If there is one thing Jessica Merchant has learned from her years of writing and blogging about cooking, it’s that no matter how delicious a plate’s contents may be, they also must tempt one visually.
“I know what looks good. People eat with their eyes. … If it looks like a mess in the skillet, it won’t fly,” she says.
The prepared recipes in Merchant’s new book, “The Pretty Dish,” all of which she photographed, clearly “fly.”
And may be convincing — and simple — enough to convince novice cooks to try their hand at a few.
Merchant, 35, of North Huntingdon Township, is creator of the popular blog ” Howsweeteats. ”
The name, the bubbly brunette says, has nothing to do with food, but rather is a play on the James Taylor song “How Sweet It Is.”
Married to Eddie Hunt and mother to Max, 3, and Emilia, four months, Merchant’s first book, “Seriously Delish: 150 Recipes for People Who Totally Love Food,” was published in 2014, while she was expecting her son.
She wrote “The Pretty Dish,” published earlier this month, as she awaited Emilia’s birth.
Visitors and followers of Merchant’s blog, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram sites number in the millions.
Her new book contains more than 150 “everyday” recipes, such as Coconut Curry Braised Chicken Skillet, Crispy Fish Tostadas, Blackened Barbecue Salmon with mango salsa and Our Favorite Bolognese.
It also features 50 do-it-yourself beauty tips, from facial scrubs to homemade lip balm to bath melts and sea salt spray for those with beachy wave envy.
Many of those recipes, she says, came from her concern about skin and beauty products’ use during her first pregnancy.
From burners to books
Merchant, a graduate of Greensburg Central Catholic High School, holds a business degree from Duquesne University.
Early jobs as a personal trainer and an uninspiring office position, she says, ultimately led her to begin blogging.
Newly married, she started writing about what she was making for dinner about 10 years ago.
“I’d known I didn’t want to work in an office since I was eight. In eighth grade, I said ‘I want to be a writer,'” she recalls.
She grew up in a family of bakers and cooks; but while Merchant loves to cook, baking holds little interest for her.
“I think it (following directions) hinders my creativity,” she says, laughing.
Her site is as much about lifestyle as cooking these days, with sections devoted to child rearing, crafting and friendship.
“I found this community. The blog is world so big. … I discovered tons of other blogs and commented on them,” Merchant says.
Instagram and Pinterest were not yet on the social media scene.
She taught herself how to style and photograph her creations, using natural light from her kitchen window to stage shots.
Continuing to build her audience, she began blogging full time; site advertising and brand sponsorship increases her income.
She and fellow food blogger Maria Lichty also offer a subscription menu planning service, Sweet Peas Meals .
“For a while, I worked in retail, just to supplement. What it did was allow me those daylight hours to work on the blog,” she says.
She soon sensed she had the material, and the buyers, for a book.
“My readers would constantly ask, ‘When are you going to put out a cookbook?’ … You have to have an audience. You have to be able to say, ‘People will buy this book,'” Merchant says.
She found an agent, crafted a proposal and published her first book.
Her first few years, she modified recipes or based her own on pantry staples.
“Now, I completely create them. I’m cooking so often — I’m not professionally trained — but cooking so often I know what will work and what won’t work. … I think I have a relatable palate,” she says.
Merchant jokes that she probably was an “over sharer” before social media made the term common.
“I like having a connection with my readers,” she says.
“I know what it’s like to read blogs and feel like, ‘I know this person, we’re friends.’ I want to keep it authentic,” she says.
And she keeps those readers, many of them working moms like herself, in mind when crafting recipes, aiming for 30-60 minute meal preparation.
“I love to try new things. But I don’t want to spend three hours in the kitchen every night,” she says.
“I think in general, everyone wants to cook and eat in the home. Eating out is expensive, it’s increasingly less healthy. Sometimes it all starts to taste the same,” Merchant says.
She remains flexible while cooking.
Sometimes breakfast is more easily served as dinner, and she does not deny her son the occasional toddler favorite, chicken nuggets.
“Balance and moderation are so important,” Merchant says.
Growing up girly
“I’ve been a beauty junkie all my life. I always said if I wasn’t doing this I would be a make-up artist,” she says.
In her book, she writes about watching her mother put on her make-up; and her grandmother, who wore make-up into her 80’s; and her own fascination as a tween with beauty samples.
She’s still a brand name shopper, Merchant says, but enjoys using natural products like coconut oil, essential oils and sugar to formulate food for the face and body.
Readers will find recipes for Peppermint Mocha Scrub, Avocado Banana Face Mask and Macaroon Lip Balm, which she hopes her community of girlfriends will use to pamper themselves.
And after nine months of “mocktails” while pregnant, she’s enjoying sharing recipes for seasonal drinks and cocktails.
these Golden Green Goddess Margaritas are on the blog today! refreshing cucumber + lime for… https://t.co/kdZqAOMZyh
— HowSweetBlog (@HowSweetBlog) March 9, 2018
Merchant encourages amateurs to pick up a skillet and spatula, or give her own favorite appliance, a food processor, a whirl.
“I think you just have to do it, and do it often. You are not going to learn how to cook by staying out of the kitchen,” she says.
Mary Pickels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5401 or [email protected] or via Twitter @MaryPickels.