A California mother, gardener and blogger uses her passion for fresh food to connect with her heritage—and her far-flung daughter, nieces and nephew.
Elena and Domenica share a snack and the beautiful southern California weather at a picnic table in the backyard.
Photo By Raya Carlisle
When Elena Burgeno-Berman was looking for a way to stay connected with her college-bound daughter and her far-away nieces and nephew, she knew just where to turn: food. The product of a vivacious Italian grandmother who regularly prepared homemade meals for 20-plus guests, and two parents who grew up on farms, Elena considers food one of the most important parts of her life. It’s a major way she connects with her heritage—both parents were first-generation Americans, one Italian and one Hispanic. And she saw blogging about fresh food as a way to pass on this traditional love of eating healthy on a budget to her family’s younger generation. Her food blog, Color My Kitchen, offers “tips and healthy recipes for a colorful food-centric lifestyle.”
Try one of Elena's easy and delicious recipes, such as this Wheatberry Salad Recipe With Fuji Apple, Pistachios and Blood Orange Vinaigrette.
Growing up, Elena was heavily influenced by her grandmother Domenica, who moved to the United States from Italy at age 18. “My mom’s parents were from northern Italy, and they always had a kitchen garden, chickens and rabbits,” Elena says. “My grandmother would make fresh pasta. Coming from Italy at 18 years old, she had this ability to put together these huge dinners for large groups. She was always saying, ‘Come over, I baked something,’ or, ‘I made ravioli.’ She would send us outside to collect fresh eggs or ask for help defeathering a newly butchered chicken. That was a huge influence on me.” Although her grandmother didn’t speak English, Elena says as a child she was able to understand her through her expression and passion, despite the language barrier.
Years later, when Elena had her own daughter, she named her Domenica after her beloved grandmother. Elena’s husband, Dave, is an avid gardener who ran a landscaping business between college and law school. He and Elena became more committed to—and experienced at—growing their own food over the years. “After Dave and I bought our house, as the years went by we started growing more and more edibles and getting a little better at it every year,” Elena says. “Eventually we turned our front yard into a big growing space. It’s one of our shared passions, which is nice to have after a long marriage and life together.”
Along with providing fresh food, Elena says her extensive gardens help make the outdoor spaces an extension of her family’s home in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California. “We are really outdoor people, and that’s why we turned our front and backyard into more of an extension of the house,” she says. “Domenica has grown up walking or riding her bike to the beach and surfing with her dad, being outside in the garden and playing in the dirt. It’s really fulfilling for me and my soul, being out there and picking my own stuff.”
But the most important part of gardening for Elena is the ability to bypass, for the most part, industrial agriculture and eat healthier, homegrown food. “One of the aspects I really like is not having to go to the store and buy my herbs, greens, fruits and vegetables,” she says. “I really believe you can eat well and be cost-conscious, too. You just have to seek it out. Some of my friends don’t have the time or interest to grow anything, but when I make a salad and they share it, they’re like, ‘That’s so different than anything I buy at the store.’”
Elena bases much of her diet around what’s in the garden—fortunately for her family, in Southern California the bounty continues year-round. But in winter, she still focuses more on comfort food, and on foods she’s preserved. “Maybe I have tomatoes I’ve frozen, and I can make that into soup or a pasta dish,” she says. “Or maybe I’ve frozen some blackberries. A lot of it just takes planning. I’m an organizer type. I never get to the point when it’s 6 o’clock and I don’t know what I’m doing for dinner.”
Meal planning helps Elena avoid waste and eat well on a smaller budget. “I plan two or three days ahead,” she says. “I think about what I’ll do tonight and what I could do with whatever I have left tomorrow. That’s a big thing I want to show Domenica: How to be resourceful. We do a lot of grilled tempeh or tofu with roasted butternut squash or beets. The next day, we’ll turn it into part of a big salad or it will become tacos.”
In posts that offer recipes, tips on what to do with seasonal garden veggies and fruits, and a bit of family history, Elena passes along her experience in the kitchen—hopefully to the next generation. “Domenica was going to be six hours away, and I have nieces in Seattle, Minnesota and L.A., and a nephew in Vienna, Austria,” she says. “They all have an interest in cooking, but they don’t have the background, so maybe they don’t know how to be as thrifty as I can be or know what can grow in what season.”
It seems Elena’s message is being passed. In her sophomore year studying journalism at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, Domenica recently started an herb garden in her first apartment, and acted as the resident foodie in her dorm last year. “Even without a sink, she made a point to concoct her own salad dishes or cheese and fruit dishes, and she was kind of the entertainer on her floor,” Elena says. “She wrote to me last week saying, ‘I feel like you! I made roasted spicy chickpeas, figs and a cheese platter and had everyone over for an appetizer party.’”
To Elena, living and eating naturally is nothing new. “Many of us earthy types are not going through the motions because they are cool, but because it is ingrained in our hearts and brains that this is the best way for the health of our families and the continued bounty of the earth,” she says. “Hopefully those of us who grow our own foods, join a CSA, attend farmers markets, cook most of our meals, or try to cut out the big business agriculture from our lives are examples to our children, and maybe they will continue in our footsteps or, even better, improve upon our efforts.”
Elena offers these tips for eating healthy food on a limited budget.
1. Eat the freshest possible ingredients. This means growing as much of your own food as possible, seeking CSA (community-supported agriculture) programs and farmers markets, and eating seasonally.
2. Plan ahead. Think two to three days out when planning your menu, considering whether you can make extra tonight to transform into new dishes for the following two nights.
3. Keep it simple. Many people are intimidated by excessive ingredient lists. A few seasonal ripe ingredients and herbs will yield lots of flavor. And for equipment, a few sharp knives, mixing bowls, a cutting board and a few good pans will suffice.
What’s your favorite breakfast?
Avocado mashed on seedy multigrain toast with slices of homegrown tomatoes, a generous spread of Dijon mustard and a cup of strong black coffee.
What easy-to-grow flower do you recommend adding to the garden?
Zinnias are easy to grow from seed and don’t require much water or special soil. The colors and architecture of the blooms are amazing, and they draw bees and butterflies!
It’s 5:00 Sunday evening. What are you doing?
Deciding which wine to pair with an appetizer, then starting dinner prep while listening to music. We tend to dine very late by American standards, and the slow and creative process brings great anticipation and appreciation of the meal.
What is one of your life’s simplest pleasures?
On a nearby bluff above the ocean, there is a bench I frequent. Just taking a few minutes to view the blues of the sky and glittering sea centers me. This expanse of nature (free therapy) brings me peace and positive energy.
The inspiration for the blog name Color My Kitchen came from Elena’s penchant for color and light. She loves to incorporate bright colors into the dishes she makes. It’s a happy coincidence, then, that the most colorful foods are often the healthiest. “With food, the more colors you have and the brighter they are, the healthier. That’s just luck, I guess,” she says.
Elena’s taste for color extends beyond food. Her grandmother’s flower gardens were a big influence on Elena, and she grows a multitude of flowers around her home. She also paints watercolors, and often sets up still-life scenes to paint.
Elena has also incorporated light and color into her home. Over the years, she and Dave have remodeled their home with the goal of incorporating more natural light and enhanced access to the yard. She painted all the rooms in colors she finds relaxing or energizing: “Greens are soothing to me, so I wanted a green entryway,” she says. “Because it’s pretty teeny, I did the kitchen in a vibrant orange color. I wanted the living room to be really open and friendly, so it’s a pretty yellow. We did the piano room in periwinkle because that’s calming.”
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