Western Mass. Cooks: ‘Cooking is my Zen’

  • Mark Wight prepares dinner at the home of Debra Ellis, a friend. Contributed photo/David Brothers—

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  • Mark Wright prepares dinner at the home of Debra Ellis, a friend. Wright said he has learned a lot from his vast cookbook library. He estimated he has about 1,600 books that touch on cooking in one way or another. Contributed photo/David Brothers—

  • Mark Wight prepares dinner at the home of Debra Ellis, a friend. Contributed photo/David Brothers—

  • Tinky Weisblat Staff image/Andy Castillo—

For the Recorder
Published: 5/21/2019 11:58:08 PM

Mark Wright told me that he sleeps at night. I find it hard to believe that he can find the time to do so.

The Petersham resident keeps himself busy as the executive director of the North Quabbin Chamber of Commerce and the president of the Athol-Orange Area Rotary Club. He is also a co-founder and the chief financial officer for LaunchSpace, a new member-based ‘makerspace’ that will open next month.

There, members will be able to use shared equipment to create anything from handmade crafts to technological innovations. They will also be able to use the space for meetings and for business incubation.

In addition, Wright is the graphic designer and co-creator of “Uniquely Quabbin” magazine.

In his spare time, he cooks.

He has always been fascinated by cooking, Wright informed me in a recent interview. 

“My mom told me at 6 years old I was a rabid fan of Julia Child. Mom was an amazing baker and a good cook,” he recalled.

Wright noted that in his experience, almost everyone agrees that home cooking — in his words, “basic cooking skills, not being a gourmet chef”— is an activity that Americans need to revive and cultivate.

“It’s not only enjoyable, but it definitely impacts everyone’s health,” he said. “It’s important to know how to do more than open a can. You need to know what the ingredients are.”

He has tailored his weekly cooking routine to his hectic schedule.

“Typically, I do most of my cooking on Sunday. I’ve become fairly skilled at pre-prepping, having items chopped and ready, or cooking a full meal,” he explained.

He puts individual ingredients or meals in containers to be used throughout the work week, he added. “Usually by Friday, I’m at a point where I don’t want to see what I cooked the previous Sunday.”

We talked on a Friday. That day, Wright was donning his chef’s coat to prepare an elegant dinner at the home of his longtime friend Debra Ellis, “who has a fabulous kitchen.” The centerpiece of the meal was one of his favorite foods, rack of lamb.

“Rack of lamb is obviously very elegant,” he said. “It’s the easiest lamb for anyone to eat if they don’t think they’re going to like lamb because it’s the least gamey.”

Although many people think of lamb as expensive, he told me that he monitors his local grocery store to see when lamb goes on its final sale, “a week before the infamous ‘sell-by’ date.”

“A $30 rack of lamb goes down to $3. I buy every single one of them and put them in my freezer,” Wright exulted.

His go-to recipe, which he calls “Lamb Trio,” involves marinating different sections of lamb in three different sauces, broiling them and then serving them with more sauce.

The recipe sounds complicated, but Wright insists that it is not. 

“My cooking style tends to use the fewest ingredients necessary to bring out the flavor of whatever I’m cooking,” he told me.

He served the lamb with a variety of seasonal side dishes, a seafood course (lobster), a salad, a cheese course and a fruity cake for dessert. He gleefully announced that he had chosen four different wines to accompany his four courses.

I asked Wright where he gets his recipe inspiration. “Really what I do is, I pay attention,” he said. He added that in addition to learning a lot about cooking in his youth, he took some extension courses from the Culinary Institute of America.

Wright has learned a lot as well from his vast cookbook library. He estimated that he has about 1,600 books that touch on cooking in one way or another. Many are shelved in a large library at his home. Some are in storage nearby. He touched on volumes he finds particularly useful, including reference works from the Culinary Institute and his childhood idol, Julia Child. He noted that he enjoys historical surveys of food and cooking. Of all his books, he seemed particularly proud of a sub-section of his cookbook library.

“Maybe 250 items are things that I have acquired from relatives. They are handwritten cookbooks. They’re awesome,” he said. “I can’t really say that I’ve cooked a lot of recipes out of them. But reading them and seeing the things on the pages and the scribbles … it’s just a little peek into what people, mostly women, were doing while they were making meals for their families.”

Wright also likes to explore different cultures’ foods when he goes abroad for work.

“Whenever I get to travel the first thing I do is, I say to the crew that I’m working with, ‘Take me home to your mother’s house or your grandmother’s house and let me see how she cooks,’” he said with a smile.

