Why I Cook: Well Plated by Erin Clarke
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Blogger and cookbook author Erin Clarke wants to spread the word that wholesome, homey meals can be made on the cheap.
As a young professional with student debt and then again as a newlywed with a husband in law school, Erin Clarke quickly became acquainted with economical cooking. Using kitchen know-how she gleaned from her grandmas, Erin made a hobby of developing healthful, affordable recipes.
Now she does it full time for millions of monthly readers at Well Plated By Erin and in her book, The Well Plated Cookbook. The coolest part? Erin is located near our Milwaukee headquarters. We were excited to chat with her.
Taste of Home: Where are you from and how did you get started in the kitchen?
Erin Clarke: I grew up in Wichita, Kansas, cooking alongside both of my grandmothers. Every week in the summer, my Grammy would pick out a different dessert for us to bake together, and my Grandma Dorothy was famous for her midwestern comforts like beef Stroganoff and homemade cinnamon rolls. My love for the kitchen started with these two incredible women.
TOH: You’re a full-time blogger, recipe developer and cookbook author who used to be a consultant. Describe that professional transition.
EC: It was so scary at the beginning. I went from the corporate world, where you always know your next step, to a world with little structure at all. Now, what used to unnerve me about blogging—the fact that the path ahead is never 100% clear—is what excites me about it. I feel immeasurably lucky to have a career that I enjoy, that gives me room to use both my creative and business brains and that has given me a personal connection with so many of my readers.
Courtesy Becky Hardin
TOH: So many of our readers are also located in the Midwest. How has living in this region of the country influenced your food preferences, cooking styles, etc.?
EC: Living in the Midwest taught me that you don’t need to use the most expensive ingredients to create a meal that makes those around you feel loved. I am inspired by taking the homey meals of my childhood and giving them a modern, nourishing spin that doesn’t compromise that essential comfort factor.
TOH: You place an emphasis on affordability, which our audience is all about. What are your tips for grocery-shopping on a budget, finding deals or stretching ingredients?
EC: For produce, you always do best shopping for what’s in season because it’s better priced and higher quality. Here in the Midwest, we have long winters, so using frozen fruits and vegetables is a great way to stretch your dollar without losing nutrition. I also find that investing in pantry staples, such as spices, dried grains and canned goods, gives you an excellent starting point. You can then begin with what is in your pantry and add a few fresh things here and there, rather than having to start from scratch with every recipe.
TOH: You love dessert and even held bake sales as a child. What’s your favorite sweet? And how do you lighten it up?
EC: I am partial to messy desserts—the kinds that don’t look pretty in a bakery case but are prime for topping with vanilla ice cream—such as brownies, crisps and melty chocolate chip cookies. The key to healthy baking that doesn’t taste, well, healthy is not to change everything at once. If you strip out all sugar, fat and flour, you’ll end up with something akin to cardboard. Instead, I make small changes, like swapping in whole grains here and replacing some of the butter with yogurt there. This adds up to a dessert that is better for you but actually satisfies your sweet tooth.
Courtesy Becky Hardin
TOH: It sounds like you’ve done quite a bit of traveling. What’s your most memorable food-related experience from a trip?
EC: Food is the reason I love to travel, and it inspires me in the kitchen. I absolutely adored Japan. From gourmet dinners where it’s just you, three other people and the chef slicing sushi in front of you, to standing-room-only ramen bars, the breadth and quality of food in Japan is special. I also hold a special place in my heart for France, where I studied abroad. The country’s emphasis on local ingredients taught me that success in the kitchen starts with the ingredients around you (plus, croissants!).
TOH: What ingredients do you always have on hand?
EC: If you have soy sauce, garlic, leftover greens, and a block of tofu or can of chickpeas, you have a 15-minute dinner. I also always stock up on Greek yogurt for both cooking and snacking; a hard and soft, melty cheese; and a few different whole grains, like brown rice and oatmeal. Dark chocolate chips are also handy for, er, “emergencies.”
TOH: What is your favorite thing about cooking? The “why” of why you cook!
EC: Nothing says “I love you” like a home-cooked meal, whether you are cooking for your family, your partner, a group of friends or yourself. No matter what else is going on in the world, the kitchen is the place where I can nourish myself and those around me.
Courtesy Erin Clarke
Try one of Erin’s favorite ways to start the day—a filling, fresh open-faced breakfast sandwich. The recipe serves two.
- 1 medium ripe avocado, peeled and cubed
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/8 teaspoon pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, optional
- 1 whole grain bagel
- 2 eggs
Step 1: Prep avocado and bagel
In a small bowl, mash cubed avocado; stir in salt, pepper and, if desired, red pepper flakes. Using a paring knife, enlarge center hole of bagel to at least a 1-1/2-in. width. Spread butter on cut sides of bagel.
Step 2: Toast bagel
Place bagel, butter sides down, in a skillet over medium heat. Cook until golden brown, 1-2 minutes; remove to plate. Spread avocado mixture over browned sides. Return bagel halves to skillet, avocado sides up.
Step 3: Add egg
Crack egg into center of each bagel half. Cook, covered, over medium heat until eggs are cooked to desired doneness. Transfer to a serving plate; garnish as desired.