Cooking with Family Heirlooms
Holiday recipes are an important part of our cultural heritage
As her friends and relatives will tell you, Andrea Finestrauss, who lives in Hockessin, loves food and loves to cook. and there is one traditional family dish that is special to her when it comes to the holidays.
“Chicken soup—my chicken soup,” she readily replies. “I use it for every holiday. Chicken soup is something that comes from your grandmother, but also from your aunt, your mother. It evolves with a little something from everyone, yet it stays the same.” Finestrauss adds, “I’m in contact with women from my synagogue, and we try their soups and mine.”
And her chicken soup is hearty chicken soup—not a wimpy broth—with lots of vegetables.
The winter holidays, both secular and religious, are the times when families gather together for a huge meal, and these are the times when family recipes, whether written down or just remembered, are passed down from generation to generation. Sometimes there are grim or funny family stories
behind the recipes, and generally the recipes also refl ect the culture of ancestors raised in other countries.
Finestrauss remembers as a young girl going on family outings to a farm in New Jersey to purchase chickens that always found their way into the dinner pot. Today, she says, a girlfriend raises chickens that are the basis for her soup. “I also remember as a child, my father would bring home hot jars of many types of soup my grandmother would make for us,” she says. “And that would be dinner. Always a surprise, and always wonderful.”
Anthony Ianni’s mother, Mary Bagnato Ianni, lives in Landenberg, but she was born in Calabria at the toe of Italy’s peninsula and came to America as a young girl. As a result, Anthony says there are several dishes with Calabrian infl uences that he has been eating during the holidays since childhood, especially during the Feast of the Seven Fishes—Festa dei Sette Pesci—on Christmas Eve. So he decided to preserve the recipes. “Mom didn’t have copies, as they are in her head,” he says. “It’s actually a good thing to write it down!”
One recipe is for grispelle, a traditional Calibrese Christmas dish, often called an Italian donut, which can be sweet or savory and which can be made into an “O” or rolled into a stick shape. The Iannis do the savory version with imbedded anchovies. “It was all my mother ever made,” Mary Ianni says, “but I waited until she was ill before I got her to show me how. I wish I had learned more.”
Like Mary Ianni’s mother, mine didn’t write down the recipes. Why would you? Your mother taught you as a child in the kitchen, and pretty soon you had it memorized.
And that’s the way I fi rst learned to cook and bake everything. Except for mom’s applesauce cake, crammed full of raisins and walnuts and on the table every Christmas. I used to watch her make it in a wood-burning stove on our small farm in West Virginia, but for some reason I never made it myself.
And if I or one of my three brothers couldn’t make it home for the holidays, mom’s applesauce cake magically appeared in a brown box by U.S. mail wherever we were living at the time, wrapped fi rst in cellophane, then aluminum wrap, then a few pages of the Charleston Gazette in case we wanted to read what was happening back home as we ate cake with coffee.
Fortunately, someone in the family talked her into putting her recipes together before she died some years ago. My niece has come the closest to replicating the taste of mom’s applesauce cake, but, if she teaches her children how to make the cake, it will naturally be a little different than mom’s.
That’s the thing about family recipes passed down from generation to generation to re-appear each year on holiday tables. As Andrea Finestrauss says, they evolve, yet they stay the same.
- 1 organic chicken, cleaned
- 3-4 organic onions
- 7-8 stalks organic celery, chopped
- 2-4 garlic cloves
- 1 medium sweet potato, left whole
- 1-2 lbs. organic carrots, sliced into chunks
- 1 large rutabaga, chopped into small parts
- 1 lb. parsnips, sliced
- 1 bunch dill, chopped
- 1 bunch parsley, chopped
- pepper to taste
- Vege-Sal seasoning salt, blue box organic chicken broth, if needed
- 1 box of Streit’s matzo meal (follow recipe on the box to make your matzo balls)
- Fill large stock pot ¾ full with water. Place whole chicken in pot with the onions cut in half. (“Leave each chunk in place. As it cooks, it will flake off and be wonderful in the soup.”)
- After soup comes to a boil, add celery (“leave leaf on top”), sweet potato (“it will boil down and blend in nicely and skin will be taken out”) and garlic. Cook soup for several hours at low boil.
- Chicken will begin to fall apart after a few hours of low boiling. Add carrots. Begin adding organic chicken broth or water if too much water evaporates. (“I keep lid at a tilt.”)
- Keep cooking for several hours. As chicken falls apart, stir and break up large pieces. Then add rutabaga and parsnips (“they make the soup so sweet!”) Continue cooking, then add 1 bunch dill and parsley.
- At this point, begin skimming chicken skin out. (“I leave the bones to cook all day, then take them out.”) Season with pepper and salt or Vege-Sal.
- Serve with matzo balls using recipe on Streit’s package.
- Make at least 4 batches for a large pot of soup.
- 5 lbs. fl our
- 1-2 Russet potatoes
- 1 yeast cake
- warm water
- 2 Tbs. salt
- 4 cans anchovies in olive oil
- oil for frying; a blend of olive and canola oils
- Cook, peel, and rice potatoes
- Place the fl our and salt in a large, wide bowl. (“Mom uses a very large pot with handles.”)
- Dissolve the yeast in warm water until active and with no lumps.
- Pour the water and yeast into fl our mixture along with potatoes and mix well.
- Once mixed, knead the dough until it is “not hard or sticky.”
- Cover the bowl with a cloth and let rise in a warm place. Once doubled (about 1 to 2 hours), punch down and let rise a second time.
- Using a pot with high sides, heat the oil for frying. (“Mom says 350 degrees to start; however, she never uses a thermometer. Also place extra virgin olive oil in a small bowl to be used to keep your hands oiled.”)
- Taking the dough with your hands, form what looks like a larger fi ngerling potato. Make an indentation in the center and place in an anchovy and cover.
- Place in the hot oil and fry until golden on the outside. Pull them out and drain on towels. Repeat until dough and anchovies are gone.
- You can also omit the anchovy and simply make a doughnut shape and fry. Mom said some Calabrians will dust with cinnamon and dip in honey. I can’t ever recall us doing that.