In the kitchen, women continue family traditions
An age-old family recipe can often evoke vivid childhood memories, such as days spent with mom or grandma in the kitchen, or sitting around the dinner table.
For Ali Waks-Adams, a New York native who was raised by her grandmother, Bella, and her aunt, Sandy, that recipe is “First Night Chicken.”
“When I make it, it’s like I am sitting at my grandmother’s table again,” said Waks-Adams, of Brunswick. “That’s the best place in the world.”
As is the family tradition, “it’s the chicken you get the first night you visit,” she said. “It has soy sauce, orange juice, ginger and honey. It’s sticky, sweet, with a little bit of a bite. It’s delicious.”
Waks-Adams, now 44, remembers eating the chicken nearly every time she’d visit with her grandparents, who have since died. Bella died in 2000 at 87 years old. Waks-Adams moved to Maine from Philadelphia with her husband, Christian, in May 2014.
One of the best features of the chicken is that it tastes just as good hot as it does cold, she said. It’s the perfect meal to welcome guests; it’s simple to make, and it won’t get ruined if dinner is an hour or two later than expected. It also suffices as leftovers.
“I don’t think I’ve ever eaten it hot,” said Waks-Adams. “For some reason this tastes best with a smaller chicken. Maybe it’s the skin to meat ratio, but if you get one of those enormous supermarket roasters, take the time to pre-salt the bird,” she said. “They are large and very juicy, but often lack flavor.”
Different versions of First Night Chicken are a traditional holiday recipe in almost any Jewish home, said Waks-Adams. Sweet foods – specifically honey, and usually chicken – are often served on Rosh Hashanah, the celebration of the New Year. Waks-Adams tends to serve the chicken dish the first night someone visits her for an extended period of time.
“The first night people come to visit you, it’s crazy. They’ve been traveling and they’re tired,” she said.
While it makes her think of her family, its comforting qualities always seems to make others happy, too, said Waks-Adams.
“There’s something relaxing about (the chicken),” she said. “It’s terrific served with roasted sweet potatoes and carrots, and something green like asparagus or snap peas. Couscous is also a terrific option, and Bella would serve it with her amazing cole slaw, and sometimes if we were lucky, latkes (potato pancakes) and her signature pink applesauce.”
Dandelion Greens Salad
Growing up, Christine Burns Rudalevige’s sister “mischievously misinformed” their maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Farina Navin, that she loved her stewed dandelion greens.
And, decades later, out of respect for her grandmother, Rudalevige, of Brunswick, continued to eat the mushy, bitter, leafy concoction. But, throughout the years, she figured there must be better ways to serve up the wild greens.
Now, Rudalevige, 47, carries on the tradition, using a recipe created by her paternal grandmother, Alma Bartini Burns. Once a week, from May to June, she prepares the greens in the form of a fresh salad. Unlike grandma Navin’s recipe, “Nonna’s Garlicky Dandelions Greens Salad” uses younger dandelion leaves picked in early spring.
“We traditionally did this with dandelion greens, but if you’re at the farmers market and get a peppery arugula, that would be a good substitution,” Rudalevige said.
The best eating dandelions are usually found in the shade, said Rudalevige, as less sunlight makes the leaves more mild tasting, like young arugula. According to Rudalevige, a recipe developer, tester and food stylist, her maternal grandmother would forage only the most bitter, mature leaves, measuring no more than 6 inches, for her dish.
Made with a splash of apple cider vinegar and thick lumps of salt pork to taste, “oversized portions” of the boiled greens were stored in the freezer in recycled Cool Whip tubs to be eaten during a future visit, said Rudalevige.
“She always made in quantity, and made ahead,” she said.
Taste aside, dandelion greens are “extremely good for you,” she said, describing them as a vegetable high in nutrients, with more beta-carotene than carrots, more iron than spinach, and more potassium than bananas. The bitterness of the greens can be curbed by a little sugar, salt or acid, and they tend to be most flavorful when simmered with carrots and parsnips.
They can also be boiled in salt water, chopped up and added to a roasted garlic and sweet potato gratin, which pairs well with a roasted pork loin.
The hearty greens can be braised, like spinach, while the yellow flowers can be used to make a sweet wine, or a French Confiture De Crameillotte, a citrus-based jelly that gets its golden color from the dandelion petals.
Both of Rudalevige’s grandmothers were Italian and would often watch her when her parents were working.
She admits that, while they both did a lot of cooking, “It wasn’t always fabulous. My Nonna on my father’s side was a cook in a nursing home,” and would make things like pickled pigs feet and homemade gnocchi.
Her fondest memories, though, included picking dandelions with her grandmothers around the family’s yard, and in nearby fields as a child, then learning how to prepare them for a meal.
“Cleaning them was a bit of a chore,” said Rudalevige. “You have to soak them and wash them and peel back some of the root.”
Another special family recipe, made by Hillarie Olsen of Scarborough, is her mother’s spaghetti pie. The popular family meal has been served on or around the holidays since Olsen was a child.
“She makes it every Christmas Eve, like a turkey or a ham,” said Olsen, of her mother, Ann Marie Olsen, a St. George resident. “It’s not something she would bust out on a Wednesday.”
Olsen, now 25, has carried on the tradition and enjoys making the pie on special occasions. Her favorite part of the recipe has always been the crust.
“It has a good texture,” said Olsen. “I love to cook, and I think I’m pretty decent.”
To make the pie, spaghetti is cooked al dente then mixed with butter and eggs to be formed on the bottom and sides of a glass pie pan. Then, a layer of ricotta cheese is spread on top of the crust then filled with a warm mixture of meat, onions, cheese and tomato sauce. After 30 minutes of baking, mozzarella cheese is sprinkled over the top, and then placed back in the oven for another half-hour.
Olsen said what she admires most about her mother’s cooking is her enthusiasm.
“She loves cooking for people and gets so excited to make a meal the whole family will love around the holiday season,” she said.
Olsen said her grandmother would also make the pie before passing down her entire box of recipes to her mother when she started her own family.
“It’s like an heirloom recipe,” Olsen said. “Everyone in my family is obsessed with it.”
Ann Marie Olsen, of St. George, kisses her daughter, Hillarie Olsen, of Scarborough, on the cheek on her wedding day. Hillarie Olsen, 25, has carried on the tradition of cooking her mother’s homemade spaghetti pie during the holidays.Courtesy photoChristine Burns Rudalevige, of Brunswick, prepared this salad made with dandelion greens, a tradition passed down from her paternal grandmother, Alma Bartini Burns.Photo courtesy of Christine Burns Rudalevige