Cooking is their common language

NEWTON — Natalina Severo stands in her modest kitchen here preparing salada de bacalhau (cod salad) and caramelo pudim ( caramel flan). She scurries between the sink and the stove, re – creating her mother’s recipes from home.

For the typically Brazilian fish dish, she has already soaked salt cod in water and is chopping potatoes and onions, which she’ll cook and add to the salad. Severo, 50, has spent most of her life working as a housekeeper and a cook in Rio de Janeiro. Now a Newton resident, she is one of 94 contributors to “Our Best Recipes,” a cookbook created by the tutors and students of the English Legacy for Literacy program at the Newton Free Library. The dishes are culled from an array of international favorites, some of which have been brought to the group’s potluck dinners.

For the past year and a half, Severo has been attending the literacy program, which provides free tutoring services for adults whose English proficiency is limited. The program began in 1992 with 40 students and now has 208 tutors and 285 students from 11 cities and towns in the Boston area.

Severo had to go to Somerville’s Union Square for the salt cod, which she found at Pao de Acucar Market. The shop specializes in Brazilian groceries and prepared foods. Cooking has been a part of Severo’s life since childhood, when she would make black beans on her aunt’s wood-burning stove. The oldest of six children, she went to school for the first time when she was 11 and began working after school as a housekeeper before her 13th birthday. She later joined the family business, which provides 600 meals a day for a local hospital and a government agency.

Twelve years ago, Severo came to the United States with her husband, Jonas, and two sons. Her husband worked as a chef at Appetito in Newton Center for nearly a decade before retiring recently. She sings gospel music on Sundays at the Celebration Church in Charlestown with the large Brazilian community there. During the week she runs a house-cleaning service. When the children went to college, says their mother, it was finally her turn to learn English.

The literacy program has been run since 2001 by Susan Becam, who holds a doctorate in French, and has taught French in area colleges for 25 years, currently at the Harvard Extension School.

For the cookbook, Alla Pevzner, of Russia, contributed the recipe for a cranberry and apple dessert called charlotte. The cake-like treat contrasts sweet, warm apples and tart cranberries. Pevzner, 48, a violin teacher, left Russia in 2001. She is Jewish and says she always felt she had to hide her religion, especially when she was a child. “We celebrated Jewish holidays, but only at home,” says Pevzner. “We hid the menorah.”

Growing up in the Ural Mountains, Pevzner recalls when her mother, a pediatrician, was accused along with scores of other Jewish physicians of not providing proper medical care to their patients. When she and her family left the country, she took with her a number of cookbooks, so she wouldn’t forget the specialties of her childhood.

So did Atsuko Ashida, 37, who left Kyoto, Japan, under much more pleasant circumstances. In 2003, Ashida’s husband, Noboru, took a job as a cardiology researcher at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Ashida is a concert pianist and worked in sales for BGM Music. After she married seven years ago, she began collecting recipes from books and family members.

“As with music, I like to be creative with my cooking,” says Ashida. She contributed a recipe for cooled salmon and yogurt sauce, which is not traditional. “I find that cooking is a way for me to express my love to the people whom I cook for.”

Severo, the Brazilian cook, shares the same feelings. Though her home is small and not conducive to entertaining a crowd, she does it anyway. “I love parties and cooking,” she says.

“I don’t want to clean houses forever. I have a dream to open my own small restaurant in the United States with traditional Brazilian as well as American food.”

For more information on “Our Best Recipes” or the English Legacy for Literacy program at the Newton Free Library, call 617-796-1364 or go to newtonfreelibrary.net.

© Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company.

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