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Cooking from the Heart

(article, Mary Sue Milliken)

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h3. From the chapter "Chicken Meatball Soup"

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h1. About the book and author

A fundraiser for the anti-hunger nonprofit Share Our Strength, Cooking from the Heart assembles beloved recipes from America's best-known and best-loved chefs, including Martin Yan, Daniel Boulud, Chris Schlesinger, and Tom Douglas.

Mary Sue Milliken is a chef and restaurateur in California and the Southwest; she's best-known for hosting (along with her business partner, Susan Feniger) the cooking show "Too Hot Tamales."
 
Excerpt reprinted with permission of Broadway Books (2003).

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I’ve always been a voracious traveler. I don’t mean to imply that I had to get out of East Lansing, but I did love the experience of other places. And I’ve always loved food. I started cooking in fifth grade. Coffee cake was one of my first culinary triumphs. (I didn’t drink coffee, but I was thrilled when I saw all the tiny layers of dough rise into a beautiful golden cake.) 

I can’t remember a year that I haven’t enjoyed some major travel adventure. Sweden, France, England, Mexico, Bali, Ethiopia, Japan, Belize, Cuba, Chile, Greece, Spain, Germany, China: in every country, I always try to cook with a family. It’s only half satisfying to discover a country’s food through restaurants. It’s so much more vivid and gratifying to experience food in a family’s home. 

The first big trip I took without my parents began in a pickup truck with my aunt Helen. I was 16. We drove cross-country from Michigan to Washington, staying the night with friends of friends and people my aunt barely knew. To show our appreciation, we’d always cook a meal for our hosts. We’d found a recipe for Greek meatballs with mint and rice, and we served them with an egg-lemon sauce. We also had a version that was more Italian-style with tomato sauce. Ground meat and rice didn’t break our tiny budget.

Our meatball dish got better and better at every home we visited. Just the experience of cooking together made it better. But beyond that I came to feel a special closeness with my aunt on our journey. My aunt and I separated at Bainbridge Island, Washington, where I began a 2,000-mile bike ride down the Olympia Trail with a group of 10 16-year-olds. Strangers who are about to spend the next six weeks together sort out who’s good at what very quickly. For most of the trek the kitchen equipment resided on my bicycle. Those meatballs helped cement my new friendships.

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Years later, on my own travels, I took to making meatballs in the homes of families I’d visit. Food is my way to connect with people. It’s certainly part of the joy of being a chef. There hasn’t been a country I’ve visited where you can’t buy a little ground meat and flour. And meatballs are a perfect offering: they’re small enough to join in with other dishes, they’re versatile, and they can accommodate all kinds of flavors and sauces. 

I’ve made them with turkey, chicken, lamb; I’ve used breadcrumbs or even noodles instead of rice. In Thailand, I learned to prepare meatballs with rice noodles and pork and float them in a broth. I’ve reinvented them with whatever local ingredients call out to me. The meatball recipe I’m including here was based on that tasty Thai soup but reinvented on a trip to Mexico, where I was inspired to add crunchy fresh cabbage and some spicy jalapeños. 

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A few years ago, Aunt Helen was in the late stages of cancer and I needed to visit. It’s a major trek from southern California, and my son, who came with me, was just four months old. A couple of planes and then a couple of hours in a rental car later, I stopped and picked up ground beef on the edge of town. I hadn’t planned to cook for my aunt, but the idea just came to me as I was driving.

I cooked up the meatballs Greek style this last time. When I started frying them in my aunt’s small pan in her compact kitchen, the smell of mint and sizzling meat just reconnected us. It’s hard saying farewell, and I’ve had blessedly little experience. But there we were, Aunt Helen on the couch and me tending the sauce and the salad in the kitchen, and it was a way for us to reminisce without using the words for goodbye.


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