Twin Cities mom adds touches of wisdom and love as she teaches her son to cook


Several evenings last year, my son Isaac came home from work as I finished cooking dinner. He pulled out a stool and we talked about nothing – and everything.

Then 19 years old, Isaac was working hard during a gap year after high school. I was on my own after months of working remotely, and those evenings were an unexpected silver lining of COVID.

Then, at the beginning of March, he told me that he and his friends had signed a lease. He will move on April 1.

“Well,” he told me, “I guess I have a month to learn how to cook.”

Another silver lining.

So once or twice a week for this last precious month, no matter how tired we were, Isaac and I made dinner together.

We started with one of his favorites: spaghetti with red sauce and Italian sausage. We talked about the importance of mise en place, the pros and cons of fresh and dried basil, how to incorporate the browned sausage chunks into the pan for extra flavor, and how a twist serving tongs and a sprinkle of cheese make every plate that little bit prettier. We made garlic bread and a nice green salad, and enjoyed it all together.

It will be years before Isaac masters the art of knowing what to make for dinner, so over the weeks I picked dishes I thought he would enjoy, and that included a skill I thought he would enjoy. he had to take with him – peeling the garlic, preparing the herbs, handling the meat safely.

We made prawn scampi, thai peanut noodles with chicken, grated tomato soup. My husband, Jeff, took a night out, sharing his recipe for Dad’s “mystery meat” tacos (the secret isn’t the taco seasoning but the potted salsa and a sprinkle of cumin).

We tried a few drink pairings and learned that cheap champagne with baked macaroni and cheese was perfect for a Tuesday night dinner party.

I bought a journal and started writing recipes not only for the dishes we made together, but also for other favorites, like pancakes, pasta with pesto and homemade Caesar dressing. I’ve adapted recipes from favorite cookbooks and websites, and from my own memory. I solicited recipes from other family members, so the book also includes Grandma’s Hazelnut Fudge Bars, Nana’s Wild Rice Soup, and Papa’s Papas Fritas (French Fried Potatoes).

About three weeks later, as we were preparing the prawns for the langoustines, Isaac turned to me and said urgently, “We should write this!”

I laughed.

In the case of one requested recipe – chicken korma – I skimmed through a quarter of a complicated recipe before writing, “OMG. I’ll make this for you. That’s crazy.”

I sprinkled the book with advice (MOMWOW = Mom Words of Wisdom), like “Don’t worry about entertainment. Keep it simple and enjoy your guests”, and lists, like what to always have in your fridge and what to always have in your utensil and spice drawer. I have recorded photos that I took of some of the meals we cooked together. There are erasures and notes in the margins – he would make mistakes too, I wrote, adding “Laugh them and try again.

Despite my hope that it was all just an elaborate April Fool’s joke, Isaac moved on April 1st. He took the recipe book with him.

The first time he made baked mac and cheese, he called several times to ask clarifying questions. Then he sent me a picture of a table full of roommates ready to devour it, and then, incredibly soon after, another of the scraped baking dish.

So Isaac knows how to follow a recipe. It can evenly chop onions. He can julienne carrots, make a béchamel sauce and roll up a tortilla.

It’s been almost a year now that Isaac has been mostly eating. Recently he called me because he was making spaghetti and couldn’t find a recipe for garlic bread. I accompanied him while I cut a baguette as part of my own supper.

“I understand,” he told me. “You forgot some things so that I would call you more often.”

I haven’t, but I like the way he thinks.

MOMWOW (Words of Wisdom from Mom)

• Eat vegetables to avoid getting Scurvy!

• Just because two things taste good doesn’t mean they taste good together.

• The right ingredients are more important than fine china.

• Take good care of your knives and kitchen utensils.

• Women love a man who can cook!

• If you cook, someone else can clean the bathroom.

• And as a bonus DADWOW, via Benjamin Franklin: Patience makes the sauce.

Minestrone or ‘Pizza Soup’

Serves 8, plus leftovers.

Note: My boys were not picky eaters; Still, I found I had more success getting them to try something new if I linked it to something they knew. A word of advice: never mix pasta with your soup. It gets mushy and expands until you end up with hot soup. Instead, serve the soup in your bowl and stir in the noodles as desired. By Maria Elena Baca.

