Cooking as therapy

For me and for many people I know, cooking, not just eating, has a calming, soothing effect.

Pasta 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Pasta 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For me and for many people I know, cooking, not just eating, has a calming, soothing effect.
Barbara Magro, author of Recipes to Remember: My Epicurean Journey to Preserve My Mother’s Italian Cooking from Memory Loss, used cooking to help herself and her family deal with the stress of becoming caretakers of her ailing mother. When her mother began to lose her memory, Magro, who had a traditional Italian upbringing, realized she’d never learned to cook the Italian food that her mother had lovingly prepared for her family for over 50 years.
“I realized something about the many family meals my mother had prepared over the years; they symbolize the love our family has shared for generations. Before it was too late, I wanted to gather these recipes... the authentic meals that my family's life has evolved around for the past one hundred years or so.”
To Magro, her mother’s dishes are more precious than those she ate at the best Italian restaurants.
“She always encouraged us to invite friends over to share her delicious Italian meals from baked ziti to eggplant Parmesan... My brother’s friend... recently told me that after he finished the bland dinner at his house (he was part Irish/part German) he would call our house and sheepishly inquire what my mother had made for dinner. Often he would receive an invite and would wander down for his second meal to taste her Italian delights.”
One of Magro’s mother’s pasta cooking rules was that “pasta only tastes as good as the sauce from which it is made... Here is the big Italian secret to a good meat sauce: the flavor will be enhanced by the number of hours it simmers on the stove and absorbs all the wonderful flavors of the meat and seasoning that are in it. It is best when prepared a day in advance and will make all the difference in how the pasta tastes.”
In some stressful situations, cooking can even be healing. After author Mark Waltrip’s wife was in a bad auto accident from which it took her years to recover, he found that kitchen activities helped them in many ways. “The kitchen became a place where I could relax and focus my attention on something other than life’s daily challenges.”
For a long time they could not go out to dinner but, as his wife started getting better, she was able to gradually join him in cooking.
“Our ‘date night’ from our pre-accident life was replaced with ‘cooking night.’ We would open a bottle of wine, spread our ingredients out on the table, start chopping, and create new dishes together.”
This experience inspired Waltrip, the chief operating officer for a billion-dollar company and developer of award-winning restaurant concepts, to write Recipes for Success: A Cookbook with a Recipe for Life.
Waltrip devotes the first half of his book to 12 principles for cooking and for living, each illustrated with a recipe. “Finding Fresh Ingredients” translates into “Recognize the ‘Angel’” in Your Life” – people who helped you along the way. A key to success in life is finding these “angels,” just as fresh ingredients are the key to improving recipes.
The kitchen guideline “sometimes you have to change the recipe” parallels the life principle “get paid for doing what you enjoy” even if you have to change your career. He gives an example of what made him change a favorite formula. Waltrip never ordered coq au vin (chicken in wine) in restaurants because he liked his own recipe so much until one day a waiter at a French restaurant convinced him to try theirs with the promise that it would be the best coq au vin he ever ate. To Waltrip’s surprise, it was, and so he changed his recipe. A key to this new recipe was coating the chicken pieces heavily in tomato paste after sauteing them and before adding the red wine.
“Life really is a lot like cooking,” writes Waltrip. “With a good recipe and the right ingredients, you can make almost anything you want.”
Faye Levy is the author of Sensational Pasta.
This dish, from Recipes to Remember, was frequently prepared by Barbara Magro’s mother for meatless days, such as Fridays during Lent. The egg-and-breadcrumb-coated eggplant slices, writes Magro, can be sauteed, deep fried or, to avoid the extra fat, baked. If you bake them, oil the baking pan well.
