She claimed she only knew how to make coffee and toast. And then there was this delicious open-faced melt she would make: A piece of bread topped with sliced tomato, avocado and cheese—then placed in a hot oven until the cheese was all melted and divine, draping over the bread like a warm blanket. Sometimes if it was available, a slice of turkey would find its way into the mix. I’m talking about my lovely wife Renata, who I affectionately refer to as Mrs. W, and these references date back to when we first met nearly three decades ago.
In those days I was managing the lounge at the Marriott Hotel in Newport Beach, CA at Fashion Island. Renata was employed there too in the banquets division, but it was a transfer to the beverage department that set our paths to cross. To this day I count that crossing as a blessing of blessings.
As time would tell she learned of my cooking ability and I learned of hers. But in the beginning I sensed a wee bit of self-deprecation in her expression of the food she’d make in comparison to mine. It was endearing for I knew she had it in her—it just needed to be nurtured. After all, growing up, the kitchen was not her playground. Influentially speaking, she had two stellar cooks as role models: Her mother, a native of Germany and her abuela of Mexican heritage provided a foundation of world cuisine.
There’s an art to nurturing. On one hand, it requires encouragement and empowerment. On the other, critical truth plays a role to facilitate growth. Somewhere along the line, perhaps in a college psych course, I was introduced to the “sandwich theory” of critique: You start with a positive acknowledgement, followed by a negative (your honest impressions) and end with another positive remark. It’s an effective way to help someone who relies on your opinion and wants to grow; without sacrificing your integrity.
It wasn’t long before the flower of Mrs. W’s kitchen prowess began to open. It started with reading cookbooks and food magazines, asking for advice and feedback and honing in on her inner foodie. Nowadays she flies in the kitchen by instinct, which in my opinion is the benchmark of a good cook. Better yet, thanks to friends like Cheryl & Adamwho’ve piqued her interest in product purity andToni’s practice of local food sources, she’s turned her shopping decisions away from prepackaged ones laden with artificial additives, preservatives and HFCS. Suffice it to say, and as good of a spokesperson as Anna Maria Alberghetti was for Good Season’s Italian Dressing mix, it no longer takes residency in our pantry.
This past summer just as the sun began to push the mercury into the red, I spied some gorgeous herbs at the nursery. Knowing Renata had expressed interest in having some to accompany the vegetables I had planted in the garden; I picked them up without hesitation. As all the planter areas and containers were already occupied, I gave them the only home I had on hand which was a 10 gallon vessel. I called it the happy hunny pot. When I presented it to her she was happy and surprised, but it’s what she did with the bounty that grew form the pot which pleasantly surprised me.
Almost 30 years have passed since we crossed paths—a road I’m delighted to say we happily forge together in matrimony and as partners in the kitchen. And that delicious melt I mentioned? With its simplicity still intact it has elevated into something gourmet, worthy of placement on the lunch menu of any posh eatery, but served only by the ever-lovely Mrs. W.
Mrs. W’s quest for kitchen technique and fresh, wholesome food is what led her to devise this absolutely delicious, flavorful recipe—a fine example of California cuisine. I’m thrilled to share it with you and until you’re as lucky as I was to meet her, you’ll have to take my word that this dressing is every bit as vivacious as she!
Recipe by Renata Walker