A new year of simple pleasures

Sorting through some old photos the other day, I came across this picture of my Oma–my grandmother on my dad’s side– and was struck by it.

I can’t recall ever seeing her with such an expression of joy. And the reason? I think it is the simple pleasure of eating that apple.

That photo brings to mind one of my favorite Italian sayings, which is up on my fridge where I see it every day: Apprezza di piu le piccole cose della vita. A rough translation: Appreciate more the small things in life.

This saying is kind of a guidepost for me, better than any New Years resolution. (I stopped making  resolutions years ago because I didn’t want to keep feeling disappointed in myself.)

At New Year’s Eve, I especially appreciate the small traditions my parents established for celebrating the holiday at home with the family. During the day, my brother, sisters and I cut construction paper into confetti, filling bowls with the colorful squares. In the kitchen, we helped my parents make the festive foods we’d eat for the occasion: onion pie and colorful “Italian” potato salad.  At night, while we listened to music on the radio (WFMT’s “Midnight Special,” the Saturday night folk show that took listener requests on New Year’s Eve) our family played card games or Scrabble and the kids drank ginger-ale (a big treat as we rarely were allowed soda pop) while my parents toasted with Champagne. And at midnight on the East Coast and in Chicago we banged on pots and pans with wooden spoons and threw confetti all over.

After a late-night meal of onion pie, Italian potato salad and knockwurst (how the heck did we sleep after that?), we children tumbled into bed while my parents washed the dishes and swept up the confetti.

As an adult I still follow most of these traditions–though I leave the confetti on the floor to enjoy the next day. Time enough to sweep it up later.

About that Italian potato salad: It really isn’t Italian. It’s a variation of the classic warm German potato salad with  vinaigrette dressing (no mayo!), but the warm potatoes soak up the beet juice, turning them a wonderful shade of deep pink blush, and the rings of chopped pickled beets, white onion, pickles, and hard-boiled egg white and yolk turn an ordinary potato salad into a party! I think the “Italian” in the name must be a reference to Italy’s colors of red, white and green in the salad’s decorative circles.

I’ll post the original recipe below…but lately I do a few things differently: I cut the recipe approximately in half and I skip adding herring to the salad and just serve it on the side for those who like it. It’s fine without it and I don’t put herring juice in the dressing either, adding a little more vinegar and oil in place of it. (Vegans also could also eliminate the eggs and just find a colorful substitute for the topping–chopped carrots? lemon rind?)

And of course, you could cook (and pickle) your own beets rather than using canned ones, but I never get around to doing that. Also, I don’t eat the knockwurst with it.

“Italian” Potato Salad for New Year’s Eve

  • 5 pounds of red or white potatoes, peeled and boiled until tender, but not soft
  • 1½ large mild white onions
  • ½ of a 6-ounce jar of pickled herring (reserve juice for the dressing)
  • 1 15-ounce can of diced beets (reserve juice for dressing)
  • 6 hard-boiled eggs
  • ½ cup chopped pickles
  • 3 teaspoons salt
  • ¼ teaspoon pepper


  • ¼ cup oil  (olive oil or other)
  • ¼ cup vinegar (white wine vinegar is good)
  • ½ cup water or soup stock
  • juice from the canned beets
  • ½ the juice from the herring
  1. Cut the warm potatoes into chunks and place in a large bowl.  Chop the herring finely, and add to the salad.  Mince the white onion, and reserve ½ cup in a small bowl  Peel the hard-boiled eggs, separate the egg whites from the yolks, and chop each finely, reserving 2 tablespoons of the yolks and ¼ cup of the whites in separate bowls.  Reserve ¼ cup of the pickles, and ¾ cup of the diced beets, each in a separate bowl.
  2. Mix together all the unreserved ingredients (the chopped eggs, pickles, onions, and beets) in the bowl with the potatoes.   Add the salt and pepper.
  3. Whisk together the ingredients for the dressing, and pour over the potato salad.  Mix well, until the ingredients are evenly distributed and the potatoes are uniformly colored pink.
  4. Decorate the salad as follows:  sprinkle a band of diced beets around the outer edge of the salad bowl, then a band of minced white onions, and then a circle of chopped pickles. Next, sprinkle the chopped egg whites in a small circle, and finish with a large dot of egg yolk in the middle.
  5. Serve immediately, or refrigerate until ready to serve.

Wishing you all a very happy 2011!



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4 responses to “A new year of simple pleasures

  1. Cathy mihalik

    I love the picture of your grandmother. What a great face and simple pleasures always win. I’m not well versed in herring but I love the tradition. New Years Cheers

  2. Jerry Abel

    Oh Toby:
    When I read the photo was of your great grandmother it took me back many-a-year! I can see my great grandma right at the table rolling out pie dough and smiling at me! Thanks to her, I can pull off a pretty good pie dough. You talked about pickled beets. I really like to roast them and then let them soak in olive oil and balsamic vinegar!! Oo, oo, good!!!!!
    Happy New Year!

  3. Rick Steigmeyer

    This post brings back great memories of making onion pie, potato salad, pizza and sausage and green peppers for New Year’s! A real multi-ethnic celebration!

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