Cook Up Some Homegrown Goodness with These Thrifty Family Recipes

This diptych shows an old photograph of a woman making soup and a modern photo of two women making tamales.
Left photo, Joyce Fisher (Litowich) prepares food for a family get-together. In addition to Fisher's signature desserts, her cookbook also includes recipes for traditional Ashkenazi Jewish foods. Right photo, Rebecca Reyes Gonzales and Frances Reyes prepare a modern-day version of the family's tamales. Photos courtesy of Sophie Goodman and Dani Reyes-Acosta

More than ever, I’ve found myself turning to family recipes during the pandemic, both for comfort and practicality. There’s so much to be learned from the generations who knew how to derive flavor and nutrition from simple ingredients and make budget-friendly meals that stretch those dollars.

I went on a search for other family recipes that are bringing people comfort and helping them stick to tighter budgets.

Like most family recipes, the measurements denoted here are approximate, so if you attempt these dishes in your own kitchen, make sure that you’re tasting along the way.

Grandma Litowich’s Chicken Soup

For my family, comfort food means chicken soup, and this one has been making an appearance on our holiday tables since at least the early 20th century.

While simple, this recipe is packed with flavor. My grandmother truly loved to create in the kitchen, and when she passed away, my aunt put together a cookbook of her recipes for us all to enjoy.

Ingredients (yields 10 servings)
1 whole chicken, cut into individual pieces
3-4 large carrots, sliced into chunks
3-4 stalks of celery, sliced into chunks
1 medium onion, peeled
1 medium tomato
1 handful of salt


Place all of the ingredients in a large soup pot and cover with water. Bring the pot to a boil, uncovered, and skim off the dark, bubbly material. Cover, and set the soup to a low boil for 3-4 hours. The tomato should completely break down and the chicken rendered completely tender.

When chicken is completely tender, strain the broth into another pot and separate the vegetables from the chicken as best as possible. Once cooled, use your fingers to pick out the bones and connective tissues from the meat. Can be served with egg noodles or matzah balls.

Reyes-Gonzales Pork Tamales

This old family photograph shows a Mexican family in black and white leaning against their vehicle. These people are family members of the writer of this story.
Carmen Villela, Nemesio Reyes and Carmen Refuerzo are pictured. The Reyes-Gonzales family now makes a modern version of pork tamales. Photo courtesy of Dani Reyes-Acosta

The chili, stewed pork and garlic flavors of Sonora, Mexico, permeated Dani Reyes-Acosta’s childhood. Today she preserves that legacy in the ritual of assembling the ingredients for her family’s pork tamales.

Tamales are best when they’re made with those you love. If you can’t get together right now due to social distancing guidelines, try a Zoom tamale-making party!


  • 5 lbs. of pork butt
  • 1 orange, sliced
  • 1 lemon, sliced
  • 8-9 cloves of garlic, smashed
  • 2-3 bay leaves (laurel in Spanish)
  • Approx. 1 tsp of California (anaheim) chili powder, to taste
  • Approx. 4 lbs of Masa Harina
  • 48 Corn husk tamale wrappers (Hojas)
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

This recipe yields approximately 48 tamales.


In a large mixing bowl, add the masa harina, which is a flavorful corn flour, some lard, a bit of chili and salt. Mix until the masa has fully absorbed the fat. Pro Tip: if it’s sticky, keep kneading!

Add pork, orange, lemon, garlic and bay leaves to a slow cooker and fill with water until you just cover the meat. Cook on low for 7-10 hours, until meat falls apart.

Once cooked, move the meat into a large saucepan, including some juices from the slow cooker. Separate the lard that’s been cooked off of the meat and keep in a separate bowl. Add chili powder, salt and pepper to the saucepan, and simmer until most of the liquid has been rendered down.

Fill a large pot with water, and submerge about half of the dried corn husks into the water to rehydrate them. After they become pliable (about 30 minutes), remove corn husks from the water, pat dry and set aside on a clean kitchen towel. Some husks will be too small to use for wrappers, and others will have fraying bits. Set these aside, and after you’ve dried all the wrappers, shred these into “strings” that you’ll use to tie off the wrappers.

Lay the rehydrated corn husk on a flat surface, and spread about ¼ cup of masa onto the corn husk in a rectangular shape with damp fingers.

