Colleen Friel wasn't yet 10 when she first made meatballs in her grandmother Rose's kitchen in Queens, New York. Rose Sansevero Friel, Colleen's paternal grandmother, was famous in the family for dishes created by her Italian forebears — but no Sanseveros ever had written down how they made the meatballs.
So Colleen learned to prepare the meatballs with no recipe, just a few rules Rose dictated: "Grandma said lots of grated parmesan, lots of parsley and lots of garlic. And always wash your hands" before plunging in to mix and shape the seasoned beef. Young Colleen became such a meatball chef that her other grandmother, on her German-and-Irish mother's side, would invite her over just to prepare the dish.
As an adult, Colleen Friel Olsen heard her cousins pining for Grandma Friel's Meatballs, and set about translating her memories into measurements. She believes the recipe she created is very faithful to Grandma Friel, who died in 2003. Every time Olsen makes the meatballs, she joins legions of cooks who are lovingly preserving — and, sometimes, updating — family recipes handed down over generations.
Since the first colonists settled in what would become the United States, every wave of new arrivals has brought its own history and heritage of food. Sandra Oliver, a food historian and editor of the website FoodHistoryNews.com, says the family recipes brought to the new land were "usually for special, significant dishes, not just something everyday. Many of these people were leaving homelands where they were struggling financially and they brought recipes that they might not have had all that often in the old country, something that was a little beyond their means. But they brought the recipe believing that if they could make it in this country, the dish would be a way of celebrating, a symbol of their success here."
Today, "There are probably as many reasons why somebody would want to preserve a parent's or grandparent's recipe as there are people who want to do it," Oliver says. Often, it's a desire to honor and sustain "an ethnic or regional identity — and this is particularly powerful around holidays," she says.
In Oliver's case, her Swedish grandmother, Vickie, made a traditional thin-rolled cookie called gamaldags pepparkakor, flavored with spices and orange peel. In the early 1990s, Oliver and her sister joined their mother, Louise, on Thanksgiving weekend to make the cookies and put them in tins, where the taste would mellow to perfection by Christmas. Since Louise died in 1996, Oliver says she and her sister have carried on the baking; she is convinced that "in our family, it wouldn't be Christmas without pepparkakor."
For Dwight Potts, of Leawood, Kan., it wouldn't be Thanksgiving without the pumpkin chiffon pie that his grandmother, Helen Elledge, used to make. After Helen died in 1985, Potts asked his mother how to make the pie — a lighter, fluffier alternative to the standard pumpkin custard — and she gave him the dog-eared copy of it that Grandma Helen had typed. "Last year, my wife Beth asked if she should laminate it so it won't fall apart," Potts says. He not only bakes the pies every holiday for family feasts, but he takes several to work for his employees. And when his son, Alex, couldn't leave his Denver college campus over Thanksgiving break because his basketball team was playing, Dwight and Beth drove to Colorado to make the team Thanksgiving dinner — complete with Grandma Helen's pies.
Oliver believes that the tastes and smells of a family-favorite dish "can bring back whole experiences: the times you remember eating it when you were younger, the places where you ate it — and the people who made it for you." That's how former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni feels about Grandma Bruni's Lasagna, a dish his mother, Leslie, learned from her mother-in-law, Adele. "More than most recipes, this recipe is like a bridge from our family now to our family decades ago," says Bruni, author of the memoir Born Round: A Story of Family, Food and a Ferocious Appetite.
Bruni says the lasagna recipe "only exists in written form now because my grandmother's daughters-in-law, beginning with my mom, learned from her how she made it and translated what was pure instinct for my grandmother into an actual, true recipe. So when they made it, or when any of us in the next generation make it, we're reprising moments by the stove with Grandma Bruni. We're honoring her and all that she taught us, this included. We're keeping her with us, in a sense."
As a rule, Oliver says, people are "really reluctant to change our eating habits. By having a recipe or special way of cooking, we can preserve our eating habits anywhere we go, as long as we can get ingredients that are similar enough to create the dish we remember. If we can't recreate it exactly, we come as close as we possibly can. And sometimes in the process of doing that, a newer dish evolves."
When Grandma Friel made her signature meatballs, "she fried them and it made an awful mess," Colleen Friel Olsen recalls. In the interest both of tidiness and calorie-cutting, Olsen transitioned to baking the meatballs instead of frying — but only after seeking her grandmother's blessing on that variation. "She said it was fine," Olsen says, smiling at the memory. "And they still taste just as good."
Grandma Friel's Meatballs
(recipe created by Colleen Friel Olsen)
2 pounds ground beef (80/20 ratio of lean to fat)
2 large eggs
4 Tbsp. garlic powder
4 Tbsp. dried parsley
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese (canned Kraft is fine)
1 cup Italian style breadcrumbs (I prefer Progresso)
2 cups sandwich bread, broken into ¼-inch pieces
1. Wash your hands (Grandma always said that!)
2. Preheat oven to 375 degrees
3. Place all ingredients into a large bowl and mix well, using those clean hands!
4. Roll meat mixture into balls, approximately 1-1/2" in diameter
5. Spray a non-stick cookie sheet with olive oil spray
6. Place balls on tray and place in oven for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, turn meatballs and cook an additional 10 minutes. Meatballs should be done after 20 minutes.
7. Eat and enjoy!
A few notes: These measurements are not exact. Make the recipe once and then adjust accordingly for your taste. I NEVER measure, but have been making these for 30-plus years! The meatballs are delicious on their own, but also mighty tasty when served with sauce.
Grandma Bruni's Neapolitan Lasagna
ACTIVE: 45 MIN; TOTAL: 2 HR 15 min
2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 pound ground beef
One 28-ounce can peeled Italian tomatoes, crushed
One 6-ounce can tomato paste
1 1/2 cups water
2 basil sprigs
3 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled
1/2 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 pound dried lasagna noodles
1 pound ricotta cheese, preferably fresh
1 pound mozzarella, coarsely shredded
Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan. Add the onion, garlic and ground beef, and cook over moderate heat, breaking up the meat with a wooden spoon, until no longer pink, about 8 minutes. Add the peeled tomatoes, tomato paste, water, basil, parsley, oregano and 2 tablespoons of the Pecorino Romano and season with salt and pepper. Cover partially and simmer over low heat until thickened, about 30 minutes. Discard the basil.
Meanwhile, in a large pot of boiling salted water, cook the lasagna noodles until al dente. Drain and cool under running water. Reserve the 4 best noodles for the top layer.
Preheat the oven to 350°. In a medium bowl, combine the ricotta with the mozzarella and 1/4 cup of the Pecorino Romano. Spread 1 cup of the tomato sauce in a 9- by 13-inch glass or ceramic baking dish. Arrange 4 of the lasagna noodles, on the bottom overlapping slightly. Dollop one-third of the cheese mixture over the noodles in small clumps, followed by 1 cup of the tomato sauce. Repeat the process two more times, then layer the 4 reserved lasagna noodles on top. Spoon the remaining tomato sauce on top and sprinkle with the remaining 2 tablespoons of Pecorino Romano cheese.
Bake the lasagna in the center of the oven for about 1 hour, until bubbling and browned in spots. Let the lasagna rest for 20 minutes before cutting into squares. Make ahead: The baked lasagna can be wrapped in foil and refrigerated for up to 2 days. Rewarm, covered, in a 325-degree oven.
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