2021-02SFC  Edible Austin Leaderboard

Jeanine Donofrio and Jack Mathews

Rectangular white subway tiles wall the modern kitchen of Jeanine Donofrio and Jack Mathews. Clean black lines—the edges of appliances and shelves, the typescript of cookbooks—carve out this crisp, bright white and create a bold background for the vibrant fresh vegetables that exude an almost hypnotic intensity. Scattered here and there are the muted tones of dun-colored pottery, a pale-blue mixer and rows of pastel glassware that soften and adjust the overall feel of the room to a soothing domestic haven. The space so nearly resembles the graphic design of the couple’s award-winning food blog, Love and Lemons, that it’s clear the same sensibilities created both.

Donofrio is the designer of the blog, as well as its culinary powerhouse, but she didn’t start out that way. For a long time, she thought she hated cooking. Her job as a professional graphic designer was often a stress-filled nightmare; she worked multiple projects at a time under punishing deadlines, so coming home to the chore of making dinner seemed overwhelming. However, as work pressures continually increased, she found herself called more and more to the kitchen and to the silent, meditative chopping of vegetables for restorative calm at the end of the day. Her creativity blossomed in this private, low-pressure refuge. “I found myself leaving work at four to come home and cook,” she says. “It dawned on me: This feels more creative than what I’m doing at work! [My husband and I] thought of it as ‘my cooking kick.’ After about a year, it struck me: I don’t think this kick is going to end!”

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A major problem with this kind of creativity, though, is that once you’ve eaten it, it’s gone. Donofrio decided that she wanted to document her cooking adventures, “so at least there would be SOMETHING!” She combined her design skills and her newfound love of cooking with Mathews’ computer know-how, and began publishing Love and Lemons online in 2011. Mathews also signed on as co-photographer. “When we decided to do the blog for real,” he says, “I went and found my camera’s owner’s manual and read it cover to cover. I mean…that’s how far back I had to start! It was remedial photography at first.”

In the five years that Love and Lemons has existed, the site has steadily surpassed the competition with its combination of elegant design, gorgeous photography and Donofrio’s fresh approach to everyday meal preparation. After claiming The Austin Chronicle’s Top 10 Local Food Blogs number one spot in 2013, Love and Lemons went on to earn one of Saveur’s Best Cooking Blog awards in 2014. A healthy amount of national press and industry accolades later, the duo scored a book deal with Avery Books, an imprint of Penguin/Random House. After a year in the making, the cookbook “Love and Lemons” came out in early 2016 and was immediately named one of the spring’s most exciting cookbooks by Epicurious.

Something of a perfectionist, Donofrio has always honed and refined her recipes before presenting them to the public, but she’s quick to insist that every recipe is flexible, and indeed, nearly every recipe in the cookbook includes variations. On that note, she advises readers to avoid going to the store with a list of ingredients in order to rigidly adhere to a recipe. “Instead,” she says, “learn to cook with what you have on hand. Buy vividly beautiful fruits and vegetables in season, and learn to make fabulous meals with them by combining color and flavor in simple, satisfying ways.” On any given day, Donofrio begins meal ideas by following her own advice and looking through her biweekly CSA box from Farmhouse Delivery. Today’s meal of savory sweet potato tacos with tangy apple-radish slaw is a perfect example of her using what’s available. “I came up with this slaw when I ran out of things to do with radishes!” she says. “Every week my box came with gorgeous watermelon radishes…I just had to come up with more things to do with them! The sweetness of apples seemed like a perfect complement to their peppery-ness.” 

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Watching Donofrio and Mathews prepare the meal—the calming rhythm of the heavy knife carefully sculpting apples and radishes into matchsticks, cubing sweet potatoes and avocado, slicing limes and chopping cilantro—casts a contemplative aura over the scene. And before long, warm corn tortillas are filled with crisp, hot sweet potato cubes and topped with the lightly sweet, refreshingly cold slaw. It’s the kind of meal you can’t wait to re-create at home, and chances are you probably already have all of the ingredients on hand.

By Kathleen Thornberry • Photography by Melanie Grizzel