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Use Real Butter
In her past life, Jen was a NASA programmer, and today she is a freelance nature, food, portrait, and event photographer living and enjoying the outdoors in the Colorado Rockies. Her blog Use Real Butter is more of a directive for life and less about her cooking and baking though food is an integral part of her blog and her life.
I am so pumped to have Jennifer Yu of Use Real Butter joining me today.
(*All images below are Jen’s.)
The first time I started blogging in 2004, I just began a LiveJournal blog, and it seemed that I had about a handful of friends who had LiveJournal blogs. So we just blogged personal stuff and commented on each other’s blog. It was, a dozen people at most, and it was very informal. It’s pretty private, and we were just goofing around. And the reason I started was because my sister had passed away in a car accident just earlier that year, and so I felt it was a good space for me to just get my feelings out and try and work it out in words. It was a little bit of therapy for me to get through that difficult period. And then I noticed over time, I started posting a lot of photos of my food. And so I would put dinner pictures on there, or if we went out to eat for a snack, I’d have a shaved ice on there.
After a while, I noticed there was a group called the Daring Bakers, which now is a huge, huge group. They’re the Daring Bakers and the Daring Cooks, and I think they comprise the Daring Kitchen now. But back then, they were 80 strong when I joined. It was just 80 people, and they would have a recipe designated to make for the next month, and everyone would make it and blog it on a given day. And we went around supporting one another and seeing how everybody had a different interpretation of the recipe as well as just a really nice community of people who liked to bake, people who enjoyed cooking, people who wanted to expand their skill. That’s why I decided to break off Use Real Butter because I wanted to be a part of that group, but I didn’t want all my baggage in with the recipes.
At the start, because the blog was a personal blog, it was all personal. All of my baggage was in there, and as I became more public, I think I’ve reined in what I’m sharing. It seems like I share a lot now, but actually, I don’t. I don’t share that much compared to what I used to. And it’s mostly because the more reach the blog has achieved, the more I am holding back because you get some odd readers who, I mean, there are some people, most of them are really well-intentioned and they just want to be your friend and they want to get to know you, and then others are a little less so. And so I withdrew a little bit to protect, not only myself, but also the people that I care about. But still, a lot of my friends know, like, “Oh, if you have dinner with Jen or if you go out to lunch with Jen, you’re going to show up on the Internet.”
On Her Passion for Food and Cooking:
I think since I was a little kid, I really enjoyed it. It’s odd but I like washing fruit and cutting it up. I used to try and sell it out of my bedroom to my family members as they pass by in the hall, which was kind of odd because if you think about it, my parents bought the fruit and then they’d have to buy it again from me. But I guess I added that extra service of cleaning and cutting fruit.
My grandmother lived with us from pretty much when I was an infant until about when I was nine years old. And she is my mother’s mother, and she cooked so many wonderful things. She was a fantastic cook. Both my parents are fantastic cooks. So when we got together to cook Sunday dinner, I was always there watching. And it was like this big family affair, and they would make Chinese dumplings. And it was just kind of a regular thing every Sunday, and I really enjoyed it. And I think that had a big influence on me.
When I was growing up, I would cook very simple things, and I would experiment with baking because nobody in my family baked. So I can’t tell you how many batches of meringues I have tanked, how many cookies have come out rock hard. But I learned all that when I was little, and in my parent’s kitchen. Then when I went away to college, there were nights when our dorm didn’t provide food or food plans. It was on the weekends, they didn’t provide meals. And so the undergraduates were left to fend for themselves, and I thought, “Oh, I’m going to make X, Y, and Z that mom and dad made at home.”
I could never remember what it was that went into the recipes. I didn’t have recipes, so I just called them up and said, “Mom, how do you make this?” And you know Chinese parents, actually, I think anyone beyond a certain generation, they don’t do recipes. They are just, like, off the top of their head, “Oh, a little bit of soy sauce.” “How much is a little bit?” “I don’t know, you know, a little bit.” And that’s how I got my feet wet with Chinese cooking, and then it became my way of connecting back to my family and my cultural heritage, which I rejected for a long time as a little kid.
On Blogs She’s Followed Since the Beginning:
I think Smitten Kitchen, Deb Perelman’s blog, was one of my early favorites, and it’s still one of my favorites because her recipes are just really solid and reliable. I guess I feel that I like her taste as well. I think that makes a big difference. There are some bloggers, they have gorgeous blogs or whatever, but their style of food is just not my style. So yeah, Deb of Smitten Kitchen. White on Rice Couple, that’s Todd and Diane. We started out around the same time, and we were blog buddies. And then we met in person, and we’ve been good friends ever since. They have a great blog. I love their recipes, but even more, they’re very dear friends of mine.
On Things Not Going as Planned:
Things don’t go as planned, that happens a lot. That happens more than most people would probably think. But do I wish that I were back in science? No, I don’t. I really don’t. That’s something I was happy to move on from. My husband, he remained in science. He’s in astrophysics. And I really felt that we didn’t both need to be in academia. So it’s kind of a nice balance, I think, to have us doing different things. I keep track of what’s going on in his career, and he will sometimes ask me, “Well, there’s a graduate student. This is what the student wants to do. How should I advise?” And I’ll give my take on it, especially if it’s a female student because I think it’s good for male faculty to be more sensitive to female students, and he’s particularly good about that.
But yeah, I don’t miss it at all. I actually like what I do, and I think that’s good because it’s what I chose. It would be terrible if you say, “I choose to do this,” and then you’re like, “This sucks.” So I chose to do this. I’m really happy with it. I think I like managing my time. I work more hours as a freelancer than I did working nine to five in a science desk job. But it’s worth it to me. I like the freedom.
