Cooking on a budget led Milwaukee newcomer to blogs. Now she’s a cookbook author. – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Kristine M. Kierzek

When Erin Clarke moved to Milwaukee, she didn’t really know anyone. Her husband was in law school, and they were also on a budget. A friend suggested creating a blog as a way to find a community, and Clarke dove right in. 

She started by sharing one of her grandmother’s recipes. When she got feedback asking for more recipes, she knew she’d found her community. 

Nearly a decade later, she’s still sharing recipes from her home on the east side of Milwaukee, where she lives with her husband, Ben, and her Well Plated blog has fans around the world. 

Now, Clarke’s first cookbook, “The Well Plated Cookbook”, is due in stores Aug. 25. 

Question: How did you develop your interest in cooking?

Answer: I grew up baking alongside my grandmother. I lived in Wichita, Kansas. Every Thursday in summer, she’d pick us up. She picked out a dessert recipe for us to try each week. They started simple with cookies. As we got older and knew more, we got to do more complicated things, like cake, chocolate mousse. She was the first person that instilled a love of preparing desserts. She also taught me how to read a recipe.

Q: What influences have remained with your kitchen approach today? 

A: From childhood on, I’d always had a love of baking. We grew up eating a lot of Midwest comfort foods, macaroni and cheese, casseroles, my grandma’s beef stroganoff. I didn’t really get into cooking and preparing savory foods until after college. I was a seasoned baker, but I discovered you can’t live on scones and bakery no matter how much you’d like to. 

I was living in Minnesota, going to the farmers market. I grew up eating canned vegetables. I discovered the world of seasonal produce. I learned what it means to cook with asparagus in March and April and corn and zucchini and tomatoes later in summer. I was also paying off student loans, so I was drawn to seasonal cooking because not only is that when things taste their best, but they’re most affordable. 

I got married and started cooking for myself and my husband, who was in law school at the time. We weren’t eating out. I was trying to make enough food for lunch and dinner every night. I went to the library and checked out a huge stack of Ina Garten’s cookbooks. Then I realized I miss my grammy’s cooking. She’d give me her recipes over the phone. … In the cookbook, there is a recipe called Grammy’s Green Chile Enchiladas. The version she makes is with sour cream and green chiles. I started with “Can I make this healthier with Greek yogurt?” … I did a few things that made it better for us, something I’d feel good about serving multiple times per week, not just special occasions. We still have those enchiladas for Christmas dinner, but this was a way to make it a part of my life more regularly. 

Q: How did you end up starting a food blog?

A: It started as a hobby back in 2012. I had moved to a new city with my husband in law school, didn’t have many friends. My friend suggested starting a food blog. … I discovered this whole network of people sharing recipes online. I posted the enchilada recipe online, sent it to my mom. A few days later, a girlfriend from high school said, “Hey, we made the recipe, it was really good, do you have any others?” That was the moment I fell in love with sharing recipes.

Q: What was your focus for the blog?

A: There was this need for healthy recipes that were approachable and affordable. I don’t think you should have to spend a fortune or spend hours in the kitchen to make it happen. When I started this, my husband was in school. We were on a budget. The recipes have evolved, because back when I started, it was, here I am world, all four people reading, this is what I made this week. Now it is, “What kind of recipes do my readers need this week?” Because no matter how tired you are, you need dinner every night. Then lunch happens. 

Q: What’s the gadget or kitchen tool you can’t live without? 

A: If there’s ever a fire, I’m leaving the baby pictures and taking the Dutch oven. 

Q: Your secret for a perfect grilled cheese sandwich? 

A: Well, the secret to a perfect grilled cheese is to cook it low and slow and be patient. I know you’re hungry, and you just want to throw it on the skillet, but if you do that you will burn it. Do low and slow. It gets the perfect outside and gooey cheese inside.

Q: What’s the first cookbook you bought for yourself? Or the one you turn to again and again?

A: A friend gifted me Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.” That book taught me so much, and looking back, probably influenced how I wrote my cookbook. He is a master at teaching you how to take a base concept or technique and showing you all the recipe spin-offs. … Another hero of mine with recipe writing is Dorie Greenspan. … Something I learned from Dorie is that I can’t just tell you to cook it for four minutes. How does it smell, what does it look like? 

Q: Have you met Dorie Greenspan?

A: I made a recipe of hers and posted it to my Instagram. … I tagged Dorie. I sent her a note, “My first cookbook is coming out, you’ve been so helpful and influential. I’d love to send you a copy.” She wrote back within an hour and said she’d pre-ordered a book. I hope she approves. 

Q: What do you want people to know about creating this cookbook? 

A: The core of any great cookbook is having meticulously tested and written recipes. You can have beautiful photos and the fanciest cover, but at the end of the day, if your recipes don’t work, it doesn’t matter. If I didn’t dance around the kitchen when making something, and my testers didn’t rave, it didn’t make the book. All the recipes in my book are new, not in my blog. 

Q: What’s the No. 1 lesson you’ve learned to become a better cook? 

A: Practice. Don’t be scared. At the end of the day, pizza is only a phone call away, so you really just have to go for it. 

RELATED:A strong work ethic and lessons from the pros helped Dane Baldwin make The Diplomat restaurant special

Table Chat features interviews with Wisconsinites, or Wisconsin natives, who work in restaurants or support the restaurant industry; or visiting chefs. To suggest individuals to profile, email psullivan@gannett.com.

Erin Clarke is doing a virtual cooking demo/book event in partnership with Boswell Books at 7 p.m. Aug. 31. Register for the Zoom meeting at us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZAudeiqrzIiHtBam8gCV6MjKLlU50dNLyZE