Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Family Food Traditions

Oh the food traditions we all have within our families.... memories of that favorite meal served every special birthday or the Christmas Eve versus Christmas Day Dinners and why they mattered so much to repeat the same special dishes year after year served on the same family platters carved by the same grandpa or dad or older brother.  My family is no exception to this heart warming routine.  I wanted to share a few of our favorites that my family has held tightly for so many years and suggest a few ways you can start your own family food traditions if you don't have any old ones to cherish.

The year after my mom passed I decided to gather together our family favorites and created a cookbook for the family.  I made spiral bound  copies for each of my older brothers & their wives, and for my dad.  I sent copies to cousins and shared a few with friends. 
So, I will share my most favorite recipe from the book of all time, which is my dad's onion soup recipe... the secret is the Dijon Mustard at just the right time.....
Sweet Onions simmering down slowly- the longer you wait the sweeter they get, it helps to cover them so they don't caramelize as fast, keep adding butter too if they start sticking

Disclaimer:  This recipe is not for those who cannot have wine, it does all get cooked out but
you simply cannot make this without it.
Dad's soup is rather easy..... 6 large sweet onions (vidalias if you can get them).  Saute them in a half of a stick of butter covered for 10-15 minutes before they caramelize but ensure they are completely soft and ready to be eaten.  Add in at least 3 T of Dijon  mustard and mix until well blended (don't change it to yellow mustard, trust me - it will not be the same at all!).  Deglaze the pan with 1/3 of a bottle (at least) of a good white wine (my dad used to use Calvados, I prefer a decent Ecco Domani Pinot Grigio).  Reduce to half (add more if you'd like, and sip some for yourself) then stir in a quart of homemade stock (it is so worth the effort to do it homemade but if you must buy it from a store -go with organic, free range, low sodium.... it is worth it!).  Be sure to add in some dried thyme to taste and salt and pepper.  I toss in a bouquet garni of my favorite herbs as well.  You can eat this as is right away, or simmer for the day and serve..... of course you can do it the old fashioned way and put the soup into a broiler safe bowl and add a crouton or slice of French crusty bread and top with some great shredded swiss cheese.  This freezes really well too!  Play with the amounts based on whether you like rich butteryness or more wine or less broth or more mustard... I change it up every time.
My fridge with homemade sauce, homemade onion soup and also some
Strawberry Poppyseed Vinaigrette that I made for a Food Swap last Spring. 
Speaking of freezable, my homemade tomato sauce is wonderfully easy and so versatile.  I don't have any family handed down recipe and I do something slightly different every time but I always, ALWAYS always use either San Marzano tomatoes or locally grown Heirlooms..... once you do, you will never use any others again either.  (And substituting honey for sugar is a nice touch and add a splash of a good balsamic at the end as well!)

Ingredients laid out for my homemade sauce/gravy

Some of my other treasured cookbooks that were passed on to me are pictured below, I am sure you will recognize a few of them and a couple of unique others you may not have known existed....


OF COURSE I have a Melting Pot cookbook, don't you???  This was a gift from the corporate head chef of Melting Pot & Front Burner brands for those of us who attended a charity cooking class in 2012, they sell it at all the restaurants and if you know me at all, you'd know this has been and always will be my favorite restaurant.  Ever.

The Dallas Cowboys Cookbook was a gift from my hubby -how can you go wrong with America's team doling out great eats?!!!

My family had so many food traditions and recipes handed down- I am blessed.  Today I keep some of the handwritten cards and pieces of paper on a magnetic frame on the wall to remind me of my dear Mother, Grandmothers and cherished Aunts and all of the memories that these recipes bring back to me when I glance their way.
Aunt Stella Grabinski's Delectable Rich Chocolate Cake, A.K.A. "Better than Sex Cake" 

Grandma Helen Sniegocki's Homemade Pickles, yum!
And my successful attempts at making homemade pickles with a slight deviation from Grandma's instructions but still are fantastic, right Renee Brown???! ;)
No need to do fancy canning techniques here, just be sure to keep in the fridge and they are good for a year!

Time and time again I have carefully lifted one of the handwritten recipes down and followed it even when I knew the steps by heart (can't you tell from the splatters and drips on the cards :)).  Recently I copied several of these special recipes into a brand new homemade cookbook for my niece who just moved into her first apartment on her own and on her way to starting her own traditions.  I asked my sister in-laws and mother-in-laws for some of their special recipes to include as well so she has a place to cherish those handwritten cards as I do with my own.  She was so thrilled to receive this book!  Plus, when I opened up one of my old cookbooks to see if it was one she might like to have as well a post it note fell out- and quite to my surprise I read through teary eyes this sweet note from mom that I probably have not seen in about 15 years...... When did you last thumb through your old recipe boxes, you might find a surprise waiting in yours too!

