The Secret Ingredient Is the Chef

The Unteachable Technique Behind a Great Bite

Story by Jacqueline Sheehan, Photography by Marykate Smith Despres

One of the satisfying bits of writing fiction is doing research. And sometimes the research happens to be delicious. For my new novel, The Tiger in the House, I needed to get to the heart and soul of bakers and chefs. Four stellar local culinary entrepreneurs that I interviewed all confirmed the same thing: Great cooking is all about the transference of energy.

First, I spoke with Anna Fessenden, maker of Anna’s Breads in Ashfield, Massachusetts. As we sipped cups of strong coffee in Elmer’s Store in the heart of Ashfield, Fessenden explained that her career in baking was not a straight line. She didn’t learn to cook until her husband died; he was the cook in the family. 

Three years after his death, Fessenden lost her job in website management. As her mood plummeted, two memories offered her a lifeline. The first was her grandmother’s fine cooking, and the second was the sensory memory of her childhood years in Paris. She began to bake bread. “It’s the ultimate safe medication,” she said.

In 2010, she tried out seven loaves at Elmer’s Store, just to see if they would sell. She now bakes 150–300 per week. Fessenden said that she is a conduit for yeast, that it grabs her and she has to treat it with care. She insists it won’t behave for everyone. 

If this is beginning to sound spiritual, it will only become more so. When she makes the starter, she treats it like a living thing. Even her way of describing bread (which I promise you is like no other) is sentient. “It’s a culture,” she told me, “and if you prepare it right, the skin holds in the methane gas. Then there is a lightning bolt of connection, something god-like.” Fessenden feels that she is looking down at a whole world of micro-organisms.

“Bread is deep in humanity’s soul.” She says she sometimes places one ear near the starter and listens to the pulse of life—it can sound like a sigh, a puff into her ear, it can even be erotic. And the good people of Ashfield wait at Elmer’s Store to receive her bread, delivered by Fessenden on her bike, as if they were receiving a sacrament. (Or the makings of an orgasm, either one.)

Twenty miles away in Easthampton, I interviewed Julie Copoulos and Amanda Milazzo, owners of Small Oven Bakery. They explained that their relationship with food is intimate, and without any prompting from me, they quickly mentioned the transfer of energy from baker to bread to customer. Other senses play prominently for them; each had to train her sense of smell, which works hand in hand with the sense of taste, to discern even tiny amounts of seasoning, to tell if a spice has lingered too long on the shelf, or if there is a happy marriage in the ratio of whole wheat to white flour in the bread. They have each honed their keen sense of smell to block out non-food scents. “The world of food scents is like a language,” said Milazzo. 

They must be able to smell and taste not only the ingredients, but they must be able to detect the process of baking, factor in the interplay with humidity on a hot summer day, or the delicate impact of fresh lemon zest on their muffins. 

I asked them if the issue of transferring their personal energy into the food might have a downside. What happens if they are angry or depressed? Wouldn’t that go into the food? 

“We take care of each other and don’t let the other one go down,” Copoulos said. “If Amanda is having a terrible day, I can step in and take over and she can do something less sensitive. But sometimes the act of making bread can be meditative and medicinal.” 

Copoulos and Milazzo knew that they hit the bread recipes right when older women from Eastern Europe starting to buy their bread. They told the bakers, “This is the kind of bread that our mothers and our grandmothers made.” They are bringing the energy of Old World bread to the streets of Easthampton.

Next, I interviewed a chef, Unmi Abkin, owner of Coco’s in Easthampton. She is a master at developing new recipes and understanding how to hire other cooks to work with her. “I watch to see how they treat food, to see if they have respect for food,” she said. After dining at Coco’s, it tasted like all of her staff treated the food very respectfully. 

Abkin mentioned how energy was transferred into cooking, filtering through her emotions and her artistry, to the customers who consumed her food. Even the drinks at Coco’s are infused with herbs and spices that draw upon her sense of seasonal energy. She often peers into the dining room from the kitchen to see how food is received in her restaurant. “It is deeply satisfying when a customer enjoys what I have prepared.” 

