Seta’s Rules to Cook By
By Rebecca Hansen
Use no more than five ingredients to make a dish.
Buy from local farmers.
Eat and cook within season.
These are Seta Dakessian’s “Rules to Cook By,” and they apply to every dish she creates at Seta’s Mediterranean Foods. “It’s the way I eat. It’s the way we ate at home when I was younger,” says Seta. “We always ate what was available in season.”
Indeed, Seta grew up in an environment rich with both cooking and grow-your-own traditions. Her parents, who ran an Armenian café and bakery in Worcester for 25 years, also had a vegetable garden and canned produce to use during the winter months. “Nothing ever went to waste,” she says. “If my father went to Sterling to buy two lambs, we’d use the wool for comforters. Every part of the animal was used.”
Seta also grew up in a kitchen without recipes. “My mother still cooks and she doesn’t have a recipe. We don’t even use measurements for baking.” Her father, who worked as a baker in the Armenian quarters in Jerusalem, did everything without a measuring cup. “When I was little I learned how to make dough by touching it. If I touched it I knew if it was going to be a good batch or a bad batch.”
Seta uses this same intuitive sense of “touch” in creating dishes for Seta’s Mediterranean Foods, including market favorites like humus and baba ganoush. “If the tahini is roasted a little darker than usual I know it’s going to be a little bitter and I have to modify what I do. You just know.”
Such a sixth sense can be difficult to pass along to a novice humus maker, but she does her best for loyal customers who try to replicate her humus at home. “People will come to me and say, ‘Seta, I tried making humus like yours but it didn’t come out.’” She’ll walk them through the steps and they’ll try again. “Sometimes it just doesn’t work,” she says. “For me it’s easy because I make hundreds of pounds. It’s finding the right balance with all the ingredients. You want one to complement another.”
Seta’s five-ingredient rule makes it easier to achieve that balance, and since she began selling at farmers markets two years ago, the positive response from customers has assured her that she’s doing something right. “You can buy humus in 10 different flavors made by seven or eight different companies anywhere you go. But I’ve chosen to make my humus without preservatives and in very small batches.” This means both a shorter shelf life and a higher price tag, but people keep coming back. Seta sees this as a clear indication that people are looking for fresh, whole foods. “They want to know who’s making it, what’s being put in it, and where the ingredients are coming from.”
Keeping it local is also important to the average farmers market customer, and to Seta. After finishing culinary school at Johnson & Wales, she worked in the kitchen at Rialto under chef Jody Adams. “Working there really taught me the value of locally sourcing your food,” says Seta. In Adams’ kitchen, there was a strong emphasis on knowing where an ingredient came from, respecting the people who grew it and being careful in the cooking.
These ideals built upon the values that she learned growing up, and when the time came to start her own food business, she knew that farmers markets were the place. “I didn’t have the capital to get a brick-and-mortar location, and it was also the right environment because I very much believe in sourcing as many local ingredients as you can. Where else can you do that better than a farmers market?”
Now, everything that Seta makes has at least one local ingredient, often many more. Even her grape leaves are local. “We pick them anywhere we can find them,” she says, including people’s backyards—after asking, of course. “People aren’t going to do anything with them so we go and grab them.” Seta got plenty of practice growing up, when she’d pick grape leaves by the bag full as a Sunday chore. Her mother still helps her to prepare the grape leaves over the summer. Together, they can roll about 1,200 in five hours. “Your hands hurt and your neck hurts, but it’s rewarding because they are the best grape leaves. And again it goes back to knowing where your ingredients came from.”
Being at the market also allows Seta to keep her finger on the pulse, not just in terms of what’s in season but how well things are growing in a given year. She can walk around and see what farmers have to offer, and she orders most of her veggies through the farmers around her. “Mother Nature sometimes dictates what I can and cannot do. This past year was a great year for eggplant so I made a lot of bruschetta and there was always a very large supply of baba ganoush.”
Seta’s menu is ever changing based on the dynamic interaction between her improvisational style, the variability of the season and the inspiration and feedback that she gets from her customers. “One said, ‘You know, Seta, I love your three bean salad but I would love it if you added a grain to it.” And so, the spicy bulgur and chickpea salad was born, made with Swiss chard, onion, red pepper and a spicy mint dressing.
“I take bits and pieces of what I find at the market and what my customers say and put it all together,” she says. “I’m always trying to come up with new and creative ideas.”
Indeed, for Seta, it’s the relationships that have been the most gratifying thing about running her own business. Meeting her customers face to face and seeing them come back every week has made her grateful for the support of the community. “They have the opportunity to go to hundreds of stores but they choose to keep coming back and supporting what I do.” Working with local farmers has also given her a new appreciation for the challenges of the trade. “I do the best I can with whatever ingredients they give me because I realize the amount of work and labor that has gone into growing these vegetables.”
Seta hopes that the connections formed between customers, farmers and vendors like herself will continue to grow the local food movement, and that they will help people to reconnect with the simple joys of cooking.
“I feel like the whole country has gravitated toward fast foods and things that are really easy, and suddenly cooking has become this difficult task. It doesn’t have to be.” She points to resources like the internet, but again it comes back to the market. “I think the best resource is talking to any of the farmers or any of the vendors at the farmers market and you’ll come up with a week’s meal plan.” If you’re not sure where to begin, just find Seta. She’ll be happy to get you started.
To find out where and when you can find Seta at markets this season, visit setasmediterraneanfoods.com.
Rebecca Hansen is a freelance writer and editor living in Jamaica Plain. You can read more of her writing on all things local, organic, sustainable and yummy at rebeccahansen.net.