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," says Acheson. 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," says 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, says 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 says, plus "oily stews, innards and offal."
"What's now called 'nose-to-tail,' that was naturally her from 45 years ago," Hamilton says 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," says 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."
And who did most of the cooking when Jamie Bissonnette was growing up? "Mario's Pizza around the corner," says the chef-owner of Boston restaurants Coppa and Toro. Monday was pizza, Tuesday was "gross-me-out" night, he says, which often involved American chop suey with canned mushroom soup, and Wednesday was "fend-for-yourself." But now and then, Bissonnette's mom would make a big, beefy chili stuffed with beans, bell peppers and Budweiser.
"I'd hang out in the kitchen doing homework and she'd be making chili and the whole house would start to smell from the Crock-Pot," he says. "Even before I knew what it was going to taste like I knew I wanted it."
That is no surprise, say food psychologists. The part of your brain that processes smell also processes emotions. A bit like Marcel Proust and his famous madeleine, the mere whiff of a beloved food can take you back to that special time or place.
"It's often called 'smell brain,'" says Marcia Pelchat, associate member at Philadelphia's Monell Chemical Senses Center. "Smell brain is also the emotion brain. And odor memories tend to be more emotional than other types of memories."
Bissonnette still makes chili at least twice a month, he says, upscaling his mother's version with seared pork belly, piment d'Espelette and craft beer.
Many Americans associate certain qualities with comfort food, for example, warmth, sweetness, starchiness. But SUNY Buffalo's Gabriel says the perception of something as "comfort food" is very culturally specific.
"For one person it's sushi, for another person it's chicken soup, for another it's lasagna," she says. "Within our work we found the most important thing tended to be what the foods were that you ate when you were a child."
Take the empanadas Magdalena Garces used to make 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 says. "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 says 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 says. "That was my breakfast my entire life. That was comfort food for me."
Sometimes a mom's cooking — for better or worse — is the reason a person becomes a chef. Bissonnette realized early that if he wanted to eat well, he'd have to cook for himself, he says, and he credits his mom "a thousand percent" with inspiring him, however dubiously, to his profession. In contrast, Jacqueline Winch, mom to "Ace of Cakes" Duff Goldman, was a skilled and adventurous cook, her son says, and her beef fondue is the dish that made him a chef.
"The biggest memory, the first thing I think of when I think of dinners at home as a child, is beef fondue," Goldman says, recalling the way he experimented with temperature, cooking times, and skewering techniques around the communal fondue pot. "That process — discovering that I could alter what I'm eating to suit my taste — at that young of an age stuck with me."
When these chefs cook in their restaurants, they are performers, public figures being judged, weighed, called out, praised. But at home, many of them are simply moms and dads, creating food memories for their own children the way their moms did for them.
Prune's Hamilton suspects her two children will remember — though perhaps not fondly — parmesan omelets, which she confesses to serving for breakfast, lunch and dinner (though not usually all in the same day). Valladolid makes her 7-year-old son an organic version of the quesadillas she grew up on. But perhaps no one is recreating childhood food memories for his children as closely as Garces.
That's because his mom lives around the corner and cooks for his kids every day. And what does she often make? Those very same empanadas that her son loved.
"I think their fondest food memories will be the meals my mom has cooked for them," he says. "When I see her with my kids, and see her in the kitchen, it brings me back to my childhood."
"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."
Start to finish: 30 minutes
1/4 cup olive oil, divided
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, butterflied to 1/2-inch-thick scallopini
1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
1/2 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
1/4 cup chicken stock
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 1/2 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 1/4 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 m inutes, 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.
Nutrition information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 360 calories; 180 calories from fat (50 percent of total calories); 21g fat (6 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 80 mg cholesterol; 15 g carbohydrate; 28 g protein; 1 g fiber; 690 mg sodium.
(Recipe by Hugh Acheson)
Sugar-Dusted Empanadas with Queso Fresco
Jose Garces says that 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: 1 hour 45 minutes (45 minutes active)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons sugar, plus 1/4 cup, divided
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
1 large egg yolk
1/2 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 1/4 cup of sugar to dust the empanadas as they drain.
Nutrition information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 260 calories; 170 calories from fat (65 percent of total calories); 19 g fat (3.5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 20 mg cholesterol; 18 g carbohydrate; 4 g protein; 1 g fiber; 170 mg sodium.
(Recipe from Jose Garces' upcoming book, "The Latin Road Home," Lake Isle Press, October 2012)