Despite her new, creative weekly additions to the menu, there is one staple that never leaves: buttermilk fried chicken served with garlic mashed potatoes and jalapeño slaw. Patrons simply cannot do without this dish, the epitome of comfort food. I understand. It takes every bit of my willpower to order something different, and while I am always richly rewarded, I still order the buttermilk chicken the next time. More than once, seated in Coco, I have stopped mid-meal, wishing the plate of tender chicken could last longer, that the peak of desire could keep going, and now I know that if Abkin was watching my reaction, she would understand that the cycle of artistic energy was complete.

What I learned from the bakers and chefs took me down a path more complicated than simply using the finest ingredients, following career dreams, and taking risks associated with starting a bakery or restaurant. Instead, something less tangible emerged. The energy that they transferred was critical; in fact, it was the essence of their art. As it turned out, the intense degree of passion found in these talented chefs was the perfect seasoning for my novel.

Farm Family Meal

Spring Training at Kitchen Garden Farm

Story By Caroline Pam, Photograph by Tim Wilcox

Spring training on our farm is now under way as this year’s rookies learn how to seed trays of leeks, cut and wash salad greens, and artfully bunch kale with neatly trimmed stems. As the days get longer, excitement and idealism inevitably give way to exhaustion. Our winning strategy for keeping our farm crew coming back for a second, third, and fourth season is farm lunch.

When we started our farm 11 years ago, the concept of farm lunch came from a romantic desire to re-create our experiences working on farms in Italy picking grapes (in my case, in Tuscany) or olives (for Tim, in Abruzzo). We loved being fed everyday by an Italian grandmother but, lacking one of our own, we devised a more egalitarian system. 

Every day, one of us stops work at 11am to cook up a meal in the farmhouse kitchen for everyone on staff (up to 15 in peak summer). Without this daily commitment to cooking (read: caring) for each other, sharing the fruits of our labor, and taking a full hour break to swap news, I think even I would have quit years ago! 

After a long day in the field, takeout pizza is too often the default for dinner. If we’re going to eat our greens, we’ve learned, cooking them has to be a part of the workday. At our farm, we train our employees how to care for the crops, but we also provide a crash course in catering. 

We make a point to hire people who are passionate about good food, but even the experienced cooks on our crew find it challenging to feed such a ravenous crowd in just an hour. 

Serving a hearty lunch for 15 every day can actually be pretty economical with a little bit of advance planning. We stock the pantry monthly with staples like pasta and rice, canned beans and dried legumes, and an extensive collection of condiments like miso, curry paste, and gochujang, several kinds of soy sauce, vinegars, oils, and spices. Every week or two we replenish the more perishable items like tofu, cheese, and milk. Of course, we also have the luxury of unlimited access to vegetables from the farm. 

Rule number one: Utilize all cooking surfaces at all times. Start heating the oven as soon as you come in. Next, get some pasta water boiling or load up the rice cooker. (DO NOT forget to turn it on!) Usually three pounds of pasta or five cups of rice is enough to prevent mutiny. Meanwhile, start frantically peeling onions and garlic while washing and chopping five other vegetables. By the time the oven is hot, you should have something ready to throw in there. 

Now that you know there will be at least something to eat when the hordes descend, you can start getting fancy. Sauté some greens or assemble a salad or slaw and whip up a dressing. Bulk it up with some toasted nuts or seeds. Pull some bread from the freezer and warm it up. It’s truly remarkable what bread and butter can do for morale. Speaking of morale, whatever you do, make at least two pots of coffee. And for god’s sake, please provide some protein.

This simple formula has endless variations but everyone loves my husband Tim’s lunch days best, since his repertoire is vast and his speed is unrivalled. His signature dishes include mapo tofu, saag paneer, pasta e fagioli, spaghetti and meatballs, cold sesame noodles, Thai curry, and homemade falafel with fresh-baked pita. 

Even epic fails by recent hires can be elevated to new heights with a judicious squirt of sriracha that we make from our own chili peppers. ’Rach me! is the constant refrain around the farm table when someone needs the bottle passed. 

