Add something special to your holiday traditions this season, by choosing foods your ancestors would have celebrated with. Adding these dishes to a special meal not only honors your cultural identity, but gives a unique way to comfort older family members, while introducing younger ones to their roots.
One excellent byproduct: these foods are often frugal masterpieces. Our ancestors often managed with little in their collective pockets but courage and persistence. Their menus therefore made do with what their country had to offer — that is, the cheaper, more available foods, especially if they could be grown or raised at home. These people were brilliant at adapting.
Corned beef, for example. It became an St. Patrick’s Day tradition in America only after the new arrivals, thanks to Ireland’s potato famine, moved into tenement houses next to Jewish families who were already settled in. The Irish soon discovered some of their neighbors’ favorite (cheap) foods, including…corned beef. (In Ireland, it would have been pork or fish.)
Take Norwegian food.
This cuisine was based on foods settlers could have gathered from field and water, augmented by dairy products. Many of the meats were cured, to help them last through the winter.
One of Norwegians’ favorite holiday foods are lefse. The name sounds fancy, but all you need are potatoes and flour, plus a few extras, to make these flaky, buttery thin pancakes on your own. Eat them rolled up with butter and sugar the traditional way (“lefse–klining“). Serve with tiny sausages, meatballs or braised pork chops, and a side of cabbage. (Or check here for more ideas.)
Norwegian Lefse (from Allrecipes.com)
5 pounds of peeled potatoes
1/2 cup butter
1/3 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
2 1/2 cups flour
- Cover potatoes with water and cook until tender. Run hot potatoes through a potato ricer. Place into a large bowl. Beat butter, cream, salt, and sugar into the hot riced potatoes. Let cool to room temperature.
- Stir flour into the potato mixture. Pull off pieces of the dough and form into walnut size balls. Lightly flour a pastry cloth and roll out lefse balls to 1/8 inch thickness.
- Cook on a hot (400 degree F/200 C) griddle until bubbles form and each side has browned. Place on a damp towel to cool slightly and then cover with damp towel until ready to serve. Makes about 60 lefse. These may also be cooled between paper towels, then stored (or frozen) in a plastic bag until used.
If you’ve got limited time for making lefse, or any other ethnic dishes, do the next best thing — let someone else do your cooking, instead. Many specialty markets feature made-up entrees, ready to heat and enjoy at home. If you’re lucky — and you often are — these are prepared by locals. (When I ordered flan at our favorite Mexican restaurant, the waiter said, “It’s not available right now — Grandma hasn’t made it yet.” That’s the kind of food you should be looking for!)
As a holiday approaches, those dishes will take a classic bent — like the crunchy tamales, sold by the dozen in Mexican restaurant takeouts and markets all over in our part of Denver, CO. Add some fruit salad (a traditional version is here) and bacalao a la vizcaina., a savoury mix of dried cod, tomatoes, potatoes, onions — and crunchy red bell peppers. (The traditional recipe for this codfish stew is here, in Las recetas de Mama. If English is easier, you’ll find a Basque rendition here. Or find more ideas on Mexican cuisine here.)
One final idea. Even if you’re not related to it, take another country’s distinctive foods, and make it your own this Christmas. Learning more about these regions, including their geography and culture, is a fun way to travel — even if, due to your wallet or the weather, you have to stay home.
Our family background is a mutt’s-list of Irish, Scotch, English, Welsh, Danish…and French Canadian. But we’ve been celebrating an Italian tradition for decades now: seven fish dishes on Christmas Eve.
Catholics in Italy swore off meat on special days; fish was the natural alternative. And what better, than to have a fish dish to commemorate each of the seven sacraments of the faith?
We’re not Catholic, but every Christmas Eve for years now, we invite close friends and family for a glass of red (our girlies prefer it to white), crisp salad, and seven of the best fish entrees we can come up with. We always start with appetizers and a soup. This year, the soup will be a creamy broth my New England ancestors enjoyed, for both Christmas and New Year’s Eve, since they first landed on Massachusetts’ rocky shore. Oysters are more expensive now than in Pilgrim times — but you only need a small jar for a full dish.
1 8 oz. tub fresh or frozen oysters (use 2 cans, if you must)
2 cups milk
1 cup light cream
3 tablespoons butter
salt and fresh-ground pepper
Mix all together and heat slowly, until oysters are firm and milk is bubbling – about 10 min. Serve topped with oyster crackers. (Chasing them down in the soup has been kids’ favorite pastime for ages.) If you’re following the tradition, add a platter of celery sticks, wheat crackers and sliced Cheddar. Serves 4 — can be doubled or tripled.
Take your time, and enjoy the many flavors of the season.