Bold new ingredients, flavors and preparations are redefining holiday cuisine.
By Neal Webster Turnage
For those who delight in surprises when they sit down to dine, tradition can feel like monotony. Holiday dishes are as familiar as cool weather and “Jingle Bell Rock” on the radio. Fortunately for food adventurists, culinary wunderkinds from coast to coast have been retooling, revising and rethinking ways to bring zing and zest to the tired conventions of humbug holiday dining. Surprises are once again on the holiday menu.
One-note dishes whose preparations and seasonings are as old as time immemorial have been swept aside to make way for holiday feasts of a new order. While the holiday table is still a place of celebration, changes in cuisine embrace and reflect the ever-growing movement toward locally sourced food, and the increased curiosity for feisty flavors that mirror our country’s cultural melting pot and celebrate the creative genius of imaginative chefs.
“The first thing that’s changed … the holiday table is the ingredients and how we shop for them,” explains Naomi Pomeroy, founder and executive chef of Portland’s Beast restaurant, and James Beard Award finalist for best chef in the Northwest. “More and more consumers have access to farmers markets now and they’re utilizing them.” Recent statistics indicate that there were upwards of 7,500 registered farmers markets in the USDA Farmers Market Directory in 2012.
“That’s provided unprecedented access to fresh, local ingredients which in turn make food taste better,” Pomeroy adds. But such access comes with a caveat. “Come November, the pickings are slim. That forces you to work, to think, make last-minute menu revisions, get creative.”
Pomeroy has a great suggestion for adding a seasonal spin to a green bean casserole: Add in fresh wild mushrooms and shallots, both abundant in fall. “I like to whip together a béchamel sauce (milk, butter, flour, salt and pepper) then toss in fresh, local chanterelle mushrooms,” she says. “To finish it, I fry up the fresh shallots to scatter on top.”
The Main Event
Eric Ripert, chef and co-owner of Le Bernardin in New York, decided the holidays were a good time to pay homage to his French childhood and his grandmother. That meant replacing turkey, which he finds a bit dry for his taste, with capon (roosters that are more flavorful and tender). “I make stuffed capon as a tribute to my grandmother,” he says, adding that he delights in giving it a “luxurious twist” with seasonal ingredients. “Black truffles are added to the stuffing. It’s a really special way to celebrate the holidays.”
Turkey, however, remains a staple for many who cherish tradition. Pomeroy advises selecting an heirloom turkey for added flavor while echoing Ripert’s sentiments about investing in fresh truffles. “Use them to season the turkey or add them to the stuffing,” she says.
Many chefs agree that due to the fact that white and dark meat require different cooking times, it’s painstaking to cook a turkey to perfection. That’s brought about change, a more modern approach to both cooking the revered bird and presenting it, according to David Carrier, executive chef at The Cloister and the Beach Club at Sea Island.
“Cooking the turkey sous vide style—separating the white and dark meat, vacuum sealing specific cuts and cooking in controlled, gentle-temperature (160 degrees F for poultry) water baths—has revolutionized the prestige holiday centerpiece,” Carrier explains. While that necessitates letting go of the Norman Rockwell image of a stunning, golden-roasted whole bird centerpiece, Carrier says it’s worth it. “Sous vide cooking results in near perfect texture and juicy, vibrant flavor.”
His suggested method includes brining the turkey for a week in a low-salt, no-sugar brine with lots of aromatic spices and herbs; making your own turkey stock with a roasted turkey neck in advance and freezing it; and saving your bread scraps instead of tossing them for use as a fresh stuffing base.
Separated turkey cuts also allow for whimsy and creativity in presentation. Carrier enjoys curing duck legs that he turns into confit. He’ll then present his version of a showstopper: a platter of turkey cuts decoratively studded with dressing and the duck confit.
