This weeks’ Foodie Spotlight is on Maria Lawton, author of “Azorean Cooking, From My Family Table to Yours” – the best selling Azorean/Portuguese cookbook on Amazon.com!
I have been a fan of Maria’s for awhile now, but it suddenly dawned on me when I saw her make a cameo in a Portuguese Kids short that she would be the perfect person to feature on Good Eats: Mundial! Duh.
Maria is an Azorean-American who emigrated to the United States from the island of Sāo Miguel (one of the nine volcanic islands that makes up the Azores) with her family when she was six years old. Just like many families, including my own, they settled in southeastern Massachusetts.
What was wonderful about this interview was that without provocation Maria was able to clearly articulate the feeling and passion around food and community that inspired me to create Good Eats: Mundial in the first place. And although I’d like to think it’s something special to us Azorean and Portuguese people, I know it’s a commonality among people worldwide!
Hence…Good Eats: Mundial.
Mundial – the Portuguese word for “global” or “worldwide”
Get it now?
Maria Lawton’s Contact Information:
One of the most common questions I get here in Atlanta (when I’m whining about the lack of Portuguese/Azorean food) is “What IS Portuguese/Azorean food? Describe it to me!’ – How would you describe it to the folks down here in Atlanta?
What most people don’t realize is that the Portuguese were such great explorers and were able to bring spices from our provinces in Macau, China; Goa, India and Mozambique, South Africa. We were blessed with fusion cooking long before it became a trendy thing in the cooking industry. Beef seasoned with cinnamon (India) and the spicy malagueta pepper (South Africa) could be found in my mom’s kitchen, from a recipe handed down for generations. Also through several centuries we were invaded and ruled by the Moors, Flemish, Romans, Germans, Norwegians and the Spaniards with each bringing their way of cooking as well as traditions. So it’s no wonder that recipes from these countries are sometimes so similar to recipes my mom and grandmother would make. Also the name “Farm to Table” another trendy term… is nothing new for us. We lived off the land and ocean and we ate what was in season with absolutely nothing going to waste.
When and why did you decide to write “Azorean Cooking, From my Family Table to Yours?”
I decided to write this cookbook several years after my parents and my grandparents passed away; I longed for my Mom and Grandmother’s cooking. The funny thing in all this is that I never cooked with my Mom. I am the youngest of three daughters and it was my two older sisters that took turns cooking with my mom. I would either be outside with my Dad planting vegetables or tending to the grape arbor or I would be upstairs in our three family home with my grandmother baking. She would bake something everyday, and if she wasn’t baking bread it would be something sweet. With leftover bread she created the most delicious bread pudding. She would also deep fry slices of leftover day old bread. She would dip them in a mixture of eggs and milk and then once fried, she would sprinkle sugar on top. No this is not French Toast! This is a whole new level of fried slices of homemade bread. Other times she would bake cakes or make puddings. Each day after coming home from school I would kiss my Dad and run upstairs to see what wonderful surprise she had for me. My mom was the amazing cook. We had the smallest galley shaped kitchen but from that tiny kitchen came out the most delicious meals. The wonderful memories I have of eating as a family and sharing these meals together are filled with so much love, laughter and pure joy. I never thought at that time to sit down with them and get their recipes. I never thought I would lose all of them so close to each other. But as the years passed, I wanted to recreate my childhood memories with my own family. Now I have three daughters and I want each one of them to know the traditions and recipes of their ancestors. I don’t want them to ever forget where part of their family is from.
What is your favorite Azorean dish to cook and what is your favorite one to eat?
I think this might be a trick question! One thing about me is I love to cook and I love to eat. So I wouldn’t cook something I wouldn’t like to eat!! My favorite soup depends on the day. I love turnip greens soup (one of Dad’s favorite too) or kale or collard greens with cabbage. Then in the Fall I especially love pumpkin soup with a bean puree. Then there’s the watercress soup I love in the Summer. I think I’m listing all the soups. Then I love rice pudding. I have nominated myself as the sweet rice pudding expert. I love it so much that when I was young I would ask for rice pudding to celebrate my birthday instead of cake. I love it SO much that I have three recipes for rice pudding in the cookbook. One recipe belonged to my Mom, it’s a very dense pudding. You can actually take a knife to it and hold it in your hand. The second recipe is my from cousin Lauriana which is creamier than my Mom’s and last but not least a recipe from my Aunt Lilia which is the most decadent and creamiest of all. All different textures, but all amazing flavors.
What was one of your most memorable experiences from when you went back to Sao Miguel to learn family recipes?
I love the fact that cooking creates so many memories just by aroma alone. When writing my cookbook it was sometimes a very emotional process. When I’m cooking I’m also recreating food memories. The aroma sometimes can be just incredibly powerful and overwhelming. It has the power to take me back to a place filled with love, as if I’m in my Mother or my Grandmother’s kitchen. That is exactly what happened when I was cooking with my elderly Aunt Inez. She is my Dad’s baby sister. She was teaching me how to make a fish stew recipe and all of a sudden the aroma was so overwhelming, all I could do was cry. The aroma took me back several years. It was one of the last times my Mom had made this dish, and I felt like she was there with me cooking. It was a very powerful experience and one that I would have over and over again as if she was guiding me along though this journey.
Which recipe would you suggest someone starting out with when they take home “Azorean Cooking, From my Family Table to Yours?”
I have to say our recipes are very simple and easy. They can be a little time consuming but never difficult. Right now we’re dealing with an over abundance of tomatoes so I would suggest page 68. Tomato Sauce with onions and poached eggs would be fantastic. Then with Fall coming page 12 has the Pumpkin Soup and on page 60 is an amazing Roast Beef dinner that’s a perfect pairing for Fall. Then for dessert., you have the rice puddings on pages 82 through 85. Then another childhood favorite on page 92, Milk Tarts! Trust me once you try one you’ll want another. Just remember I have given you fair warning!
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After my interview, I mentioned to her that I was in Atlanta and often times felt extremely homesick. Sometimes living in the South feels I’m in another country where no one speaks my language or gets it (haha). I never realized how disconnected I would feel from home and often crave comfort in the form of Portuguese dishes from my childhood.
She told me that her oldest daughter is in the South now and when she goes to visit she often makes dishes from home. However, Maria reminded me that a lot of her favorite dishes growing up included very ‘Southern’ ingredients like fried pork belly, cabbage, collard greens and even dumplings in soup. It’s all about what you make of your surroundings!
Our ancestors were navigators and explorers before some guy named Columbus ever made his accidental landing on the New World – and Maria is keeping that adventurous spirit alive by making a collection of our history available in a cookbook.
Now, what will I cook first…?