Neighborhood food experts share their most special recipes and secrets for whipping them up right

It’s not the brisk air, the carefully wrapped gifts or the warm hugs from family that make the holidays so special.

Nope — it’s the food. And behind every treasured recipe is a story, usually one involving family, friends and traditions.

Those who understand the value of great recipes — comforting creations made familiar after years of reunions, weddings and weekend trips — hold the secret to genuine holiday happiness.

This month, several neighbors — a few who make their living in the culinary arts — dish about their favorite kitchen creations. Their recipes — already passed from generation to generation — could become new holiday traditions for your family this year.

Sardinian-style stuffed eggplant (Melanzane Ripienne Alla Sarda)

Fom Salvatore Gisellu, master chef at Urban Crust restaurant

Gisellu, a Lake Highlands resident whose acclaimed restaurant is located in Plano, says this dish brings back warm memories of childhood. “Melanzane Ripiene Alla Sarda is the ultimate Italian comfort food,” Gisellu says. “My mother has made this dish forever; I can remember her making it since I was 5 years old. She always made it on Thursdays for lunch.” Chef Gisellu says the dish is also perfect as a late-night snack. These days, his wife Jeanne Marie loves the dish, and she regularly makes it for their sons, Matteo and Lucas.

Click here to print the recipe card


Serves 6-8

2 large Italian eggplants, firm and free of blemishes
1/2 c extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp fresh oregano, chopped
1 tsp fresh basil, chopped
1 tsp fresh mint, chopped
1 tsp fresh Italian parsley
1 medium onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 lb fresh ground veal
1 c white wine dry
1/2 c your homemade tomato sauce
1/2 c grated pecorino sardo cheese (or Romano)
1/2 c Italian plain bread crumbs
1 whole egg
salt and pepper

– Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.
– Cut the eggplant into 2-inch rings; remove the inside part, leaving some of the pulp attached to the skin.
– Brush the rings with oil, and season with salt and pepper; set them up in a baking sheet, and roast for 15 minutes.
– Sprinkle the pulp with salt, wrap with a paper towel, and put some weight on.
– After 10–15 minutes, remove the paper towel from the eggplant, rinse with cold water (to remove the salt and the bitterness), and chop.
– Heat up a large sauté pan, add oil, sweat onions and garlic with the herbs, brown the veal, and season with salt and pepper. Deglaze the pan with the wine, remove from stove, and add tomato sauce, cheese, breadcrumbs and the egg; season well.

Big Mama’s Cornbread Stuffing

From Paul Wackym, White Rock area resident and founder and owner of Wackym’s Kitchen Cookies

Wackym’s great-grandmother, “Big Mama”, taught this recipe to his grandmother, who taught it to his mother when she was a child in South Carolina.

“Mom taught it to me and said, ‘It is just the way to do it.’ ” Wackym says the recipe is not as complicated to make as you might think, and it can be modified to suit your taste.

“It can be baked in a pan rather that stuffed in the cavity of the turkey,” he says. “We now make it with vegetable stock for the vegetarians — that’s how we make it at home to eat along with Tofurkey.”

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Turkey stock:

A bag of giblets from turkey
Wackym’s note: Don’t accidentally leave these in the carcass of the bird like my English friend did on his first attempt to bake a Thanksgiving turkey
4 qt water
2 bay leaves
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp cracked red pepper
1 clove garlic
onion skins and celery tops (from stuffing)

– Throw all ingredients into a large pot, and put to simmer on the back burner; check after a couple of hours. The meat should fall off the neck bone. Strain and separate out the fat. Hold the turkey bits and extra stock for giblet gravy.


2 tsp canola oil
1 tsp sugar
2 eggs
1 c whole milk soured with 1 Tbsp white vinegar (set aside for 20 minutes)
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp dried parsley
1 tsp dried marjoram
1/4 tsp powdered garlic
1/4 tsp sage
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup flour
1-1/2 cup yellow cornmeal

– Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees. Add 1 tsp canola oil to a 12-inch cast iron skillet, and place in oven. Mix the oil, sugar, eggs and milk. Add the soda, spices, flour and cornmeal. Pour into the hot cast iron skillet, and bake 20 minutes until golden brown.


1/4 lb butter
4 stalks celery, chopped fine
2 medium yellow onions, chopped fine
cornbread, crumbled
2 boiled eggs, chopped fine
1-1/2 c cooked grits
1 large raw egg, beaten
turkey stock

– Sauté the celery and onion in butter until very limp in a large and deep pan.
– Add the cornbread, boiled eggs, grits and mix.
– Add the raw egg and enough stock to moisten.
– Stuff in the cavity of a turkey, and bake immediately until 165 degrees internal temperature of the stuffing has been reached, and the turkey is done. If baking in a 9×13 pan, bake until firm and golden brown.
– Serve with copious amounts of gravy and a dollop of homemade cranberry sauce, followed by a piece or two of pie and a nap.
Tip: Wackym likes to make cornbread the night before. After it cools, break it into small pieces, and place it back into the oven. Let it dry out overnight.

