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Local chefs dish on dream dinners for mom and the vegetable joys of spring

Ah, asparagus! As Mother’s Day approaches, local chefs and restaurateurs are turning their thoughts to burgeoning spring produce — and time spent in the kitchen with their mothers and grandmothers.

“I’m excited to cook with artichokes, asparagus and peas,” says Tyler Fenton, chef/co-owner at Reilly Craft Pizza & Drink. “My favorite method of cooking is over a live fire, and these three spring ingredients are insanely good when fire roasted. They need very little else to make them special.”

Most chefs will be busy in their restaurant kitchens on Mother’s Day — it’s the most popular day to dine out — but it is fun to imagine what they’d whip up just for mom.

Fenton says that instead of cooking for his mother on Mother’s Day, they’d make something together, since she loves to learn new dishes. They’d keep it light, perhaps a simple pasta dish with spring vegetables. He recalls spending time with his mother’s large Italian family, where pasta dinners brought everyone together. “I think those dinners planted in me a love of food from a young age, which has grown into a career.”

Chef Massimo Tenino says it was his grandmother who “taught me the importance of using good quality ingredients, and how good food brings people and families together.”

Tenino also gives vegetables the wood-fire treatment, making the Verdure Miste, a vegetable assortment, one of the most popular dishes at his Tavolino Ristorante Italiano. “I am also excited to use fresh peaches, wood-fired, and homemade vanilla gelato, simple and delicious,” he says.

For his mother, “for sure I would make fresh pasta, heart-shaped ravioli filled with ricotta and spinach. Fresh pasta has always been part of special occasions in my life, and it takes love and time to make good ravioli pasta.”

Claire Johnson of Claire’s Café and Art Gallery would make the wonderful matzah ball soup she learned at her mother’s knee.

“I come from a family of kosher scratch cooks,” she says, recalling one uncle who had a kosher butcher and fish market on Chicago’s Devon Avenue, while another ran a Romanian vegetable shop on Ashland Avenue. Her mother and grandmother baked challah every Friday. “Everything was fresh, made from scratch — we carry that tradition forward in my restaurant,” says Johnson, who uses fresh organic vegetables in all her cooking.

Sigret Thompson, chef/co-owner at The Tasteful Kitchen, says her homage to her mother would be the chickpea crepes currently on the restaurant menu, served with a cauliflower Hollandaise sauce and fresh asparagus. “My mom would make crepes for me when I was a kid,” she says.

The Tasteful Kitchen’s theme is “modern vegetarian cuisine for everyone,” and Thompson delights in the locally grown ingredients available in springtime, including fennel, leeks, turnips, beets and spring onions. A 10-course tasting dinner on April 30 will feature these and other seasonal vegetables, she says.

Susan Fulton of Gourmet Girls Gluten Free Bakery/Bistro is grateful that her mother encouraged her to take over the planning and cooking of family meals at a young age. “She was always open to my experiments!”

This spring, Fulton is energized by the fresh organically grown ingredients available from farmer’s markets. “There’s always something new and exciting to try,” she says.

Gus Gerson, chef/owner of Gusto Osteria, is planning to cook for his mother-in-law on Mother’s Day. “We will enjoy some grilled items such as asparagus, potatoes, perhaps a steak.”

Gerson remembers helping his grandmother cook. “As far as I can remember back until the time she passed away, my grandma was always baking and preparing amazing things in her kitchen. She would let me help, but we had to learn how things were done the right way. From the beginning, cleanliness and organization were instilled; these are important factors in my restaurant today.”

Sunny Holliday, chef/owner of Lovin’ Spoonfuls, says her mother liked quiche, so she’d prepare a spinach-mushroom quiche with a fresh fruit salad and oven-roasted potatoes.

Holliday’s mother loved to cook – “I inherited that gene,” she says – but she wanted her daughter to become a doctor.

Instead, Holliday was a chemist and engineer for many years until she adopted a plant-based lifestyle. “I decided what I really wanted to do was promote veganism, a plant-based diet, and it would be easier for me to do that as a restaurateur than as an engineer.”

Holliday’s favorite fresh herb is basil, which works well in everything from beverages to Italian and Thai dishes. Basil can enhance almost anything, she says, “and when it is fresh, it is orders of magnitude better.”