One of the neat things that I garnered from my mother (no doubt) is my love of list-making.  I consistently make lists for every single occasion I am hosting, every trip I take, every holiday, every day that starts out with a "Oh boy, I better get going...lots to do."  I have found some great tools to help me and although some of my lists overlap and are duplicated (like the 4 calendars I keep in various places) it helps me stay on track.  We all get a little pleasure out of checking something off a list or crossing it out.... But me?  I get a smile out of creating a nice and neat new list with less scratches and checks with more space to add new things because I completed others.  As a side notes here are some awesome tools that I have found useful to my family:
  • The free notes app on the ipad:  Looks like a yellow legal pad but it saves automatically and easily emails my list to whomever I want it to go to.  This is used primarily for my always ready at hand pre-done lists like packing for trips, list of travel rewards account numbers, list of movies I want to rent, etc. 
  • Onenote is a fantastic free app that can also be used on the web version among whomever you want to share your notes with.  My husband and I love being able to update our own and each other's honey-do lists for the house or for our business in real time so we know when someone has already completed something.  There are a lot more features that program has too so check it out.   Beware if you use different versions of windows someone may have to only use the web version - the app itself though it great regardless which platform you use.
  • Google calendar- although not technically a "list" tool- it is wonderful because I can share in real time events with my hubby and we can access it from anywhere we want plus I can print out a hard copy for the fridge during those months when there are way too many things to keep track of and particularly whether the event is personal, for business, for volunteering, etc.
  • Plain old notepads- And lots of 'em.  I still make handwritten lists for groceries (only to type them up in aisle order if I'm sending the hubby out for a particular errand day).... notepads are my go to for quick lists of the next 5 things I need to remember to do before I leave my desk for the day or as a reminder of the 4 things I need to bring with me for errands or visiting someone.
Why do lists tie in nicely to my family food traditions- you may be wondering?  I came across some lists my mother had smartly kept in her recipe box for years that I did not know about until I inherited her recipe boxes along with my great-grandmother's gorgeous antique dining room table and hutch.  I found cards with the measurements of the table and which tablecloths fit depending on how large we "opened" the table up for guests.  She paired colors along with lace runners and listed how many boards should go into place when we cranked open the well constructed table. 
Now I pull those cards out every Thanksgiving & Christmas along with the sweet "Give Thanks" sign that my nieces Selby & Sage made for me one year.  The letters are made from various seeds, nuts and other natural pieces. 
It is a fun tradition that my entire family has to come to our house for Thanksgiving for many years now, enjoy each others company, and eat in time to watch the Dallas Cowboys devour whomever is for dessert that year.  Read further to learn how we started some new traditions with this too!
The most sentimental list (and food list making tradition) I came across from my mom was for Christmas 1998.  None of us had any idea it was to be her last Christmas as she was in remission at the time.  My husband and I were also celebrating our first Christmas as a married couple and we used our brand new video camera to record the festivities.  I watch it often and cherish my mom's laughter and especially her smile while she is checking on the oven, putting on the Christmas Carol CD, and opening the door to my brothers as they "came home" that afternoon.  Seeing her writing now on the prep list she made with each item she wanted to serve from the shrimp cocktail to the pierogi dinner to the candy cane shaped rolls continuing on the next page to the cheese and egg strata and kielbasa to our wonderful tradition of Christmas Dinner complete with stuffed filet mignon.  My lists today look pretty similar when I am hosting everyone for dinner.

Without a question though, my most favorite food tradition happens during the winter holidays.  It is sharing a Polish Christmas Wafer using Oplatek (pronounced o-plat-key) which is a thin wafer very similar to a communion wafer to be broken up into pieces and shared.  You can read more about it here and you an purchase them online or at a polish specialty food store:

Each and every single Christmas eve since I was a tiny little girl I remember my family passing around a plate of the Oplatek and as you hand it to the person next to you and break off a piece for to eat, you wish them health, happiness and special joy from your heart about the past year and the upcoming one.  When my brothers and I all moved away into our own homes, I began this same tradition at our annual holiday party we held with friends, passing the plate around the room and sharing good wishes.  In addition, my family still passes the Oplatek each year but during Thanksgiving since we usually don't see everyone at Christmas.  It is a great way to give thanks and take a moment to reflect on the blessings we have.  The kids particularly love whispering sweet blessings to each other as the wafer plate goes around the table. 
My two oldest brothers Joe and Dave sharing the Oplatek during Thanksgiving before dinner

And our precious nieces sharing blessings to each other while passing the Oplatek at Thanksgiving as well.

My mother worked in a Bakery in the quaint town she grew up in Hackettstown, New Jersey.  In fact, my parents met while in grammar school when my father asked my mother if she needed help carrying her girl scout cookies.  My mother earned the nickname of Cookie while working in the bakery and it stuck with her the rest of her life.  Ironically when I was in high school I got a job working at a "bakery" called My Favorite Muffin.  A few years later my father debated whether to open a franchise of this cool store or to venture on his own and create his own recipes and dive head first into the restaurant world.  Dad's determination eventually led to him opening a great shop called the South'n Muffin Man in Turtle Run in Cora Springs back in 1992.  Here is a great article written about him and his shop.  My dad's Famous Blueberry Muffin recipe is below too- I think you will enjoy them. 

