Family Secret Recipes

These old family recipes of stuffed cabbage, stuffed peppers, and penne alla vodka will warm your winter.

Stuffed Peppers
Stuffed Peppers

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I admire my mother. I often watch her sitting at the kitchen table, sorting through piles of vintage cookbooks and ripped-out recipes from old, unrecognizable sources. Magnifying glass in hand, she squints to make out the smudged and faded measurements from her grandmother’s barely legible handwriting. What is she looking for?

“Your grandmother used to spend all day preparing meals,” she once told me. “And unless we were helping, us children weren’t allowed near the kitchen.”

Was she asking me to leave or to help?

Turns out, she’s never looking for anything in particular when she begins the recipe-box remodel. She’s looking for inspiration. She’s looking for the foundation of a memorable dish in which she can add a personal signature to the mix. Over the years, I’ve discovered she’s not alone in her mission to recreate favorite heirloom recipes. But as Americans pay closer attention to their health, no longer will you find “add 1 pound lard” or “save the bacon grease” in today’s instructions. To that end, we invited readers to submit hand-me-down recipes for a healthier New Year’s makeover. Get ready for some hot new traditions, with all the comforts of home.

“My nonna’s Penne alla Vodka is my all-time favorite. I make it year-round for friends and family.”

Sarina, Fort Myers, Florida

Penne alla Vodka

Penne alla Vodka
Penne alla Vodka

(Makes 6 to 8 servings)

  • ¼ pound pancetta or prosciutto*
  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 6 cloves garlic, peeled and halved
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • ½ cup vodka
  • 2 (28-ounce) cans whole tomatoes, with their juice, pureed in a blender
  • 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • Salt, to taste
  • 1 cup heavy cream*
  • 2 (16-ounce) boxes penne pasta*
  • 4 to 6 fresh basil leaves, chopped
  • 1½ cups freshly grated Romano cheese

1. Place a large pot of cold, salted water over high heat and bring to boil.

2. In large pan on medium heat, sauté pancetta or prosciutto with garlic until crisp. Add onion and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the vodka and let reduce by half, then add tomatoes, red pepper, and salt. Simmer sauce uncovered for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add cream and simmer another 10 minutes.

3. Once you’ve added cream, put pasta in boiling water and cook until al dente according to package directions.

4. Remove sauce from heat, add basil and cheese; stir.

5. Drain pasta, shock with a little cold water and return to pot. Pour the sauce over pasta and mix gently until pasta is coated completely. Serve immediately.

*Makeover: Use turkey bacon (drain after cooking) or sauté lean ham; substitute 1 to 1½ cups evaporated skim milk for heavy cream; replace pasta with whole-wheat penne pasta.

per serving original makeover
Calories 799 627
Protein 31 g 30 g
Fat 27 g (12 g saturated) 15 g (4.7 saturated)
Fiber 8g 10.6 g
Carbohydrates 108 g 93 g
Sodium 1207 mg 749 mg

“I remember my grandmother making the best homemade stuffed peppers for family get-togethers. Grandma never measured a thing, so I added a little of this and a little of that to recreate her recipe.”

Angela, Chicago, Illinois

Stuffed Peppers

Stuffed Peppers
Stuffed Peppers

(Makes 10 servings)

  • 10 large green bell peppers; tops cut off and seeds cleaned out of center
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 pounds ground beef*, browned
  • 2 cups white rice*, cooked
  • 1 cup bread crumbs
  • 1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce
  • ¼ cup Parmesan cheese
  • ½ cup shredded mozzarella cheese
  • Salt, pepper, and Italian seasoning, to taste
  • 1 large jar of spaghetti or marinara sauce

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.

2. Combine browned ground beef (drained), cooked rice, cheeses, tomato sauce, bread crumbs, and seasonings in large bowl. Set aside.

3. Place green peppers in pot of boiling water for 5-10 minutes, or until they turn light green and are slightly soft. (For crisp peppers, omit this step.) Pat dry and lightly brush outsides with olive oil.

4. Stuff peppers with meat/rice mixture. Pour sauce over stuffed peppers, enough to coat sides and bottom of pan.

5. Cover with foil and bake for 1-2 hours. Check peppers occasionally and remove from oven when peppers reach desired texture. (Our family prefers tender peppers, which bake a little longer.) Foil may be removed for last 15-20 minutes of bake time.

*Makeover: Using ground turkey or chicken and cooked brown rice reduces the saturated fat while adding a hearty whole grain. (Note: If using ground chicken in the Sarma, increase oven temperature to 375 F and reduce baking time to 40 to 45 minutes. Ground chicken may require additional seasoning.)

per serving original makeover
Calories 439 406
Protein 23 g 27 g
Fat 19 g (6 g saturated) 13.5 g (3.5 saturated)
Fiber 4 g 5.1 g
Carbohydrates 44 g 44 g
Sodium 708 mg 724 mg

“This is a traditional family recipe from Grandma, who came over to this country from Croatia in the late 1800s. It was traditionally served for Christmas dinner in Yugoslavia.”

Janet, Blue Ridge, Georgia

Sarma (Stuffed Cabbage)


(Makes 6 to 8 servings)

  • 1 head of green cabbage
  • 2 pounds ground beef*
  • 1 cup white rice, cooked*
  • 1 large can of sauerkraut
  • 1 large can diced tomatoes, plus ½ can of water
  • Salt and pepper to taste

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Place cabbage head in large pot of boiling water for about 10-15 minutes to soften leaves. Drain and let cool.

2. Add 1 cup of cooked rice to ground meat (drained) in large bowl. Mix well. Salt and pepper meat mixture to taste.

3. Carefully peel leaves off cabbage, one by one. Cut hard stem off each leaf to make it easier to roll. (As you get towards the center of head, you may have to put some leaves back in hot water to soften them some more.)

4. Fill center of each leaf with meat/rice mixture. Roll leaves up, tucking edges as you roll. Place rolls in bottom of large, covered roasting pan.

5. Drain and rinse can of sauerkraut. Put sauerkraut over cabbage rolls. Salt and pepper, if desired.

6. Pour diced tomatoes and ½ can of water over sauerkraut and cabbage rolls. Cover roasting pan and bake for 1½-2 hours.

7. Serve with boiled potatoes or mashed potatoes. Cabbage rolls also freeze well.

*Makeover: Using ground turkey or chicken and cooked brown rice reduces the saturated fat while adding a hearty whole grain. (Note: If using ground chicken in the Sarma, increase oven temperature to 375 F and reduce baking time to 40 to 45 minutes. Ground chicken may require additional seasoning.)

per serving original makeover
Calories 289 255
Protein 23 g 28 g
Fat 13 g (5 g saturated) 7 g (2 g saturated)
Fiber 5.9 g 6.6 g
Carbohydrates 20 g 20 g
Sodium 835 mg 854 mg

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