Jason McCarty, a managing partner at Eclectic Cafe, would make his wife the beneficiary of his Mother’s Day scenario. “The entree would be roasted rack of lamb because it’s my wife’s favorite. I would serve it with sautéed asparagus with slivered almonds and herb rice,” he says, and he’d finish the meal with chocolate mousse, which pairs well with lamb and red wine.

McCarty’s mother worked two jobs when he was growing up, so he had plenty of time to experiment in the kitchen. “I was able to figure out what went well together and what didn’t.  I quickly discovered that nothing is better for me than contrasting flavors like sweet and salty.”

For McCarty, “Spring is all about fresh fruits and vegetables. Everything is in bloom! I really enjoy putting together a fresh salad with raw vegetables, a little fresh fruit, cheese, nuts and mixed greens. The greens this time of year are delicious!”

Mama’s Famous Pizza & Heroes co-owner Joe Spina, Jr., says “Spring is especially exciting because of the availability of fresh, locally grown vegetables — almost any veggie works great on pizza!  But what initially comes to my mind is fresh arugula, spinach, eggplant, basil, and other wonderful ingredients that [my brother] Vinnie grows fresh in his garden right here on the north side of Tucson.”

Pasta would be on Spina’s imaginary Mother’s Day menu. “Pasta is delicious, especially when we use mama’s authentic Sicilian marinara sauce recipe,” he says. “Prep time for most pasta dishes is minimal, and that would afford me the maximum amount of time to chat with mom (if she wasn’t so busy in heaven) and give her the love she so deserves.”

Mama’s was, of course, inspired by his mother. “Mama was born in 1914 to two Sicilian immigrants.  She was one of 13 children!  As one of the older girls, she was taken out of school in the seventh grade, so that she could learn to cook and help her mother care for her younger brothers and sisters,” he explains. “Mama went on to marry our dad and (in our eyes) was the best Italian cook ever!  When my brother Vinnie, our sister Kathryn and I were old enough to fend for ourselves, mama went to work as a waitress in Hempstead, N.Y., to help our dad with the household bills.  It was Vinnie’s idea to go into the restaurant business as a way of honoring our mom.”

George Ferranti, co-owner of El Cisne Restaurante, gets excited when he talks about serving red snapper — or huachinango, as he calls it — on Mother’s Day. “It’s going to be fresh, fresh, fresh,” he says, explaining that the dense fish that can be served as medallions or as a fried whole fish. But for his mother, his choice might be “a fun dish called chile en nogada,” a poblano chile stuffed with ground sirloin, raisins, walnuts and Mexican spices, covered with an almond nougat sauce topped with pomegranate seeds.

“I claim to have five mothers,” says Ferranti, and the one he credits with having the most influence on El Cisne is “my madrina, Nancy Carnero — she’s my godmother, she’s the general manager” who has been with the restaurant for 22 years. “She is highly experienced in the front end but also in the back end — she’s a Peruvian chef,” and Peru, he says, “is pretty much the epicenter of culinary fusion in the world today. She definitely influences a lot of our decisions through our cooking techniques and through our flavor profiles.”

Scott Sinclair, co-owner of Pionic Pizza, claims that his grandma is “the best cook on earth,” waxing rhapsodic about her matzah ball soup, her chicken schnitzel, and especially her noodle kugel. 

For his mother, a vegetarian who likes to keep things healthful, he’d serve a simple, fresh salad for Mother’s Day, with roasted red peppers, artichoke hearts, cherry tomatoes and balsamic dressing. While cooking is not her forte, his mother shines on the restaurant’s business end. “I really love working with her,” he says. “She taught me a lot about the numbers, about management” and about having high standards for the day-to-day operations of the restaurant.

Many of Pionic’s ingredients are especially tasty in springtime, such as the arugula and fresh basil the restaurant offers as “after bakes,” but Sinclair is looking forward to a new pizza that has yet to be designed. He explains that as a fundraiser, the Humane Society of Southern Arizona will be auctioning the right to design a pizza with Pionic. The Humane Society will also get a portion of the proceeds from the pizza’s sales. Once it’s been designed, Sinclair will get to name the new creation.