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Starting from scratch

Mary Jane Tallistens chef John Bubalduring her first cooking lessher Near North Side condo. (John J. Kim~Sun-Times)

Mary Jane Tala listens to chef John Bubala during her first cooking lesson in her Near North Side condo. (John J. Kim~Sun-Times)

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About this series

We’re giving Sun-Times reader Mary Jane Tala a culinary makeover in six weeks, with the help of chef John Bubala, a Chicago restaurant veteran and culinary school instructor. We’ll update her progress in the Food section and on our Digging In blog ( At the end of six weeks, she’ll cook dinner for four.

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“I’m thinking if this works,” says Mary Jane Tala, not two minutes into her first cooking lesson, “the Cubs are gonna win the World Series.”

Translation: If Tala — a Lean Cuisine devotee who went 15 years before turning on the oven in her Near North condo — can learn how to cook in six weeks, anything is possible.

In May, Sun-Times readers chose the 57-year-old accountant as our guinea pig for a culinary makeover under the guidance of chef John Bubala.

Our goal: to show Tala that cooking is not to be feared or dismissed as mysterious or too much of a bother. By familiarizing her with her postage stamp-size kitchen and getting her hands dirty, we’ll get it done.

Our lessons are once a week, two hours at a time. We’re halfway through our experiment. Tala has done the bulk of the chopping. She’s shelled fava beans, cut corn off the cob and sliced an eggplant, all for the first time.

Bubala did step in to cut up a chicken and peel and de-vein shrimp. Tala couldn’t bring herself to do that, not just yet. The shrimp look like “giant insects” and the chicken “sounds slippery,” she grimaces.

Chicken, the world’s most popular protein, is part of our first lesson. One chicken can produce multiple meals. The other part, at Tala’s request, is gazpacho. It is one of her favorite things to eat. And it is, she now knows, the easiest thing to make.

Square one

Everyone in Tala’s family can cook. But she never learned and just didn’t bother when she was married, because her then-husband was a fantastic cook.

It seems to make more sense to stock up on frozen meals and ready-to-eat foods, or go out to eat, or stick with salad and bottled dressing.

“If you are what you eat, I’m going to live to be 120, because I am preservatives,” Tala says.

The upside: Tala has been on a health kick ever since her appendectomy last fall. She hasn’t smoked a cigarette in eight months. She walks to work. She has discovered Pilates. Learning to make wholesome meals is the next natural step, and she’s eager to learn.

In her freezer: Lean Cuisines, low-fat ice cream, frozen fruit bars, frozen daquiri mix and a loaf of oat bread. In the refrigerator: juice, milk, a pitcher of Crystal Light, jarred spaghetti sauce, fat-free salad dressing, yogurt and two bottles of Chardonnay.

Her kitchen measures roughly 6 feet by 10 feet. A plaque on the wall reads, “Everybody has to believe in something. I believe I’ll open a bottle of wine.”

Bubala has his work cut out for him.

“Do you have butter in the fridge?” he asks.

“I have I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter,” Tala replies as Bubala shoots me a wary look. “Honey, I cut out trans fats.”

She owns two knives and three pans. The pantry is dicier — no salt, no pepper, a bottle of oil with a label that looks about eight years past its expiration date. Bubala cheated a little, bringing his own knives. But, he tells her, a tricked-out kitchen loaded with shiny gadgets isn’t necessary if all you want to do is make dinner.

“I never buy my knives new. I buy them used,” from Northwestern Cutlery at 810 W. Lake, he says.

Tala does have a shiny blender, which is all she needs to make gazpacho. And her 8-inch skillet, though not a natural choice for making soup, is the largest one she owns, so that’s what we’re going to use.

Wait to salt

Gazpacho takes only a few minutes, so the chicken is first up. Always start with whatever takes longest to cook, Bubala says.

He keeps a plastic bag within reach for scraps. Cleaning as you cook is a good habit to pick up.

After a shaky start (“What does one use to wash vegetables — soap?” Tala asks), Bubala has her chop a carrot, shallot and part of a fennel bulb. He shows her how to smash a head of garlic into cloves with the side of a knife — a broad spoon or the bottom of a pan also works — so the cloves are easy to peel.

The vegetables, sauteed in a bit of the questionable oil, are the base of the stock. They’re flavor-building blocks, always good to have around and they keep well in the crisper drawer.

