When Mary Abitanto cooks meals for her family, she has no choice but to get creative. Her son, Jack, has dozens of food allergies, and the West Windsor mom has to turn recipes upside down to accommodate his needs without sacrificing taste.
“It became a frenzy because it was like okay how do I make this good without the egg, how do I make this good without the nuts, how do I take out the sesame?” she said. “It was like a quest that I had to make these successful recipes.”
Abitanto’s creativity in the kitchen led her to publish her first cookbook Mariooch’s Kitchen: Food That Will Gather Your Family in October. Named after her father’s nickname for her as a child — Mariooch means “Little Mary” in Italian — the cookbook features a wide variety of foods, from traditional Italian recipes to desserts for the holiday season, that can accommodate an entire family’s needs.
To celebrate the book’s release, Abitanto is hosting an author event at the MarketFair Barnes & Noble on Sunday, Nov. 19 at 1 p.m. Abitanto will be on hand to discuss her book, hand out free samples and raffle off prizes.
“I really feel like [Mariooch’s Kitchen] is a good resource for people,” she said. “We’re all busy, but these are recipes that work. These are recipes that I’ve used to feed many kids, not just my own, so I know that they’re working, and I want other people to have success.”
The West Windsor mother of three calls herself a homegrown chef. Her first foray into the kitchen began when she was a child. On Sundays, she’d help her grandmother and aunt cook traditional recipes from their home in Italy. Later in life, Abitanto sought to recreate their recipes after they died, but she discovered it wasn’t always as simple as they made it seem.
“My grandmother came from Italy, and she used to make the bread so big she’d then take it to the pizza parlor and put it in their oven,” Abitanto said, adding that adjusting the recipe measurements to fit a regular home oven was a long, trial and error process.
However, it was this trail and error method that helped spur her creativity, swapping out and adding ingredients until she blended the perfect tastes together.
“Every recipe was developed in my home kitchen,” Abitanto said. “A lot of it’s just based on my own creativity and tastes I think would coordinate well together.”
Abitanto’s background is in business. She graduated from Rider with a bachelor’s in finance and an MBA. She previously worked at Merrill Lynch and ran her own wholesale clothing company, but she never thought of cooking as anything other than a hobby until she started her food blog — also called Mariooch’s Kitchen — roughly two years ago to share her recipes and tips for healthy eating as a family. While the food blog was a nice start, Abitanto always knew she wanted to write a cookbook to share her recipes with others.
“I feel recipes are important, gathering your family in today’s high tech world is important,” she said. “I feel like that’s the time where we connect with our families and get the kids to talk and just reconnect. So I felt like a food blog was a nice way to sort of help out the American family because we are so busy, but we have time to make a meal and these are easy meals.”
From Mediterranean-style dishes to creative twists on old favorites, such as a yam-based cookie, Abitanto incorporated a variety of dishes in her book that can be adjusted to fit an even wider variety of needs.
Abitanto will often list substitutions for ingredients in her book. If she leaves eggs out of a recipe, for example, she’ll explain how to adjust the recipe for those who want to include eggs.
“I think these are good go to family meals, and it’s adaptable for people who are vegan, vegetarian or have food allergies,” Abitanto said. “These are recipes I’ve done again and again and again, so if it’s in this book it’s going to be good.”