Jocelyn Wise remembers when her grandmother’s native Armenian foods were considered strange and unfamiliar. “There was also a different language associated with them,” says Wise, chef and owner of Miss Fork caterer in Stoneham.
One of her grandmother’s stews was a green bean and lamb dish called fassoulya, slow-cooked with cheap, bony cuts, and plenty of garlic, mint, and lemon. “Armenian food was peasant food,” says Wise, 50, who grew up in Andover. Stews are thick enough to sop up with bread, but thin with meat, which was an expensive ingredient.
Wise’s maternal grandparents emigrated from Armenia in the early 1900s. They met in the United States, married, and settled in Belmont. Her grandfather, Badrig Zulalian, went to Tufts University and became an architect. Wise’s mother, Sybil, loved to entertain and was an adventurous cook, but it was Wise’s grandmother Elmon Zulalian who cooked the traditional dishes the caterer became so fond of.
Those specialties include stuffed and rolled vegetables, lamb, bulgur, and “lots of olive oil, lemon, fresh mint, and oregano,” says Wise. Bulgur, which is wheat kernels that are steamed, dried, and ground into different size grains, is a popular ingredient, considered both nutritious and filling. Wise makes a dish called metch (tomato tabbouli), in which the bulgur is steeped in tomato sauce and turns richly flavored and very moist with a red tint. This particular recipe comes from her good friend’s mother, Ann Melikian.
Paper-thin phyllo dough is used to wrap or layer both sweet and savory ingredients. “I work with phyllo dough all the time,” she says. In one pastry, called paklava, layers of phyllo and ground nuts are soaked in a lemony simple syrup.
One of Wise’s favorite foods is lamb. Before grilling butterflied leg of lamb, she marinates it in red wine vinegar, allspice, mint, oregano, garlic, and olive oil. “There’s always garlic — and mint,” she says. Allspice is also frequently used. She remembers her grandmother rubbing cubes of lamb with allspice, paprika, garlic, salt, and pepper. Then the men would thread the meat onto long skewers and cook them over an open flame. “It’s the only thing I remember my grandfather and his pals cooking,” says Wise.
Wise trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and also cooked in Italy. When she started her catering company in 1998, she says, “I didn’t want one of those pretentious French names. I wanted something playful.” Tempted by a Man Ray piece called Mr. Knife and Miss Fork, she took the name Miss Fork.
Today, her cooking mostly comprises Armenian, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern dishes. “I can do high-end [French] foods, but I lean more to rustic, family-style cooking,” she says.
Like grandmother, like granddaughter.
MISS FORK 1 Church St., Stoneham, 617-838-4274, www.missforkcatering.comLisa Zwirn can be reached at email@example.com.