Food blogs and cookbooks: a taste of the garden state

Deborah Smith did not grow up surrounded by chefs and did not have a heritage of family recipes. She was raised by a single working mother who did not like to cook. Once she left for college, however, Smith developed a curiosity for cuisine. She loved cooking for friends, found the kitchen to be a creative outlet and used the Food Network as her culinary school.

One of Smith’s signature dishes are ribs. One day at a barbecue, several people asked her for a copy of the recipe. Since 1998, Smith had run an online marketing business, so throwing together a blog seemed like a second-nature solution to give recipes to friends in one shot. It began as something simple, but by the time it officially became “JerseyBites” in 2007, Smith’s site had become a pivotal source for Garden State food news.

“I began thinking about food in New Jersey – how we have so many different resources between the farms and the fisheries, how we have so much to be proud of sandwiched between New York and Philadelphia and yet we don’t get enough credit,” Smith said. “Restaurant reviews had declined in papers and I thought there was a need for it … It was just me, myself and I for two years.”

Finally inspired to seek extra help so she could cover the whole state, Smith reached out to the community to look for contributors, and the food writers came running.

“We’ve built wonderful friendships out of it. Many of the writers have been here since the beginning nine years ago,” Smith said. “It keeps growing and growing.”

The hook of JerseyBites.com is that any tristate foodie can access it and immediately view a plethora of recipes; a calendar of culinary events including festivals and wine tastings where viewers can submit their own events; restaurant and chef spotlights; Jersey Fresh produce products from jams and jellies to barbecue sauces; food trucks and farms. They also cover the state beer scene – spearheaded by Smith’s better half, Peter Culos.

“Anything that’s edible in the Garden State, we like to cover,” Smith said.

Smith’s favorite component of the website is meeting fellow foodies throughout. In addition to being a blogger and marketing guru, Smith also writes recipes and recently launched her first book, “Jersey Cook Book” – a hard cover, full color sampling of the Jersey Shore’s bill of fare, filled with photos by Princeton-based photographer Thomas Robert Clarke. Each recipe by a Jersey Shore restaurant is accompanied by a personal account written by Smith.

“It’s part cookbook and part story of the Jersey Shore – the business owners who have invested their lives down there, what they did after Sandy,” Smith said.

The blogger took on the project after the publisher, Quirk Books, reached out to her with the idea. They didn’t realize how close the cookbook came to home.

“I spent every day in summer in Sea Bright growing up and I’ve now lived in Point Pleasant Beach for 14 years. I wake up and walk the boardwalk every day,” Smith said.

The most challenging part of putting together the book was inviting restaurants to provide a recipe, though, now that the book has launched, Smith says most of those who came aboard are thrilled. The second most challenging bit was stripping down and editing the recipes so they were applicable in a single kitchen, rather than a kitchen serving dozens.

At the Taste of the Market Series Thursday, Smith dished up some teasers from her cookbook with the help of Jersey Shore Chef Dan Palsi.

Palsi sampled his iconic watermelon, spinach and brandied pecan salad while Smith distributed watermelon gazpacho prepared by My Kitchen Witch, a breakfast-lunch café in Monmouth Beach.

The gazpacho is a deep color pink, yet light and refreshing. It can be served smooth like a cool watermelon soup or with a little more fruit in the punch. The sweetness balanced out the other ingredients, which included flavor-pop ingredients such as fennel, garlic, peppers, jalapeños and lemon juice.  The gazpacho was finished off by diced watermelon for a wonderful summer spoonful.

For additional sneak peaks at Smith’s new book and upcoming signings, visit Jerseyshorecookbook.com. To tune in to statewide food news, visit JerseyBites.com.

About Erica Chayes Wida

Erica Chayes Wida is a writer, mom, and complete zealot when it comes to poetry, paella and globe collections. After graduating with a degree in Anthropology from UCLA, Erica moved to Italy where the seasons and old architecture inspired her journey back to the East Coast. Since then, she and her husband have created a nest egg locally and, over time, developed a rather grand love affair with the town of Princeton. Erica is senior editor at The Princeton Sun and enjoys fulfilling her Princeton affections on a daily basis. | View all posts by Erica Chayes Wida