Clay Dunn and Zach Patton met in a bar in 2003 when a mutual friend introduced them. “You’re both from the South,” he said. “Talk to each other.” The pair hit it off, and in 2006 they moved into an apartment in Adams Morgan.
Clay and Zach started their blog, the Bitten Word, last February as part of a belated New Year’s resolution. Clay had been a longtime subscriber to a handful of cooking magazines, and though he loved to cook—thanks to a stint in a fine-foods deli in Lexington, Kentucky—he realized he wasn’t using the magazines for their intended purpose: to help him cook better. “It got to a point where we’d leaf through them but not really use them,” says Clay.
Their resolution? To make at least one recipe from each magazine they received. And a blog, they thought, might help them stick to with it. Though some of the recipes have turned out to be flops, they’ve been successful so far in keeping their pledge.
We caught up with Clay and Zach recently to celebrate their blog’s one-year anniversary—February 8, hooray!—and to find out what they’ve learned over the past year. Best and worst recipes? How to host a dinner party? Biggest kitchen disaster? Read on for their answers.
Number of magazines—foodie and nonfoodie—that you subscribe to:
Clay: “We receive eight food magazines (Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Cook’s Illustrated, Martha Stewart Living, Everyday Food, Saveur, and Food Network Magazine) and four nonfoodie (the New Yorker, Entertainment Weekly, Out, and Travel & Leisure). At least four of those subscriptions were gifts.”
Zach: “Twelve, I think? Seven food mags, a couple of lifestyle magazines such as Details and Entertainment Weekly. We recently decided to let our subscriptions to celeb weeklies die. Who needs ’em?”
Favorite magazine in your cache:
Clay: “I’d say it’s a tie between Gourmet and Bon Appétit. If I’m forced to choose between the two, I’d lean toward Gourmet.”
Zach: “Tooootally the Economist. Isn’t that what you’re always supposed to say? No, but seriously, I think my favorite is Gourmet—good recipes, nice food/travel stories, and the writers have such an evident love of food.”
Best and worst food-magazine recipes you’ve ever tried:
Clay: “I think the best dish we’ve made all year is a golden-beet salad from Martha Stewart Living. It was just perfect. For the worst, I’ll nominate gingery sweet-potato soup from Food & Wine—it was truly terrible. But my favorite thing that we’ve done so far is having a bunch of friends over for a taste test of Thomas Keller’s fried chicken against my mom’s recipe. It was a lot of fun. And Mom won.”
Zach: “It’s hard to pick a favorite, but one that comes to mind was lamb chops with dried cherries and port. It hit all the right notes for me, and we’ve made it (or versions of it) several times since then. As for the worst, there are plenty of contenders! We made a chocolate-peanut-butter pie that turned out pretty awful. The peanut-butter filling ended up being incredibly stiff, like super-gelatinous peanut butter Jell-O. That might sound good, but it was terrible.”
Best recipe you’ve ever invented:
Clay: “We belong to Clagett Farm’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program and receive a lot of vegetables during the summer. We often create variations on succotash with whatever vegetables we have on hand. It’s very easy and delicious (especially with bacon thrown in). We also made a bourbon-and-peach ice cream that I’d make again in a heartbeat.”
Zach: “I didn’t invent it myself, but I’ve got to go with my grandmother’s chocolate gravy. She always made it for me and my cousins growing up, so it’s a really nostalgic thing for me. Plus, hello? Chocolate gravy on biscuits for breakfast? Who wouldn’t want that? Until we wrote about it on the blog, I’d never met anyone outside my family who had even heard of it.”
Biggest kitchen disaster:
Clay: “Without a doubt, chocolate cake with milk-chocolate-peanut-butter frosting and homemade peanut brittle. It was delicious but looked like hell.”
Zach: “When we canned tomatoes last summer. Thanks to the CSA, we had access to tons of free, organic, vine-ripened tomatoes last August. So we decided to pick some and can them. We ended up canning about 50 pounds of tomatoes! It was ultimately a success, but it involved spending most of a weekend in a steaming hot kitchen in August. And it was such a huge mess—our kitchen looked like a crime scene.”
Advice for newbies in the kitchen:
Clay: “Don’t forget to season before serving. When you’re nearing the end of cooking a dish, taste it and season it. Don’t be afraid of salt or adding more spice than is called for in a recipe. You can only follow a recipe so far; in the end, you have to adjust things to your own tastes.”
Zach: “Stop making excuses. It’s so easy to say, ‘This recipe calls for too many ingredients,’ or, ‘I don’t have the right equipment for this.’ But if you have a decent knife, a couple pans, and a stove—and you know how to read—you can make just about anything.”
Tips for hosting dinner parties:
Clay: “I think the most important thing you can do is work ahead—cook and prep a day or more prior if the dish allows it. You don’t want to get stuck in the kitchen all night while your guests are having a great time in the other room. But if you do get stuck in the kitchen, be sure to have some snacks for guests while they’re waiting. We’ve been guilty of serving dinner much later than promised.”
Zach: “This probably sounds cliché, but keep things simple. Make one big entrée, such as a roast chicken or pork loin, instead of individual cooked-to-order things such as steaks or cuts of fish. And take your guests up on their offers to help. Don’t make them, you know, peel potatoes or anything like that. But if somebody asks what they can do, let them help out with last-minute stuff: plating salads, grating cheese, pouring wine. Stuff like that. One other tip: If we’re cooking for a bigger event, such as Easter brunch or Thanksgiving dinner, we do this thing the night before where we write the name of each dish we’re planning to serve on an index card, and then place each card in a serving bowl or plate we’re going to use the next day. That way there are no surprises.”
