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The Holidays Won't Be Traditional, But The Recipes Still Can Be

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

This year, the holidays are going to be different. Lots of people won't be traveling home to spend it with their family or loved ones. That means many of us will be missing the home-cooked meals or the favorite traditional recipes that only a certain family member knows how to make. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't try to recreate the family recipe while you're apart. For NPR's Life Kit, reporter Noor Wazwaz set out to learn more about how to recreate these traditional family recipes.

NOOR WAZWAZ, BYLINE: I love my mom's grape leaves - or in Arabic, we call it warak enab (ph). Each grape leaf is like a battlefield of flavor. It's stuffed with rice and meat, lots of warm spices and lemony flavor. This dish always reminds me of my mother's Palestinian kitchen. I tried recreating this dish many times, but it's never turned out quite the same. I called up Joudie Kalla because I wanted some advice on where to start.

JOUDIE KALLA: Comparison is, like, a killer. When you compare things to other people, you lose your confidence, whatever it might be.

WAZWAZ: Kalla's a chef and the author of the cookbooks "Palestine On A Plate" and "Baladi." And she has our first takeaway - throw your expectations out the window. Do not expect that your dish will be the same as the one you grew up eating. And don't even try comparing.

KALLA: It's not your mom's or your grandmother's. It's your own.

WAZWAZ: The thing to remember is recipes are a roadmap. You don't have to follow them exactly. It's OK to deviate, and who knows? You may even be pleased with what you make. Which brings us to takeaway No. 2 - be ready to experiment, but experiment thoughtfully.

KALLA: Always start off with less and then add more. A lot of people are very excited. They just put whatever in, and they go for it. And then they're just, like, oh, my gosh, this is terrible - because once you've added too much of anything, it's pretty much impossible to rectify it.

WAZWAZ: Kalla recommends tasting and adjusting the seasoning as you go. You'll know when it tastes right. And when it is, make sure you stop adding spices. And don't forget to take notes.

KALLA: And I'm sure you've made something and thought, oh, this isn't quite right.

WAZWAZ: This is takeaway No. 3. You have cooking instincts, and sometimes they're trying to tell you something, so listen.

KALLA: Use your senses - and not just your sense of smell and taste and sight, but your logical mind. Like, does this look right?

WAZWAZ: It's understandable that you'd want to be exact about every teaspoon. But Kalla says it's important to understand the feel of a recipe.

KALLA: Like trying and tasting and mixing things and going to see how something's working out and actually enjoying the process rather than mechanically do this, do this, do this, do this.

WAZWAZ: When you do all that, you're strengthening your cooking skills, so it's important to stop and use all of your senses. You're making a mental note - this is how the soup should taste. This is how the filling should smell. This is how the dough should feel.

What if people feel like they don't have any cooking instincts?

KALLA: I actually don't believe that. I think everybody has a cooking instinct. I think if you have a good taste in your mouth - and I mean that in a sense like you can sense flavors and taste, and when you eat, you can taste things, they hit your taste buds - you'll never forget them.

WAZWAZ: At the end of it all, Kalla reminds us that we shouldn't get too obsessed with the process.

KALLA: You just have to put the time and the patience into it to make it work for you.

WAZWAZ: My grape leaves may not ever taste like my mom's, but mine can be a close second.

For NPR News, I'm Noor Wazwaz.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WARAA DAWALI")

HAYA ZAATRY: (Singing in non-English language).

WAZWAZ: For more tips, including how to also get family history along with a recipe, check out our life kit at npr.org/lifekit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WARAA DAWALI")

ZAATRY: (Singing in non-English language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.