But our hunger, fatigue, and camaraderie are the real secret sauce. Sharing our daily meal pulls us together and keeps everyone motivated to get back out into the weeds.

Get Caroline's recipe for Farm Lunch Minestrone.

Fiddling About

Young ferns make for the freshest of springtime meals

By Edible Pioneer Valley, Photographs by Sandy D’Amato

Fiddleheads, with their deep-green color and springy form, may remind you of a violin straight from the imagination of Dr. Seuss. These bright coils are the immature fronds of ostrich ferns. They sinuously emerge from the soil as the ground warms in spring, and along with ramps, are an easily-foraged addition to your dinner table. They taste like something wild crossed with asparagus and green beans.

Unlike ramps, the supply of fiddleheads is in good shape, so over-forging shouldn’t be a problem. That said, practice good etiquette by always leaving at least 50% of the fronds unplucked. 

Ostrich fern fiddleheads are what most people forage for. Some cultures forage for bracken ferns as well, but this identification guide is only for ostrich fern fiddles. (Some ferns contain toxic compounds, unless you’re an experienced forager, or traveling with one, stick to ostrich fern fiddleheads for safety.) 

Look for a deep, U-shaped groove on the inside of the smooth stem. The fiddlehead coil will be covered in brown papery scales. You want to pick tighty coiled fiddleheads––if they have started to unfurl, leave them alone. 

When you get your bounty home it’s essential to blanch the fiddleheads before final cooking. Wash them well, rubbing off as much of the papery layer as possible. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Boil the fiddleheads for about 5 minutes: The water will become murky brown. Drain them off and either chill them for use later or throw them directly into a sauté pan to finish cooking them. 

The fiddleheads gracing our cover were foraged by Joe Czajkowski from the fields around his Hadeley farm. He had the majority of last spring’s yield flash-frozen and stored at the Franklin County CDC’s Food Processing Center. What a treat to find to find local fiddleheads in January!

Try fiddleheads in Sandy D’Amato’s recipe for Spring Vegetable Ragout.

Take It, It's Free!

A Chef’s Foraging Journey, Urban and Ancient

Photo by Sanford D'Amato

Photo by Sanford D'Amato

Story by Sanford D’Amato
Photograph by Dominic Perri

I was weaned by a professional shopper, my mother. I must have spent half of my early years in her tow shopping the meccas of my hometown, Milwaukee, through the 1950s. You could find me sitting for hours in the dreaded chair posted outside of every dressing room, waiting and waiting while the controlling person with the money tried on every stitch of available clothing. This was always followed by a placating reward: a visit to the deli for a tasty treat.

To balance out that early experience was my father, a grocer and a fruit and vegetable savant. I would accompany him on his daily trips to the early-morning produce markets, where we would scour various purveyors’ wares to find the most luscious examples of the season’s bounty. After we loaded the station wagon, we were off to a satisfying workingman’s breakfast. 

That Pavlovian training laid the groundwork for the “pro shopper” that I am today. I understand discounts and sales and have the patience to spend hours sliding hangers on a sale rack until that real deal appears. That patience and eye for detail has carried over to my cooking profession. I always “work” a farmers’ market by getting there right before opening and checking out every booth for quality and price before making any purchases. 

As much as I revel in a good deal, there is one word that transcends it: free. Those magical four letters send my adrenaline into hyper-flow, whether it’s a trade show where I leave with two shopping bags full of promotional key chains, wristbands, and sun visors, or braking to a screeching halt at a street-side “free” sign to load whatever it is into the back of the car for closer inspection. 

I realized I was hooked during my first week living in New York City in the early ’70s. I muscled an oversized wing chair with rotted fabric—but a still-sturdy frame—from the spot where it was left out on the street up to my miniscule fourth floor walk-up apartment, where the only place it would fit was in front of the stove. 

Ironically, I have spent my life in a profession built on the concept of free product. In the earliest days of cooking, all cooks were first hunters and gatherers. This brings me to one of my most admired avocations: foraging. Foragers are the sultans of free, possessing skill and knowledge that most of us have lost through centuries of pre-packaged commodity food.