Add 1 TSB of the pork filling to the center of the masa. Fold the corn husk in half vertically, and then in half again so that the masa wraps completely around the filling, maybe using your fingers to pinch it together just a little bit. Continue folding the corn husk completely over to one side so that it creates a burrito/cylinder shape. Fold the top (skinny) end down to enclose one end of the tamale. The other end of the tamale will be exposed.

Add 2 cups of water to a stockpot set to medium heat. Place your tamales into your steamer basket or strainer, cover with a clean, damp cotton cloth, and cover the pot for 30-40 minutes, or until the masa separates easily from the husks.

Betty’s Oven-Fried Chicken

This old photograph is of a woman and her daughter, the woman who created the oven-fried chicken recipe.
This photograph shows Betty Talbert with her daughter, Barbara Perry Collins.  Talbert and her granddaughter Samantha Reid Aviña still cook oven-fried chicken together. Photo courtesy of Samantha Reid Aviña

Is there anything more satisfying than the perfect piece of fried chicken?

As a simple recipe beloved by the whole Reid family, Betty Talbert’s oven-fried chicken is a dish that brings everyone together. Though Samantha Reid Aviña and her family have updated the recipe over the years — Aviña adds more herbs and spices to the flour mixture while her dad and sister work on finding vegetables to round out the gravy, chicken and rice — the comforting, familiar flavors of this Southern staple passed down through generations have stuck.


  • 1 whole chicken, cut into individual pieces
  • 1 cup of all-purpose flour
  • Salt, to taste
  • Black pepper, to taste
  • Dash(es) of cayenne pepper, optional
  • Half stick of butter (more, if needed)
  • 1 cup long grain white rice


Preheat the oven to 375 F.  Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil (or oil a large casserole dish). Chicken pieces should have enough space to not touch or overlap

Put the flour in 1 brown paper lunch sack (or use Ziploc for modern-day substitute). Add the salt, black pepper, and cayenne pepper to the flour and shake the bag to mix.

Add one piece of chicken to the bag. Shake well to coat the chicken, then lay on the baking sheet or oiled casserole dish. Repeat with each piece of chicken. Add more flour and spices to the bag if needed.

Top each piece of chicken with a small pat of butter and cook until the meat thermometer shows chicken is 160-165 F. For drums and thighs, this will be 35-40 minutes. Breasts may take 45 minutes or more. Do not flip the chicken over or the skin won’t be crispy.

Chicken is done when the skin is crispy and juices run clear. Serve with your fluffy white rice and gravy (directions below).

Extra Credit: Gravy!

Make gravy with pan drippings by pouring them into a skillet and heating to a simmer. Sift in flour to make a roux. Use slightly less flour than fat by volume. Stir with whisk until there are no lumps.

Add broth or water to thin. Add extra liquid gradually and whisk until consistency is as desired. If it tastes floury or mealy, add more broth. Season gravy to taste with salt and pepper. Add milk or cream (2 tablespoons), if desired.

Restivo Family Fagiolini all’uccelletto & Fettunta

This photo shows a man with his grandfather.
Michael Restivo with his father, Alessandro Restivo. When COVID-19 began to wreak havoc throughout Italy, Michael Restivo decided to celebrate what he loved most about his own Italian heritage: its cuisine. Photo courtesy of Michael Restivo

Florentine heritage comes with certain points of pride: an Italian language dialect all their own, a joy in the simplicity of country living in Italy’s Tuscany region, and the distinct Florentine flavors of their cuisine.

Before his grandmother passed away a few years ago, Michael Restivo and his family gathered all of her most loved recipes in a family cookbook so they could continue to enjoy her cooking and celebrate her memory for generations to come.

This simple but flavorful soup and bread is perfect for a Sunday afternoon meal in your backyard.

Ingredients: Fagiolini all’uccelletto

  • 1 can of White Beans (Navy, Cannellini, or Great Northern)
  • 2 uncooked Italian chicken or pork sausages (1 spicy, 1 sweet), chopped
  • 1 small white onion, diced
  • 3-4 garlic cloves, diced
  • 1 can of pureed or strained tomatoes
  • 1 tbsp fresh sage
  • 1 tbsp fresh rosemary
  • 1 tbsp fresh thyme
  • 2 bay leaves
  • Crushed red pepper, to taste
  • Salt and pepper, to taste


Heat the olive oil on medium-high heat and add diced onions. Cook until soft and translucent. Once the onions are soft, add the diced garlic and cook for 1-2 minutes, until soft and rosy.

