Cooks With Computers
I made my mother cry this Christmas. Well, maybe her eyes didn't actually fill with tears, but she did choke up a little as she watched me serve up ravioli for the holiday meal."I can't even tell you how happy I am to see this sight," she said. "You cooking me dinner. I never thought it would happen."You see, I'm an anomaly in a family of passionate and skilled Italian chefs. Homemade gnocci, crostini, biscotti -- the names trip easily off my tongue, but I couldn't make even one of those dishes if you paid me. It seemed clear that the family recipes, some handed down from my great-grandmother Vincenti, would die in my spatula-impaired hands.A few factors fell into place, however, that promised a brave new future for the family culinary traditions. I tired of eating out and discovered the beauty of a well-crafted meal, as well as the satisfaction of doing it myself. This last factor solidified last year when I logged on to the Web one day and typed the word food into a search engine.I was interested in seeing what this odd marriage of computer and dining had to offer -- what, after all, could seem more removed from the kitchen than a PC? But my screen began scrolling through dozens of sites dealing with everything from regional restaurant recommendations to treatises on bulimia. Then I found the actual food sites: pages and pages dedicated to sharing cooking tips, recipes, traditions, photos -- every nugget of knowledge you could hope to find was cooking on the Web.What once had been the well-guarded secrets of families or renowned chefs was suddenly in the hands of any cook with a computer. My grandmother's little metal recipe box had just been expanded to the world.One of the best sites I found was Molly's Cyber Kitchen (www.cyber-kitchen.com). Molly is both witty and prolific, with recipe pages cataloged into ethnic foods, desserts, beverages, vegetarian dishes, kosher foods, dishes for diabetics and more. Molly also links to a multitude of other sites, including recipe rings, discussion groups and "beautiful and bizarre" pages (such as one dedicated to Spam). One of the best parts of Molly's site is her Helpful Kitchen Hints section, featuring suggestions from her readers, as well as herself. Among her helpful hints are microwaving lemons or oranges for a few seconds before juicing in order to get more out of them, or using dental floss to slice cinnamon roll dough.Sites such as The Foodcorner.com (www.foodcorner.com), a new site established just last month, send registrants a free recipe every day, along with cooking tips from the Food Corner chefs. Foodcorner.com is still in the growing stages -- it's not as visually exciting as other recipe rings -- but the featured formulas for dishes such as cheese and onion quiche are easy enough for novice chefs to follow. True beginners should also look to the Kids Cooking Club (www.kidscook. com/club), for simple, yet fun recipes such as pizzeria tomato spread. Parents and kids can send in for monthly project kits and join in on crafts, too.Fans of gourmet cooking might prefer the Epicurious site (www.epicurious.com), featuring articles from Bon Apptit and Gourmet, as well as a wealth of recipes. Prior to Valentine's Day, the site featured a selection of red recipes and created five Valentine menus including chilled red pepper-tomato soup, spiced venison steaks with red cabbage confit and red wine sauce, and strawberry-rhubarb "courting" cake). Culinary fans of Sacramento's popular Il Forniao Restaurant can find some of their favorite dishes on www.ilfornaio.com. The site posts the secrets behind such delicacies as torta di ricotta as its recipe of the week, and also features job listings, restaurant information and a magazine devoted to the chain.As with much of the content on the Web, food sites are often produced with a sense of fun. Iowa State's Department of Entomology has posted its "Tasty Insect Recipes" (www.ent.iastate. edu/misc/InsectsAsFood.html), including such yummy treats as banana worm bread, rootworm beetle dip and chocolate chirpie chip cookies. For a compendium of weirdly wonderful food sites, check out The Useless Pages (www.go2net.com/internet/useless/uselees/food.html). The site links to pages on such weighty topics as The Bacon Worship Page, Encyclopedia Bananica and Lettuce Preservation Society.Coffee fanatics should drink in the CyberCup Cafe (www.cybercup.com) for chats on coffee and tea trends, blends and traditions. Or for the less elite diner and drinker, there's EatHere (www.eathere.com), a guide to roadside coffee shops and diners, blue plate specials, truck stops and more.Another more comprehensive site is www.culinary.net. Among its many features is the Farmers' Market, which includes facts, kosher designations, preparation instruction and availability on fruits and vegetables. The site also contains a cookbook load of baking information, as well as tips on cooking tools.My favorite site, however, for both the karmic and culinary knowledge is The Astrologer's Cookbook (www.cam.org/~thatsit/mainck.html). The sites features health and cooking tips based on your sun sign. For example, Pisceans should eat foods rich in iron, minimize coffee intake and concentrate on a high-protein diet. The recipes listed, complete with search engine, include an astro-recommendation, along with the nutritional information.Although it seems a little deceptive to add dishes such as Gov. Pete Wilson's barbecue chicken (off the Traveler's Choice Web site of Governor's recipes: www.virtualcities.com), to my family's cooking repertoire, I suppose the real test is what I bring to each recipe. For as much as cooks may chat, post or link to each other on the Web, when it comes down to it, there's no one in my kitchen, but me. The particular spices, twists or textures I bring to the dishes are what make them mine and allows me to add them to the family recipe box as if they were my own.