The holidays. For many, this is a time of family tradition and honoring heritage. Exactly what that means varies from family to family, and can include any number of things, from what decorations are used to where a celebration takes place. But at the top of the list, for almost everybody asked, is food.
Yup, good ol' food. It draws us all together and is the focus of many gatherings. The thing with food and the holiday season — that we don’t even realize (or maybe we do) — is that history is being told. Memories are shared, new memories are made, and the main courses, hot dishes and holiday sweets, are weaved into our collective story.
Our region here in Becker County is a melting pot of different cultures and traditions, and modern-day celebrations bring influences from Sweden, Norway, Finland, Germany and Native American cultures, to name just a few. We all have countless family stories surrounding holiday meals and celebrations.
Due to our large Scandinavian influence, for years past and to this day we are likely able to find a church-provided meal that includes lutefisk and lefse. Our rich Native American culture introduced generations before us to many new flavors, including wild rice, and today, holiday celebrations for many of us include wild rice in at least one side dish.
Our region is rich with stories from many generations of extended families that gathered together to cook or bake. Such gatherings may have begun because not everyone had all the items needed to complete the task. In the early years, often one family member would own the right lefse, krumkake or rosette iron, or the spritz press with the disk that grandma always used. People would gather and make food until there was enough to share all around. In the early days, this was all done over a wood stove, and then electricity came along and changed the way we cook and bake just about everything.
Regardless, while the task before them was being done, they would share stories, techniques, methods, recipes and so much more. This is where history was told: the kids would listen as the elders told of times past and each new generation would add in their own ways and traditions. Just like that, history was made — and changed. One day Auntie shows up with an electric lefse iron during the electrification days and, boom! The old cast iron version is only a story we tell.
Fresh baked goods were a great gift that people could lovingly hand make for others to share. My own mother used to make countless tins of cookies in dozens of varieties, as well as small loaves of banana, pumpkin and zucchini bread, and wrap them with a bow. I think all of my Dad’s coworkers got one, along with all of my teachers and family friends. Cookies and candy were housed in round holiday painted tins and were the go-to item in the house. As kids, we would naughtily eat well past our share. Other tasty delights included flat breads, rosettes, spritz cookies, fudge, popcorn balls and more.
Christmas dinners today seem to vary a bit from household to household. Some have meatballs or ribs, others ham, turkey or goose. Mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes seem to make almost everyone’s traditional meal. There are usually large quantities of side dishes, often with Jell-O, wild rice and cranberries as the featured ingredient.
A newer holiday food tradition in our house is New Year’s Eve “Good Luck Gumbo.” Black eyed peas are to bring good luck, served with shrimp and grapes, as well.
At the core of it all is family gathering to work side by side together, creating those holiday specialties while sharing stories, having fun, and making new traditions.
Good Luck Gumbo
- 1 Tbsp. olive oil
- 1 yellow onion, chopped
- 1 green bell pepper, chopped
- 3 stalks celery, chopped
- tsp. minced garlic (about 2 cloves)
- 1 cup quick-cooking brown rice
- 1 tsp. ground cumin
- 1/4 tsp. black pepper
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 cups reduced-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
- 29 – 30 oz. canned black-eyed peas, with their liquid
- 15 oz. diced tomatoes, with their liquid
- 4.5 oz. canned chopped green chilies, with their liquid
- Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions, peppers, celery and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender, 8 – 10 minutes.
- Add the rice, cumin, black pepper and the bay leaf and stir it for about one minute until the rice is glistening. Add the broth, peas, tomatoes and chilies. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer it, uncovered, for 15 – 20 minutes until the rice is tender and much of the liquid is absorbed. Remove the bay leaf before serving.
- 1 pound starchy or all-purpose potatoes
- 1/4 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
- 1/4 cup heavy cream
- 1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
- 1 to 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- Peel the potatoes and cut them into large, uniformly-shaped chunks. Place in a small saucepan and cover with cold water. Over medium-high heat, bring the water and the potatoes to a gentle boil. Cook until the potatoes are very soft and easily pierced with a fork, 10-12 minutes from the start of the boil. Drain the potatoes and transfer to a mixing bowl.
- Using a potato masher, potato ricer, or a dinner fork, mash the potatoes as thoroughly as possible; you don't want any lumps. Cut the butter into small chunks and mix it with the potatoes. Add the cream and salt. Keep mixing until the butter and cream are completely absorbed. Taste and add more salt if desired.
- Clear a large work space for dividing and rolling out the flatbreads. Lefse are traditionally made with grooved wooden rolling pins, but a standard rolling pin will do the job just fine. A pastry scraper or sturdy spatula for lifting and transferring the rolled-out flatbreads is also handy.
- Mix the mashed potatoes with 1 cup of the flour. At first this will be very crumbly and floury, but the mixture will gradually start coming together. Turn the dough out on the counter and knead once or twice to bring it together into a smooth ball. Roll it into a thick log and then divide it into 16 equal portions for small 6-8" lefse or 8 equal portions for large 10-12" lefse.
- Roll each portion of dough between your palms to form a small ball. Cover all the balls with a clean dishtowel off to one side of your workspace.
- Set a cast iron skillet or flat grill pan over medium-high heat. When a bead of water sizzles when flicked on the pan, it's ready.
- Dust your workspace and rolling pin lightly with flour. Roll one of the rounds of dough in the flour and then press it into a thick disk with the heel of your hand. Working from the center out, roll the dough into as thin a circle as you can manage. Lift, move, and flip the dough frequently as you work to make sure it's not sticking. Use more flour as needed.
- Roll the lefse gently onto the rolling pin, as if you were transferring pie dough, and lay it in the skillet. Cook for 1-2 minutes on each side until speckled with golden-brown spots. Transfer the cooked lefse to a plate and cover with another clean dish towel.
- While one lefse is cooking, roll out the next one. Keep all the cooked lefse under the towel to keep them warm and prevent them from drying out. If the lefse start to stick to the pan, melt a small pat of butter in the pan and wipe it away with a paper towel to leave only a very thin coating of fat on the pan.