People find my blog through comments I've left on other blogs, links from other blogs, and blog portals. Many of my readers are fellow food bloggers, and others are just people who like to eat well. I have readers from all over the world, and I always find that surprising. I'm always amazed by the praise I get – nothing but love and kindness has been coming my way.

VVK: How much time do you spend working on the blog?

VB: I probably blog everything we eat. I work on it about four days a week, anywhere between one to three hours a day, depending if I have research to do or if I need to leave comments on my blog or elsewhere. I also spend time marketing it by linking it to blog portals.

VVK: What makes your blog special – how does it stand out from other food blogs?

I'd like to think that it's my fabulous content. I've purposely tried to infuse my cooking, writing, and photography with who I really am at this point in my life. I attempt to be humorous, although I'd be the first to admit that my brand of humor is pretty silly. I think my blog design is attractive and easy to use. I work hard on all of this and I think it shows. I like playing with the HTML and PHP code. I've been able to learn a lot of new things over the past six months and that's a huge bonus. It helps that I'm computer literate and married to a genius programmer.

VVK: About that? in the popular imagination, the stereotypical computer geek eats like my former boss from my days working at a small Internet company – his four food groups were cereal with milk, Doritos, mixed nuts and delivery pizza. Your site’s very name, WhatGeeksEat.com, is a declaration to the contrary.

VB: I've always hung out with geeks who like to eat well and were willing to cook for it. In college, in SF and the East Bay, and now here in Middleton and Madison. I don't think it's that uncommon. Cooking is a process and it can be analyzed and improved upon. I've also noticed that there are a lot of geeky food bloggers.

VVK: What has surprised you the most about your blogging experience?

VB: Everything about it surprises me. The growth of my readership, the flexibility of my family to accommodate it, the enormous amount of pride my husband has in me, the new things I learn and how it keeps stretching my brain.

VVK: What do you see as the importance of the greater blogging phenomenon?

VB: Blogging has the potential to replace mainstream media. It's interactive, it's a community and it's dynamic. A blog can react to current events, while print media has a much longer cycle. A good blog is intelligent, well-written, informative and entertaining – which is also true of what good print media is. Blogs just move faster and with much less overhead.

VVK: When you write, who do you imagine your audience to be?

VB: I really don't imagine an audience at all. I try hard to write in my voice and I'm very honest about the food I make. If I don't like something or it turns out to be a complete wreck then that's exactly what you'll read on my blog. The pictures are there to honestly represent the food. I don't do anything special to the food and I have no plating technique – it is what it is. I guess I'm trying to show how easy and satisfying it can be to cook whole foods that are produced locally.

VVK: What are your plans for WhatGeeksEat.com?

VB: I'll keep blogging and I'll continue to improve my blog, and my writing and cooking. It’s fun and creating the blog and feeding it with content is quite satisfying.

I'm learning to share myself with my readers. In real life, I'm kind of shy. But through the written word, I can be more myself. My readers know quite a bit about me and that's good. It lets us all feel connected. Plus, I'm enthusiastic about what I believe in: buying local, supporting sustainable agriculture, being honest and enjoying life.

Strawberry Scones

Recipe from Vanessa Balchen, Food Blogger
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
In Brava magazine, May 2007

“I'm posting a scone recipe monthly. The whole family adores the strawberry scones at Lazy Jane's Cafe and I'm obsessed with recreating them at home,” says Vanessa. This version – her “third iteration,” as she puts it in appropriately geeky terminology – is creatively adapted from Baking With Julia by Julia Child and Dorie Greenspan. “Lazy Jane's scones are denser and toothier. Mine are very light and almost fluffy. I do love the freshness of mine and the strawberriness – I just would like them to be a bit more substantial. And so the quest continues.”

3 cups all purpose, unbleached flour
1/2 cup sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 sticks of cold, unsalted butter cut into tiny pieces
1 cup half and half
1 tablespoon plain yogurt
12 frozen strawberries, sliced

Preheat oven to 425° F. Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and sugar. Add butter and work it into the flour mixture using your hands. Don't overwork the flour and butter.

Stir yogurt into half and half and add strawberries. Add this to the flour mixture and mix gently to form a dough.

Turn dough out onto lightly floured counter. Pat into a square about 1/2 inch thick. Cut into squares and place on a parchment-covered cookie sheet. Bake 12 to 15 minutes or until golden brown.

Allow to cool for five minutes and then glaze with a mixture of 1/2 cup powdered sugar, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla, and a splash of orange juice.