Steam curls above the stove, as onions soften and sizzle in a pan of bubbling olive oil.
Other items lie prepped on the counter—tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, prosciutto shredded, like bits of torn cloth.
While the onion cools, I’ll blend the fluid dough with a stick blender: flour, salt, baking powder with eggs, milk and more olive oil. Then I’ll layer dough and filling in a baking pan, and top with Parmesan and herbs, before carefully carrying the loose mixture to the dry heat of the oven, to brown golden and firm.
I only prepare this Brazilian “quiche” two or three times a year, cooking now less than I did, but this and other meals, help me connect to my mother, similar to the way Ray Kinsella reaches his late father through baseball in Field of Dreams.
My mother would be in her 90s now, had she lived; her birthday was just a few days ago. Like many relationships, love stirred with some complications between us; words regretted, words left unspoken. A childhood red head, her fire flamed into temper, but also fired her children through college, and through music lessons. After my initial anger at those piano lessons, I later saw their value, playing Bach, playing for small church gatherings.
A traditionalist in some ways, she wanted me to learn how to cook.
I’d experienced her cooking for years. She could peel a potato with the grace of a figure skater, skimming the surface. Her turkey and dressing, fried chicken and stews were wonderful, but her steaks were leathery. She feared rawness, even as she feared other things. The worst of her cooking? When I was in junior high, she would fry up a flat hamburger and toss it between mayo - slathered bread slices with a slip of soggy lettuce. Hours later, I was eating a cold burger for lunch. I still cringe at the thought.
At a mall, a museum promoted a cookbook, with tempting samples in that perfumed, marble interior. Mama nudged me. I caved.
That book provided a curious foundation for my cooking – soups, chicken, carrot cake. The cookbook is still on my shelf, its laminate peeling, pages spilling off the spiral rings. Taped.
Twenty-five years ago, Mama died, at 67. Deep sorrow.
In the years since, I went through a period of watching cooking shows with smiling Ina Garten, Giada, or Ree Drummond, the “Pioneer Woman.” I bought a blue Le Creuset pan that I’ve used frequently for over 20 years, for chicken cacciatore or Irish stew.
I also picked up recipes, like apple strudel from a German restaurant in Milwaukee or matzo ball soup through my husband’s family. Or this Brazilian recipe, which I adapted from a woman named Rosalie. These dishes have pleased family and friends. Like piano, I came to appreciate doing what I initially resisted.
If I build a good dish, Mama will not come. But there is peace in this slightly rocky terrain between us. Cooking provides a way for us to “have a catch.”