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    Tuesday, July 23, 2024

    With new cookbook, Valerie Bertinelli wants us all to indulge

    Four years ago, when Valerie Bertinelli turned 60, a switch flipped. The years preceding that birthday had been defined by dietary abnegation: policing calories, frowning at the digits she saw on the scale, chasing purity at the expense of pleasure.

    “What wasn’t working for me was living my life by a number,” Bertinelli, who just turned 64 later, told me one day this February as she sat in her home in Los Angeles. “Because no matter what that number was, it wasn’t going to be good enough.”

    “Indulge,” the actress and food personality’s third cookbook (out this month from Harvest), is a rejection of the restriction that had been dominating her life. The title of the book is as much an invitation as it is a reclamation of what some finger-waggers would have you believe is a dirty word.

    “Why can’t we indulge every flipping day of our lives?” Bertinelli said. (She has a charming tendency to alternate between dropping f-bombs and their airwave-friendly substitutes). “We only have one of these.”

    The book’s recipes are unrepentantly joyous: There’s a vegetable galette with a painterly rainbow of produce, white chocolate chip cookies with bursts of lemon and lime. She takes the kumquats blooming on a bush in her backyard and braises them with chicken on the stove, where the fruit’s bitter flesh mellows against the heat, coaxing the sweetness from their rind.

    For Bertinelli — a sitcom star-turned-mainstay of the Food Network, where she was the host of such shows as “Kids Baking Championship” and “Valerie’s Home Cooking” for a total of eight years — “Indulge” arrives after a time rocked by losses and absences. Her first husband, the musician Eddie Van Halen, died in 2020; a painful divorce from her second husband, the businessman Tom Vitale, was finalized in 2022. The essays bridging these recipes are meditations on healing and forgiveness. The book that resulted from this trying period is her way of working through, and finally silencing, “the same stuff that’s been going through my head my entire life,” she said.

    Having grown up in a peripatetic family thanks to her auto executive father’s job at General Motors (“I call myself the GM Brat,” she quipped), Bertinelli began acting when she was 12, learning the heartbreak of rejection early. “I think I went on 99 to 100 interviews before I got my first commercial,” she said. “That can really mess with a kid’s head.”

    Her break came in 1975, when the showrunner Norman Lear decided to reshoot the pilot for the sitcom that would become “One Day at a Time” (1975-1984). As the younger of two daughters to a divorced single mom, Bertinelli’s Barbara Cooper was the picture of precocity, displaying her rapier wit in zippy one-liners.

    In a performance that would win her two Golden Globes and make her a household name, Bertinelli aged before America’s eyes over the course of the show’s nine-season run. “One Day at a Time” was “my college, I like to call it,” Bertinelli said. “Because I was in the college of learning how to socialize with adults. My college of learning how to do a craft I wanted to learn.”

    Fame also brought Bertinelli into the orbit of her rock star first husband, whom she married in 1981, when she was just 20. Bertinelli’s Indonesian mother-in-law (whom she still calls “Mrs. Van Halen”) introduced her to the cornucopian wonders of such salads as gado-gado and the fluffy banana fritters known as pisang goreng, far from the pork chops and strawberry rhubarb pies Bertinelli’s English-Irish mother had weaned her on. “All these things that I’d never heard of,” she said. “And they’re un-flipping-believably delicious.” (Sambal, a condiment popular in Indonesia, features heavily in “Indulge.”)

    Despite cooking’s prominence in Bertinelli’s life, not even she can make sense of what motivated her to transition into food after years of acting: ​​“Who the (expletive) knows?” she said, laughing. Her first cookbook, 2012’s “One Dish at a Time,” came from her desire to share the culinary knowledge that her Italian grandmother and the other women in her family had impressed upon her.

    But her food television career began in earnest in 2015. The TV Land sitcom “Hot in Cleveland,” in which she had a starring role, came to an unceremonious end after five years. (She still doesn’t understand that decision, by the way: “I don’t know how you have Betty White as the star of your show and you cancel it,” she said. “Like, are you insane? You can see I’m not still bitter about it.”) The same year an offer came to host “Kids Baking Championship” on the Food Network.

    Thus began Bertinelli’s second chapter as a television cook, a path she didn’t intend to walk — but for her fans, the leap seemed logical.

    Seeing Bertinelli pop up on food television was “heartwarming,” said Kathleen Collins, author of 2009’s “Watching What We Eat,” a history of food television in America, in an email. Collins had grown up watching Bertinelli on “One Day at a Time” and was infatuated with her, admiring and relating to the misunderstood kid she saw on screen. Watching Bertinelli on the Food Network made Collins feel as if Barbara Cooper had grown up and was still showing women of her generation the way. “Her youthful energy is the same as it ever was, and it’s a natural for food TV,” Collins said.

    Even as she had a high-profile gig on the Food Network, though, Bertinelli found her relationship to food became fractious over the years because of the stressors of her personal life. Her self-image started to corrupt. When people made snide comments about her weight, she found herself agreeing with them.

