Rise & Shine
Getting Through the Day
Around the Table
A Side Note
Come On Into My Kitchen
Twenty-five years ago, people came up to me and asked for an autograph. These days, I still get recognized when I go out, but more often than not, I’m asked for a recipe, and I’m fine with that change. Actually, I love it. Playing Barbara Cooper on One Day at a Time, as I did in the 1970s, or more recently, Melanie Moretti on Hot in Cleveland, came with certain expectations that could be hard to live up to. The role of a home cook is much more comfortable. It’s the real me.
To know me, in fact, is to spend time with me in the kitchen. I come from a family of artists, and the kitchen is where I express myself, where I am truly at home. Under the watchful eyes of five cats and a dog, I pull my hair back, roll up my sleeves, and pull out ingredients from the fridge. I follow recipes. I also experiment. I like the process of chopping and mixing. I taste constantly. I occasionally toss a mistake in the sink. And I enjoy the feeling I get from sharing something I love. It’s my favorite way of connecting with family and friends.
At this stage of my life, my son is grown and I am reaping the benefits of deep, long friendships with moms I have known since our children were in kindergarten. I get the most pleasure from sharing experiences and creating new ones, and they’re always better when I fill the table with delicious food. My home reflects these passions. The kitchen is light and airy, like a painter’s studio except there are pots and pans instead of canvasses, and my backyard includes a vegetable garden, a corner where we grow herbs, fruit trees, and even a vineyard on the side of a broad, sloping hill.
I’m open to inspiration. Finding a vine of ripe tomatoes in the garden makes me think of whipping up a panzanella. While picking lemons off the trees in my backyard, I hear a debate in my head: “Salmon or lemon bars? Or even Limoncello?” Ideas can come from a note I have written myself (“fennel and figs?”), a photo on my phone reminding me of a meal my husband, Tom, and I had on our last road trip, or seeing a bunch of fresh basil at a farmers’ market.
COOKING IS IN MY DNA
While traveling in Italy several years ago, I learned my great-grandmother was a cook in a summer home and sold her homemade gelato in her tiny village in order to make enough money to emigrate to America. As a little girl, I spent countless hours in my grandmother’s basement kitchen, watching her make homemade pasta, as the other women in the family helped and told stories. As far as I’m concerned, our family history is inseparable from her gnocchi and capelletti.
My mother’s specialty was Italian food, even though she’s of English-Irish descent and raised in New Jersey. She learned to cook from the women in my father’s family. When I was a kid, she made a mean lasagna, and the rich, creamy goodness of her risotto still races to the forefront of my mind when I think of perfection at the end of a fork.
I loved cooking for my son, Wolfie, and whenever work took me away from home, I thought about the special meals I would make when I got back. Indeed, once back home, I eagerly returned to being a mom, which meant carpools and kitchen duty. No one made meatloaf with more purpose or enthusiasm than me. Now, I relish the time Tom and I spend together in the kitchen, alone or entertaining family and friends.
My passion for sharing what I love inspired my TV show, Valerie’s Home Cooking. In 2013, Tom and I returned from an amazing trip to Italy and suggested a series where we shared our experience traveling and eating fabulous meals. After listening to me talk about food and the way I tried to re-create these incredible meals at home, the executives at the Food Network suggested a home cooking show instead. I waited all of fifteen seconds before saying, “Yes, I’d love to do it.” I knew it was the right decision when they came up with the name of my show, Valerie’s Home Cooking. It captured me—and now, after six seasons, I can confidently say it’s everything I’m about right now.
RECIPES FOR THE HEART AND SOUL
The recipes in this book are like that, too. I personally selected every single one in this book. I created some and acquired others from family and friends, including my mother. All of them share two ingredients that are essential to me: heart and soul. Even the simplest recipes here, like Sloppy Joes, evoke a warm feeling in me, and my hope is they have the same effect on you. Over the years, I have served everything in this book at home for casual get-togethers and special occasions. I’ve improved on the recipes to the point where they’re ready to share, and I’m very excited about this opportunity to hopefully help and inspire you.
I’m assuming we are a lot alike, in that when I’m cooking for family, friends, my book club, or a party, or if I’m just preparing a grocery list for the week, I look through my magazines and cookbooks for ideas. There are a lot of yummy ideas here and they are intended for people like you and me, home cooks. They are organized into chapters that reflect the way I think of meals, along with the variables like whether it’s Tuesday morning and you’re getting a late start versus a leisurely Sunday brunch with family. To me, lunch is more about what I need to get through the rest of the day than a three-course sit-down, starting at twelve or one. I added suggestions for Happy Hour—because why not, that’s me, too—and you should know the chapters where I’ve organized entrées, sides, and sweets are personal and family favorites.
Recently, I picked up my mom’s wooden recipe box and began going through the index cards with her handwritten recipes. (You will see several in this book.) Some I remembered from my childhood. Some cards were stained; those are the dishes she made all the time. Each recipe was, in a way, like a short story: the roast was for a birthday, the casserole for a family get-together, and the meatloaf for the start of the school year. These are the treasures that get passed down from generation to generation—not just the food but the stories, too. Years from now, I hope the pages in this book are stained from repeated use.
LAST WORDS OF ADVICE
Keep in mind, though, the best part of home cooking is that you do it at home. It’s low-pressure, accessible, and all about the one ingredient I can’t provide. It’s also the most important ingredient of all. It’s you. This is what recipes mean when they say “season to taste.” Professional chefs are trained to know how a dish is supposed to taste, but even then, the greats rely on their own unique palates. I’m learning what I like, and you will learn what tastes great to you.
Leave yourself enough time to enjoy the process of preparing each course. Get to know your food in its natural, raw state. Feel the texture. Appreciate the differences in your ingredients and pay attention to how they are combined. If you rush, you will miss the nuances that make a home-cooked meal an essential ingredient in the recipe for a happy home. Don’t worry about mistakes, either. They happen. One Christmas, my husband grilled a beef tenderloin to perfection. Our guests talked about it for a year. Those same guests are still talking about my gravy. Why? Instead of using flour, I stirred in powdered sugar. I’m sure the Hot Toddies had something to do with that.
Inevitably, you put your own spin on every recipe, and that’s my favorite part about cooking. It never gets boring. Every dish is a new adventure. Sometimes I eat the same thing three nights in a row because I love it so darn much. Then it’s on to a new adventure. There’s a story behind every recipe. Indeed, that is true with the recipes in this cookbook. And now it’s time for you to create your own stories.