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Cook lives up to her name

Zella Cook takes advantage of her family farm’s produce

If you’re a farmer’s wife who sells your produce at area Farmer’s Markets, you always have something left over that needs to be used before it goes to waste.

So it’s no wonder that Zella Cook lives up to her name.

Regulars at the Shiloh Farmer’s Market on Saturdays always enjoy their visit with Zella and Stephen Cook, best known for their beautiful fresh floral bouquets and lovely lettuces.

While chatting at the market one morning, we asked Zella if she’d be willing to share a favorite recipe and be featured in Our Good Cooks. Happily, she agreed.

“We are blessed to all be very healthy in our family and I believe that a lot of it has to do with our easy access to wonderful, fresh vegetables and fruits that we grow without any chemical sprays for over 30 years,” she says. “I think our lives are enriched by the beauty that surrounds us and the authentic interaction we have with our customers that come to our roadside stand and that we meet at the market every week.”

Stephen Cook says what’s amazing about his wife is that she can walk into the house and have a delicious meal on the table 15 minutes later.

Says Zella: “I love my life. I would not change one thing.”

What early memories do you have of food or cooking?

All four of my grandparents emigrated from Italy. They came from two different regions — Abruzzi and Naples — so there were lots of different dishes prepared in our home as I grew up. I am the seventh of eight children and my great aunt also lived with us, so every night we cooked for at least 11 people. Usually there were more, and my mom would send one of us around before we set the table to do a head count. There was always plenty of food, but nothing too fancy. We usually ate some kind of pasta at least three days a week.

Who taught you to cook?

I have four older sisters. I was the youngest of the girls so I remember being more of a dishwasher and a potato peeler than a cook. Our mom was wheelchair bound with MS from the time I was six years old, but she never missed a beat in our kitchen. Even though she could no longer be at the stove, she planned menus, made shopping lists and directed traffic in our busy kitchen every night. As I grew older, and my sisters went away to college, I did more cooking, often alongside my dad, who was a really wonderful cook.

How does being a farmer’s wife influence how you cook and what you cook?

Sometimes I get really creative and combine things that I might not normally, and sometimes I’m sorry I did. I usually start with an onion and garlic in olive oil and then see what else I needs to use. I always said if I wrote a cookbook I would entitle it, “Start With An Onion!”

So many great dishes can be made by just adding chopped vegetables like peppers, tomatoes, squash and Swiss chard or escarole to the onions and garlic. Then we eat them over rice, or I fold them into some kind of pasta and toss on some cheese. I do at least 90 percent of my cooking in my cast iron skillets. I don’t use the oven much in the summer months. I make a lot of stuffed peppers, but I use my crock pot.

What kind of cooking/meals did you make for your family over the years?

Our two sons grew up eating a lot of the Italian peasant dishes that I learned to make as I was growing up. We always had wonderful salads with lettuce, tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers fresh from our garden. Some of their favorites were spaghetti and meatballs, pasta fagioli — which is mostly pasta and beans — and the easiest dish of all, Aglio et Olio — which is just thin spaghetti with garlic and olive oil topped with good Parmesan cheese. We also ate a lot of stir-fry and other rice dishes that I learned to make while living in Africa. I think it was a relief to my English-born husband that we didn’t eat Italian food all the time. After 36 years of marriage he’s still not a big fan of pasta.

What are your favorite ingredients?

Onions, shallots and garlic are my “trinity” ingredients. I think you can’t go wrong if you start with them and some good olive oil. I like to use fresh parsley, basil and rosemary for seasoning.

Can you give some advice for those who come to farmer’s markets at this time of year and want to know what to do with various vegetables they might buy?

All summer long I share recipes with my customers at the market. They have given me some wonderful ideas and I have taught lots of folks how to cook beets and shared how I cook kale and Swiss chard with the onions. This time of year I like to make soups and things I can freeze to enjoy in the winter.

Can you provide tips on storing and keeping the kinds of vegetables you sell?

In June we have “U-pick” strawberries here in our garden and I freeze them whole on baking sheets and then bag them into freezer bags. I love being able to pull them out all winter to use in smoothies with yogurt, honey and frozen bananas. I also make strawberry freezer jam. I freeze some of my tomatoes whole in gallon bags. I just cut the tops off and when they thaw, the skins slip right off, then I usually cook them down on our wood stove in the winter.

I also freeze escarole, garlic and peppers. I freeze some of my peppers whole, with just the tops cut off and seeds, etc. taken out, and when I take them out I stuff them while they are still frozen and place them in a crock pot to cook. This year I canned some of my tomatoes and I also canned quarts of pickled beets and pints of pickled red peppers.

What advice would you have for new cooks based on your experiences?

Keep it simple. I look at recipes sometimes for ideas, then I usually do my own thing with whatever ingredients are in season, or that I have preserved by freezing or canning. I rarely have every ingredient that a recipe calls for, so I improvise a lot.

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