AROUND THE TABLE: CULINARY GAINESVILLE

Home for the Holidays

For these three families, memories of long-time traditions bring sweetness to festive meals


Nona Jones at her southwest Gainesville home with Christmas dinner.

Photo by Doug Finger
Published: Tuesday, November 26, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, November 22, 2013 at 1:33 p.m.

At the holidays, social and spiritual rituals bind us together, with the partaking of family foods evoking memories of the past, comfort in the present, and a link to future generations.

Whether family recipes were written down with a fountain pen on time-aged cards or taught by experience from grandma to grandson or stored in the iCloud, every family holiday is enriched by the foods that tie our past to our future in an unbroken thread.

Tradition with a modern twist

By the time Nona Jones puts Christmas dinner on the table for her husband, Timothy Jones, assistant pastor at Open Doors Ministries, and their sons, Timothy, 3, and Isaac, 11 months, the family will have been centered in the heart of the sacred celebrations of the season for weeks. As so many women do today, Jones, public affairs director for Gainesville Regional Utilities, balances her professional life with the roles of wife and mother. She is also a writer and performer of sacred music, as well as a lifestyle blogger, so it should come as no surprise that she is a creative home cook who puts her distinctive and stylish personal touch on all she does.

“Ever since I was a child,” says Jones, who was born in New Jersey and reared in Jacksonville, “I remember my grandmother and mother roasting Cornish hens for every Thanksgiving and Christmas.” While she would “love to have the time to do things as they did,” Jones has found a practical way to have the customary dinner ready when the family comes home from church on Christmas Day. The crock pot comes into play — “not just keeping cooked food warm, but cooking it while we are away.” The family recipe for Four-Cheese Mac & Cheese can be made well ahead of time and baked as yellow rice and vegetables are cooking.

Rosemary-Infused Cornish Game Hens

Courtesy of Nona Jones

Serves 4-6

2 fresh or frozen Cornish game hens

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 teaspoon sea salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon granulated garlic

1 teaspoon granulated onion

1 large onion, coarsely chopped

4-6 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped

4 sprigs fresh rosemary or 4 teaspoons dried

1/4 - 2 cups water or chicken stock

1/2 cup wine (optional)

Rub the birds with a tablespoon of olive oil and sprinkle with the granulated garlic, granulated onion and salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

Coat the bottom of a crock pot with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and sprinkle in a half teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Make a bed of chopped onions and place the seasoned birds on top. Sprinkle the birds with chopped garlic and top with the fresh or dried rosemary.

Pour into the crockpot as much water or chicken stock as desired to create a sauce — from a quarter cup up to 2 cups. Then add the wine, if desired. Set the crockpot on low heat for 6-8 hours and simmer until the meat nearly falls from the bone. Turn off the heat and allow to sit while the rice and sides are cooked.

Green Beans

and Fire-roasted Tomatoes

Courtesy of Nona Jones

Serves 4-6

2 pounds fresh green beans, washed and ends trimmed off

3-4 tomatoes, washed and cut into halves

If using fresh vegetables, place the cut beans in a half cup of boiling water and steam for 5-7 minutes or until tender-crisp. Drain the beans, re-cover, and set aside.

On a hot grill or grill pan, put the tomato halves cut side down and cook until the tomato is softened and has prominent grill marks. Cool and cut into half-inch chunks.

Gently mix together the beans and tomatoes and heat through, seasoning with salt and pepper to taste.

Four-Cheese

Mac & Cheese

Courtesy of Nona Jones

Serves 4-6

2 cups elbow macaroni

2 tablespoons butter

1/4 cup finely diced onion

2 tablespoons flour

salt and pepper to taste

1 teaspoon dry mustard

2 cups milk

1/2 cup (4 ounces) each of shredded mozzarella, mild cheddar, sharp cheddar and feta cheese

1 cup shredded mixed cheeses for topping

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. In a large pot, cook the macaroni as the package directs; drain, cover and set aside.

In a saucepan over low heat, melt the butter and gently sauté the chopped onion until transparent, about five minutes.

Stir in the dry mustard and flour and cook over low heat for a minute.

Add the milk slowly, stirring continuously, until blended, and cook until thickened and hot but not boiling.

Stir in the four cheeses until blended and remove from the heat. Add salt and pepper to taste.

In a buttered casserole or glass baking dish, put the drained macaroni and the sauce and stir carefully until blended. Sprinkle the cup of mixed cheeses over the top.

Bake for 20 minutes, or until the casserole is bubbling and the cheese topping is browned.

Simple dishes, made with love

In the light of tastes that evoke memory, this holiday season is bittersweet for the family of Alachua County Clerk of Courts J.K. “Buddy” Irby and his wife, Linda Mans Irby, following the recent passing of Irby's mother, Mary Elizabeth, whose bountiful holiday repasts always finished with her distinctive sweet potato pie. On Thanksgiving, Irby made his mother's pie to keep her memory at the table with her family.

“I remember her and my Dad, and am so thankful for all the Thanksgivings we celebrated together and the influence of such wonderful parents on our family.”