Meanwhile, in Chicago, Chris Pandel—one of Food & Wine magazine’s star chefs and executive chef at both Balena and The Bristol restaurants—has leaned more toward seafood as his preferred holiday main course. He says his Italian influence in addition to health consciousness play a role in choosing a multitude of seafood items rather than red meats. “Over the past few years as we have introduced more seafood dishes to our diet during that time of the year, the scales have tipped less,” he says.
A seafood medley of octopus, squid and shrimp with bitter greens is quickly catching on, Pandel continues. “We also enjoy a dish of flaked salt cod with potatoes, onion, and a mustard and white wine vinegar sauce served just above chilled.”
On the Side
Carrier embraces that same unconventional and inventive spirit when it comes to sides, especially in a dish long overdue for a 21st-century makeover: sweet potatoes with marshmallows. “We’ll roast sweet potatoes, put them in a high-powered blender like a Vitamix and emulsify them into a silky purée,” he explains. “After, we spice it with cinnamon and vanilla, fold in mascarpone cheese, then we’ll top it with our homemade marshmallows.” With a bit of creativity, the dish becomes a modern, satisfying riff on familiar flavors.
Suzanne Tracht, executive chef and owner of Jar restaurant in Los Angeles, believes holidays should retain an aura of familiarity. “It’s the one time of year people want tradition,” she says. Like Carrier, she walks the line between tradition and invention, and regularly dazzles with her revised renditions of retro dishes.
Sweet potatoes at Jar come as a gratin that incorporates Yukon gold potatoes, Gruyere and Parmesan cheese, and leeks. For another deviation, she offers kabocha squash mash with sage brown butter, leeks and dates. And for the truly adventurous, she draws upon ethnic-inspired ingredients that have found their way into the holiday vernacular.
Tracht points to her Brussels sprouts as a fine example. “We sauté them and, once they get good color, we’ll toss in kimchee (a popular Korean ‘banchan,’ or side dish, of fermented cabbage and seasonal vegetables) at the end for nice pickling,” Tracht says. The Far East influence is countered by the Mediterranean touches in another side dish: roasted baby onions. “Those are roasted in their skins for two hours, then we slice them in half and top them with almond pesto.” And in what might be considered a nod to cultural alchemy, Jar’s cornbread stuffing is plump with shiitake mushrooms and turkey sausage.
Pandel predicts the globally influenced holiday trend will continue. “It’s impossible for the country to not find itself cooking more ethnically diverse foods as the years pass and our cultures continue to combine,” he says. “America has always been a melting pot of culture, and food is the easiest map to follow.” Pandel is also a proponent of creating new traditions.
In the South, tradition often implies “soul” cooking. Carrier notes that Southern “soul” cuisine is defined by foods traditionally prepared and served in the South: collard greens, ham, pecans, grits, fried chicken and Parker House rolls or biscuits. “Put those on the table and you’ve got yourself a Southern holiday.”
Those fortunate enough to find themselves in the South, or at a holiday table where Southern cuisine is the star, will, Carrier says assuredly, find dessert more about cake than pie. “Southerners love their layer cakes!” he explains. “Caramel and coconut are by far the two favorites.”
Pandel, too, is fond of treating Balena diners to a taste of the South, especially at dessert. He’s taken rich Southern ingredients into decadent territory that could raise eyebrows even beyond the Mason-Dixon Line. His holiday sweet potato gelato sundae spills over with spiced pecans, candied yams, lightly torched malted marshmallows and is served with a sorghum drizzle. Another indulgence, an apple pie gelato sundae, is a bounty of spiced apple cider gelato, spiced apple conserve, a touch of oat crumble and arrives accented with a shard of crispy pie crust.
Diners can still expect traditional holiday pies—pumpkin, apple and pecan—to remain in style. The well-known flavors, however, are continuously experimented with. The Cloister’s Southern Tide restaurant’s interpretation is a silky pumpkin custard-filled ramekin served with shortbread cookies.
Tradition will endure, the chefs concur, yet change is inevitable. Thankfully, novel ideas and old favorites all have a seat at the holiday table.