Throughout the years of my cooking career, I have worked with many foragers, but beyond digging up clams on the Connecticut coast or stumbling over puffball mushrooms larger than a beach ball, I’ve always just waited for the delivery rather than make that sometimes life-or-death decision (as with some mushrooms) on my own. Beyond the wealth of young dandelions growing in the cracks of the city sidewalks, the urban setting in which I spent most of my life was a barren foraging location.

With our move to Hatfield, which is plopped right in the middle of prime rural farmland on the banks of the Connecticut River, our former scenario has taken a fast 180° turn. After 30-some years of buying foraged fiddleheads and ramps for our former restaurants, now I just have to hop on my bike and, within minutes, I’m filling my lined backpack with a mother lode of each—fresher than I’ve ever had. And I know that this is just the appetizer to my years of gathering ahead. This balance between hunt and reward is my dream shopping experience. Only one thing makes it better—they’re free! 

Read more about foraging for fiddleheads in our Cover Story

Satisfaction by the Bowl

By Joy Howard | Photography by Dominic Perri

When I’m really longing for a bowl of something satisfying, I often make lentil soup. It might seem like an odd choice for a favorite, but for me, this simple recipe does far more than sate my appetite. It reminds me of when I first fell in love with food and cooking, when I discovered the pleasures that happen when you become more adventurous in what you eat. 

I first tasted this version of lentil soup years ago as teenager waitressing at a Lebanese restaurant. Before working there, I knew little about food from that region of the world, but I was instantly drawn to the ingredients and combinations: salads tossed with fresh herbs and citrus; vegetables lightly simmered in warm spices; grilled meat studded with pine nuts and feta, then tucked into warm pita. Much of the food that I ate at that restaurant has informed and inspired the way that I cook and what I crave most. 

What makes this soup so special? The ingredients are basic—green lentils, lemons, potatoes—but like many of the best dishes, it’s not the individual components that make it, but the singular way in which they meld together. As an experienced cook, I’m still in awe of how this particular combination yields such deep and complex flavor without the boost of broth or hours of simmering on the stovetop. The soup is homey, hearty, flavorful, and each time I sit down to a bowl, it always satisfies. Caramelized onions and fresh cilantro (yes, cilantro) provide richness and depth, while a generous amount of lemon juice gives it an irresistible note of brightness. It took me years to perfect my own version, but after a long series of failed attempts (and some help from a wonderful cookbook called Classic Lebanese Cuisine by Kamal Al-Faqih), I finally got it right.

Hearty Lentil Soup

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Joy Howard

Joy Howard is a freelance food writer, editor, and stylist, and the former food editor of Family Fun magazine. When not working on her own recipes, she helps her two youngest daughters practice their chopping skills and her college-aged daughter brainstorm ideas for transforming ramen noodles into a balanced meal. Find out what her family is eating for dinner and snapshots of her latest projects on Instagram @littlefoodwonders.

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Try making your own vinegar. The flavor will be richer than anything you can find in the supermarket, and total hands-on time will be under 10 minutes. 

The method is simple: First you need to procure “mother.” Similar in appearance (but not the same as) to a kombucha-birthing SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast), “mother of vinegar” is a combination of cellulose and acetic acid-making bacteria. Unpasteurized vinegar is a source of mother, or you can buy it at beer- and wine-making stores, which sell mothers made specifically for red wine, white wine, or malt vinegars. Pour leftover white or red wine (or even leftover beer) into a jar (I like a quart-sized Mason jar, but if you have a small barrel, use it, by all means), add the mother, cover the mouth of the jar with cheesecloth, and wait.

Over the course of a few months, the mother will “eat” the alcohol in the wine, turning it into acetic acid. Occasionally, you can dip a drinking straw under the mother and pull out a small quantity of vinegar to taste. When it tastes acidic, with no whiff of alcohol, your vinegar is ready. Strain out the mother and use it to start a new batch of vinegar. (If your vinegar tastes too sharp, dilute it with water until it tastes right to you.)

Vinegar should be stored airtight (to keep it from growing a new mother) and keeps indefinitely. 

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