Everyday Dinner Reunion

Published April, 2008

Melanie Barnard, noted chef, enjoys teaching her grandchildren to cook

In Melanie Barnard’s Erie, Pa., childhood home, food was the shared passion that her Sicilian father and Pennsylvania Dutch mother discussed, obsessed over, and even glorified.

Her mother, she said, was a "legendary cook, a regular June Cleaver," always clad in an apron, always experimenting with new kitchen appliances, and always learning new cooking techniques. Barnard says her mom provided training and inspiration. A self-taught cook who prepared the family meals while her own mother worked, Marianne Faso happily assumed the helm of the kitchen, channeling her creativity into beautiful homemade Pennsylvania Dutch pies, breads, and elaborate dinner entrees, like Lobster Thermador.

Despite this pedigree, Barnard did not dream of a career in food. "That wasn’t something anybody ever paid you for at that time," says Barnard, 63. "The reality was, you had to get a good solid job. Other than working in a restaurant or being a chef, nobody ever paid anybody for cooking, not in those days."

After earning a degree in nursing from the University of Pittsburgh, Barnard married her husband, Scott. They moved to Chicago and had three kids, she says, "in very rapid succession."

While her husband traveled for work, she began cooking with her three sons: Dave, now 39, Jeff, 38, and Matt, 37, to sweeten her days as a stay-at-home mom. Eventually, her neighbors started asking, "Well, why don’t you cook with our kidsb? Teach our kids to cook." Soon enough she became the Pied Piper of cooking as the neighborhood kids joined her kitchen brigade.

She taught kids out of her home kitchen for several years and eventually moved on to teaching adults. Always a natural with the pen, however, she jumped at the opportunity to write a regular food column for the Cincinnati Post in 1975 about cooking with the newest appliance: the Cuisinart food processor. The work allowed her to build a career as well as to stay at home and raise a family.

Barnard has been a prolific writer over the past several decades. She has co-authored "Every-Night Cooking," a monthly column in Bon Appétit magazine, and was a restaurant critic for the Stamford Advocate and Greenwich Time daily newspapers near her home in New Canaan, Conn. She is also a James Beard Award-winning author and has co-authored 13 cookbooks, including The American Medical Association Family Cookbook (Pocket Books, 1998), Short & Sweet (Houghton Mifflin, 1999), A Flash in the Pan (Chronicle Books, 2003), and Ready, Set, Dough (Broadway Books, 2004).

She has returned to teaching children in her kitchen, but this time, it is for her grandchildren: Emily, 7, Kevin, 6, Charlotte, 4, Anna, 3, Kate, 3, Ryan, 1, and Gretchen, 1. She keeps a stack of pint-size aprons and wraps the children in them as soon as they walk into her house.

"They take for granted that when they come over, they are going to make something," says Barnard. "They are really budding cooks." She pulls up seven stools next to the large counter and lets them pitch in, rolling dough for pies, choosing vegetables to go into her linguine primavera nests, learning the virtues of homemade mayonnaise, and even making their own birthday cakes. "They are great egg crackers," she says. "They measure and pour and stir and whisk."

No matter what they cook together, there is one thing she tries to impart on her young grandchildrens' impressionable minds.

"Food unites my family in tradition. It is an opportunity for everyone to be together and to remember the same foods and talk about the old times," she says, pausing to reflect on the life lessons she learned in her own mother’s kitchen. "It doesn't matter what they make to eat, as long as they eat together as a family. Food is the glue that keeps family together."

Melanie Barnard's Linguini Primavera Nests
Pasta shaped into "nests" complemented with vegetables and fish or meat

Melanie Barnard’s grandkids like to swirl the pasta into nests then fill them with shrimp or veggies. In winter, veggies like squash or peas work well; summer favorites include zucchini and crooknek squash. Add shrimp or bits of leftover sausage and the nests become a main course.

2 tablespoons olive oil
3 ounces thinly sliced Parma ham or Prosciutto
2 leeks, white parts only, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup chicken broth
1/3 to 1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 pound thin asparagus spears, trimmed, cut into 1-inch diagonal slices
1 cup frozen peas, thawed
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper to taste
1 pound fresh or dried linguine or capellini
1/4 cup chopped or sliced fresh mint
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme
4 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese plus more for the table

1. Heat the oil in a large skillet. Cook the ham over high heat until just crisp, about 2 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer to a plate. Add the leeks and garlic to the skillet and cook over medium heat, stirring until softened and barely golden, about 4 minutes. Add the cream, broth, and wine and bring to a boil. Simmer 2 minutes until lightly reduced. Add the asparagus, peas, and mustard. Simmer until just tender, 3 to 4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in half of the mint and thyme.
2. Meanwhile, prepare pasta according to package directions. Drain well. Spoon some of the sauce liquid into the pasta and toss. Divide into 8 portions if using as a first course. Swirl each onto a small plate: twirl the pasta around a large fork until you have a “nest” about 3 inches wide. Gently remove fork so pasta “nest” holds its shape.
3. Spoon the remaining sauce and vegetables into and over the “nests." Sprinkle with cheese and remaining mint and thyme. Use additional cheese to pass at the table.

Yield: Makes 8 first course or 4 main course servings.

Melanie Barnard's Layered Lemon Mousse
Melanie Barnard's luscious and smooth lemon dessert, fun to serve in tall champagne glasses

The lemon curd base is the single most requested recipe in Melanie Barnard’s repertoire. She says she always has a tub of it in her freezer for filling cakes, spreading on biscuits, or folding into whipped cream for this mousse.

3 eggs
3 egg yolks
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
Pinch salt
Pinch nutmeg
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 cup heavy cream, chilled
1 1/2 cups blueberries or small sliced strawberries, or a combo

1. Whisk the eggs, yolks, and sugar in a heavy, nonreactive saucepan until thick and lemon-colored. Whisk in the zest, juice, and salt. Add the butter.
2. Cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, over medium-low heat, until the mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, and just beginning to boil, 6 to 8 minutes. Cool, then refrigerate until cold.
3. Whip the cream, set aside about 1/2 cup for garnish, then fold the remainder into the lemon curd to create a mousse. Spoon some of the mousse into tall wine or champagne glasses, then sprinkle with some of the berries. Continue to layer, ending with berries.
Refrigerate up to 6 hours. Serve garnished with the reserved whipped cream.

Yield: Serves 4.