How Eating McDonald's Influenced Valerie Bertinelli's New Cookbook Indulge - Exclusive Interview

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Valerie Bertinelli has been lighting up our screens for decades from hit shows like CBS's "One Day at a Time" to more recently hosting Food Network's "Kids Baking Championship." The Emmy Award-winner also had her own show, "Valerie's Home Cooking," which lasted for 14 seasons. However, Bertinelli told us in an exclusive interview that after the loss of her father in 2016, followed by her mother and her ex-husband Eddie Van Halen in rapid succession, she was going through her "own little hell."

The down-to-earth star shared that because of the immense grief, she was trying to numb her feelings and realized she had stopped doing the things she enjoyed the most like cooking. Bertinelli explained that writing her new cookbook "Indulge: Delicious and Decadent Dishes to Enjoy and Share" was a version of therapy for her and helped to positively redefine her relationship with food. She also revealed how her family and Van Halen's mom influenced her in the kitchen, personal stories about some of her favorite recipes like her son Wolfie's Egg Bites dish, what it was like to see him perform "I'm Just Ken" at the Oscars, and what she's up to next.

How loss and finding happiness again inspired her new cookbook

What made you want to write a cookbook about being "indulgent" and the "pure pleasure of being alive" that you say starts in the kitchen?

Mainly because the book that I've just recently released, "Enough Already," was written while I was breathing and going through my own little hell. My father died in 2016, my mother in 2019, and Ed in 2020. I was living through a very ... let me choose the right words. A marriage that I shouldn't have been in. I don't have any animosity or anything any longer about what I've been through. It was all a lesson to get me to where I am today. I wish I hadn't gone through everything I've been through since 2016, but I'm grateful for it.

I started writing "Enough Already" while I was grieving and I had gotten to the end of the book, really truly trying my best to search for my joy. Then as I was doing my healing in 2023 because 2022 was like the peak of horribleness, where I felt like I was drowning and I had forgotten how to swim. As I was coming out of that and healing myself in '23, I wanted to get back in the kitchen again because I truly found joy in the kitchen and I had stopped. I had stopped using the things in my life that I find joy from. I was trying to ignore my feelings and numb my feelings with food and alcohol and my life was becoming unmanageable. Not because of the food and alcohol, but because my feelings were unmanageable because I wasn't feeling them. I was trying to ignore them.

Through cooking, I found that I was feeling joy again and then I had to truly redefine my relationship with food in that it wasn't bad or good. It is nutrition for our bodies to move about the world — our blood flow, our heartbeat, our lungs to breathe. That's what food is for, to keep our bodies running. The emotions that I would put into the food were the emotions that I wasn't feeling and getting through. Once I decided that I was going to feel my emotions no matter how challenging, get through them and get to the other side, and not use anything to distract me from that, that's when my life started to change.

So, that's where this book came from. It's a cookbook. Yes. But there's so much more and the essays I hope will give people a little taste of what I was working through while I was developing the recipes.

Why she stopped counting calories and reframed the way she looks at food

In your cookbook, you talk about being intentional about the entire food-making process. What does that mean for you?

It means starting from just like, "What do I want to eat today?" As opposed to "What am I going to stuff down my face so I don't feel something?" But "what do I truly want to eat? What's going to make me feel good?" And not putting the burden on the food of being good or bad. "What do I want as a snack right now?" I want an apple with some crunchy peanut butter, something as silly as that.

I used to be afraid of apples and peanut butter because I was told in certain diets that they were bad for me. It's an apple for Christ's sake. It's peanut butter. It's got protein in it. It's like stop. The same thing with bananas. I said this before, it's like I was afraid of eating bananas because of all the carbs. Stop it. Eat the fu**ing banana. It's good for you, it's got potassium, it's got vitamins. It's not going to change your jean size. What changes your jean size is how you use food to deny your feelings and numb your feelings, period. And until I learned that, my life is not going to change.

Yeah, I think a lot of women count calories  I've definitely done that.

Same and I've stopped. I don't get on the scale anymore. I don't care. "How do I feel today?" Not "How do I look today?" Instead, it's "What is my character? How do I love today?" Not "What do I look like today and how do my jeans fit?" It's like, "Who am I as a human being? How am I treating other people?" That's what makes me a good person, not what size I am. I'm not lovable because of whatever size I am and I used to believe that. We are bombarded our whole lives with all of these messages about what we need to make smaller about ourselves, like our bodies, our feelings, and make them smaller. As women, I think we're taught our entire lives that to be good enough, we need to restrict all of these things about us. We need to fit in. I don't want to restrain myself anymore. I don't think any of us should restrain ourselves. I think we need to retrain ourselves to love ourselves and know that we're enough just as we are.

