A Chat With Amateur Chef Extraordinaire Jennifer Ciaramello

by | Apr 10, 2023


Headshot, Donna Sanders, Food Editor

You may not know her yet, but you will, especially if you’re following Where The Food Comes From. Meet Jennifer M. Ciaramello author, esthetician, gardener, amateur cook extraordinaire and increasingly frequent contributor to WTFCF Cookbook (check out one of Jen’s fabulous recipes Jen’s Sweet Shrimp Scampi Primavera)! She hails from Minnesota, but currently lives in Wesley Chapel, FL. I caught up with Jen at her favorite breakfast place recently for this chat about recipes and cooking in general.

DONNA SANDERS: You came from Minnesota, why the move to Florida?

JENNIFER CIARAMELLO: I love Florida because I can grow anything anytime. Which is wonderful because you can’t do that in Minnesota.

DS: I happen to be very fortunate in that you are a main contributor to the Where The Food Comes From cookbook. Your recipes are incredible. Where did you learn to cook?

JEN: Well originally following and watching my grandmother, in Plainview, MN. I would spend a week every summer and she was a baker and a cook. She was a better baker than a cook, but I learned basic things. My grandma, she canned everything, grew everything. My grandfather had this beautiful garden from tomatoes to rhubarb and everything in between. So that’s how I learned to do some of the basic table farm-to-table.

Jennifer Ciaramello in her kitchen.

DS: Where was your grandmother from and what were her primary dishes?

JEN: Bruner, Germany. Kielbasa and she creamed everything [laughs]. Because during The Depression you creamed everything to fill up the kids and she had seven mouths to feed. So unlike today where they use predominately processed foods to fill the kids, she creamed everything. Anything that had flour, cornstarch, and water and it just fills the tummy.

DS: Sounds like Southern cooking to me. What type of food is your favorite to cook? Like German, Italian or are you across the board?

JEN: Italian. My mom [is] Italian, and I noticed her gravy and sauce. When she would cook it was always with arugula. Arugula gravy, pot roast, stews, chili, western stew.

DS: That’s Italian. You grow your own herbs and vegetables and are very successful. Any particular secret you would like to share?

JEN: I like to work from seeds. I have a UV light in my kitchen [above photo left]. And then I transfer them over to an elevated flower bed, with chicken wire around it for the animals [above photo, right]. Right now I have tomatoes, peppers, and basil. They need fresh sunlight. They don’t grow very well through screen. A screen filters 33.3% of UV energy. So the plant needs full sun — not between the screen on the lanai, they need outdoor. You can’t put them in the ground because of rabbits and squirrels, so they have to be elevated in Florida.

Jen's UV light indoor herb garden.

Jen's UV light indoor herb garden.

Jen's outdoor garden.

Jen's outdoor garden.

DS: Out of all the herbs you grow which is your favorite?

JEN: [sighs] Italian parsley. Because you can put it in anything and I like the flavor of parsley. Its clean. It reminds me a little bit of grass. When you’re from Minnesota and it is so cold, gray and terrible for eight months, then you smell the first time somebody cuts grass, it’s like, Okay! Parsley has that grassy palate to me.

DS: Cooking with fresh herbs can be tricky. Is there any particular cooking technique you can share?

JEN: We all have dried herbs in our kitchen. Oregano, Italian seasoning, all the basics. It’s great to start in the first phase of any roué, sauce, any stew or soup. You use [dried herbs], it takes time for the water or liquid to infuse it to soften it. And then it’s a base, but it is not enough to me. I like to add fresh herbs in the middle of the cook so they are not as crunchy. But you still get the actual brightness of the fresh plants. And I garnish with fresh so you have three different layers of flavor with the same plant. So you have the dry rehydration which is bitter, you have the fresh which breaks down the true flavor, and then you throw on top the actual fresh herb so you get the brightness and the real plant flavor. So three separate layers in one dish.

I want people to know not to be afraid of herbs. That even if you make a mistake that is part of cooking and you should try them all. If you don’t know how to use coriander taste it – mush it up, and smell it. Become familiar. Don’t be afraid of it. Don’t just stick with oregano or Italian seasoning. There is so many more out there. Don’t be afraid to try.

May I say something?

DS: Sure

JEN: I am not a professional chef by any means. I think food is love and when you are cooking you are imprinting part of yourself into that meal. That is what we do when we are Italian. You feed people and that shows love. You may not say I love you, but we will feed you a big feast and that should be good enough [laughs].

Jennifer M. Ciaramello is the owner of Skin Chic in Tampa, FL, If you’ve got a question or comment for Jen, feel free to share it with us at info@WTFCF.com and we’ll make sure she gets it.