My dad found that the wholesale business for his muffins was much more profitable than running the storefront and moved to a warehouse.  In time, a businessman approached him and offered to buy the entire bay including all of the ovens, etc. and my parents decided it was time to move on and take advantage of this great deal -afterall they could always start a new shop or warehouse somewhere else with newer equipment.  Within two weeks of selling the business, my mom received word that her cancer was back and that ended up being the final time - what a blessing in disguise it was for them to sell the business just a mere few months before we lost mom -which allowed dad to be with her constantly and help support her during a time of need.  I am sure that businessman was an angel unaware to us at the perfect time.  
PHOTO BY CHAD SPENCER, Edible Sarasota Magazine Winter 2013
Then my brother Jeff took his experience in the restaurant world and was inspired to start his own food related company as well.  My middle older brother Dave helped create the software used for my brother Jeff's food delivery company in Sarasotsa called Ashley's.  They deliver great food with exceptional service to homes, businesses, events, etc.  Check out the great article here written in by Sarah Moone in Edible Sarasota Magazine about this business that he runs with my sister in law Elizabeth.  
And also check out or for more details.
My grandmothers came from very different backgrounds although both lived in New Jersey most of their lives after their parents came over from Europe.  My father's family was mostly Polish and my mother's side were Ukranian.  Therefore Pierogies were a hit on both sides of the family no matter whether we called them Pit-a-hey or Pyrohy or the traditional Pierogie.  If you didn't know, Pierogies are dumplings or unleavened dough – usually boiled, and then often baked or sautéed in butter with onions – traditionally stuffed with potato filling, sauerkraut, cheese, or ground meat.   You can find them in your frozen food section or at most local Polish cafes or grocers.  My family always had the tradition of having them for Christmas eve and I continue that tradition even still- as my husband also has Polish ancestry as well.  Here is my grandmother and mom's Pierogie recipe handwritten years ago.... and some pictures I took of me making some last Christmas as well.
My Potato and Cheese pierogie prep for Christmas 2012

FUN WITH FOOD - Personalize it!
A fun tradition was something started in my family roughly 30 years ago..... I am not sure who started it but I'm guessing it was my mom.  We used to have "Sniegocki Scramble" taken after my maiden name.  A simple dish that was an easy go-to meal when you have 4 hungry kids.  Mom would cook up ground beef, boil some egg noodles and top it off with a little butter and cheddar cheese.... some of my brothers liked to add in ketchup, I like adding cottage cheese and my husband loves this and adds in BBQue sauce.... easy, simple and it always was a hit- the name just stuck!

Since my family tries to gather at Thanksgiving now with all of the kids, grandkids, grandparents, etc and getting together a month later for Christmas is always hard being so spread around, we like to exchange Christmas presents in November instead.  A few years ago we decided with our ever growing extended families that maybe we could cut back a little.  We began a new tradition of playing secret santa and finally this past year we had a blast doing a stealing gift exchange that you may have played in your office at work or a a holiday party.  This is where you each bring a gift of a certain value all wrapped and draw numbers to take turns unwrapping a gift or "Stealing" one already opened by someone else.  It was great fun, the gifts were amusing to say the least and everyone had a ball.... we still brought gifts for all of the kids and it made it an exciting and more practical way to share.

Another idea (that I HOPE will become a new tradition vs. a one time great idea) was something my middle brother Dave brought along with his family from the Carolinas.  Dave made a homemade beer and bottled it and even labeled it especially for our family holiday celebration.  Maybe this little nudge will make it a new tradition for years to come as it was oh-so-good.  Consider getting a kit and bottling your own beer or wine or even making some jam or jelly or freezeable treats for everyone to keep after the party is over.  Wouldn't it be fun for each family as a group to make something homemade not just for a pot luck dinner but as a food gift favor and everyone will get something special to remember the time together?

My (personally newest) and fast-becoming a food tradition that you certainly should consider trying is canning.  My sister in law Elizabeth has been doing some great things on her blog and in articles she writes in Edible Sarasota magazine.  We got together one afternoon and jointly did some canning of some wonderful fresh berries in season.  I anticipate a new tradition of canning and preparing meals to swap in my future with family and neighbors and friends - what a great way to try something new with food and allow others to enjoy it as well!
Stirring away at the berries soon to become blueberry jam.....
Another idea for a new family food tradition is to do a family night of cooking together.... give the kids a few tasks and teach the hubby a couple things about making your favorite dish....(check it out via the link here: you never know, one evening he might surprise you too with something homemade, all because you showed him how.
 What are some of your favorite
family food traditions?