You're right, food is nourishment and not negative in itself. Several recipes inspired by your mom are included in the book. What's the best cooking advice she ever gave you?

I don't know that she has because until the day she died, God rest her soul, she would tease me about my lasagna versus her lasagna. So, every time I make lasagna and when I came up with the baked lazy lasagna, it puts a smile on my face because I am just thinking about my mom and how she would be like, "What are you doing?" My mom was English-Irish. She learned how to cook Italian and be an amazing Italian chef because she needed to be accepted into my dad's family because they weren't accepting her. I think subconsciously she decided to be the best cook she could so that they would accept her and she really was phenomenal. It always puts a smile on my face when I cook Italian because I think of my mom first and then Nonnie.

How Eddie Van Halen and his mom influenced her cooking

Eddie's mother, "Mrs. Van Halen," is referenced throughout recipes in your cookbook as well, from Peanut Chicken with Collard Greens to Shrimp and Veggie Lettuce Cups. What kind of cooking influence did she have on you?

Well, that was a whole new world to me because all my years before I turned 20, I was surrounded by Italian food. Then be opened up to the beauty of Indonesian food, the spiciness of it, and the interesting flavors that go together. Then to realize, "Oh, they have ravioli, but it's different. They have noodles, but it's different." Their balmi is spaghetti with this amazing sauce. It's like all of these cultures, we all land at the same type of food, but they're flavored with the beautiful spices that come from whatever country that you're cooking in. So, to be opened up to Indonesian cooking was a whole new world for me. I just ate it all up, figuratively and literally.

That's so true, the spices are everything. You mentioned in your cookbook that Eddie's favorite room service was eggs Benedict. What is the biggest mistake people make when preparing the dish?

That they're going to believe that hollandaise is too hard and it's not. It just takes a minimal amount of patience. It's not that hard. Also making the eggs. That particular way of making eggs seemed so daunting at first to me, but it truly is quite easy. There are all kinds of different tricks that people use. All of them work. It looks so elegant and hard to do and it's actually much easier. I have to say, if I'm making it and I make it look easy, it's because it is. Because I'm not a trained chef. I am someone who has grown up in the kitchen and learned from the women before me and they made it look just as easy. So, I want people to gather that from the book as well.

Which hotel or restaurant served his favorite version or was there a specific place that did?

Not really. Ed lived on hot dogs and frozen burritos. The last meal I shared with Ed was Thanksgiving before he died and I made balmi for him because I knew he loved it so much. I loved feeding him food that he loved that he wouldn't normally eat because he was just trying it. He didn't love food the way that I loved food but he did love pizza. It was one of the last things he asked for before he passed.

Recipes in her cookbook that were inspired by her son Wolfgang Van Halen

Wolfie's Egg Bites dish was inspired by your son's love of the Starbucks version of the meal. What's the key to the perfect egg bites?

Having those little trays that the egg bites come in is kind of key. I hate that I had to do that to actually add an extra thing that you have to have in your kitchen, but it really does make the difference. The silicone trays that hold the egg bites. I mean, you could make it without them but you really do need it. So, I apologize to my readers that I had to make them buy an extra thing if they do want to make them.

Speaking of your son, ​​what was it like seeing him perform "I'm Just Ken" with Slash?

Oh my God. Andrea, his wife, and I were the first ones out of our seats screaming. I mean, I have to give Ryan Gosling props too. He flippin' killed it. He killed it. I will not do that for anybody but my son. Those 13 hours of getting ready were worth it for that three and a half minutes that they killed it on stage. I thought it was the best Oscars telecast in a long time. Jimmy Kimmel killed it. Everybody was great and that crescendo number and Billie Eilish, I mean, are you kidding me?

It was all mind-boggling and I was having the best time people-watching. We were sitting there, like "Oh my God there's Robert Downey Jr. Oh my God, there's Jodie Foster." And we were trying to keep it together because we just wanted to people-watch. I didn't go up to anybody. I didn't say "hi" to anybody because I do respect people's space but it was super fun.

