Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Julie Tanous cook up a friendship

Mark Kennedy

NEW YORK (AP) — A chance meeting at a dinner party by two people reluctant to be at that dinner party has resulted in a cookbook perfect for your next dinner party.

Jesse Tyler Ferguson, star of Modern Family, and food writer Julie Tanous have teamed up for Food Between Friends, which blends dishes inspired by her native South and his New Mexico influences.

“We just started collecting recipes and ideas based on our history and the people that we care about,” said Ferguson. “I think the flavour profiles naturally go beautifully together.”

It’s a breezy celebration of both cuisines in sections on brunch, fish, chicken, beef, desserts, starters, drinks and vegetarian dishes. Both regions come through beautifully in their green chili chicken enchilada pot pie, which takes the spirit of the South and brings it into the Southwest.

Tanous, who has written food stories, developed recipes for magazines and worked in catering, said most of the recipes are riffs off what both authors grew up eating, the restaurant dishes they adore and the foods their husbands love.

She travelled to New Mexico with Ferguson and would bring an extra suitcase to take home things like blue cornmeal and chilies.

Julie Tanous and Jesse Tyler Fergusson working together in a kitchen. PHOTO MATT ARMENDARIZ

There’s a lightness and a winking humour throughout, as when Ferguson writes about how his family would likely razz him if he called patties by the more upscale name croquette. The authors also peel back the formula to writing introductions to recipes, and argue that crispy-skin salmon — approachable, adaptable, easy to work with and liked by all — is the “Tom Hanks of protein”.

“We looked for funny, humorous ways to sort of not take ourselves too seriously,” said Ferguson. “We’re first-time cookbook authors and we didn’t want to enter the room being like, ‘Well, we know a lot about all of this.’ We really were trying to be very respectful of where we sat as first-time authors.”

While both writers were well versed on items common to the South and Southwest — like beans, corn and chilies — each introduced different ingredients to the other.

He educated her about Hatch chilies and sopaipillas while she informed him about things like sorghum syrup and spoonbread from her childhood in Alabama.

Each wrote essays on favourite ingredients, love letters of sorts. Ferguson describes his lifelong adoration of chilies, despite suffering from heartburn. And Tanous tackles sorghum, fondly remembering her dad spooning the syrup on a biscuit as he told stories.

“I love when food can transport you and bring you back. And when food is a placeholder for something special in your history,” Ferguson said.

The hardest section to write turned out to be the meatless one. Neither author is a vegetarian, and Tanous had to stop herself from adding meat to corn chowder or chicken stock to sauces. One photo had to be redone when she noticed meat lurking in the pinto beans.

Both authors had to quiet their inner doubting critics and push back against so-called imposter syndrome. There may be a million chicken and dumpling recipes but the book contains one more, their special take on it.

“It’s about your interpretation of it and the story behind it and why it means something to you. Really, that’s all it needs to be for people to be interested,” said Ferguson.

“I think when people cook from the heart and they cook things that mean something to them, that’s enough.”

The two met about seven years ago at a friend’s pop-up dinner party in Los Angeles. It was on a weeknight and Ferguson wasn’t in the mood; Tanous had a newborn at home and also was reluctant to go.

Preparing to flee, Ferguson sat next to the exit. “Right before the dinner started, Julie walks in and there were no other chairs to sit in except for the one across from me,” he recalled.

She cracked a joke and also admitted she wasn’t in the mood.

“I felt like I at least found someone who was on my same wavelength. And we ended up just becoming fast friends that night and ended up exchanging numbers,” said Ferguson. “We started hanging out and cooking together shortly after that.” A blog and now a book are the results.

The pandemic complicated the recipe development process and forced more ingredient substitutions. Tanous might test something out, drive it to Ferguson’s house and hand over the dish in the driveway.

“There were times we really would have liked to have been in the same kitchen and we couldn’t, so a lot of stuff had to be done remotely,” he said.

To prepare, Tanous dug out her old notes from culinary school and shared them with Ferguson, who shared his own experience working at Sadie’s Cocina in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Some things just worked out: Her knife skills are good after working at a butcher shop, and he doesn’t like handling raw meat.

“It was very collaborative,” said Tanous. Ferguson agreed, but perhaps had one minor gripe he wanted to share with his friend: “I feel like I did more dishes, Julie.”