Any man who prepares meals for his family can boast that father cooks best. To distinguish a man who truly knows his way around the kitchen from one who merely heats stuff, talk to the wife and children. They'll tell you everything you want to know.

"David was never the type whose bachelor days were spent ordering pizza or boiling water for mac and cheese," said Courtney Tramontana of Havre de Grace about her husband. "When I say [he] cooks, I mean turkey dinner, rockfish that he caught himself, and [he] made the best homemade meatloaf I have ever eaten. I think it was the meatloaf that made me marry him."

Tramontana was among several people who responded to our Father's Day request for stories about men who cook. As dad's special day approaches this Sunday, many area families are paying homage to fathers and husbands who not only read bedtime stories but make a braised lamb shank to die for.

Sharon Rubin of Pikesville said that among her husband Eric's weekend breakfast delicacies are popovers, fried egg in toast and apple-spice pancakes. "Everything is from scratch, no mixes," she said. "He even spells the kids' names out in pancake batter."

Janice Bonadio of Hampstead brags about her father Charlie's deep- fried meatballs. Chris Bricker of Catonsville said her father, Harry, didn't start cooking until he retired from truck driving, but now makes the "best homemade chicken noodle soup, steamed shrimp, and Maryland Crab Soup in all of Baltimore."

Then there's 9-year-old Cecile Walton, who on a recent morning watched with delight as her England-born father, Simon, flipped his crepelike "English pancakes" in their Roland Park kitchen.

An avid cook, Simon, 64, said that on Valentine's Day he prepared breakfast for his wife, Nicole, but straightaway forgot what he served. Cecile did remember: "Heart-shaped pancakes!"

It may come as a surprise to some that so many men have a penchant for the kitchen. They come from all walks of life, from stay-at-home dads to retirees to businessmen. Many are like Andrew Kreinik, 53, a former business owner from Owings Mills and the primary cook of his family.

Kreinik and his brothers grew up assisting their mother at every step of food preparation. By age 11, Kreinik was cooking the family meal two nights a week. "I've been peeling garlic since I was 6," said Kreinik. His mother "would show us how to use knives and how to do things, but once you learned it was expected of you."

Charlie Bonadio, 74, said all of his buddies are excellent cooks -- so much so that they recently engaged in a pointed discussion over who had the best meatball recipe.

One of his friends insisted that the best meatballs were made with veal, beef and pork. Bonadio, meanwhile, stood firm by his recipe, made strictly with ground chuck. "The women in the room sat there and stared at us," said Bonadio, laughing. "We exchange recipes more than women do."

Family bonding

In fact, as Baltimore-area men tell it, the man who comes home expecting a home-cooked meal doesn't know what he's missing. What for some began as a chore has become a pastime, a way to express creativity and bond with family.

Greg Bathon, 72, of Federal Hill cooks each night for himself and his wife, Heidi. Their loft has a rooftop garden where he grows his own lettuces, tomatoes and herbs. Bathon's grown daughter, a culinary school graduate, has even asked him to cook on Father's Day. "I don't know what I'm going to serve," he said, "but it has to be something that will knock their socks off."

Most men who cook regularly began outdoors, on the grill during holidays. Once in the kitchen, most start with pancakes, ultimately spicing up the traditional recipe with other foods.

Kim Burns' husband, Joe, adds cornflakes to his pancakes for extra crunch. Gloria Marino, 12, said her father, Dan, makes pancakes with vanilla extract, cinnamon, nutmeg and banana.

Simon Walton cooks both English and American pancakes for his daughter and says, "She prefers the English."

Walton enjoys cuisine from all over the world; his Indian seasonings fill an entire kitchen drawer. He has a coffee grinder used solely for grinding spices. He and his wife, Nicole, share 600 cookbooks. His joy for cooking is so great that he has continued it through chemotherapy for colon cancer.

Walton, who celebrates his sixth anniversary as an American citizen this month, has always been interested in cooking. When he was a child he would watch from his mother's knee how all types of dishes were made.

He said one day she turned on the oven, left the room, and then moments later smelled burning paint coming from the kitchen; she opened the oven door and saw neatly arranged building blocks that Simon had placed on a cookie sheet.

Today, it is Cecile who watches him. The two recently prepared an entire Eastern European feast, including sour cherry soup, baked cod, latkes and lepeski (raised almond cakes).

Bonadio also comes from a family that loves cooking. He makes ravioli each Christmas and Easter and prepares cannoli for dessert. But his specialty is his deep-fried meatball, a family concoction that was invented when he suffered a childhood accident.

Bonadio was playing in his grandfather's backyard fig tree when he suddenly fell, prompting his grandfather to run out of the kitchen to tend to him, leaving his pot of meatballs frying on the stove. "While we were outside, the meatballs in the pot of lard got crispy," he said. "My grandfather was a good cook and the kind who would never throw away anything. Now, it's an appetizer for family dinners. Even my sons-in-law make them."

Alex MacDougall of Towson comes from a family unabashed in its love for food. His wife, Kaycee, said that when their daughter Ellie was born, "he wanted to know what he could season her baby food with, so he had me ask the pediatrician, in order to introduce her to new flavors early in life."

Charles Gilley of Dundalk never had the experience of a father who cooked for him, yet he set out to do so for his family. Even though his daughters Erin and Megan are both in their 20s, he still cooks for them.

"Our dad loves Christmas Eve, not for all the presents but all of the food he gets to cook," said Erin Gilley. Spiral ham, deep-fried turkey, baked ziti, jambalaya, shrimp Creole and Italian cookies are on her father's menu, she said.

