The Modern Proper Is a Recipe Blog, a Wildly Popular Instagram Account, and Now a Cookbook

It was also locally conceived, and the authors will speak at Powell’s at Cedar Hills Crossing this week.

The Modern Proper co-founders Holly Erickson (a Portland native currently living in Austin, Texas) and Natalie Mortimer (a Vancouver, Wash., native still living in Vancouver) first hatched the idea for a recipe website while picking berries with their kids along the Salmon Creek Trail. Almost 10 years and one Saveur Blog Award nomination later, the duo’s passion for elevated weeknight meals has earned them more than 300,000 Instagram followers and a cookbook deal: The Modern Proper: Simple Dinners for Every Day (Simon Element, 304 pages, $32), which came out April 5.

The book’s 100 recipes are divided into eight categories: All Day Eggs, Meatless, Chicken, Pork and Beef, Seafood, Meatballs, Soup, and Things for Dipping, Spreading and Dressing. Intriguing dishes include everything-bagel sausage fried rice, creamy tortellini soup with sausage and kale, and saucy grilled cheese with asparagus. Some recipes are favorites from the website, many more are new, and all answer the question, “What can I make that is not pretentious or overwhelming, but inspiring?” says Mortimer.

WW spoke to the duo ahead of their appearance this week at Powell’s Books at Cedar Hills Crossing in Beaverton.

WW: What was different about doing recipes for a book versus creating them for the website or Instagram?

Holly Erickson: For one, the pandemic made it really interesting, and also the fact that we lived in two different places. We came up with all these recipe ideas, and then we split them up and fleshed them out, which is pretty much the same thing we do for the blog, but just in a much more concentrated manner. We started testing them individually, and then I flew to Portland and we tested…how many did we test that week, 65?

Natalie Mortimer: Sixty-five recipes in five days. Sometimes you’re testing things two or three times, and we didn’t want any of the food to go to waste. We would wrap everything in foil, put it on the front porch, and text all of our friends: “Dinner’s on the porch, take whatever sounds good to you!” And the food was gone at the end of every day.

Like a lot of cookbooks, you divide things up by protein. But you also have a chapter that’s dedicated to meatballs. How did that become a specialty?

Mortimer: I don’t even know what our first unusual meatball recipe was. But those recipes have historically done really well for us, and people love them. When we knew we were doing a book that was all dinners, we decided we wanted one kind of “wow!” chapter. So how about we categorize a method over a protein or ingredient? And meatballs are just fun. You can make any dish into a meatball, and they pack a punch in little two-tablespoon bites.

The saucy grilled cheese with asparagus, perfect for spring, seems to have two secrets. I’m already a fan of the mayo trick—spreading it on the outside of the bread. But tell me about mixing mayonnaise with butter.

Erickson: Honestly, it’s just flavor. There’s nothing better than a buttery outside of a sandwich, but the mayo makes it so crispy. We mix a couple tablespoons of each, so you still get that buttery flavor.

Mortimer: And I think it slows down the cook time a little bit. Like, if you mix butter with oil when you’re sautéing onion, that keeps the butter from browning. So the oil in the mayo slows down that browning butter, and you get a good, golden crust.

Low and slow, you also emphasize.

Mortimer: Yes, slow. Let time be your friend. Growing up, my mom was a speed cook, and still is today. I love her, but I ate a lot of burnt grilled cheese sandwiches growing up.

Erickson: That weren’t quite melted in the middle.

Mortimer: The other trick that I would say: grating your cheese. Avoid buying pre-grated, because the additives that keep it from clumping can get in the way of a good, melty cheese. Grate from a block.

What’s one ingredient that you can’t live without in your kitchens?

Mortimer: That’s hard! I think my favorite ingredient would be eggs. Like, I could live off eggs. You can add things to eggs, they’re the most versatile.

Erickson: I don’t know if I can’t live without it, but I was just making a comment the other day that I think every time I go to the store because of recipe testing, I buy mayo. My husband was like, “Why so much mayo?” Because I keep running out of it! I remember years ago people would be like, “Ewww mayo.” I do not like ketchup. I like mustard, but I don’t want a ton of it on my sandwiches. I just love good-quality mayo.

You obviously know how to take really good food photos for the blog and Instagram, but what do your kitchens and dinner tables really look like on an average night?

Mortimer: What our dinners end up looking like is, I make something, and then we film an Instagram Live at 4:30, which would be really early for my kids to eat. So I end up eating on camera, and then my kids aren’t hungry for another hour and a half. They might just serve themselves what was sitting on the stove, and it gets grazed on. That’s probably three nights a week.

But if we’re not cooking something off the blog, especially because we have young kids, we have our go-tos. I make chicken fajitas a lot. Or ground beef tacos. Or, honestly, buttered noodles topped with roasted asparagus or roasted broccoli. We do try so hard to sit down and do one night a week around the table. That usually ends up happening when we have company over.

GO: Holly Erickson and Natalie Mortimer appear in conversation with Karlee Flores at Powell’s Books at Cedar Hills Crossing, 3415 SW Cedar Hills Blvd., Beaverton, 800-878-7323, 7 pm Thursday, April 14. Free. $32 for a signed, pre-ordered edition.

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