Bethany Zozula, executive chef at Whitfield at Ace Hotel in East Liberty, grew up on elaborate meals.
Her mother, Kathy Zozula, a stay-at-home mom during her daughter’s growing-up years in Fayette County, knew how to whip up a wholesome spread for her family, especially on a holiday. “For Easter dinner, she would make leg of lamb roasted with garlic and rosemary, and serve it with freshly made tortillas, feta, olives, honey and mixed green salad,” says the 34-year-old chef.
Bonding in the kitchen: We always had rice and beans in the house, and I remember helping her make tortillas when I was 6 or 7. She would roll them out while I would flip them. We also made burritos a lot.
Make-from-scratch philosophy: We rarely bought premade food, ever. We bought food to make food. My mother made mayo from almonds, sprouted different types of seeds and beans, baked bread, almond milk and granola. She made seed cheese, cakes and cookies. My parents have also always gardened, so seasonally we always had fresh produce. For a time they even sprouted wheatgrass.
Standout dishes: The fresh tortillas and tahini dressing on a spicy green salad. She also made a variety of things from goat’s milk like yogurt, cheese and vanilla pudding.
Valuable lessons: I learned the basics of how to cook from my mother, and the street-smarts of cooking. She taught me how to boil water for pasta, make mashed potatoes, hard boil an egg, how to pop corn and make rice. She also taught me to thaw frozen fish or sausage well before the cooking time and not minutes before preparation time. I learned the same way I learned how to tie my shoe — early. Then it just became a natural.
Appreciation for skillets: My mother taught me the joy of using cast-iron skillets. They are very versatile and hold heat well, which makes them efficient. And if you care for them properly, they are as good as a nonstick pan.
Plans for Mother’s Day: I will be working on Mother’s Day. I always work on that day and so I never cook for her on that day. If she wants to eat my food, she needs to come to the restaurant to try it. But it’s not a special day for her or me because we spend time together on other days, too.
Parmesan Risotto made by Bethany Zozula, executive chef at Whitfied at the Ace Hotel, in East Liberty. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)
Bethany Zozula prefers to use Parmesan stock for her Parmesan risotto with peas, pearl onions and basil. Parmesan stock is made with cheese rind. When you purchase cheese, get a piece with rind still on it, she says. The recipe works just as well with chicken stock and can even be made with water for vegetarians.
For Parmesan stock
8 ounces Parmesan rind
1 onion, chopped
4 celery ribs, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 whole bulb of garlic, cut in half
3 bay leaves
Couple sprigs of thyme
4 quarts water
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 medium onion, diced small
1 teaspoon salt
1½ cups arborio rice
1 cup white wine
3 to 4 cups Parmesan stock, chicken stock or water
Salt and pepper, to taste
1/2 stick butter
1 cup of shredded Parmesan
1 pound fresh English or sweet peas, shucked
1 cup pearl onions
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon butter
Salt to taste
1 cup shredded Parmesan
5 or 6 big leaves of basil, chopped
Fresh ground black pepper
For the stock: Place cheese rinds in a cheesecloth; tie the edges of the cloth and attach to the handle of pot so that the sack hangs just above the bottom of the pot. Add onion, celery, carrot, garlic, bay leaves and thyme, and cover with water. Simmer for 4 hours. Strain and reserve broth.
For the risotto: Heat stock or water in a medium pot.
In a large pot, add 2 tablespoons oil on medium heat. Add diced onions and salt. Sweat the onions, stirring continuously. When they are translucent, add rice and continue to stir, until the grains start appearing translucent.
Add wine and stir until almost dry, then add a cup of hot stock or water. Stir continuously until almost dry. Repeat this step 2 more times. At the end of each step taste the rice, testing it for both doneness and seasoning. Add salt and pepper as required.
At the end of step three, if rice is still too tough, repeat step one more time, adding 1 more cup of liquid. When the rice is to your liking of doneness, add butter, remaining 1 tablespoon oil and Parmesan. Stir and set aside.
For the peas: If you are using fresh peas, first blanch them. This is a simple step. Bring water to a boil, add peas, and as soon as they turn bright green strain them and add them to a bowl of ice water to seal in the color. Set aside.
Add onions into a pot, and cover with cold water. As soon as water comes to a boil, strain the onions. Set aside.
In a medium pot, heat 1/2 cup water. Once it begins boiling, add butter and stir until it melts. Add blanched peas and onions, stir until they are heated thoroughly, about 4 minutes. Season, taste and set aside.
Spoon some rice in a shallow bowl or plate. Top with peas and onions. Garnish with Parmesan, basil and black pepper.
Note: If using frozen peas, heat the peas in water along with a little butter. They come pre-blanched and so essentially you just need to make them hot, Ms. Zozula says.
Makes 4 servings.
— Bethany Zozula