On the Food Culture in Colorado:
It’s a pretty hip scene, I’d say. I think when we moved to Boulder, the first thing we noticed was kind of the sticker shock. Food is a little more expensive in Boulder than it is in where we were, which was Pasadena. Food in LA is, it’s so inexpensive, and it’s so, so good. But Boulder is a little different. The food is really excellent. But you’re going to pay a little more than you would at, let’s say, in San Francisco or in LA. That said, there’s definitely a dedication to local, seasonal farm food, local farmers. They have a lot of great restaurants that focus on, I’d say, modern cuisine, farm-to-table cuisine with European and some Asian fusion influences. That said, their Chinese food in general isn’t that great. They have lots of sushi bars, which is terrific, and there’s quite a bit of Vietnamese in the Denver area. But yeah, other than that, I’m missing a lot of the Asian that I used to get in LA.
Because I couldn’t get it elsewhere, I had to learn to make it myself. My grandmother, when she was alive, she was in San Jose, and so I would go out to visit her several times a year. And every time, we went out to visit, she would take us out to some Chinese restaurant that she had found. It just opened, or it’s been open for a while just down the street. And the food is just fantastic, and we would always get the latest and greatest from the Bay Area Chinese cuisine. I’d come home and think, “Oh, I’m craving this, but there is nowhere for me to get it.” And so I’d have to figure out how to make it myself or look up the recipe.
I don’t think there’s a signature dish (of Colorado’s) that off the top of my head comes to mind, but Colorado lamb in general is phenomenal. I was not a huge fan of lamb before I came to Colorado, and I felt that it tasted a little too, I don’t know if “game-y” is the word, but that’s what comes to mind. It was just the flavor was a little too strong for me. But when I tried Colorado lamb, it is sublime. Really, it’s a mellower flavor, but it’s fantastic. And a lot of the, like I said, Boulder restaurants are dedicated to sourcing their food locally, and so you get Colorado ranchers providing their lamb and it’s fantastic.
And actually, Diane Cu had a similar experience when she and Todd came out. We were doing a workshop together in Boulder, and I took them to dinner at Frasca. One of the courses was lamb, and so she immediately was like, “I don’t like lamb,” so she picked up all of her lamb and put it on Todd’s plate. And he tasted it, and he said, “No, no, it’s really good. You’ve got to taste it.” So she took a taste, and she picked up the lamb that she had put on his plate and put it back on her plate. And that’s how I feel about Colorado lamb. It’s that good.
Also, Colorado peaches (from the Western Slope) are the bomb. And I forage a lot in the mountains in the summertime – mostly porcini, chanterelles, and huckleberries.
The Pressure Cooker:
Which food shows or cooking shows do you watch?
We don’t get television. So I don’t watch TV, which is probably why I can actually do things in my life because I don’t spend a lot of time watching TV.
What are some food blogs or food websites we have to know about?
Well, I would say Smitten Kitchen certainly is one of them. Leite’s Culinaria, David Leite’s blog, is fantastic. Simply Recipes by Elise Bauer and crew, that is one of my go-tos. When I have any question about a recipe that I just need to know off the top of my head, I’ll search for her blog first. And then David Lebovitz because he’s awesome, and he’s hilarious at the same time.
Who do you follow on Pinterest, Instagram, or Facebook that make you happy?
I don’t do Pinterest just because it’s a matter of time management. I just cannot get into Pinterest, and on Instagram, I have to say one of my favorite people to follow is Food Pornographer, my friend Kelly Cline. She’s a food photographer and food stylist in the Pacific Northwest. And everything she posts is absolutely stunning and creative and beautiful, and it just makes you want to eat and to cook and just get in there and experiment.
What is the most unusual or treasured item in your kitchen?
I don’t actually know what kind of odd things I have. I guess the only one is the dowels that I use for rolling dumplings. Most of the rolling pins you find in stores are the French style, the tapered ones, or they have the handles on them, but the simple Chinese dowel is just a straight cylinder. And that’s what I use for rolling dumpling skins, and it works best for me.
Name one ingredient you used to dislike but now you love.
Cilantro. Cilantro, when I was little, my parents put it in everything, and I was like, “Mom, you’re ruining this dish.” They put it in the soup, and I am like, “I can’t eat the soup now,” or whatever. And now I love it. I put it in guacamole. I put it in my pho. I put it in Chinese dishes. It’s great.
What are a few cookbooks that make your life better?
I would have to say the one that I reference the most is probably The Baking Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum. And there’s this old Chinese cookbook that’s my mom’s, it was like a godmother put together in the 1960s or something. It’s this tiny little thing, and I don’t think it’s widely published. But we have a copy of it, and it’s just these traditional Chinese recipes, home-style Chinese recipes. And I’ve blogged a few of them, but I go to that one quite often.
What song or album just makes you want to cook?
Okay. I thought about this, and I was like, I don’t think there are any songs or albums that make me want to cook, but when I cook, I like to have music on. The White Stripes are one of my favorite bands, and so any of their albums or anything by Jack White gets me pretty pumped and happy in the kitchen.
On Keeping Posted with Jen:
If you want to follow what’s going on with the dog, follow me on Instagram. Otherwise, I would say the blog itself is probably the best. I’m just getting really bad about keeping up with social media these days because I think I’ve realized that I’d rather spend my time living my life than just constantly writing about it.