Tala sprinkles Mrs. Dash into the pan — just a dash. “You can always add, but never take away,” Bubala says. “As the stock reduces, it gets saltier.”

He nestles chicken pieces into the pan to brown, and wraps the rest of the raw chicken in plastic wrap and foil for the freezer. Later this summer, when we are out of Tala’s life, she’ll be able to pull out the chicken, labeled as such, and make a meal, or three. Roast chicken, chicken soup, pasta with chicken . . .

The pan is sizzling. Tala pours in cold water to cover the chicken and turns up the heat to bring it to a boil, then back down to a simmer. Bubala shows her how to skim impurities from the top with a spoon.

She’s cooking now.

Two soups

Tala gingerly chops a tomato and other vegetables for gazpacho. The cuts don’t have to be perfect, since everything will get pureed.

The cuts don’t have to be perfect, period (but the thumb and fingertips of her free hand have to stay tucked in while she chops.) “You have to do what makes sense for you,” Bubala says.

In the blender they go, with some flat-leaf parsley, basil and cilantro leaves and the juice of a lime. Rolling the lime on the cutting board primes the juices — and momentarily transports Tala to her bartending days at the old Playboy Hotel. A whir in the blender and, voila, gazpacho. It’s soup, but it could be a sauce or marinade, too.

Bubala seasons it, and Tala tastes. “You can taste every little thingy we put in there,” she marvels.

Since she quit smoking, Tala says her palate has become more attuned to how salty, or not salty, foods are.

After 30 minutes, it’s time to pull the chicken from the pot, the meat off the bone and strain the broth, then combine the meat, broth and vegetables in a bowl. Chicken soup — done.

Dressing down

The day before our next lesson, Tala sends this e-mail: “Due to an experiment, I now have red wine vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, black pepper, celery and freeze-dried chives (couldn’t find fresh).”

She has made gazpacho again using a recipe she found online, and it’s sprightlier than the first version, though she grumbles, “The recipe said 15 minutes, but it was more like one hour with all that chopping.”

Bubala has brought two lovely cod fillets plus salad fixings, including sun-dried tomatoes, olives, balsamic vinegar and baby spinach. I have kosher salt, black pepper (with a built-in grinder), more olive oil and butter. The pantry is now stocked.

Tala eats salads often. Homemade vinaigrette is a must.

The typical ratio, Bubala says, is three or four parts oil to one part vinegar, “but it all depends on your palate.” The biggest mistake is adding salt at the wrong time. “Add the salt to the vinegar. If you add it after the oil, the salt won’t dissolve and it’ll just taste salty,” he says.

Tala stirs a pinch of salt into 1/4 cup of balsamic vinegar, then measures out 1 cup of olive oil. She adds a bit of chopped garlic and shallot. A few seconds and a few turns of a spoon is all it takes.

Variations are plentiful — add chopped herbs, use different vinegars, whisk in feta or grated Parmesan. For a true emulsion, whisk in a dab of mustard.

Fish, quickly

The dressing comes in handy for our second dish — fish a la microwave. Microwave cooking can be overlooked, but it’s ideal for solo cooks such as Tala. Cleanup is minimal, and it doesn’t stink up the place. It just takes a watchful eye.

Vegetable prep is first: scallion bottoms, thin slices of ginger root and lemon, some of last week’s fennel, julienned. Fish prep comes last. “Always do your raw product first or last, never in the middle,” Bubala says.

He shows how to check for stray bones, running his fingers along the fillet. “Never leave the fish house without your fish on ice,” he cautions. “You want to keep the fish as cold as possible until you get home.”

He lays the aromatics and a plump sprig of oregano on top of the cod, then splashes it with white wine and some vinaigrette. Plastic wrap over the fish will help create steam.

Tala’s microwave is old-school — no rotating tray — but after four minutes on high and a rotation halfway through, the fish is opaque, as it should be.

Bubala pours the hot liquid from the fish into a small bowl, where a pat of butter waits to be whisked. The fancy term for this technique is monte au beurre. Butter sauce, baby.

“We not only have a dish, we have art,” says Tala.

The second fillet gets cracked black pepper and more vinaigrette as its seasoning, and a few minutes in the microwave. Set on top of lightly dressed spinach and olives, it’s yet another meal.

“The dressing ended up on everything,” Tala murmurs. “And each dish is really only five ingredients,” Bubala adds.

There isn’t much to clean up, mostly ingredients to wrap up and store for next time.

“Next time,” Tala offers, “can we do scallops?”

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