Linda Irby always brings to the holiday table her parents' humble rutabaga casserole...“a simple dish that can be such a special treat.” She came from a large clan whose family gatherings were “really BIG.” Mother Beulah would only make the casserole for Thanksgiving (though it would work well at Christmas, too), and her offspring awaited this humble dish as a supreme treat.

“Every time I prepare this dish,” says Linda Irby, “I think of Mom peeling the rutabagas and Dad cutting them into cubes, standing at the counter together working to put this treat on the table for their big family.”

Mary Elizabeth's Sweet Potato Pie

Courtesy of J.K. “Buddy” Irby

Serves 8

2 1/2 cups raw grated sweet potatoes

1 cup natural cane syrup

2 eggs, beaten

1 cup whole milk

1 tablespoon butter, softened

1 teaspoon grated orange peel

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1 9-inch prepared, unbaked pie crust

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Mix together the brown sugar and spices and set aside. Mix together the grated potatoes, cane syrup, eggs, milk, butter, and orange peel. Pour the mixture into the pie shell and bake for 45 minutes.

Remove the pie from the oven and sprinkle the spice mixture over the top. Return the pie to the oven and bake an additional 20 minutes. Cool and serve with whipped cream, ice cream or as is.

Rusty and Beulah Mans' Harvest Rutabagas

Courtesy of Linda Irby

Serves 12

4 large fresh rutabagas

4 ounces butter

1 1/2 to 1 3/4 cups brown sugar

pinch of salt

Peel the rutabagas and cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes.

In a large pot, bring 2 quarts of water to a boil. Add the rutabaga cubes and boil 20 minutes or until the desired tenderness is reached. Drain the rutabagas well and return to the pot.

Stir in the butter and the brown sugar to taste.

Memories of a Scandinavian holiday & a touch of the South

In her large historic house in Archer, three generations of Linda Kasicki's family still follow the holiday customs of a Norwegian Christmas just as she did as a child in Wisconsin. “I'm 100 percent 'Norski',” says Kasicki, “and when I came to Florida in the 1970s, I brought my culture and my memories with me to share with my own kids.”

Now that there are two new generations of Floridians gathered around their mother's table, the customs of the frozen North have been seamlessly joined with those of an old-fashioned, small-town Florida holiday with its own traditions. So on Christmas Eve, Kasicki and her large family attend church together early in the evening and, as generations of snow-bound Scandinavians have before them, they return home to a cozy supper of rich potato soup, homemade breads, and chili — a new tradition started by the younger generations that is made differently every year.

Early on Christmas Eve, Kasicki's daughter, Dana Schiel, and her granddaughter, Alicia Alltop, gather in the holiday kitchen to help the family matriarch prepare the supper. By the time the family leaves for church, the soup and chili are warming in crock pots, and the buffet of finger foods is in its festive setting. A final touch to the evening's repast is provided by Kasicki's grandmother's “O'Henry Bars,” tasting like a favorite confection of the 1920s and eagerly awaited by each and every generation since.

Norwegian

Potato Soup

Courtesy of Linda Kasicki

Serves 12 to 16

5 pounds potatoes, washed, peeled and cut in medium chunks

1 medium onion, finely chopped

4 stalks celery, strings removed and thinly sliced

1 large carrot, peeled and shredded

2 cups water

2 cans evaporated milk

8 ounces butter

Salt and pepper to taste

1 pound baked ham, diced

1 pound bacon, cooked, drained and crumbled

1 pound each shredded Wisconsin cheddar and Colby Jack cheese

1 cup chopped fresh parsley

Bring 2 cups of water to a boil in a large pot; add potatoes, onion, celery, and carrot. Cook until tender, 10-20 minutes, then remove the pot from the heat. Do not drain.

Using a hand potato masher (a blender or processor will make the texture glue-y), mash the vegetables to the desired consistency.

Stir in the butter and evaporated milk to blend. Adjust salt and pepper to taste.

Serve with dishes of ham, bacon, cheeses, and parsley to add to the soup as desired.

O'Henry Bars

Courtesy of Linda Kasicki

Makes 24-48 bars

4 cups rolled oats (any type)

1 cup brown sugar

1 cup butter, melted

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup white sugar (optional)

3/4 cup creamy peanut butter

1 bag chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter or spray a 10-inch-by-15-inch glass pan.

In a medium bowl, mix together the oats, brown sugar, melted butter, vanilla and the extra sugar, if using. Pat the mixture evenly into the glass pan and press by hand until it is compact and uniform.

Bake for 25-30 minutes or until bubbly and lightly browned.

Place pan on a cooling rack and cool 5 minutes. Using an offset cake knife, spread the peanut butter in an even layer over the oats. Quickly follow with the chocolate chips, spreading as they melt to form a top layer.

When the mixture has cooled enough for the chocolate to lose its shine, use a serrated knife to cut 1-inch-by-3-inch fingers. Cool thoroughly in the pan in the fridge or freezer, then re-cut along original lines to separate the bars.

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