Recipes from a Picky Eater | Best Cook
Friends in Vermont call Adele Dienno the best cook they know; her flavors come from a lifetime of knowing just what she likes.
The dining-room table is set with white linen, crystal goblets, white candles, and red roses, giving an Old World feeling. In the kitchen of her Burlington home, Adele Dienno is pounding chicken filets with her mallet and chopping basil into a fine paste. Friends gather around her island and watch.
Growing up in Philadelphia, Adele was a picky eater. She learned to cook from her grandmother and her aunt, real Italian cooking from the old country. “When my brother was born, my father bought a house where we could live as a family, but it wasn’t ever the same,” she says. “We were so alone, no one to talk to, no one to cook with.” In the new house, her mother wouldn’t let her cook, claiming she was “too messy.” When Adele came of age, a child of the ’60s, she rebelled against her Italian heritage. “I decided I wanted to eat what I wanted to eat,” she says. In 1970, she traveled to Europe and experimented with the foods she found there: “I didn’t know what I was eating, but I knew I loved it.” And she brought home a lot of new ideas about food and its preparation, the start of a gradual evolution in her cooking.
Soon after, she roared out of Philly on her motorcycle and arrived in Rochester, Vermont, where she ran a youth hostel and cooked for skiing groups of sometimes more than 100. It was mostly American food, but she knew then what life had in store for her: cooking. “I’ve always liked feeding people,” she says, as she spreads the chicken filets with the pesto she’s just made, by hand, no blender. There, Adele found the bridge back to her Italian roots and the foods of Europe. She started teaching Italian cooking at a high school and other sites around Burlington. It was something she knew, remembering the lessons she’d learned when she was so young. She taught classes in pasta, Italian desserts, and how to make risotto. In between, Adele married Bob Meijers and they raised their two daughters. She still teaches Italian cooking, is president of Burlington’s Italian Club, and at one time served on the board of Burlington’s City Market/Onion River Co-op.
Tonight’s guests, Jane and John Spencer of Addison, Vermont, have known Adele for years and consider her the most innovative cook they’ve ever met. Now she fires up the burner for the sage sauce to dress the sweet-potato gnocchi. It’s almost time to eat. She tosses spinach, beet greens, shaved fennel, and radicchio with olive oil and fig vinegar and crowns it with shaved Parmesan. In a way, Adele is still a picky eater, cooking only what she likes to eat. Apparently a lot of people agree with her. We hold hands and say grace; then we dig in, and, for a short time, no one says anything. Then there’s a whispered chorus: “Wow!” … “Oh my God!” … “Adele, you’ve done it again!”