Magro prefers grated Romano cheese but you can use Parmesan or another hard cheese. Use 4 cups of your own tomato sauce in the recipe or make Magro’s version below; if you have extra sauce, you can freeze it. Serve the eggplant with fresh Italian bread.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
Marinara sauce (see Note 1 below) 2 large eggplants 3 Tbsp. olive oil about 2 cups flour
4 eggs 225 gr. (8 ounces) bread crumbs (about 2 cups) 225 gr. (8 ounces) fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced 110 gr. (4 ounces) fresh Romano cheese, grated
Prepare Marinara sauce. Preheat oven to 175ºC (350ºF).
Peel eggplant and slice into 1⁄2-cm (1⁄4-inch) thick slices. Heat oil in a large frying pan. Coat both sides of the eggplant slices with flour. In a separate bowl beat 4 eggs and dip in the eggplant slices, coating both sides, then dredge both sides in the bread crumbs.
When oil is hot, fry eggplant on both sides until golden brown, adding more oil if needed. (See Note 2 below.) Remove each piece from pan and place on absorbent paper to absorb the oil.
In a large rectangular baking pan, begin layering by adding the marinara sauce to the bottom of the pan, then the eggplant, more sauce and the mozzarella. Sprinkle with Romano cheese. Continue to layer until you reach the top of the pan. Top off with sauce, mozzarella and grated Romano.
Place eggplant in oven and bake for 20 to 25 minutes.
Note 1: Marinara Sauce:
Heat about 6 tablespoons olive oil in a large pot, add 8 chopped garlic cloves and brown them. Add 2 chopped onions and saute until translucent. Add two 800-gr. (28-ounce) cans tomato puree and two 400-gr. (15-ounce) cans tomato sauce. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Add 8 to 10 leaves fresh basil and 4 teaspoons dried oregano and cook for 10 more minutes. Season to taste with salt, pepper and, if you like, hot red pepper flakes.
Note 2: If deep frying, leave the eggplant slices in the oil for 2 or 3 minutes.
This meatless casserole has several elements similar to Magro’s mother’s baked ziti (long tubular pasta) in Recipes to Remember. Hers is composed of cooked pasta mixed with shredded mozzarella, ricotta and meat sauce and baked with a sprinkling of grated Parmesan. Instead of making a meat sauce, I simmer white beans in my tomato sauce. If you want a creamier casserole, spread 1 cup of ricotta cheese on top of the second spaghetti layer before adding the sauce.
3 Tbsp. olive oil 2 large onions, chopped 6 large garlic cloves, chopped 11⁄2 tsp. dried oregano 1⁄2 tsp. hot red pepper flakes, or to taste two 800-gr. (28-ounce) cans diced tomatoes, drained and diced one 225-gr. (8-ounce) can tomato sauce 11⁄2 cups cooked white beans or one 400-gr. (15-ounce) can, drained 225 gr. (8 ounces) spaghetti
3⁄4 to 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese 2 Tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese (optional)
Preheat oven to 175ºC (350ºF). Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a wide casserole or stew pan. Add onions and saute over medium heat, stirring often, 7 minutes or until lightly browned. Add garlic, oregano and pepper flakes and stir over low heat for 1⁄2 minute. Add tomatoes and tomato sauce. Stir and bring to a boil. Add beans and bring to a simmer. Simmer uncovered over medium heat, stirring often, for about 15 minutes or until mixture is thick. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Cook spaghetti uncovered in a large pot of boiling salted water over high heat, lifting occasionally with tongs, about 8 minutes or until tender but firmer than usual. Drain, rinse with cold water and drain well. Transfer to a large bowl.
Add 1 tablespoon oil and half the bean mixture and toss to combine.
Lightly oil a 2-liter (2-quart) baking dish and add half the spaghetti mixture. Top with half the remaining beans in tomato sauce and 1⁄2 cup shredded mozzarella cheese. Add the remaining spaghetti mixture, the remaining bean mixture and top with the remaining mozzarella cheese. If you like, sprinkle it with Parmesan. Bake uncovered for about 30 minutes or until casserole is hot and cheese browns. Serve from the baking dish.
Makes about 6 servings.