Add the chopped sausage plus red pepper flakes to taste and stir. Add salt and pepper to taste. ⁣

When the sausage is just undercooked, add the can of beans with their liquid and bring to a simmer. ⁣

Add the tomato puree and bring to a simmer. Add the sage, rosemary, thyme, and bay leaves.⁣ Let simmer for about 30 minutes to one hour on medium heat until reduced to a thick stew, stirring occasionally. Add salt and pepper to taste throughout. Serve hot.⁣

Ingredients: Fettunta

  • Crusty rustic bread (sourdough or ciabatta)
  • ½ cup of extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove
  • Salt and pepper, to taste


Heat a pan with the olive oil to bubbling over high heat.

Lay slices of bread in the pan and fry approximately 1-2 minutes per side until golden brown. ⁣

Remove the bread from the pan when crispy, and rub a clove of garlic roughly over the surface. Drizzle with olive oil and serve.

Oven-Roasted Gochujang Korean Chicken

These are old photographs of three Korean children spending time with their grandmother in the kitchen.
Left photo, Edward Hwang, Gui Im Moon (Grandma Hwang), and Daniel Hwang in 1981. Right photo, Grandma Hwang, Edward Hwang, Daniel Hwang and Sarah Hwang in their kitchen in 1989. The Hwang children spent most of their time at home with their grandmother. She taught them how to cook, to converse in Korean, and find joy in cooking together. Photo courtesy of Sarah Hwang

One of Sarah Hwang’s favorite childhood memories is squatting next to her grandmother, Gui Im Moon, on their family’s kitchen floor, nibbling kimchi scraps with rice as her grandmother prepared the fermented cabbage dish.

This roasted chicken recipe is full of flavor and family tradition.


  •  10-12 chicken drumsticks
  • 1 cup gochujang sauce
  • ¼ cup soy sauce
  • ¼ cup mirin
  • 1 tbsp sesame oil
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 3 tbsp minced garlic
  • 1 tbsp minced ginger
  • 1 onion
  • Salt and pepper, to taste


With a knife, make 2-3 deep slices into each drumstick and season with salt and pepper.

In a large bowl, mix all the ingredients except for onion and stir until it looks like and has the consistency of barbecue sauce. Note: If it’s too thick, add another tbsp of soy sauce.

Place a few drumsticks at a time in the bowl and coat each one generously. Once all drumsticks are evenly coated, add the sliced onions to the bowl with the chicken, and toss one last time. Cover the bowl and marinate for 6-8 hours in the refrigerator.

Preheat the oven to 375F, or 350F if a convection oven. Place the chicken on a foil-covered baking tray and bake for 45-55 minutes, flipping halfway through.

Maun Family Irish Soda Bread

This quad of images shows an old family photograph of an Irish family next to their recipe for Irish soda bread.
At right, Patrick and Mary (Creed) MacSweeney, parents of Beatrice Sweeney, pictured in Cork, Ireland, in the late 19th century. Beatrice was one of 16 MacSweeney children born in Ireland. She arrived at Ellis Island in New York, bringing this Irish soda bread recipe with her across the Atlantic. Photo courtesy of the Maun family

If you’re like the millions of other people who dove head-first into bread making during your quarantine, add this Maun family Irish soda bread recipe to your repertoire. This recipe traveled from Ireland at the turn of the 20th century to Brooklyn and through generations of my fiance’s family.

Irish soda bread is a St. Patrick’s Day staple, and there’s often a loaf in the freezer for snacking throughout the rest of the year. The recipe, passed along to my mother-in-law on the eve of her own marriage, stands as a testament to generations of a family bound together by heritage and love.


  • 4 ½ cups of flour
  • 4 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 cups buttermilk
  • 1 cup raisins or currants
  • 2 tbsp caraway seeds
  • 3 tbsp sugar


In a large mixing bowl, mix all the dry ingredients together. Add buttermilk and mix well. Flour your hands, and then knead for a few minutes. Place dough in a greased 9” round pan. With a knife, cut lightly into the dough, making a “+” sign. Bake at 350F for 45 minutes to one hour, or until brown. Brush with melted butter to serve.

Leftover bread may be frozen and stale bread may be warmed in the oven or microwave.

Sophie Goodman is a contributor to The Penny Hoarder.