Different habits

Gilley grew up at a time when most men weren't involved in the home. As more venture into the kitchen, their wives often notice differences between their husband's kitchen mannerisms and their own.

"Jeff follows the recipe exactly, which I don't," Nona Wagner-Babischkin of Perry Hall said of her husband. "He cleans as he goes, and he gets upset if you don't do the same."

Sally Dohner of Ellicott City said her husband, George, is cooking dinner when she comes home from work and their children are coming in from school activities.

"That's the toughest part of the day," she said, "coming from our different elements and meshing together as a family unit. He has more patience in the kitchen than I would have."

Bonadio often takes dishes to his daughter's hair salon and feeds workers and patrons. Kreinik sold his thread-manufacturing business six months ago and is developing a food-oriented marketing consulting business.

The Waltons helped found a club in honor of Scottish poet Robert Burns, and every January, in honor of Burns' birthday, Simon Walton treats about 35 guests to a traditional Scottish meal -- with such dishes as cock-a-leekie (chicken and leek) soup and haggis (sheep's liver and sheep's hearts).

Some of the men in the kitchen have been role models for young boys. Gretchen Bateman of Abingdon said when she was growing up, her father, Donald VanOstrand, was seldom involved in the family meals. Then he decided to spend more time in the kitchen. He began cooking simple recipes, and before long not only perfected spaghetti sauce but took to growing his own herbs and tomatoes.

Now her 12-year-old son Jeremy has followed suit, growing chile peppers, basil and oregano to season his own sauce.

English "Pancakes"

Serves 6

This was one of the first recipes Simon Walton of Roland Park mastered, says his wife, Nicole Schulteis Walton. The batter should be a bit runny, she says; these are essentially crepes, rolled with yogurt and fresh berries.

1 egg

3/4 cup flour

5 ounces milk

1 teaspoon butter

Mix together egg, flour and milk. Melt butter in a moderately hot frying pan. When it just starts to brown, add a small ladleful of batter and swirl or use the bottom of the ladle to spread the batter nearly to the edges of the pan. When the top looks dry, loosen the edges with a spatula and flip it, "with a lot of hoopla, preferably in the presence of a small child who will squeal with delight or an older one who will roll her eyes," Nicole Walton writes.

Cook the pancake on one side for a minute, or until the top is dry, and then flip over and cook for another minute.

Per serving: 98 calories, 3 grams protein, 3 grams fat, 2 grams saturated fat, 13 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 42 milligrams cholesterol, 37 milligrams sodium.

Deep-fried meatballs

Makes 20-25 meatballs

2 pounds ground chuck

1 half-loaf Italian bread (torn in pieces; remove crust, soak in cold water and squeeze as dry as possible)

2 eggs, beaten

2 teaspoons garlic powder

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

1 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese

7 to 8 cups peanut oil

Mix all ingredients except the peanut oil thoroughly by hand. Add peanut oil to a deep fryer. Heat to 360 degrees. Roll each meatball into the shape of an egg, about 2-2 1/2 inches in length. Drop 3 to 4 at a time into the deep fryer and cook until golden brown and crispy. Remove and drain on a paper towel. Serve hot. Then mangia (Italian for "eat").

Per serving (based on 25 meatballs): 287 calories, 11 grams protein, 25 grams fat, 6 grams saturated fat, 5 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, 45 milligrams cholesterol, 180 milligrams sodium.

Courtesy of Charlie Bonadio of Lutherville

Shrimp with Orzo, Feta and Black Olives

Serves 6

1 medium onion, finely chopped

3 garlic cloves, minced

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled, or 1 tablespoon fresh

1/4 teaspoon dried hot red pepper flakes

2 tablespoons olive oil (divided use)

1/2 cup dry white wine

1 32-ounce can crushed tomatoes

1 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 pounds large shrimp, shelled and deveined

1 pound orzo

1/4 cup heavy cream

1/2 cup black olives, pitted and chopped

salt and pepper to taste

1 pound feta, patted dry and crumbled (3 cups)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Cook onion, garlic, oregano and red pepper flakes in 1 tablespoon oil in a 4-quart heavy pot over moderately high heat, stirring, until onion is softened. Add wine and boil until reduced by half; add tomatoes and salt, then reduce heat and simmer briskly, stirring frequently, until slightly thickened, about 10 minutes. Stir shrimp into sauce and simmer, stirring occasionally, until shrimp are just cooked through, about 3 minutes.

Cook orzo in a 6-quart pot of boiling salted water until al dente. Reserve 1/2 cup cooking water, then drain orzo in a sieve. Return orzo to pot and toss with remaining tablespoon oil. Stir in sauce with shrimp and reserved cooking water, then stir in cream and add olives and salt and pepper, to taste.

Spoon half of pasta into an oiled 13-by-9-by-2-inch glass baking dish, then sprinkle with half of feta. Top with remaining pasta and feta, then bake in middle of oven, uncovered, until cheese is slightly melted and pasta is heated through, 10 to 15 minutes.

Per serving: 742 calories, 46 grams protein, 30 grams fat, 15 grams saturated fat, 70 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams fiber, 253 milligrams cholesterol, 1,877 milligrams sodium.

Greg Bathon, 72, of Federal Hill says he got this recipe from a cookbook 40 years ago and added his own nuances. "The original recipe called for rice," he said, "and I added the black olives."

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