Monday, May 20, 2013

UnRecipe: The Secret of Food Blogging and the Comfort Food Gnome in Your Brain

Friends have often asked, what does it take to have a successful food blog? Is there some secret SEO-sorcery? A mystery, wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in a taco, to unlock like some mysterious DaVinci Code? Perhaps it's just about knowing all the right people and being at the right place at the right time? My answer: I have no idea, but post some photos of some cheesy, gooey pasta and it's a hit parade. It's not that simple, of course, but the almighty glutinous noodle is as popular as it is ubiquitous, and it never fails to get appetites whetted, no matter how many plates of noodles we see. Today's post proves the Power of Pasta -- even with random ingredients and a pantry full of nothing special, baked pasta with spicy Italian sausage, smothered with cheese is always a winner.

Baked pasta and my Big Fat Italian Belly after eating it - Photo by Wasabi Prime
Another tip for a successful blog is to write about faraway exotic places and equally exotic eats. Baked pasta isn't all that worldly, but I was writing this post in the Hawaiian Airlines lounge at the Honolulu International Airport (a week ago, I'm back in Washington now), awaiting an interisland flight that will take me to the Big Island to see family. So that's kind of exotic. Okay, not really. I just wanted the free wifi. But it did get me thinking about what makes for posts that readers connect to, and while exciting new restaurants, complex food preparation methods and unusual ingredients are all fantastic reads, don't discount the power of familiar comforts. And never question the Power of Pasta.

Seriously. Just post a giant plate of spaghetti and meatballs and people go nuts! And rightly so. It was the favorite childhood dish for many. It was my first introduction to Italian food, despite its highly Americanized lineage. I can't resist a plate of pasta and red sauce, it's my Kryptonite and I know I'm not alone, hence its blog-worthy draw. This baked ziti with spicy Italian sausage was like a grown-up version of spaghetti and meatballs. I was having a long week, lots of deadlines and not much time to fuss over meal prep, which is often the precursor to making a meal of pure comfort bliss. I fully believe there's a subconscious Comfort Food Gnome that lives in our brains; it ensures that we always have the base ingredients handy in our kitchens, at all times. At any given moment, I always have a box of pasta in the pantry, along with a can or two of crushed tomatoes. And garlic -- there's always garlic. That Comfort Food Gnome in my brain makes sure these basics are never absent from our kitchen, so that a plate of pasta with a garlic-heavy red sauce is always at my fingertips. I'm sure everyone's Comfort Food Brain-Gnome makes sure there's crucial ingredients available in kitchens everywhere. We can credit this gnome for making sure our pantry is never without peanut butter and a clean spoon.

I did have one bright, shiny ingredient I was excited to have, some fresh Italian sausage from Bill the Butcher. It was one of those impulse buys -- I was picking up some other things for a recipe I was developing and I saw two lone Italian sausages sitting on the tray, like orphaned puppies, needing a home. Don't worry, I don't bake orphaned puppies in pasta with cheese, but these spiced links o' meat needed to be showcased in something simple but wonderful. I did a pan-sear on these puppies (har-har) to get some color, and then sautéed some chopped garlic in the pan with olive oil and threw in a big can of chopped tomatoes with some dried oregano and salt/pepper to taste -- pretty basic. I had another pot of salted water boiling to cook the pasta, just below al dente, since I knew they would continue to cook in the oven. I sliced the seared sausages -- they were still raw in the center, which was fine since the oven would finish them -- and I tossed the slices with the pasta and the sauce before getting them into a baking dish. I put a healthy blanket of shaved Parmesan over everything and put it into a preheated oven. Comfort Meal Heaven. It made life worth living that week, let me tell you.

The Comfort Food Gnome served me well, I had all the basics I needed, plus the bonus of some tasty Italian sausages to make what's probably one of the simplest but satisfying meals. Meat, cheese, noodles and sauce. It's literally the keys to the kingdom when it comes to food blogging, but only because it speaks to us in such universal ways. In all its ingredient permutations, we never fail to gravitate towards something so basic, and maybe that's the real key to a successful food blog, finding that universal flavor experience thread that weaves its way through so many lives. That, and the existence of the Comfort Food Gnome in your brain.

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