Online cooking groups dish up friendships

CHICAGO TRIBUNEApril 1, 2014 

Unite an online group around kung pao chicken.

MCT

Laurie Woodward is flying from her home in Pittsburgh in April across the country to Mukilteo, Wash., to serve as matron of honor to a bride she's never met. And it's all because of baking.

"She's one of my best friends," says Woodward of the bride, Peabody Rudd.

Although the two have never met in person, they've baked together online via a blog called Tuesdays With Dorie ( http://tuesdayswithdorie.wordpress.com ). Woodward, a stay-at-home mom of three, started the blog in 2008 as she tackled cookbook author Dorie Greenspan's "Baking: From My Home to Yours" - recipe by recipe. She asked family and friends to join her in baking and blogging, the idea caught on, and people just joined in.

"I'm still sort of shocked. I started it on a whim," Woodward says.

Cyberfriendships like Woodward and Rudd's are increasingly common as cooks head to the kitchen with laptops, iPhones and other devices. Cooks are finding themselves tied together as much by mouse clicks as apron strings. Fostered by various social media platforms, Web-based cooking communities have formed, offering friendship along with recipes, giving exposure to various members' blogs and offering the possibility of cyberexchanges with famed cookbook authors.

These author-focused cooking groups are like the neighborhood cooking clubs of old but on a much broader scale, says David Leite, New York City-based publisher of the online food magazine Leite's Culinaria. Social media, he says, allows readers, cooks and authors to interact freely with one another to a degree never imagined before.

"It's a globalization of what has always gone on and it's becoming a huge phenomenon," Leite says. "What the Internet and social media have done is retire the gatekeeper. It's been democratized."

That democratization is key. For while these groups offer terrific attention - authors say they love it - this type of community is developed at the grass-roots level. Take the two groups devoted to Greenspan, for example.

"They are not driven by Dorie or her publisher," says Betsy Pollack, a Lexington, Mass.-based blogger and a coordinator for French Fridays With Dorie ( http://frenchfridayswithdorie.com ), a second group formed by Woodward to cook through Greenspan's "Around My French Table."

"They came from a community of people who were interested in cooking the recipes she had," Pollack says. "It is up to an individual to say, 'I really like this book and I want to share it with other people. Let's start a group.'"

Matthew Lardie, a blogger from Durham, N.C., did just that. A member of Tuesdays With Dorie, he started Wok Wednesdays ( http://wokwednesdays.wordpress.com ) because there wasn't an outlet for folks interested in stir-frying like he was. Now, the rapidly growing group - 432 members at last count - is working through Grace Young's "Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge."

"Cook with people for four or five years and they become your coffee klatch," says Trevor Kensey, an Irvine, Calif.-based blogger and a member of French Fridays.

Kensey says participation in French Fridays means pushing culinary horizons by cooking dishes he normally wouldn't, honing skills and getting immediate feedback from other members checking his work.

"I've learned there is no dish I can't make," he says. "I'm not intimidated by anything. If I want to make it, I can."

The following spicy chicken dish from Young's "Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge" has been the most popular recipe so far at Wok Wednesdays. It "generated the most comments and discussions by far," he says. Look for Shao Hsing rice wine, Chinkiang vinegar and Sichuan peppercorns in Asian markets, or use the substitutes suggested.

KUNG PAO CHICKEN

Prep: 25 minutes; cook: 7 minutes; makes: 2 to 3 servings as a main dish with rice, 4 servings as part of a multicourse meal

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thigh or breast, cut into 3/4-inch cubes

2 tablespoons minced ginger

1 tablespoon minced garlic

2 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch

1 teaspoon soy sauce

1 teaspoon plus 1 tablespoon Shao Hsing rice wine or dry sherry

2 teaspoons sugar

3/4 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons chicken broth

1 tablespoon Chinkiang or balsamic vinegar

1 teaspoon dark soy sauce

1 teaspoon sesame oil

2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil

4 to 8 dried red chili peppers, snipped on one end

1/2 teaspoon roasted and ground Sichuan peppercorns, see note

1 large red bell pepper, cut into 1-inch squares

3/4 cup unsalted roasted peanuts

1/2 cup minced green onions

In a medium bowl combine the chicken, ginger, garlic, cornstarch, soy sauce, 1 teaspoon of the rice wine, 1 teaspoon of the sugar, 1/2 teaspoon of the salt and 1 teaspoon cold water. Stir to combine. In a small bowl combine the broth, vinegar, dark soy sauce, sesame oil and the remaining 1 tablespoon rice wine.

Heat a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok or 12-inch skillet over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact. Swirl in 1 tablespoon peanut oil; add the chilies and ground Sichuan peppercorns. With a metal spatula, stir-fry 15 seconds or until the chilies just begin to smoke. Push the chili mixture to the sides of the wok. Carefully add the chicken; spread it evenly in one layer in the wok.

Cook undisturbed, letting the chicken begin to sear, 1 minute. Then stir-fry until the chicken is lightly browned but not cooked through, 1 minute.

Swirl the remaining 1 tablespoon peanut oil into the wok. Add the bell peppers and stir-fry 1 minute or until the peppers begin to soften. Swirl the broth mixture into the wok and stir-fry 1 minute or until the chicken is just cooked through. Add the peanuts and green onions, sprinkle on the remaining 1 teaspoon sugar and 1/4 teaspoon salt; stir-fry until the green onions are bright green, about 30 seconds.

Note: Put Sichuan peppercorns in a dry, cold wok or skillet and remove any tiny stems. Stir over medium-low heat until the peppercorns are very fragrant and slightly smoking, 3-5 minutes. Be careful not to let them burn. Once they're cooled, grind them in a mortar; store any extra in a jar.

Nutrition per serving (for 3 servings): 519 calories, 33 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 141 mg cholesterol, 23 g carbohydrates, 33 g protein, 983 mg sodium, 6 g fiber

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