Like Water for Chocolate has stayed with me since I first saw it in the early 90s. This dramatic, engrossing film follows Tita, a woman who is overcome with sadness when her family disapproves of her lover, Pedro. Brokenhearted, she responds by cooking elaborate feasts for her family. Cookingobsessively. Which, on the surface, would seem fine, even appreciated by those she fed. But her anguish is so intense that those who eat her dishes are infected with overwhelming despair and sorrow.
Eventually the two lovers find their way to each other again, only to be separated when Pedro dies. Tita, devastated and wanting to recreate the true passion she felt before, eats the candles that had lit the room until Pedro’s death and is reunited with him in the spirit world. The final union of their spirits and bodies sets fire to the entire ranch, and the only remnant left is Tita’s recipe book.
I, too, have found that the quality of the food I prepare is a direct reflection of my emotions. If I’m upset while cooking dinner, the meal turns out overcooked, bland, or chewy—or all three. When I’m happy, my food bursts with flavor. The dishes are vibrant; they’re alive.
My culinary skills disappeared when my daughter Isabella left for college. My ability to make delightful meals, from Italian meatballs and scaloppini to pasta with ragout, vanished seemingly overnight. That talent seemed to belong to a different woman. A woman who was on top of things. A woman who kept a tidy kitchen stocked with fresh herbs, chunks of salty parmesan cheese, fresh mozzarella, loaves of bread. A woman who was needed.
Like Tita, the emptiness I felt took a toll on those I attempted to feed. Friends would talk less and stoop more when they came over for dinner. They would stare at the flaccid Brussels sprouts on their plates, refusing to look me in the eye, and push pieces of stringy meat around, hiding them under uneaten lumps of oily starches. They would drink glass after glass of wine, and leave only crumbs on the fruit and cheese plate appetizer I’d set out earlier in the night; meanwhile, their dinners grew cold and were eventually thrown out. My husband would keep quiet—in case I’d snap back at him for his critical remarks—and I would finish off what was in front of me as if to say, eat up, this isn’t so bad. These dismal meals would often leave me in tears by the time the last guest was at the door, begging off the dry, leftover casserole I offered them, the slice of pie filled with undercooked stone fruit. These evenings would leave my confidence shattered.
Two years have passed since I became an empty-nester. Two years in which I have slowly but surely learned to rediscover my zest for cooking. How? With the reliability of a church bell, I fly out to LA every four weeks to visit Isabella at college. We shop for her favorite dishes and spend hours together in her small but efficient kitchen, making lasagna, gnocchi, meatballs, salads, pies, and cookies. We sip wine and sing and joke around and steal bites of each other’s sauces. We talk about anything and everything. When her roommates return, we have feasts waiting for them, and three weeks’ of meals stacked and ready to be heated up in the freezer. With my daughter, with so muchlife around me, I don’t worry about how the food will turn out. Because I know it will mirror my pleasure. I know it will be delicious.
And it always is.
Being away from my only child is still dumbfounding. It can feel downright crippling at times. But, unlike Tita, who resorted to eating matches to deal with her grief, I manage by knowing that, once a month, I’ll see my daughter. I will be able to nourish her and enjoy her as she grows into a capable young woman. Those weeks apart, while difficult, bring sweet anticipation. They also keep me on my toes—my own kitchen is bright and fragrant, its counters covered with colorful cooking magazines to inspire me, the refrigerator full.
Below you’ll find the first of ten recipes for dishes my grandmother taught me while I was growing up in Italy, dishes that I now make for and with Isabella. It is my hope that Isabella might one day teach and prepare these dishes for her own children and grandchildren. In the meantime, bon appétit!.
1. MINESTRA DI RISO E PREZZEMOLO (Rice and Parsley Soup)
The name of this soup suggests a bland, basic concoction. I assure you it is not. Prepared correctly, it is one of the most delicious dishes I’ve learned to prepare.
½ cup Arborio rice
½ yellow onion, chopped
32 oz. chicken or vegetable broth
1 bunch of fresh parsley, finely chopped (omit the stems)
3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, divided
Salt and pepper to taste
Generous fist full of freshly grated parmesan cheese
Sauté the onion with half of the olive oil. Meanwhile, bring the broth to a boil in a separate pot. When the onion turns transparent, add the rice and brown it until the liquid is absorbed. Add the broth to the rice and onion, along with the parsley, salt, and pepper. Stir frequently. Turn off the stove and add the remaining olive oil. Sprinkle with parmesan cheese and serve immediately.
*If you find that the broth is lacking in flavor, you can add a bouillon cube.
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