Alone for dinner one night in early September, I decided to put a slightly classy spin on my grilled cheese craving and prepared an avocado quesadilla. The dish was (and still is) one of the most popular recipes on the food blog Big Girls Small Kitchen, where it falls under the “Cooking for One” category. One bite and I realized why the recipe is so well loved: With few ingredients and minimal preparation required, it’s the kind of comfort-food meal that still qualifies as nutritious. Most importantly, the stuff is shockingly delicious — so delicious that I made it several times more in the weeks that followed, each time feeling more like a real home cook.
BGSK is run by Cara Eisenpress, a 29-year-old chef and freelance writer who calls herself the “quarter-life cook.” Two months after I first encountered her blog, I met her at her Brooklyn apartment and realized that feeling I had — that sense of pride and competence in the kitchen — is exactly what she’s going for. If she can inspire today’s twenty-somethings to realize that they can cook for themselves and actually enjoy the relatively nutritious meals they prepare, she’s done her job.
A Few of My Favorite Foods: Why She Cooks
Eisenpress agreed to let me cook with her if I came to her apartment at 8 am on a frigid Friday morning. Though it was practically still dark out, we were supposed to be channeling our inner Italian chefs, making Eisenpress’ recipe for creamy zucchini orechiette. In a kitchen that was indeed as small as the blog name suggests, Eisenpress put a pot of water on to boil and led me back to the living room couch to chat.
Eisenpress launched Big Girls Small Kitchen in 2008 with a friend; recent college graduates, they chose the term “big girls” to reflect their relative maturity. For the past two years, Eisenpress has been running the blog on her own. Right now the site averages about 350,000 monthly visits; the BGSK weekly newsletter has over 7,000 subscribers.
Earlier this year, Eisenpress also became the content manager at Blue Apron, a meal subscription service that markets itself toward young professionals looking to eat healthy without necessarily learning to cook. I was curious to know how she did it all.
“It’s constantly evolving,” she said of her schedule. But mostly, Eisenpress told me, she cooks and shoots the meals she and her husband actually eat for dinner. “I want to be in the same position as readers,” she said, referring to the audience of busy, social 20-somethings who read her blog. Weeknight meals — ranging from linguine for one to lasagna for a crowd — “those are the things I really want to be posting about.”
The way Eisenpress sees it, “a lot of people in the demographic [in their mid-20s] rule out cooking,” and she wants to be the resource people seek when they first set foot in the kitchen. When I asked her why she advocates home cooking, I expected her to recite something about the relative health benefits, especially compared to gorging on restaurant-sized portions — and she did, at first. Then she interrupted herself. “For me, it’s the process of figuring out what I love to eat. I know that a grilled cheese sandwich will satisfy me every time.”
Her answer surprised me, since the debate around home cooking often focuses on whether it’s healthier than eating out. But perhaps the secret allure of learning to cook is liberating yourself from dependency on Chipotle and knowing you can prepare something better, because it was made just the way you like it.
More than that, learning to cook is often part of learning to live independently. “I do think it’s empowering,” she said. “Just to know that you can feed yourself.”
Chop ’til You Drop: We Get Cooking
When the water started to boil, we returned to the kitchen, where Eisenpress dumped half a box of shell noodles into the pot. She grabbed a zucchini and a lemon from the refrigerator, and then handed me a chopping knife.
Hesitantly, I picked up the knife (a larger instrument than I typically used) and pointed it towards the zucchini. She gently instructed me on the proper technique, and thus informed, I set to work cutting up the vegetables.
As I chopped, Eisenpress took care of the saucepan, adding olive oil, a shallot, and garlic without so much as glancing back at the recipe. When she noticed the garlic starting to burn, she added the zucchini, poured in some cream, and stirred. We each took a fork for tasting. Too much lemon, Eisenpress decided, and added more cream to the sauce.
With a pasta spoon, Eisenpress ladled the shells into the saucepan and mixed the sauce and noodles together. In two small bowls we tasted the dish (it was only 8:30 in the morning, after all) and packed up the remainder in the refrigerator.
The following week, I scheduled a trip to the supermarket to replenish my stock of the usual suspects: yogurt, eggs, cheese sticks, Ragu. At the last minute I checked the orechiette recipe and added the full list of ingredients. There was no one coming over and, unless I resorted to Instagram, there would be no one to applaud my culinary efforts. The dinner was just for me. I didn’t mind, though. After all, I’m a big girl.
Photos courtesy of Cara Eisenpress of Big Girls Small Kitchen.
Which food blogs do you find most inspiring? Let us know in the comments below or tweet the author at @ShanaDLebowitz.