Embarrassingly simple recipe that always impresses guests:
Clay: “Fajita sweet potatoes are just about the simplest side dish that you can make. Our guests always love them.”
Zach: “Ditto—the potatoes. The dish has three ingredients, including olive oil, but the way guests flip out over them, you’d think it was the most complicated dish ever. We call it our ultimate cheat dish.”
Pantry item you can’t cook without:
Clay: “Fresh garlic. At the end of our CSA season, we were essentially able to take as much as we wanted. We did, and we’ve been using it in everything.”
Zach: “Probably onions. I know that’s not sexy, but it seems like every recipe out there starts with an onion.”
Pantry item you most frequently run out of:
Clay: “Olive oil. Almost every dish we cook has at least a teaspoon in it. It seems we’re always on the verge of running out.”
Zach: “Is money a pantry item? No? Okay, olive oil.”
Three courses you’d make for an easy and delicious at-home Valentine’s dinner:
Clay: “I’d start with an arugula salad dressed very simply with lemon, cracked pepper, a touch of olive oil, and shaved Parmesan. For the main course, a nicely done steak with mashed potatoes and maybe some green beans. For dessert, I’d go for either Nigella Lawson’s Chocohotopots (they’re wonderful) or a chocolate-banana bread pudding.”
Zach: “I’d start with a very simple salad of winter greens dressed with nothing but lemon, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Light and refreshing. For the main course, a porterhouse steak. It’s the perfect cut of meat for two people to split, and it’s easy to make. You just sear it on the stove and then finish it in the oven for 15 minutes. Serve the steak with risotto, which I think is maybe the most perfect dish for Valentine’s Day. It’s sumptuous, creamy, and, to me, sexy. And while it does take a fair amount of time to prepare, it’s very easy. For dessert, I’d serve something like a chocolate pot de crème with some fun twist, such as a citrus sauce or something. I know—chocolate on Valentine’s Day. Bold!”
What you’d eat for your last meal:
Clay: “It’s a tough call between steak and pasta. Maybe a starter of pasta with a steak main course?”
Zach: “The first thing that comes to mind is meatloaf, but would that be incredibly boring? I guess I’ll go with a steak—a perfect, juicy, medium-rare steak.”
Three must-have utensils or tools in a kitchen:
Clay: “Definitely a Cuisinart—this is one of those appliances that I question how we got along without it. I’d say the same thing about our salad spinner. We bought it when we first joined a CSA and absolutely love it. It makes me want to make salad. I’d also include a Microplane grater/zester on my list. It’s not an everyday sort of tool, but it’s very handy.”
Zach: “Clay is a huge fan of kitchen gadgets (which is why we have four separate devices for peeling garlic). I tend to be kind of anti-gadget. I do think everyone should have one very sharp, high-quality knife. It’s shocking how much easier that makes everything. Also, a cast-iron skillet. It heats and cooks food differently from a regular saucepan, and I love that you can sear something in it and then throw the whole thing into the oven.”
Favorite ten-minute dessert:
Clay: “Grilled fruit with fresh whipped cream. It’s so simple and satisfying. Make it indoors using a grill pan.”
Zach: “In the summer, I think there’s no dessert that’s better or easier than grilled peaches. Cut them into halves or quarters, throw them on a hot grill for ten minutes, and serve with some cool homemade whipped cream.”
Where you go when you want a night off from the kitchen:
Clay: “For special occasions, Cashion’s Eat Place is one of our favorites. For everyday dining, we love Bistrot du Coin, Duplex Diner, and ordering takeout from Meiwah.”
Zach: “Bistrot du Coin in Dupont Circle. The atmosphere is great—loud, fun, and elbow-to-elbow tables. And I love the food. It’s the one restaurant where I don’t even pretend to look at the menu anymore, because I know everything that’s on it.”
Finish this sentence: “If I started a food magazine, it’d be called . . .”
Clay: “The Bitten Word! No, honestly, if I started a food magazine it’d probably be called Basics, and the content would be focused on very basic and useful information for new cooks, with easy dishes that can be cooked any night of the week.”
Zach: “Martha Stewart Living. But since that’s taken, maybe I’d call it One or something like that. I love recipes that use traditional ingredients but have that one thing—that one unexpected ingredient or that one spin on preparation—that makes them completely different. We recently made a chicken dish that was essentially just a traditional roast chicken, but it called for the Indian spice garam masala, which just made the whole thing a completely new dish. Or in the summer, we love to make a grilled Caesar salad. It’s a completely traditional Caesar, but you grill the Romaine lettuce first. It totally changes the entire salad. I love stuff like that!”
Favorite local food blogs besides your own:
Clay: “For food and recipes, my favorites are Cookography (they have amazing photography) and Pete Bakes (it’s an adorable blog). If I’m wanting restaurant news, I go to Metrocurean, Capital Spice, or DC Foodies.
Zach: “I love Pete Bakes, too. The breads and sweet things he bakes always look amazing. And I’m in constant awe of the stunning photos on Cookography. I rely on Metrocurean to keep me up to date on new DC restaurants to try.”
Next week in the Blogger Beat, we talk about the ins and outs of Reston with Restonian. Find out what he loves and hates about the planned community, when he thinks the Silver Line to Dulles will be completed (um, never?), and his pick for Reston’s most bizarre crime. Stay tuned!
Have a favorite local blogger you’d like to hear from? Send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.