Clearly, however busy he may become, Mark Wright is unlikely to give up his precious time in the kitchen. “By and large, cooking is my Zen,” he informed me.

Lamb trio

“Rack of lamb is elegant, scalable, and one of the easiest meats to prepare,” Wright said. “Look for racks shortly after ‘lamb’ holidays like Easter, Christmas and high Greek holidays, and you can usually find them marked down, sometimes as much as 90 percent.  

“Racks properly packaged in cryovac (or your own home food vacuum sealer) can last for months in the freezer. Thawing is easy and quick: place the vacuum-sealed package into a large bowl of tepid water. (Weigh it down) with a plate to keep it submerged,” he said. “Change the water out if necessary to maintain (the water) temperature. Most racks will thaw in 20 minutes … and you’re ready to cook.”

 Wright prefers to buy his lamb wracks ‘Frenched,’ that is to say with fat and meat trimmed from the end of each rib. Wright observed that instead of broiling the racks, one can start them on the stove in an oven-proof skillet and then transfer them to a hot oven. Or one can grill them. This is the way he prepared them on the evening in question, however.

You may mix the trio sauces ahead of time and apply them to the racks just before cooking, or apply them up to 24 hours ahead of time. 

You may also apply the sauces and seal them with the meat in your home vacuum sealer (if you have one, and Wright thinks you should). to accelerate the marination.

Mediterranean sauce ingredients

3 cups coarsely chopped and packed parsley

¼ cup fresh rosemary leaves

½ cup fresh packed basil leaves

¼ cup fresh packed thyme leaves

12 cloves (roughly 1/2 cup) garlic, coarsely chopped

enough olive oil to make a wet paste (about 1/2 cup)

1 teaspoon coarse sea salt

1 teaspoon freshly cracked pepper

the juice of 1/2 lemon

for the Asian sauce:

½ cup good-quality tamari, preferably low sodium

¼ cup safflower or peanut oil (do you not use olive oil)

1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil (or to taste)

1 tablespoon garlic powder

2 tablespoons chopped ginger or ginger paste

5 tablespoons light or dark brown sugar

¼ cup plus 1 tablespoon rice vinegar

for the Turkish sauce:

(Look for pomegranate molasses, Aleppo chili flakes and ground sumac in the Middle Eastern section of a grocery store, at a spice shop, or online.)

½ cup pine nuts, toasted lightly in a clean skillet

½ cup cashews, roasted and unsalted

¼ cup olive oil

¼ cup pomegranate molasses

¾ to 1 teaspoon Aleppo chili flakes (you may substitute other chili flakes, but don’t use powder)

1 tablespoon ground sumac

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

the juice of ½ lemon

for assembly:

1 rack of lamb for 2 people, 2 racks for 5 people, or 3 racks for 8 people

Making the sauce

For the Mediterranean sauce, place all the ingredients in a food processor. Process until you have a thick paste without noticeable flakes of herb, like a pesto. Do not over process. Add olive oil as needed to blend. Refrigerate until ready to use.

For the Asian sauce, whisk all the ingredients together. Store the sauce in a sealed container. Refrigerate it until you are ready to use it. For the Turkish sauce, chop the nuts in a food processor until they are small and coarse (the size you would find on an icecream sundae). Remove them from the food processor and add all the other ingredients. Stir well with a rubber spatula. 

Store in a sealed container in a cool, dark place. (If you refrigerate this sauce, let it come to room temperature before using it.)

For the meat, preheat the oven (on “bake”) to 450 degrees. Coat each rack (or section of a rack) with one of the pre-made sauces, applying to the meat only. Do not apply to the boney portion of the underside.

Place the coated racks cap (fat) side up on a preheated baking sheet. If you like, you may wrap a strip of aluminum foil around the exposed bone ends. This will keep them from charring.

To achieve medium rare (145 degrees), bake the racks in the oven without turning for 15 to 25 minutes, depending on the size of the rack. Use an instant-read thermometer in the thickest part of the meat to check the temperature. 

Remove the meat from the oven when the internal temperature reaches 145 degrees. You may cook it a bit longer if you prefer the ribs closer to medium. Remember that during the resting the meat will initially continue to cook.

Let the racks rest for five to seven minutes. Carve before serving using a sharp knife. Stand the rack up with its bone tips to the sky and the fat side toward you. Slice equally between the ribs. Serve with additional sauces. 

Tinky Weisblat is the award-winning author of “The Pudding Hollow Cookbook,” “Pulling Taffy,” and “Love, Laughter, and Rhubarb.” Visit her website, www.TinkyCooks.com.


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