Cooking at Home with Mike Zollner, Port Chester

Port Chester resident Mike Zollner, a director of technology, has a special interest in modernist cooking and counts a welder’s blow torch among his kitchen appliances.

First dish: Matzo ball soup. Earliest cooking memory: Helping his grandmother in the kitchen. “At age ten, I was making pizzas and garlic rolls stuffed with mozzarella cheese with my friend Anthony and making matzo ball soup for my family.” Later influences: Watching Jacques Pépin and Julia Child cook on TV, taking culinary classes at the CIA and ICE, and going to culinary demos at different food events. His kitchen: Three hundred square feet, it features a baker’s rack full of appliances, including a sous vide machine, a vacuum sealer, a smoking gun, a Vitamix, a food processor, a stand mixer, an immersion blender, and even a welder’s blowtorch. Signature cuisine: Seasonal farm-to-table. “There is nothing more satisfying than going to a market, talking to the farmers, and coming up with a meal with what they just harvested.” Cooking philosophy: Cooking with fresh ingredients, whether organic or conventionally grown, is the only way to control the food that goes into your body. Special interests: Modernist cooking techniques, like sous vide, where food is prepared in vacuum-sealed bags submerged in water at lower temperatures for longer cooking times. Favorite dish to prepare: “Chicken Marsala. I am a master mushroom cooker.” Most unusual dish: Hickory-smoked Pirate’s Booty and cauliflower pizza. Favorite meal to whip up: Seared king salmon and cauliflower purée “because it’s the trifecta—super easy, healthy, and delicious.” Favorite occasion to cook for: “Passover, because it allows me to make my matzo ball soup, which brings back a lot of good memories.” Most unusual ingredient used: “Food-grade lye—it’s a highly corrosive substance that requires the use of chemical gloves but it makes the best tasting pretzels in the world!” Little-known baking fact: Not all baking is pure science. “You can make some fantastic breads without any measuring at all.” Favorite items to bake: Flatbreads, pizzas, and sourdough rolls with the sourdough starter he’s been growing for almost seven years. Signature breakfast: Hog Rancher Ernie’s bacon with Feather Ridge Farm eggs and his sourdough flatbread. Can’t-live-without-it ingredient: Fresh black pepper. “I put it in everything because of the flavor it adds.” Biggest waste-of-money gadget: A garlic peeler. “You can peel garlic in so many ways: cutting the stem and peeling the skin, putting the cloves in between two bowls and shaking, rubbing in between your hands, mashing with a pan or knife, or kindly asking your fiancée to smash the garlic while you cook something else.” Three must-have spices: “Salt brings out the ingredients’ natural flavors from ice cream to cocktails to pizza, pepper adds a little bit of heat and another layer of flavor, and garlic is great and should be put on everything.” Always in his pantry: Flour to make breads, a roux, sauces, cookies, or coat protein like breaded chicken. Always on his counter: Pepper. “I am a pepper-aholic and use it a lot more than salt.” Biggest cooking triumph: Assisting a chef during a culinary demo where he had him cooking four Hudson Valley duck breasts at the same time. “This was very scary for me because it was in front of a lot of people and I had never cooked so much food at the same time. At the end, the duck was cooked perfectly and I felt great about it.”

Culinary Influences
Must-watch cooking shows: America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Country for their tried-and-true recipes and taste and equipment tests. Most food-splattered cookbook: Modernist Cuisine. “Not only does it have a lot of great recipes, it explains the science behind cooking.” Most consulted cooking website: americastestkitchen.com for “tried-and-true recipes.” Cooking idol: Jacques Pépin. “I grew up watching him cook with Julia Child, then on his own, all the while learning techniques.”

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Local Shopping & Dining Guide
Preferred butcher: Crisfield’s Meat Market in Rye. Farmers’ market of choice: Pleasantville. Best for produce: Mount Kisco Farm in Mount Kisco. Favorite restaurants: Sonora in Port Chester and Restaurant North in Armonk (“One of the best farm-to-table restaurants in Westchester”).

For Zollner’s recipe for cauliflower purée (or faux mashed potatoes), visit westchestermagazine.com/webexclusives.

Take It From Them 
Our Chefs’ Top Tips for Newbie Cooks

“Experiment—pick a food you really like to eat and try to make it at home. Don’t be afraid to try new things or even deviate from a recipe. If you see something that has cilantro and you don’t like cilantro or only have parsley, then use the parsley or omit it completely.” 

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