Crème Brûlée French Toast

From Lynn Daniel, builder of the neighborhood’s sweetest breakfast

“My husband, Jeff, and I discovered this recipe at a bed and breakfast in Hot Springs, Ark., early in our marriage,” Daniel says. “We loved it so much, we bought a copy of the cookbook they sold of their original breakfast recipes so that we could make our home our own bed and breakfast.” The dish has since become a standard at the Daniel family home, where it’s regularly served to overnight guests and visiting relatives — especially for breakfast on Christmas morning.

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Serves 8

1 stick or 1/2 c unsalted butter
1 c packed brown sugar
2 Tbsp corn syrup
8-to 9-inch round slices of French bread
8 large eggs
1-1/2 c half-and-half
1 tsp vanilla
2 Tbsp Grand Marnier
1/4 tsp salt

– In a glass Pyrex measuring bowl, melt butter with brown sugar and corn syrup for a minute or two, stirring until smooth.
– Pour into a greased 13x9x2 baking dish.
– Cut eight or nine, 1-inch-thick slices from center portion of bread. Arrange bread slices in one layer in baking dish, squeezing them slightly to fit.
– In a bowl, whisk together eggs, half-and-half, vanilla, Grand Marnier and salt until combined well.
– Ladle evenly over bread. Chill bread mixture overnight.
– Preheat oven to 350 degrees, and bring bread to room temperature.
– Bake bread mixture, uncovered, in middle of oven until puffed and edges pale golden, 35-40 minutes. Serve upside down immediately.

Sherry Smith’s Corn Casserole

From Lake Highlands resident Kerry Smith, author of

Kerry Smith’s beloved mom-in-law, Sherry, made this dish regularly for the annual Smith-family Thanksgiving gathering, where some 40 of her husband’s relatives gather to eat and catch up with one another. “It is my favorite holiday, and after 10 years of marriage, I think that I enjoy this gathering even more than my husband does,” she says.

Four years ago, Sherry Smith was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and she is no longer able to cook. The dish had been her contribution to the Thanksgiving gathering for 30 years; Kerry Smith decided to start making the corn casserole herself so the tradition would continue.

“Not only is it a delicious holiday dish, and easy to make, but when I make it, I think of my mother-in-law, and I think about the amazing woman that she is.”

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1 small onion
4 Tbsp butter
1/4 c flour
2 c regular sour cream (not light or fat free)
12 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled
2 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley
2 30-oz cans whole corn, drained
1 tsp salt

– Sauté one small onion in 4 Tbsp butter.
– Add 1/4 c flour to make a paste.
– Add to a bowl, and mix in 2 c sour cream and half the bacon and parsley.
– Add the drained corn and salt, and top with the rest of the parsley and bacon.
– Pour into a 9×13 oven dish, and cook at 350 degrees for 30-35 minutes, until it bubbles.

Famous Mushroom Soup

From Brian C. Luscher, chef/owner, The Grape restaurant

“I have met people from all over,” says Luscher, a Lake Highlands resident. “When they find out I am the owner of The Grape, I am most often asked ‘Do you still have the mushroom soup?’ I always reply, ‘Oh yeah! We could never take it off the menu.’ ”

What he doesn’t tell them is this recipe has been passed down through the restaurant “family” over 37 years.

Chef Michael Blackwell, whose first stint at The Grape was from 1973-1977, brought quiche and a French leaning to the restaurant’s cuisine. He perfected the mushroom soup recipe and taught it to his cooks, one of which was Hector Cruz. Some 10 years later, Cruz taught the recipe to his younger brother, Juan, a dishwasher at the time. Juan Cruz, 12 years later, passed it on to the youngest Cruz brother, Chuy, also a dishwasher at the time. Chuy Cruz is now the morning sous chef at The Grape. He is teaching the recipe to another cook there.

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2-1/2 lbs button mushrooms, washed and chopped (it’s easy to do in a food processor)
1 large onion, diced small
2 cloves garlic, crushed and minced
1 dry bay leaf
1 sprig fresh thyme
1/4 c dry sherry (optional)
1/2 lb unsalted butter (2 sticks)
1 c all-purpose flour
3 qt beef broth or stock, or the equivalent made with beef bouillon cubes
2 c heavy cream
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste

– In a heavy-bottomed, 6-8 quart stock or soup pot, melt the butter over medium low heat. Add the onion, garlic, bay leaf and thyme, and cook until translucent.
– Add the chopped mushrooms, and cook until most of the water comes out of them. Add the sherry, if you like, and reduce by 1/2.
– Add the flour, and stir well to avoid lumps (if you do get some, it’s OK — they can be pureed out later).
– Slowly whisk in the broth or stock, and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat.
– Continue to stir the soup at this point, or the bottom may scorch. When the soup comes to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 20 minutes uncovered, stirring occasionally.
– Finish by adding the heavy cream and nutmeg, and add salt and pepper to taste. Remove the thyme and bay leaf, and puree the soup either in a blender or with a hand-held blender.
Notes: Makes 16 servings; the recipe may easily be cut in half, but it is worth making the whole batch because it freezes so well.