Food has always been an instrument of dialogue and comparison in my home. My mother came from Padua, where her father was a great cook of traditional Venetian cuisine, and my father was born in Constantinople (he loves to use the name that pre-dated Istanbul) from a Greek mother. For us, food was a moment to be together, talk, and make important decisions. Until I left home, just before turning 20, every evening would be a mix of the gastronomic heritages of my family.
I worked for 15 years in the field of international cooperation, in particular with land rights and the environment, which inevitably led to the field of food production. It’s a field that never gets boring. Food is language, history, knowledge, exchange, innovation, and respect. Food is democracy and wealth and power, and perhaps for these reasons it is often violated and abused.
I’ve tried to explain my vision of food to my two children, to make it, in their eyes, an element of great respect but also play and experimentation (each game has rules to follow). My ten-year-old daughter Sofia has an innate talent in the kitchen, combining creativity (maybe taken from me) and fussiness (taken from my lovely husband). As she works on the colors, textures, and decorations of a dish, she’ll often comment that “it’s stuff that you can eat, Mom, and not just with your eyes." I am often in the kitchen for my work, so naturally it is the place where Sofia and I find ourselves talking. Her thousand questions help me to see what I’m doing in a different way, and when we taste the dishes together, her expression is the most important judgment.
Sofia loves sweets in particular because they need precise rules and well-defined times (she also adores licking the ladles of the doughs and creams). She is most critical, and most complimentary, when I create a new dessert recipe. When cooking, we express ourselves freely, not only our moods and our tastes but also stories about where we come from. Cooking together allows me to tell episodes of my childhood and different family stories, and this opens confrontation and dialogue and helps us grow and get to know each other. I love it.
During the weekend, sometimes Sofia gets up a little earlier; even though I'm awake, I love hearing her noises with pots, cups and cutlery. Her favorite breakfasts include pancakes with maple syrup, warm bread with jams and cheeses, and a chickpea puree made with olive oil, salt, lemon, and cumin seeds, plus the coffee that I have set up the night before.
Ever since she was small, we’ve played a game called "the perfect morsel." She gets one bite, and then has to describe the dish. Once when she was five, she took a long time to taste. I asked, “Sofia, what do you want to say?" She answered, “Mom, the taste of this dish is its perfume. Now that I’ve smelled it, I can use the fork."
In the summer, we usually travel around Europe with our van and a nice company of friends, so each meal must be well organized. Sofia never fails to give me some advice or suggest an ingredient or a cooking technique of the place we’re visiting. This stimulates even more our innate curiosity, and really helps me to improve myself. Lessons from my daughter.
I do not know what Sofia wants to do when she grows up; the only thing I want is that she can do a job that satisfies her with passion and creativity. I don’t know if she will live near or far from me but I am sure that the kitchen will be the place where I will welcome her, where we will talk, laugh and perhaps cry together, in pain or in joy, as life will offer.
Eleni Pisano is a chef, consultant, cooking teacher, food stylist, and writer. She lives in Europe and can be found @ricettedieleni.
12 medium tomatoes
extra virgin olive oil
3 oz. dry bread
1 t. cumin seeds
4 oz. Greek feta cheese
3 oz. pitted black olives, chopped
1 sprig thyme, leaves removed
4 oz. ricotta cheese
2 oz. sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil, chopped
handful of fresh basil, chopped
1 red onion, sliced thinly
2 oz. anchovies packed in oil
zest of 1 organic lemon
smoked sweet paprika
Cut about 3/4 inch off the stem end of the tomatoes, and reserve the tops.
Cut inside each tomato around the circumference of the pulp, and scoop out the pulp, reserving it with a pinch of salt and a little olive oil.
Lightly salt the inside of the tomatoes and put them upside down for 5 minutes to drain.
Soften the bread in a little cold water for 10 minutes.
Squeeze the water out of the bread, and divide bread in two bowls.
Heat cumin seeds for 1 minute in a pan with 3 T. olive oil.
In one bowl of bread, add feta, olives, thyme leaves, and cumin seeds, mixing well.
In the other bowl of bread, add the ricotta, sun-dried tomatoes, and basil, mixing well.
Sauté onion in a little olive oil until softened, about 5 minutes, and season with salt. Add some to each bowl.
Fill the tomatoes with the two fillings, and add the reserved tops.
Serve with the reserved tomato pulp, anchovies, lemon zest, and paprika.