A love of food and family flourishes when Donna Asikainen and her 38-year-old son, Paul, reunite in her Leawood kitchen. The pair was first featured in a Come Into My Kitchen column nearly 35 years ago, when Paul was about to turn 3 years old.
Donna is now a retired speech and language pathologist and parent educator, and the family is toasting Paul’s career as a national wine educator for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates near Seattle.
The other loves of Donna’s life are her husband of 45 years, Lloyd; their 33-year-old son, Dan; his wife, Kalli; and two grandchildren, Lucy, 5, and Will, 2, of Olathe.
Paul traces his propensity for good food and wine back to his mother.
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“It all started with my mom, and I remember from very early on I always had an appreciation for her gourmet meals,” he said. “Now it’s fun to teach her about pairing wines with foods after traveling the world, but it always feels good to come back to the kitchen with my mom.”
Q: Do you have any plans for Valentine’s Day?
A: Lloyd and I usually don’t go out to eat on Valentine’s Day, because I don’t find it romantic to go out and be rushed through a meal because so many other couples are trying to get in their Valentine’s Day dinner together. Lloyd and I may just watch our grandchildren and let Dan and his wife have a night alone.
It is such a wonderful thing to be able to spend time and cook with our grandchildren. Our grandson will say: “I help you, Nana. I help you,” while our granddaughter has an apron she wears that says, “Nana’s Sous Chef.” Grandchildren are such a blessing, and it’s fun to rediscover that childlike part of myself again, too. Simple things like playing in a sink with water is so much fun for children, and there are great skills to be learned in the kitchen.
Q: As a parent educator, do you encourage people to get cooking with their children?
A: The kitchen really is the center of a home and is a place where so much natural learning takes place. Children learn hand-eye coordination by whisking or stirring something, math skills by measuring, time skills by looking at the clock or setting the timer, and reading skills by looking at recipes and cookbooks. Of course, being in the kitchen encourages communication, and eating what you’ve made together promotes further connectedness and healthier eating, since you know every ingredient you’ve put into a dish.
The food you make with children doesn’t have to be complicated, and their natural curiosity is so much fun to explore in the kitchen. One of my favorite things to have in my kitchen is a plastic tub full of large dried beans that the grandchildren can scoop, measure and just play with, using their imaginations. Again, it can be the simple things in life that can give you the most pleasure.
Q: How quickly has 35 years passed with your own son? In the Come Into My Kitchen picture from 1980, Paul looks like he could be one of your grandchildren now, looking at the spread of food you had in place on the table.
A: Well, the tables have turned now, as Paul has taught me so much about wine and food pairing. He lives in St. Helena, California, which is in the heart of wine country. Lloyd and I have been very fortunate to be able to travel with Paul on several occasions, and when we are with him we eat at the best restaurants and drink the finest wines.
We have traveled to some wonderful places — Finland, Sweden, Russia, Turkey, Italy and Spain, to name a few — but my most favorite place is the Provence region of France. It is so beautiful there — the people, the food and the wine. Paul has taught us that the soil, the climate, the type of grape and when it was picked all impact the flavor of a wine. And that region of France is intoxicating.
Q: After sharing recipes for a crab ring, steak and shrimp kebabs, a torte, and risotto in the 1980 column, why did you decide to poach pears this time around?
A: In France, a simple fruit and cheese plate can be dessert. I have since started a wine cellar in my home and love poaching pears as a simply beautiful end to a meal. A well-balanced, slightly sweet wine, such as Eroica Gold Riesling, complements the rich sweetness of the mascarpone cheese and pear.
Mary G. Pepitone is a freelance writer who lives in Leawood. She also writes a nationally syndicated home column. Send emails to her at email@example.com to nominate a cook.
Riesling Poached Pears With Sweet Mascarpone Filling
The wine the Asikainens prefer: Eroica Gold Riesling, a slightly sweet Riesling from Washington state made in partnership with Dr. Loosen of Mosel, Germany.
Makes 4 servings
For the garnish:
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 egg white
1 teaspoon water
1/4 pound shelled, whole pecans
For the pears:
1 cup sugar
2 cups off-dry to sweet Riesling wine
2 cups water
1 cinnamon stick
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg or fresh grating nutmeg
4 firm Bosc pears, peeled and cored from bottom, stem left intact
For the filling:
1 cup mascarpone cheese
2 tablespoons honey
1 lemon, zested
To make the garnish: Preheat oven to 250 degrees.
In a small bowl, whisk sugar, cinnamon, salt and cayenne together. Set aside.
In medium mixing bowl, whisk egg white and water together. Pour pecans into bowl and gently stir to coat well. Sprinkle sugar-cinnamon mixture over all and toss until pecans are evenly coated. Pour onto a rimmed baking sheet and spread pecans out in a single layer. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until nuts are lightly toasted and crisp. Remove from oven and allow to cool completely.
To make the pears: Into 4-quart, heavy-bottomed sauce pan, whisk sugar, wine, water, cinnamon stick, cloves and nutmeg together over high heat on stovetop.
Bring to a boil, then decrease heat to low and simmer. Add pears, standing upright, to pan. (If pears aren’t completely covered in liquid, add enough water to cover them completely.) Place lid tightly on pan and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, or until pears are just soft when inserted with the tip of a sharp knife.
Remove from heat, allow pears to come to room temperature, then place sauce pan with pears and liquid in refrigerator and cool completely.
After pears are cooled, make the filling: In a small mixing bowl, whisk Mascarpone, honey and lemon zest together until well-incorporated. Transfer to a piping bag fitted with a wide tip, and set aside.
To assemble dessert: Remove cooled pears from poaching liquid onto a plate. Set aside.
Place sauce pan filled with poaching liquid back onto stovetop over high heat and reduce for about 30 minutes, or until liquid is a syrupy consistency. Discard cinnamon stick.
Meanwhile, fill each pear from the bottom with Mascarpone mixture, using a pastry bag. As each pear is filled, place on an individual serving dish.
Serve by spooning reduced poaching liquid in equal amounts over each pear. Garnish with spiced pecans and serve immediately.
Per serving: 705 calories (38 percent from fat), 30 grams total fat (2 grams saturated), 29 milligrams cholesterol, 104 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams protein, 66 milligrams sodium, 7 grams dietary fiber.