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Memory Lane: My Path to Intuitive Cooking

July 25, 2016

In my youth I was such a Betty Crocker baker.  My mom was a scratch cook and everything tasted delicious!  I wanted to cook like her.  It wasn't fancy food. It was food homemade.  She would bake cookies and cakes on a regular basis to satisfy our sweet tooth and the photo here shows she hasn't lost her touch with my birthday cake this year.  In those early years, she made bread every week and dad would take these loaves to work at a warehouse in Portland to sell to his co-workers.  A lot of these guys were pretty rough around the edges, but they loved my mom's bread.  This was back in the early 70's and the city of Portland in Oregon was small and accessible.  It was surrounded by timber (my back yard was a 100+ acre forest) and farmland filled in the rest with strawberry fields, hazelnut orchards, fruit trees, hay, wheat and alfalfa.  Oregon was a bit wilder and natural back then with acres of open space and a population comprised with a healthy mix of liberals and conservatives.  Things have certainly changed over the past 50 years. That warehouse where Dad worked is now a fancy condominium in the regenerated hip area of Portland's Pearl District.  The urban sprawl is far reaching, where once there were strawberry fields are shopping malls and now an emerging wine industry that has been slowly culminating for years has exploded with record economic growth.  

With time, there is evolution. You can't prevent it.  Nothing can stay the same and as I have learned, including the way you cook.  I don't live in Oregon anymore, but it's still home to me.  I live in Italy and anyone who has moved to a foreign country can identify life outside of America is vastly different with contrasts that are often hard to explain. Coming home always has this comforting familiarity to me, just like the old basic recipes I use to make. Now, so many years later, I get together for visits with my family and occasionally I pull out my mom's old Betty Crocker cookbook that is falling apart at the seams.  It brings back good memories of my days of trial and error, collaborating with my twin sister and my mom, as we would work our way through a recipe for the first time.  I remember distinctly the first time I made croissants.  It was an entire day of labor making these beautifully shaped rolls.  My brother and his friend came home, bursting through the kitchen, ravenous as teenage boys will be and within 15 minutes.... all my croissants were gone!  I can't recall if I was angry or happy that my little creations were devoured so quickly.  It must not have been too traumatic, as it didn't detour me from future elaborate culinary experiments that required long hours of preparation.

The best part about cooking and baking is that it requires engagement with the senses. And with recipes readily available at the touch of a screen, I encourage all young people to learn how to cook.  It creates a foundation for learning in general and most importantly the key to eating well that can affect your overall state of health.  Of course I didn't realize back then that my time in the kitchen would be building blocks to support my health, create a business or be a role model for my children.  I was just having fun!

I spent most of my teenage years making chocolate chip cookies, the first recipe I had memorized by the time I was 13 years old.  When I went to college I'll never forget calling my mom (from my dial phone attached to a wall) asking her how to make roasted chicken and spaghetti sauce.  Cookies were yummy, but not for breakfast, lunch and dinner.   However, the chocolate chip recipe served me well with making lots of friends. During my time at the University of Oregon my sister and I would bake every Sunday.... Friends realized we did this regularly and would "stop by to say hi" ... Of course it was for the cookies!  A good friend, Jimmy, would actually clean my kitchen, so he was always a welcomed cookie monger.  Then I spent, oh I'd say a good 30 years making variations of those chocolate chip cookies with different sugars, flours, chocolate, nuts, no nuts, oatmeal, healthier versions, and decadent ones.  My new Italian version includes olive oil and roughly chopped dark chocolate.  

After college and into my career days I became a Martha Stewart menu maven.  During the late 80's and through out the 90's I couldn't get enough of Martha Stewart.  I watched her show daily, bought the hardbound cookbooks and subscribed to her monthly magazine for over a decade.  I had all the volumes at one time until a life change forced me to unload a lot of physical and material items.  I didn't want to recycle all those magazines that had pages dog eared and little notes scribbled in between paragraphs, but letting go has to start somewhere.   I have kept those hardbound cookbooks for inspiration, information and remembrance. I rarely make dessert at all any more and the days of decadent pies, cakes and cookies seem to be over.  But that’s okay!  I have moved on to simpler menus that coincide with my current life.  With an unexpected move to Italy my habits have slowly changed to embrace a different pace and culture regarding food.  It has made a profound impact on my approach food and cooking.  A side benefit is it has also spilled over into my outlook on life; take the best there is to offer and create something beautiful. Fortunately for me I landed in paradise and I can put all that cooking and baking experience to work with the greatest culinary products on earth here in Le Marche Italy. 

There are three simple rules to follow:  eat what's in season, buy from the local farmer, and keep your pantry stocked with high quality items such as extra virgin olive oil, vinegar and sea salt.  Your food should not look like a chemistry experiment and your taste buds shouldn't have to go to battle with too many and conflicting flavors.  With these three elements, making fabulous and healthy meals does not take a lot of menu planning but rather a sense of what works together.  Your intuition is that sixth sense and Italians are very keen on exercising this sense in the kitchen.  It is a part of their everyday culture, one that is not impressed in our busy American one.  To become an intuitive cook, start with the basics and always with something you love, even if it's chocolate chip cookies.  It will just grow from there.  While Italians are steeped in tradition, they also follow their intuitive sense to fulfill pleasure on their palate.  Over the years, I have experienced the Italian carbonara dish made distinctly different ways.  It's an incredibly easy dish to make and the flavorful twists of a recipe that stemmed from the poor coal miners just shows the creativity that arises when you use your intuition in the kitchen. I see this recipe served at fancy restaurants and often the variations are astoundingly great!  If you like getting an occasional recipe, cooking tips, olive oil news, sign up for our newsletter at the bottom of the page on our website.  You never know, the recipe for carbonara alle pesce or my new favorite carbonara vegetariana may land in your mailbox!


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