Mom's cooking inspires top kitchens - and yours

Acclaimed chef Hugh Acheson, like many people, is inspired by his mom's cooking.

When he was about 12, Hugh Acheson’s mom went through a cooking phase: recipes from magazines, nice pots and pans and exciting new dishes, like her signature chicken piccata.


“It had that tenderness and crispness and this very simple, but very bouncy sauce,” Acheson said. But it wasn’t the pop of lemon and capers that impressed the now acclaimed chef-proprietor of three Georgia restaurants as much as the meal’s large dash of happiness. “That’s one meal that was always welcomed by everybody, and it was a simple celebration.”

Even though most moms won’t cook on Mother’s Day, their food often holds unparalleled sway over their children, even as adults.

Maybe your mom was a good cook, like Acheson’s, and maybe she wasn’t. But whatever your mom made for you — and how you felt about it (and her) — can transform plain old meatloaf into your special birthday meal, or a steaming empanada into your go-to comfort food. And world-class chefs are no different.

“These foods gain their power on us based on associations with primary caregivers, usually moms,” said Shira Gabriel, an associate professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Buffalo who co-authored a 2011 study on comfort foods. “These foods that moms make for us give us a little ability to bring up that love whenever we want. They’re really psychologically powerful.”

In other words, context — where you ate something, how you ate it, whom you ate it with — can be as powerful as the food itself.

For Chicago chef Stephanie Izard, the best part of her mother’s moo shu pork was the monthly pancake-making session, where Mom and her friend Mrs. Cole would sip cocktails, talk girl talk and churn out dozens of paper-thin Chinese crepes. Izard and her sister got to make the filling, messing with mushrooms and all sorts of then-unfamiliar ingredients. But the best part happened when they sat down to eat.

“We each made our own pancakes and got our hands dirty,” the season four winner of Bravo’s “Top Chef” said via email. “Interactive dining I would say. Those are always the best meals. How it should be.”

Sometimes a person’s “mom food” isn’t even one that mom made, just one that’s associated with her. Gabrielle Hamilton’s mom was a great, but “challenging” cook, said the chef-owner of Prune in New York’s East Village. Weaned on the wartime cooking of her French parents, Madeline Hamilton regularly laid her table with “cheese that really stank and oozed and had mold,” her daughter said, plus “oily stews, innards and offal.”

“What’s now called ‘nose-to-tail,’ that was naturally her from 45 years ago,” Hamilton said of her mom.

That may explain why Hamilton’s favorite food memory is not of something her mom made, but of the peach Melba her mom treated her to during a trip to Greece.

“She would buy it for me every day and we would sit in the plaza in Athens,” said Hamilton, who was perhaps 7 at the time. “To be on vacation with her and be allowed to have ice cream with peach and raspberry sauce, I was like ‘This is rather gentle and delicious.’ That’s what’s cherished about it.”

Magdalena Garces used to make empanadas for her son, Jose, a James Beard award-winning chef who presides over an empire of six restaurants in Chicago and Philadelphia. Garces still gets lost in the thought of hot, melty cheese swathed in crisp, fried dough and sprinkled with sugar.

“It’s just one of those sensations,” Garces said. “It brings back a Sunday afternoon in Chicago, probably a cold afternoon, watching a Bears football game, and my mom making empanadas that we’d eat at half time. It brings me back to a good place, to a good time in my life.”

Marcela Valladolid’s comfort food involves a big, fiery splat of hot sauce. Valladolid’s mom, Lucha Rodriguez, was a formidable cook of all the Mexican classics — posole, enchiladas, chili rellenos. But more than anything, Valladolid said she still craves the simple quesadillas her late mother laid in front of her each morning.

“She would cut it into triangles, and I would pour a whole bunch of hot sauce on the plate, dip the quesadilla and eat it,” she said. “That was my breakfast my entire life. That was comfort food for me.”

“My mother went on a cooking spree around 1983 to 1986. It was a brief spell of subscriptions to Bon Appetit and Gourmet, with a sudden interest in nice cookware, better ingredients and a dedication to sustenance that had never really been a high priority in our household,” Hugh Acheson said. “I don’t know if it was a midlife crisis or a reaction to something else, but we suddenly found ourselves eating well. My favorite dish, due to my palate’s love of acid, was the chicken piccata she would make, usually accompanied by simply roasted potatoes and asparagus. It still hangs in my mind as the dish I would long for and revel in.”

