"We were family at first bite."

That's how Valerie Bertinelli and her husband, Tom Vitale, describe the first time they cooked together. While he assembled a shrimp appetizer and she topped crostini with mozzarella, they touched, they tasted, and, Bertinelli says, they "just knew."

This joy of good food and the people you share it with forms the basis of 52-year-old Bertinelli's new cookbook, One Dish at a Time. It's packed with recipes from the many people she has loved throughout her life: her mother, her grandmother, her mother-in-law--even her former mother-in-law, Eugenia Van Halen (mother of rocker Eddie)--and her girlfriends. But what makes the cookbook soar and sizzle are the generous, loving helpings of memories and good times that accompany Bertinelli's recipes, whether it's Quiche Valerie or Thursday Turkey Meat Loaf. In Bertinelli's world, food is important, but even more crucial is the engine that drives it: love.

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Prevention: What's your favorite food memory?

Valerie Bertinelli: I loved watching my nonnie [grandmother] with the rolling pin making cappelletti and gnocchi. I also remember her fried bread. She'd put it in front of me and say, "Do you want it with cheese or jelly?" I liked it both ways. Oh, it was so good. I remember Ed [Van Halen] and his brother, Al, constantly talking about this sambal chicken that Mrs. Van Halen used to make. I included that recipe in the book and named it after him because I know it was his favorite sambal.

So you learned to cook by observing your nonnie and your mother?

Yes, and also by watching my girlfriends. When I became a mother, I met other mothers who loved to cook and cared about what they were feeding their children. That's how I started to find my cooking voice. I believe the kitchen has a voice, an energy, a heart. It's an old cliche, but it's true. Everyone ends up hanging out in the kitchen, and that's why mine is so huge now. And it's still not big enough. When Tom and I cook, we've got music going, we've got the kids, and then we play games after. It's a family event.

Do you think you can get to know a person better by cooking with them?

Absolutely. You can tell how much they care. When I saw how much passion Tom put into his cooking, I thought, Oh, OK, he's a giver. But if you're the only one doing the cooking and he's like, "Hey, where's my food?" then, well, not so much. Tom does the dishes too. I told him a long time ago, "You know what foreplay is to me? Emptying the dishwasher." I think he took it too literally. He wants me to hear that he's actually emptying the dishwasher if I'm upstairs. He makes a lot of noise! I'm like, "No, honey, it takes more than emptying the dishwasher." But that's part of it.

In the book you say that soups are very intimate. What do you mean by that?

A lot of love goes into making soup. There's all that chopping and cutting, and it takes time. It was Tom who turned me on to soups. The first time I made gazpacho for him, I thought I was going to be made love to the entire night!

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You lost 40 pounds on the Jenny Craig plan. What's the most important thing you learned from being on the diet?

To eat more fruits and vegetables. In my refrigerator, the first thing you'll see is cut-up vegetables, so I can grab something to eat that won't hurt me. I've learned that food is about nourishing your body and not using it to suppress a feeling that you don't want to admit to.

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So would you say that understanding how to eat well, and mindfully, is one important way to take care of yourself?

Absolutely. I didn't do that for a while, but then when I did, I overindulged and had to learn how to back off. Moderation is key. I don't believe in denying yourself anything. The problem is when you don't stop. When that happens, the worst thing you can do is resign yourself and think, Well, I've already messed up, so I may as well keep going. Once your brain tells you that you've overindulged, stop. Otherwise it's just putting bad upon bad upon bad.

Val's Tastiest Dishes

What's the next-best thing to being in the kitchen with Valerie Bertinelli? Trying out her recipes for soups, sandwiches, main courses, and desserts, of course. "This book is about appreciating, celebrating, and enjoying good food," Bertinelli says. Start things off by checking out a few more of her recipes at prevention.com/valerie-bertinelli-recipes.

If you want to buy her new cookbook, One Dish at a Time, go to onedishatatimebook.com/nov.

In the mean time, you can make the most of your meals by following Valerie Bertinelli's food rules:
• The less processed it is, the better it is for my body.
• I don't gain weight if I eat good food.
• Present your food beautifully, and dig in with your eyes first.
• Shop at farmers' markets whenever possible.
• Organic produce costs more but pays for itself in the long run. Organically grown fruits and vegetables stay fresh longer.
• Get your vitamins in fresh fruits and vegetables, not supplements.
• Always remember: The first bite tastes the best.
• Don't feel guilty if you overindulged a bit. Call it a splurge and move on.
• Salsa helps.
• When in doubt, eat soup.

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