In 2015, I had a true “aha!” moment. I realized after years of working as a professional recipe developer and tester, I wasn’t sure I could faithfully reproduce my mom’s meatballs. My mother, an Italian immigrant from Calabria, makes the best meatballs I have ever eaten. But she is not one to follow a recipe, or even write things down—each time she makes the dish, she adds ingredients and repeatedly tastes until she knows it’s just right.
In my household, my mother's meatballs never go to waste; my family treasures her cooking, until they gobble it up. I began to think of my mother’s recipes as important family heirlooms that I could pass down to my children, who may someday pass them on to their children. I knew I needed to dedicate time to recording all the family favorites my mother has made all my life.
So for the past few years, my mother and I have been working together to record her recipes, measuring and testing each dish, recording every “pinch” and “handful,” making sure the recipe could be exactly replicated. When we finished testing, I was very proud of my accomplishment—I knew none of my mother’s recipes would ever be lost. We now have a record of all of Nonna Gina’s delicious dishes.
But as we went forward with my “meatball project,” I came to understand that I wasn’t doing this just for myself, or my family. I remembered the many acquaintances I have—also the offspring of immigrants—whose favorite family recipes and traditions disappeared when their mother or grandmother passed away. I also remembered my many first-generation friends with mothers and grandmothers from all around the globe.
I guessed that many of these women were much like my mother, whose cherished recipes came straight from her head and heart, and never from any notes she had written down. So I reached out to a large group of friends with an offer: to cook with their mothers and grandmothers, and test and record their family favorites. I was happily surprised to find the response was an immediate, resounding, and universal “Yes!”
So began the journey writing my forthcoming book, Heirloom Kitchen, a collection of 100 recipes that I gathered while cooking with 40 amazing women from around the world.
And the women! I found their dynamic stories absolutely fascinating: Where and how they spent their childhood. When and why the come to the U.S.A.. How they lived their lives and raised their children. And how the weight of the past—their lives in their home countries—influenced their lives here. I learned countless lessons on the individual tiles that make up the American mosaic.
It goes almost without saying that their food was fantastic. In each one of these kitchens, I learned recipes that migrated to America from around the globe. I learned many lessons and techniques—the correct spices, the traditional ways to serve, and—that made me not only a better recipe tester, but more importantly, a much better cook. Here are five pieces of their wisdom (with their recipes!) that have changed the way I cook.
When cooking spanakopita with Nelly, from Greece, I was taught the importance of adding dry spinach to the filling —no one likes a soggy spanakopita. But sometimes, frozen spinach traps loads of water that is difficult to remove. When this happens, Nelly told me to have no fear. “Add a little uncooked rice to the mixture,” Nelly advised. “It will absorb any extra water, and no one will ever be able to tell it’s there!”
I was also fortunate enough to cook with Magda, a delightful woman from the Philippines. She showed me how to make Pork Adobo, explaining the importance of a sweet and salty balance achieved by the addition of sweet soy sauce and traditional. If, however, the dish is too salty, Magda has a trick: Add a peeled potato to the pot. It absorbs the salt and is quite the “cook’s treat” right before the meal is ready to serve.
Also in the theme of striking the right balance, when I visited the kitchen of Anke, from Berlin, Germany, we discussed how to achieve the right flavor profile. As a respected chemist, she believes cooking is an experiment; your approach is based on the isolated experience of the ingredients you’re using and the dish you’re making. This is why Anke stresses the importance of tasting as you go. When making her delicious potato salad, Anke knows each batch of potatoes she uses tastes just a little different from the last one, so she will add the salt, mustard, and mayonnaise gradually each time she makes the dish, until it is just perfect.
With Irene, from Lebanon, I prepared Knafeh—a semolina-based dessert made with cheese, and doused in a fragrant orange blossom syrup. I was surprised to learn that the cheese Irene used was mozzarella. She explained that the traditional cheese her mother used is nabulsi, a soft white brined cheese. However, she was unable to find it here in the States. As with many traditional ingredients from her homeland, she improvised with what she could find in her new home.
Nikki, from Haiti, was also clever in the kitchen when she first came to the U.S.. When she wanted to recreate her homeland favorite, Cashew Chicken, she couldn’t find sour oranges anywhere—a critical component to this famous dish. So, she began experimenting with limes and oranges until she was able to create the perfect sweet/tart balance. Where there is a will, there is a way!
When cooking with Bea, from Serbia, she described her favorite traditional recipe, a meat-or cheese-filled pastry called Burek. Usually, bakeries create a handmade, super-thin dough for this flaky, savory pastry. But at home, Bea’s mother used phyllo dough to recreate the bakery classic. Bea continued using this method when she moved to California to attend school. Improvising worked both at home and abroad.
Another important tenet of the kitchens I visited is that good food takes time! When cooking with Monika from Poland and Tina from China, we spent whole afternoons patiently rolling dough and then making perfectly pleated pierogies and dumplings. In an age of the Instant Pot, 10-minute meals, and round-the-clock takeout, I truly appreciated their dedication to recipes that require some patience and a bit of elbow grease.
Janet’s tamales, taught to her by her mother in Mexico, are also quite the labor of love. To streamline the job, Janet makes the pork filling the day before she plans on serving her beloved tamales. She will also make the accompanying salsa verde ahead, so on tamale day, she is just focused on the masa-mixing, husk-filling, and steaming. Clearly, it’s not a 1-2-3 dish. But once you take a bite, you will realize every step was well worth the effort.
As I said, it was incredibly important to me to record the heritage recipes of these immigrant women, so we can continue to cook these treasured dishes generations to come. These dishes represent a family’s history, and the hopes and dreams carried with these families to their new home. Kay from India made a dish called Ravo—a sweet semolina pudding topped with almonds and raisins—every single year for her sons’ birthdays, as it is an important Parsi tradition. By making it time and time again, she reminded her boys of their food and culture.
As a diligent recipe developer and tester, I do love a great recipe. But now, with wisdom from 40 kitchens in my head and heart, I also try to let the spoon guide me. Maybe one day I’ll be able to make these heirloom dishes from memory, as my own mother did.