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Making of a home cook: Chicago woman finds comfort in her kitchen


Updated: November 22, 2011 4:43PM

It's been quite a summer for Mary Jane Tala.

She went on an Alaskan cruise. She bruised some ribs after a nasty spill from a bar stool. And she learned to cook.

Well, she's still learning, still trying. But she doubts herself less, and she could make you some tasty gazpacho.

Tala, 57, was chosen in May by Sun-Times readers for a culinary makeover guided by chef John Bubala, a restaurant vet, consultant and Kendall College instructor. In between vacations and recovery from the aforementioned accident, the two met six times, for two hours at a time, in her Near North Side condo to cook.

Before our experiment began, Tala, a former smoker, sustained herself mostly on Lean Cuisine, salads and bottled dressing, take-out and wine. She stored gardening equipment in her oven; she hadn't used it for cooking in more than 15 years.

But she had the right attitude going in. She'd quit smoking the previous fall, around the time of her emergency appendectomy, and wanted to cook to eat healthier.

"I am finding that, indeed, food has more flavor now. If only there were some food in my kitchen worth testing that theory on," she wrote in an essay that we requested at the start of this process. "It seems to me that learning to cook would be far more practical than hiring a chef (cheaper, too).

"And as unlikely as I find the idea of me cooking, it's far more likely than the possibility that some man who can cook is going to propose marriage in the foreseeable future. Besides, this place is too small for either a chef or a spouse. So, it's gotta be me!"

Her kitchen is tiny. The drawers flanking her stove, where spoons and forks naturally would go, are too narrow to fit standard inserts, so she stores the cutlery in a bottom cabinet, along with all three of her pots. But this wasn't a hindrance (though Bubala still wants Tala to move the cutlery above toe level), nor should it be to anyone who believes they don't have the space or equipment to cook.

Over the course of six lessons, they used all three pots. And last week, during the last lesson - dinner for four, planned and executed mostly by her - Tala fired up her old but very clean oven.

"Two other people have cooked for me in that oven (last one circa 2006), but this was a first for me," she wrote on her Facebook wall later that night. "I may actually bake someday. :-)"

Learning by doing

We started from square one, or negative one.

"What does one use to wash vegetables - soap?" she asked Bubala in our first lesson.

She had no salt or black pepper and few other spices in her cabinets. Her one bottle of cooking oil was of dubious provenance, its label best described as vintage-looking.

Bubala brought ingredients to each lesson, but also used what she already had, whenever they could. This included that crusty bottle of oil. He surprised her with a starter knife kit - a chef's knife, sharpening steel and paring knife - hardly top of the line, but sharp, which is important. Tala's motley crew of old knives, which didn't include a chef's knife, the kitchen workhorse, literally wasn't cutting it.

A surprising workhorse: her 8-inch skillet, passed from her grandmother to her mother (who's in her mid-80s) to Tala. In it, she and Bubala made chicken soup, scrambled eggs and crepes. They sauteed eggplant, and caramelized apples and figs.

They worked without recipes so Tala could get a feel for technique rather than get hung up on words. He had Tala chopping (tentatively) and smelling, touching and tasting.

"A recipe is just a guideline," Bubala told her as she tasted her first batch of gazpacho, whirred in her blender. "The fun thing about cooking is it's your way."

Tala's one request was to learn how to make gazpacho. After that first lesson, she found a recipe online and made it again. And the next week. And several more times. She found herself tweaking the recipe - more lime juice, less red pepper.

Bubala taught her how to tell if fish is fresh - smell it - and how easy it is to cook fish in the microwave. He showed how to make salad dressing, and to make it more interesting with fresh herbs or grated cheese.

Still, this hasn't been a marked transformation, and it is far from complete. Tala admits she's been "cheating" - she's back to bottled salad dressing, though she now finds herself reading the labels.

Last week, as Bubala instructed her to drizzle olive oil over a tray of mushrooms, she asked him, "What does ‘drizzle' mean?" He showed her. "See," she said, "there are terms I have yet to learn."

End of the beginning

Weeks ago, Tala was shopping at a home goods store when a package of chocolate pasta caught her eye. When she returned to the store, it was gone, so she hunted online until she found it.

Thus began menu planning for our final lesson.

"This is all her menu," Bubala said when I arrived at Tala's condo. They were de-stemming mushrooms and mincing onions.

"I'm getting to be an idea person," Tala said.

"It just takes time," Bubala added.

For the appetizer, Tala decided on prosciutto-wrapped kiwi, an idea picked up from a fashion magazine, and with it, watercress dressed in a simple mustard vinaigrette. This wasn't cooking so much as assembling, but "it's basically stuff I want to eat," she said. "That's what it's all about," Bubala said.

For the main course, crab-stuffed mushrooms, adapted from another online recipe. And for dessert, that chocolate linguini with gently whipped cream, raspberries and grated white chocolate.

Tala talked us through her dessert thought process: She wanted to pair the pasta with creme fraiche, which she planned to make from scratch - from scratch! - but decided the subtle cocoa flavor needed something sweeter. This was not the Tala we'd first met.

As she scooped and filled the mushroom caps, she talked about wanting to cook more seafood.

She opened the oven door and slid the tray of mushrooms in. Trumpets didn't blare, but Tala wore a smile.

Bubala was now out of the kitchen and seated, talking her through what to do next. Boil water for the pasta. Check the mushrooms. What do they look like? What do they feel like?

While whisking heavy cream by hand for her sweet finale, she ticked off more dishes on her to-do list: her mother's peanut butter cream pie and almond crescent cookies; chili and eggs.

"I made that years ago," she said. "That's such a winter dish."

Summer was a good one, but the months ahead already look bright.

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