Heirloom Kitchen Cookbook Celebrates Family Recipes from Around the World

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A cookbook author collects and shares the recipes of immigrant women that might have been lost forever—including the beloved family dish that inspired it all.

For three years, Anna Francese Gass traveled around the country, toting a kitchen scale, measuring cups and measuring spoons. She’d unpack these items in the kitchens of bubbes, nonnas and abuelas, accomplished home cooks who were eager to show off the dishes they’d learned from their own matriarchs. Anna’s mission: preserve the cherished recipes that are, she says, family heirlooms and in many cases have never been written down.

“I’m going to watch you cook,” Anna would tell the women, “and I don’t want you to put anything into a bowl or a pot before I measure it.”

The Making of Heirloom Kitchen

Anna Francese Gass. Photo: Liz ClaymanCourtesy Liz Clayman

The result of these cooking lessons is Heirloom Kitchen: Heritage Recipes and Family Stories from the Tables of Immigrant Women. Contained in the lushly photographed cookbook are 100 recipes from 37 women with roots in 30 countries, along with the tales of why they left Ghana, Peru, Lebanon, Haiti or the Philippines to start a new life in the United States.

A graduate of New York’s French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center), Anna spent nearly a decade as a professional recipe tester. But there was one recipe she’d never attempted: her Italian-American mother’s beloved meatballs.

“I was standing next to my mother one day watching her make the meatballs and it was a lightbulb moment,” Anna recalls. “This is a recipe I’ve been eating my entire life, that my three children love. For all my time documenting the recipes of others in test kitchens, I didn’t have a record of my own family’s heritage dishes.”

Img 2899 BwCourtesy Liz Clayman

Anna went on to cook alongside her mother, shared the recipes on her blog and decided to expand what she calls “Nonna’s meatball project.” She reached out to friends who were children of immigrants, asking if she could “borrow” their mothers or grandmothers for a day of cooking.

Soon Anna was kneading dough for Polish pierogi, acid-cooking sea bass in lime for Peruvian ceviche, and simmering kelp for yosenabe, a Japanese hot pot meal. She learned how to make maqluba, a layered casserole of rice, chicken and vegetables, from 85-year-old Fethie Aboweznah Loutfi, the daughter of goat farmers; her family had fled Palestine, walking across the desert barefoot. Bea Pisker Trifunac, now nearing 80, left Serbia to study at the California Institute of Technology and went on to teach genetic engineering. She shared a recipe for a crepe cake, including what Anna describes as the “mind-blowing” tip of cooking the crepes on only one side so the heat of the stacked crepes steams the other side, creating a creamy filling.

Try these dishes and they’ll likely seem more familiar than foreign. That’s because tagines and bibimbap, goulash and kebabs have been woven into the culinary fabric of the United States. “Truly, American food is the food of immigrants,” Anna says. “It’s the amalgamation of all the diverse cultures, traditions and flavors that traveled to our shores. We could all afford to discover our American heritage at the bottom of a mixing bowl.”

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How to Make Anna’s Favorite Meatballs (Polpette de Mamma)

Anna Francese Gass. Photo: Liz ClaymanCourtesy Liz Clayman

Anna explains that as an Italian, she grew up eating meatballs from day one. “This recipe was passed down to me from my mother, who learned it from her mother.” (You know it has to be good!)

Ingredients

For the sauce:

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
4 to 5 fresh basil leaves
2 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
8 cups crushed tomatoes
2 cups water
2 Tbsp. tomato paste
1 Tbsp. kosher salt
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh basil
1 tsp. freshly ground pepper

For the meatballs:

1/2 lb. ground pork
1/2 lb. ground veal or pork
1/2 lb. ground beef (85% lean)
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
1 Tbsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. freshly ground pepper
2 large eggs, beaten
1 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1 cup Italian seasoned bread crumbs
1/2 cup 2% milk

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Directions

Anna Francese Gass. Photo: Liz ClaymanCourtesy Liz Clayman

Step 1: Infuse Olive Oil with Flavor

Start by combining the olive oil, fresh basil leaves and garlic in a saucepan and heating over low heat until the mixture is fragrant and the garlic begins to turn golden. Keep an eye on this because you do not want that garlic to burn! This should take about 10 to 15 minutes.

Then strain the mix, discarding the basil and garlic. Set the oil aside.

Step 2: Make the Sauce

In a Dutch oven, combined the crushed tomatoes, water, tomato paste, salt, chopped basil, pepper and the oil you just infused. Give this a good stir and bring the mixture to a boil.

Carefully remove a half cup of the sauce and set it aside for later. Then reduce the heat and simmer, covered, while making the meatballs (or polpette as they are called in Italian).

Step 3: Make the Meatballs

While that sauce is simmering away, grab your largest mixing bowl and combine all the meatball ingredients and that half-cup of tomato sauce and gently mix until combined. You can definitely use your hands here to get everything blended. Anna says that the mixture will be loose—and that’s exactly what you’re going for.

Then, with wet hands, roll quarter-cup-sized portions into balls. Place the polpette aside on a baking sheet while you work. Once all are made, add the meatballs to the simmering sauce. If your pot is getting full, just gently shake the pan to make a little room.

Bring the sauce up to a simmer again, cover and cook for at least 45 minutes (though Anna says you can let the mix simmer away on low heat for up to two hours).

Anna Francese Gass. Photo: Liz ClaymanCourtesy Liz Clayman

These delicious meatballs can be served with the sauce and a generous sprinkle of parmesan or pecorino cheese and a few shreds of fresh basil. You can also serve the meatballs with some pasta for a full Italian meal.

If you have any leftover, cool the meatballs and place in a freezer-safe container. You can store them for up to a month. When you’re ready to enjoy again, thaw the meatballs in the refrigerator overnight before reheating.

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