• 1 lb hot Italian sausage or 1 (12 oz) pkg. crumbled protein plus 1/2 tsp. fennel seeds

• 1 onion, chopped

• 1 carrot, chopped

• 1 stalk of celery, chopped

• 4 ch. chicken or vegetable broth

• 1 can (15 oz) pinto beans, rinsed and drained

• 1 can (15 oz) chickpeas, rinsed and drained

• 1 package (16 oz) small pasta

• 1 ch. frozen peas

• 1/2 packet of frozen peas

• 1/2 tsp. dried basil

• 1/2 tsp. dried oregano


In a large soup pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat, cook sausage until no longer pink. Remove the sausages from the pan, along with most of the fat. (If using meat flakes, start by heating 2 tablespoons of olive oil in the pot.)

Cook the onion, celery, and carrot until the onion is translucent and the carrot begins to soften. Stir frequently.

Return the sausage to the pot. Add beans, crumbled protein, if using, and broth, and bring to a boil.

Meanwhile, cook pasta according to package directions. Drain and set aside.

Crush the herbs in your hands and sprinkle them into the soup. Stir and add salt and pepper to taste. Ladle soup into bowls and add cooked noodles to taste. Garnish with grated parmesan before serving.

Home fries

For 6 persons.

By Maria Elena Baca.

• 5 lbs small red potatoes

• 2 to 3 tbsp. olive oil

• Salt and pepper


Preheat the oven to 425 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Wash and dry the potatoes. Cut them into quarters or eighths, depending on size. They should be about the size of two bites.

Mix with olive oil. Space out on a baking sheet; Season with salt and pepper.

Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until golden on the outside and bubbly on the inside. Serve with ketchup or sour cream.

Buttermilk Pancakes

For 6 persons.

Note: To make blueberry pancakes, drop 5 or 6 frozen berries onto the wet batter immediately after pouring it into the pan. Adapted from “America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook”.

• 2 ch. plain flour

• 2 tablespoons. sugar

• 2 tbsp. baking powder

• 1/2 tsp. baking soda

• 1/2 tsp. powdered buttermilk

• 1/2 tsp. salt

• 1 egg

• 3 tbsp. butter, melted and cooled, plus additional butter for the pan

• 2 ch. milk or water


Preheat the oven to 175 degrees and heat a griddle or large frying pan over medium heat.

In a large bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, buttermilk powder and salt.

In a small bowl, combine the egg, melted butter and milk or water.

Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and whisk to combine. If the batter seems too thick, add a little water. Do not overmix.

Check the heat of the pan by pouring a drop of water on it. It should sizzle. Take some butter on your spatula and swirl it around the pan.

Pour the batter through the 13 cup in the saucepan. Flip the pancake when the top is bubbling and the bottom is golden brown. Cook for a few more minutes, checking that both sides are golden brown. When you think it’s done, make sure your heat isn’t too high by cutting into a pancake with the corner of the spatula to make sure it’s cooked through inside. Move the finished cakes to a plate in the oven. Repeat until all the batter is used.

Serve with more butter and hot maple syrup.


For 6 persons.

By Maria Elena Baca.

• 1 lb spicy Italian sausage

• 1 medium onion, diced

• 3 garlic cloves, minced

• 2 cans (28 oz) crushed tomatoes

• Salt and pepper

• 1 package (16 oz) Pasta

• Olive oil

• Parmesan cheese


In a large skillet, brown the sausage until no longer pink. Remove with a spoon.

Pour in most of the fat and sauté the onion until translucent, then add the garlic. Sauté for 2 more minutes.

Add the sausages, plus the tomatoes. Cook excess liquid, about 10 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste.

Meanwhile, cook pasta according to package directions. Strain and return to the pot. Add the sauce to the pasta until it is perfectly sauced. Transfer to a large serving platter and top with another scoop of sauce, grated Parmesan and a drizzle of olive oil.

Garlic bread

For 6 persons.

By Maria Elena Baca.

• 1 baguette or Italian bread

• 4 tsp. (1/2 stick) softened butter

• 1 clove of garlic, minced

• Salt and pepper


Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Cut the bread into 1 inch slices.

In a small bowl, use a fork to combine the butter, garlic, salt and pepper. Divide over each slice.

Wrap the bread in aluminum foil and transfer to the oven. Heat for 15 minutes or until bread is hot and butter is melted.


For 6 persons.

Note: Tostada shells are flat, hard corn tortillas.

• 6 toasts

• 1 can (15 oz) refried pinto or black beans

• 1 ch. grated Colby jack cheese or crumbled cotija

• Guacamole, shredded lettuce, diced tomatoes, salsa, chopped red or green onions for garnish


Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Generously coat each tostada shell with beans and place on a baking sheet. Sprinkle tostadas with cheese.

Bake for 7 to 10 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and starting to brown. Add toppings of your choice and taste with your fingers.

Maria Elena Baca is a writer who also cooks in Minnetonka.

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