    She started realizing she was using food to gauze a deeper and untended-to pain, too, as if she were playing a game of emotional whack-a-mole. “And if I try to push it away, shove it away, eat it away, the feeling’s not going to go anywhere,” she said of that time. “It’s going to pop up again.” She was relying on premade meals — frozen pizzas, grocery store sushi — and barely cooking.

    Then, she snapped herself into cognizance, realizing she’d had enough.

    “​​​​It’s not the food that’s bad for us,” she said of her epiphany. “It’s how, or why, we’re eating it. If we’re eating it unconsciously, if we’re eating it to soothe an emotion.”

    Bertinellli’s time with the Food Network came to an end last year after her contract expired, much to the chagrin of her battalion of devotees on social media, though she herself is unfazed. (“Business is business,” she said, diplomatically.) Now, she dreams of one day fusing her two careers into one — maybe playing a cookbook author or chef in a sitcom. Bertinelli knows she’s been lucky; starring in two beloved sitcoms is a rare experience. Most actresses don’t even get to take part in one.

    “But,” she said, “I’ll never stop cooking.”

    - — -

    Braised Chicken Thighs With Kumquats and Spiced Honey

    4 to 6 servings

    Active time: 40 mins; Total time: 1 hour 20 mins

    This one-pan braise relies on kumquats and turmeric-ginger honey to infuse chicken thighs with bright sweet-and-sour flavors. Lemon juice adds tartness, while lemon zest and grated ginger enhance the dish with intoxicating fragrance. A generous amount of cooked-down onions melts into the braise, delivering mellow sweetness to the sauce.

    You’ll wind up with more flavored honey than you need for the recipe; use the remaining honey in tea, drizzled on cottage cheese or yogurt, or in smoothies.

    Storage: Store the turmeric-ginger honey in a lidded jar at room temperature for up to 3 months. Refrigerate the braise for up to 4 days.

    Where to buy: Kumquats can be found at well-stocked supermarkets.


    For the spiced honey

    1/2 cup honey

    1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric

    1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

    1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

    1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

    1/4 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

    1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

    For the chicken

    1-1/2 pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs (4 to 6 thighs)

    Fine salt

    Freshly ground black pepper

    2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed

    2 medium red onions (1 pound total), halved and sliced

    1/4 cup water

    1 cup (6 ounces) kumquats, sliced 1/4-inch-thick (see Notes)

    1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro, plus more for garnish

    2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger

    4 garlic cloves, minced or finely grated

    Finely grated zest and juice of 1 lemon, plus lemon wedges for serving

    1 tablespoon

    2/3 cup low-sodium chicken broth, plus more as needed

    cooked rice, for serving


    Make the spiced honey: In a small bowl, stir together the honey, turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, vanilla, lemon zest and pepper until well combined. Transfer to a lidded jar and store until needed. You should have about 1/2 cup.

    Make the chicken: Thoroughly pat the chicken dry all over, and season both sides generously with salt and pepper.

    In a large skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat, heat the oil until shimmering. Add the chicken, skin side down, and cook without moving until the skin is golden brown and the chicken releases easily from the pan, 5 to 8 minutes. Flip and cook until golden brown on the other side, about 4 minutes. Transfer the chicken to a plate.

    Add the onions to the pan, and season with a pinch each of salt and pepper. Add the water, and use a wooden spoon to scrape up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions have reduced in volume by about half and are very soft, about 10 minutes. If the pan starts to look dry, add another splash of olive oil and adjust the heat as needed.

    Add the kumquats, cilantro, ginger, garlic, lemon zest and honey to the pan and stir to combine. Cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the broth and lemon juice, scraping up any remaining browned bits from the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat to low.

    Return the chicken, and any accumulated juices, to the pan, nestling it into the liquid. (If the braising liquid doesn’t come halfway up the sides of the chicken pieces, add more broth to make up the difference.) Cover the pan and cook until the chicken is cooked through and tender, 35 to 45 minutes. (It should register at least 165 degrees on an instant-read thermometer when inserted into the thickest part of the thigh without touching the bone.)

    Serve the chicken and sauce over rice, garnished with cilantro and lemon wedges.

    Substitutions: No kumquats? >> Chop 2 small, tart clementines (peeled, if you prefer) for a similar flavor profile. Prefer white meat? >> Try bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts, reducing the cooking time by about 10 minutes. Dislike cilantro? >> Use parsley.

    Notes: To remove the seeds from kumquats, gently squeeze the sliced rounds and the seeds should pop right out.

    Nutrition per serving (1 thigh plus 2 tablespoons sauce), based on 6: 322 calories, 10g carbohydrates, 95mg cholesterol, 22g fat, 2g fiber, 21g protein, 6g saturated fat, 147mg sodium, 6g sugar

    This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.

    Adapted from “Indulge: Delicious and Decadent Dishes to Enjoy and Share” by Valerie Bertinelli (Harvest, 2024).

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