Jose Garces said while the dough for the empanadas must rest properly and be rolled out thin to be workable, once you get it down this is an easy dough to handle. When forming the empanadas, make sure the edges are well sealed so they don’t leak while frying. You also can roll and crimp the edges a few times to help ensure that they’re closed up tight.

These empanadas also can be assembled, wrapped tightly in plastic and foil and frozen for up to two months, then thawed before frying. The dough can be refrigerated for up to one day.

If you have trouble finding queso fresco, substitute the more widely available ricotta salata. And while you’re at the grocer, grab some peach or strawberry jam. The empanadas are delicious served with a bit of jam dolloped on them.

Start to finish: 30 minutes

Servings: 4

Recipe by Hugh Acheson

¼ cup olive oil, divided

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, butterflied to ½-inch-thick scallopini

1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided

½ cup Wondra (instant) flour

1 medium shallot, peeled and minced

4 leaves fresh sage, torn into small pieces

8 lemon slices, ¹/8- -inch thick

1 clove garlic, thinly sliced

¼ cup chicken stock

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1½ tablespoons brined capers, drained, rinsed and lightly chopped

1 tablespoon minced flat-leaf parsley

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold

Ground black pepper

Arrange 2-foot length of waxed paper on the counter and drizzle a teaspoon of olive oil on it. Arrange the chicken scallopini on the waxed paper, leaving at least 3 inches between them. Set a second sheet of waxed paper over the chicken.

Using the flat side of a meat mallet or a rolling pin, gently pound the chicken to a uniform ¼ inch thickness. Season the chicken with 3/4 teaspoon of the salt.

Heat a large stainless steel skillet over medium-high heat.

While the pan heats, place the Wondra flour in a wide, shallow bowl. Dredge each piece of chicken through the Wondra flour, coating both sides and shaking off any excess.

Add the remaining olive oil to the skillet, then add the chicken, working in batches if necessary. Cook for 3 three minutes per side, or until golden and just cooked through. Remove the chicken from the pan to a platter. Lower the heat to medium.

Add the shallot, sage and the lemon slices to the pan. Cook for 1 minute, then add the garlic. Cook for 30 seconds, then add the stock, lemon juice, capers and parsley. Simmer for 2 minutes, then whisk in the cold butter. Season with salt, if necessary, but capers have a saline brine, so taste first.

Add some black pepper, then pour the pan sauce over the chicken.

Start to finish: 1 hour 45 minutes (45 minutes active)

Servings: 12

(Recipe from Jose Garces’ upcoming book, “The Latin Road Home,” Lake Isle Press, October 2012)

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon kosher salt

2 tablespoons sugar, plus ¼ cup, divided

½ cup vegetable shortening

1 large egg yolk

½ cup cold water

4 ounces queso fresco cheese, grated (about 2 cups)

2 quarts vegetable oil, for frying

To make the dough, into a large bowl sift the flour, salt and 2 tablespoons of the sugar. Use a pastry blender to cut the shortening into the dry ingredients until it is fully incorporated. Add the egg yolk and mix well. Adding 2 or 3 tablespoons at a time, knead in the water with your hands until a smooth dough forms. Alternatively, the dough can be made in a food processor using the pulse function rather than a pastry blender.

Pat the dough into a round, flatten the disk and wrap it tightly in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 1 day before making the empanadas.

When ready to assemble the empanadas, divide the chilled dough into a dozen 1-inch balls. Using a manual tortilla press, a rolling pin or the heel of your hand, press each dough ball into a circle about ¹/8- -inch thick and about 6 inches in diameter.

Mound about 2 tablespoons of the cheese in the center of each round and fold the dough over to form a half-moon. Use a dinner fork to crimp together the outer edges. Alternatively, use a plastic empanada press from a Latin market.

To cook the empanadas, pour the oil into a large stockpot over medium-high. Heat until it reaches 350 F (use a candy or deep-fry thermometer to monitor the temperature). Line a baking sheet with paper towels.

Working in batches to avoid crowding the pan, fry the empanadas until they are golden brown and crispy, about 3 to 4 minutes, turning once. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the empanadas to the baking sheet to drain excess oil. Using the remaining ¼ cup of sugar to dust the empanadas as they drain.


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