That sounds so fun, that was definitely one of my favorite parts of the night. The Crispy Cod Sandwich is your homage to drive-through visits to McDonald's. Why was the Filet-O-Fish your go-to after your son's soccer and baseball games?

You know what? A friend of mine just raked me over the coals for this but I got to tell you when a Filet-O-Fish is fresh ... you've got to catch them between 11:00 and 11:30 in the morning when they're fresh, there is nothing like it. It is so perfect and so delicious but that's the half hour that you have. Otherwise, you have to wait until a second run because not a lot of people get Filet-O-Fishes. If it's been sitting under the heater for too long, it's not good anymore. So, you take your chances, but when you get it right, it's flippin' heaven.

I agree, I'm definitely a fan of those too. How did you put your own spin on the sandwich?

Listen, if you want a Filet-O-Fish, you're going to go get a Filet-O-Fish. Let's be honest, you're not going to make it at home but I still sometimes want to make a terrific fish sandwich at home and I have a few different ones in here. I have the Spicy Cajun Catfish as well. So, I just wanted to give a little homage. Obviously keeping some of the sauce similar and everything. I mean, I'm not a dummy. I know that if you really want a Filet-O-Fish, you're going to go get one. You're not going to make one but this is a fun little way of playing around with the original recipe.

Her most unique dishes and why they work

Can you tell us about your Banana Cottage Cheese Pancakes? Cottage cheese isn't an ingredient you usually associate with pancakes, so I'm curious about that one.

Well, sometimes what you can do is blend in ricotta, which I've made before. I've been on the cottage cheese train for 40 years. I've always loved it. I love the saltiness of it. I think by adding that into the batter, first of all, it adds a lot of protein, which I'm always trying to get more protein in my body. It's really hard to do, especially at this age, I think it's important to get protein into your body. So, it's just to find ways to add protein to things without constantly adding powders and cottage cheese is a great vehicle for that.

That's true. ​​Another interesting recipe is your Thyme and Gruyère Savory Cookies. What was the inspiration behind the dish?

I love a cross between a cookie and a cracker and I love gruyère. They take some time to make, but they're really worth it. When you make enough, you can have them in the house for a while and I think it's something special. I've made them for book groups and different occasions. I think it's always fun to say, "Yeah, I made these." There's always a little bit of inside joy that I feel when I've made something with love and I get to share it with people.

Yeah, it's that personal touch. You mentioned that you can serve them as you would chips. Do you pair them with something specifically?

You can pair them with fig jam or you can lay them on a charcuterie board. They're good and they are like chips. I also like them as vehicles for different dips. I mean, you can dip them in almost anything.

That sounds delicious. What are some underrated items in your pantry more people should be cooking with?

This is just because I've been using it for so long. I absolutely love it, is Nature's Seasons by Morton. I'll just slice up some radishes and put a little bit of red wine vinegar, like a tiny bit, just barely, just to add that zing, and then just cover them with some Nature's Seasons. It's a really great little snack. It just fills your mouth with a bunch of flavors. Sometimes I'll put it on a ribeye and sear that into the ribeye when I cook on high heat with a cast iron.

Looking towards the future

We loved your show, "Valerie's Home Cooking." Do you think you'll do another series like that in the future?

I hope so. I mean, it's beyond my control. I think a cooking show called "Indulge" is a perfect title, so if anybody out there wants to do it.

Do you have any other projects coming up you'd like to mention?

I'm full on with my cookbook and I am like Wolfie's groupie. When I'm not on my book tour, I will be on Wolfie's tour watching Mammoth. I'm so proud of him. Anytime I can get a chance to visit him on the road, I'm there. I really want to be at the first show where he opens for the Pretenders and the Foo Fighters. I think that's in New York at Seafield. I want to be at some of the beginning shows for Creed.

I unfortunately can't make any of the Slash shows in Europe because I'll be on my own book tour but I do try to make as many shows as I can. My favorite shows obviously are the headliners because he plays much longer, almost two hours, an hour and a half. So, those are much more fun for me but I also like to see him open for bands that he deserves to be opening for. He's worked hard and I'm proud of where he has made it.

Valerie Bertinelli's new cookbook, "Indulge: Delicious and Decadent Dishes to Enjoy and Share," is available for purchase on Amazon

This interview has been edited for clarity.