Every day, Betsy Couch single-handedly pulls together a dinner of 25 to 30 dishes. From yellow-pepper soup to apricot-honey chicken to chocolate-truffle tart, the menu is enough to make even Martha Stewart blanch.
Ms. Couch is no caterer or restaurateur. Her daily meal is a virtual menu on the Internet called "Surf for Your Supper." It's part of Couch's creation, The Kitchen Link, a "guide to what's cooking on the Net." The address is: www.kitchenlink.com
Couch's master index to more than 7,000 food and cooking-related links on the Net is a cyber cook's dream-come-true. Newspaper food sections, food business news, cookbook reviews, message board, chat rooms, and recipes galore keep culinary enthusiasts coming back for second and third helpings with a simple click of the mouse.
The Kitchen Link is run by Couch out of her Rochester, N.Y., home. It made its debut in March 1996 and now hosts 75,000 visitors from 85 countries every month, generating more than 1 million hits.
What visitors all share, not surprisingly, is a passion for food, cooking, and recipes.
Emphasis on recipes, chat groups
Unlike other food sites, hers is a one-woman, independent operation not associated with a particular magazine or corporation. The Kitchen Link's emphasis is on links, recipes, and chats. Complete with a search engine, it is fast becoming known as the Yahoo of food.
At a time when the Internet attracts new devotees by the minute, The Kitchen Link is a welcome site for online folks who just want to grab a bite, so to speak. They can check out the bulletin board, pull up a recipe for zucchini bread, or join a chat group to talk about anything from cookie recipes to make-ahead meals. It is emblematic of how the Internet facilitates online community, where people with common interests gather - in this case around a virtual kitchen table.
Carol Burciaga has visited hundreds of food sites on the Internet. She says The Kitchen Link is her favorite for one reason: Betsy Couch.
"She conscientiously maintains what has become an awesome group of links to cooking and recipe sites on the Web. There is no other site that is so well-maintained on a daily basis as is The Kitchen Link. Betsy actively participates in the message board, as well as the chat. Her standards are very high," Ms. Burciaga says, adding that it's like coming to visit a friend in her home and feeling welcome.
Industry kudos for The Kitchen Link have come from Web Now magazine and Better Homes and Gardens. PBS's Discovery series "Life on the Internet" calls it "the most expansive site in the food business, the one that has everything...."
Passion for food drives Web site
For Couch, The Kitchen Link has been an eight-hour-a-day hobby in addition to her fulltime job in computer graphics at a pharmaceutical company.
Her passion for food started early. Her father was in the restaurant business, and at home, life centered around food and the kitchen, not surprising for an Italian family, Couch says. When she was a teenager, "something clicked," she remembers, during a phone interview. "Any recipe I could get my hands on, I clipped or copied." She began a cookbook collection that continued to grow after she got married. Later, she started several cookbook-writing projects.
Meanwhile, Couch and her husband, Bob (affectionately referred to as Bobbio - rhymes with Fabio - by Couch's online friends), fell in love with computers "early on." One day, about five years ago, Couch was surfing around on the Net and found that the cooking sites seemed repetitive. It was then that she decided to start The Kitchen Link.
"I was just consumed - up all hours of the night. I created it and then shelved it," she says, explaining: "I had to consider the level of commitment I knew I had to give it."
Daily, weekly, monthly updates as well as fixing links, adding links, creating more features, and moderating chats take many hours each day.
Once the site was up , there was no turning back. "I've made so many friends and the feedback is really wonderful," says Couch, who jokes that she is now a professional at time management. "The site really propelled itself."
Want to talk about Bisquick?
On any given day, she receives about 30 e-mails. Recently, she heard from a woman in Warsaw, who wrote that she visits The Kitchen Link almost every day to get useful information. A man in Russia wrote that he was planning to open up a cafeteria and wanted some advice.
"It's the greatest thing to meet people who enjoy what you enjoy," Couch says, adding that the chat - evenings from 9 to 11 - is really the spirit of the site. It's amazing that people can talk for two hours about Bisquick and come away with 20 recipes.
Not that everything's always sugary. One time a New Jersey restaurateur bolted into a chat to ask: "Are there any chefs in chat?" He was frantic, explaining, "My chef just quit!" And just the other night, there was a "heated discussion" about the geographical correctness of grits.
Still, Couch says with confidence, Web fans say that The Kitchen Link is one of the friendliest chats around.
This fall, Couch will pare down her full-time job to two days a week and devote more time to the site. Advertising revenue is up and the holiday season promises to be a busy one. (Last year the day before Thanksgiving, she was getting an e-mail almost every minute. "I felt like the Butterball hot line!" she says.)
One of the best compliments Couch says she's ever received was from a home economics teacher, who said, "You are an inspiration." And does she ever find time to really cook? Couch laughs, and says, "Me? Oh, I have to slap meals together!"
A wonderful fall Sunday dinner dish
2-1/2 to 3 pounds of chicken pieces (remove skin if desired)
Cooking oil, as needed
1-1/2 cups milk
1-1/2 cups flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon poultry seasoning
1 tablespoon oil
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Generously grease a 13-by-9-inch baking dish.
In a large frying pan brown chicken in a small amount of oil over medium heat. Arrange in a single layer in the prepared baking dish.
Stir together the eggs and milk. Stir in flour, salt, poultry seasoning, and oil until just smooth.
Pour batter over the chicken.
Bake in preheated oven for 55 to 60 minutes.
Serves 6 to 8.
* Chicken gravy (jar or mix is fine if you don't have any "from scratch" on hand)
* Whole berry cranberry sauce (slice a lemon in half crosswise and remove the pulp to use as cranberry serving bowls for each plate)
* Whole green beans steamed until bright green and crisp-tender, tossed with butter, lemon, and slivered almonds
* Cooked butternut squash whipped with butter and a little brown sugar
Chili Beany Mushroom Soup
2 tablespoons oil
1 (12-ounce) package fresh mushrooms, chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped (1/2 cup)
1 small green pepper, finely chopped (1/2 cup)
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 (16-ounce) can whole tomatoes, undrained or 2 cups salsa
1 (8 ounce) can tomato sauce or 1 (6 ounce) can tomato paste
1 (15-1/2 ounce) can kidney beans, undrained
1 (16-ounce) can cannellini beans, undrained
1 (16-ounce) can black beans (optional)
1 cup whole kernel corn (fresh, frozen, or canned)
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons worcestershire sauce
2 to 3 teaspoons chili powder
dried red pepper flakes to taste
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
In a two-quart Dutch oven, saut onions, peppers, and garlic in oil until softened. Stir in remaining ingredients.
Reduce heat. Cover and simmer 10 to 15 minutes or until heated through and slightly thickened. Serve with salad and thick slices of fresh baked bread or corn muffins.
- Recipes from The Kitchen Link