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  • Eat, Darling, Eat

Understood

Updated: Feb 29

(by Daniela Paiva)

I come from a long line of fantastic cooks, including great-grandmother, mother, and aunt. New family members have added to the impressive roster. My uncle learned that love and food are intertwined, probably influencing his choice in partners (a Danish architect who became a prize-winning chef in Brazil). My other uncle is a meticulous cook, and my aunt, who is an artist, expresses her boldness through trying different cuisines. In a family so deeply rooted in cooking and hosting meals, I never dared trying to find a spot for myself.

Growing up in Brazil, I was not standing by the stove watching my mum cook. I was born when she was 19 years old. Six years later, she separated from my father, and one year after that, she hooked up with my stepdad, who was not fond of little kids (he softened when my brother was born) and travelled a lot. My mum did it all, and very much alone. There was good food for me to heat up when she was completing her degree in economics, but I was quite independent, figuring out what went into our typical Saturday shrimp stew. Very soon, I started to do my own crazy experiments, taking what was available in the fridge to give a twist to noodles while my mother was immersed in her books.

Mum honors tradition but adds a bit of her own adventurous spirit. A lot of our family recipes are now digitalized, but she still has my great-grandmother’s recipe book. You can see that it’s well cared for, but also that it’s very much alive, with more recent drops of broth or oil. Mum is both brave and skilled in the kitchen, the type of person who will go to a restaurant, fall in love with a dish, guess all the ingredients, and reproduce the recipe at home even better. And after she completed her studies, eating together became a moment for the family to catch up with one another. I participated more in the kitchen, watching and asking questions, and Sunday meals became important to me. I loved the planning, the expectation, the prep. While my mother always cultivated my foodie enchantment, inviting me to her gourmet club and taking me along on her culinary trips, I was never sure if she saw me as a cook in my own right.

After an early career in journalism, I moved to England for a master’s degree in enterprise and business creation, but also connected with other food lovers by creating Cooknst (short for Cooking New Stories), a group that gets together for innovative dinners and pop-up events. Mum came to visit for an event where I had designed a Spanish-inspired menu with accompanying music, but with a little switch on a traditional paella—one vegetarian version and another with sun-dried beef, a typical Brazilian ingredient.

I confess: When I invited her, I honestly believed she was not going to make it. In my mind, she would find it too far, too complicated, not so appealing. Or maybe I wished she would think that. I’m not the most confident person in the world, and when it comes to maternal approval, I guess no matter how old you are, it means a lot (not her fault, really). But she said promptly yes, of course she would come.

She arrived looking elegant, her bright green eyes searching the kitchen with curiosity. She took a plate and served herself, from one pan, then from the other. Her smile gave me her verdict: Victory. I could relax.

For me, that simple okay resonated as if I had finally been understood. Maybe I was not exceptional in the kitchen; maybe I was still on the learning curve. But I took that approval as an acceptance of my life shift, to a new role as an entrepreneur pursuing my passion.

Mum and I have had our ups and downs, close moments and ones not so close. She will tell you that I always do things my way. I guess I mostly do. We exchange delicious ideas. Sometimes she gives me more practical or conventional alternatives, which usually make me upset—don’t fence me in! Other times she comes up with a brilliant suggestion. Most of all, she is honest and straightforward—qualities that I admire so much. And I can always rely on her love and taste, even when we disagree. I will always come back to her.

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Daniela Paiva is the founder of Cooknst, a London-based community that gets together for extraordinary food moments. She also collaborates with the website Do Rio Pra Ca, about Brazilian women exploring the world.

Shrimp in Cheese Sauce

1 1/2 T. olive oil

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

1 onion, finely chopped

2 1/4 lb. shrimp, peeled and cleaned

salt and pepper to taste

1 T. butter

1 c. milk

14 oz. mascarpone

3 T. tomato sauce (I use Passata or Tomato Pellati when I don’t have homemade concentrated tomato sauce)

chopped parsley or scallions to garnish

In a deep pan over lower heat, fry garlic and onion.

Add shrimp and fry on both sides until they change color.

Remove from heat, and season with salt and pepper.

In another pan, heat butter, milk, and mascarpone, and let it melt slowly.

Add to the pan with shrimp.

Add tomato sauce, and let it boil quickly.

Garnish with parsley or scallions, and serve with rice or boiled potatoes.

Serves 4 or 5.