Elena Leshyn grew up cooking in Barcelona and Venezuela. “I’ve been cooking since I was a little girl in the kitchen with my mom or grandmother,” she relates. “Everybody cooks in my home country.” Since they didn’t have an oven, she and the women didn’t bake, however. “There are fantastic pastry shops everywhere in Spain,” she explains. “There’s no need to bake, and certainly no way without an oven.”
By her mid-teens, Elena was living in Venezuela and cooking regularly for her dad and younger siblings. There she met her husband, John, marrying in 1971, and subsequently residing [in order] in Florida, Indiana, Barcelona, Cincinnati, Madrid and Mexico before retiring to Blacksburg 12 years ago. Their daughter, Barbara Leshyn, works in the Horticulture Department at Virginia Tech. With other daughters and grandchildren in Ohio and North Carolina, this is the perfect mid-point for family.
“Elena has probably had everyone to her house for a meal if they have anything to do with classical music or opera,” says friend Libby Calvera, who nominated her for this feature. “Maybe everyone on her street, too, along with occasional VT students who miss a mom’s cooking from Spain or Latin America, as well.” This writer and photographer are now among the privileged to have dined on her specialties at their table.
Elena can pull pork, make meatloaf and concoct stews of all varieties, but nothing is ethnic-specific. “I cook my own way,” she declares. “I have many cookbooks and countless recipes, and I can count on my fingers the number of times I’ve used any of them.” She has a knack for combining flavors, foods and just the right kinds and amounts of spices and herbs to enhance the final dish. “I also have a husband who, like me, eats anything, so it’s easy to make up stuff as I go along, knowing there are two willing diners in the house all the time.”
John and Elena designed their house while still living in Monterrey, Mexico. The kitchen is of normal size, but the window here and in the dining room were called out the tenth of an inch to accommodate custom, stained-glass pieces they moved. They also carted up the blue and orange tiles that accent the mostly white kitchen. Wood doors (interior and exterior), along with some heavy wood pieces from Spain and Mexico, lend a genuine Spanish feel everywhere.
Elena moves around her kitchen like a feather or leaf finds its way to the ground ~ unhurried, smooth, calm, floating. She’s efficient, but not at all rushed. This day, she boiled potatoes and onions in olive oil, then drained it (saving the olive oil, of course) and poured it on freshly cracked eggs about 10 minutes before she cooked it all in a pan on the stove. In that interim, she rubbed lightly toasted, fresh ciabatta bread with fresh garlic, sprinkled it with sea salt and then rubbed on fresh tomato. The Catalan-style spinach dish reduced that leafy vegetable in volume dramatically in another stove pan with raisins and a variety of pine nuts. John insisted on opening wine. It’s amazing what writers and photographers on assignment must do. We enjoyed every morsel and every drop of that warm, red wine from the Cataluna region of Spain. Libby was there, too, and conversation flowed as easily and comfortably as Elena cooks.
There’s no way to pin down Elena on favorite foods or things to cook. She starts out talking about her love of cooking eggs and paella, then bean soups and all kinds of soups, then stews this time of year, vegetables, salads — pretty much everything under the sun. When her cooking skills are mixed with her love for classical music, opera and family, then blended with ingenuity, sprinkled with global adventures and a pinch of her own photography proficiency, the result is one multi-talented, charming lady and extraordinary NRV cook.
Text by Joanne M. Anderson
Photo by Shanen Photography