Chefs’ Favorite Holiday Meals

Christmas is a time for traditions of all kinds and tastes. For many chefs, that means going beyond turkey, roast beef or prime rib and celebrating with global flavors that represent family, heritage and tradition.

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Photo: Alanna Hale

Photo by: Alanna Hale

Alanna Hale

A Taste of Mumbai

Chef Preeti Mistry and her wife have lived in the Bay Area for more than 20 years, so they’ve come to crave Dungeness crab over the holidays, when the prized crustaceans are at the peak of their fleeting season. “Crab, especially our local Dungeness, always feels festive and special at the holidays, and more our style than, say, prime rib,” Mistry shares. She follows her own recipe for Dungeness Ginger Chile Crab (which is also served at her restaurant, Juhu Beach Club, and featured in her cookbook), a dish inspired by one of her favorite restaurants in Mumbai called Mahesh Lunch Home, a well-known seafood restaurant located off Juhu Beach. “I think the flavor has all the elements of a buttery California crab dish, but with the added heat and aromatics — curry leaves, ginger, garlic — it really enhances the crab flavor, and I want to dip everything into the broth to sop it all up,” she says. That means serving it with plenty of buttery rolls or a crusty baguette, plus sides like roasted fingerling potatoes and a bitter greens salad.

Portuguese Seafood Feast

For Chicago-based chef Chris Teixeira, executive pastry chef and operating partner of The Fifty/50 Restaurant Group, Christmas means an abundance of food, beverage and, most importantly, family time. As a child, that meant gathering around the table at his grandparents’ house for a feast. “Growing up in a Portuguese household, Christmas dinner did not consist of prime rib, ham or turkey. We had shrimp Mozambique, little necks poached in wine and onions, and cod prepared using every cooking method known on earth,” he explains. His favorite traditional cod dishes include one in which pieces of poached cod are vigorously mixed with hot French fries and a raw egg to create a creamy, savory dish with a mashed potato-like texture, and cod layered with potatoes, garbanzo beans, eggs, onions and homemade pickled hot peppers. After hours of eating, drinking and merriment, Teixeira’s grandfather would gather the family around to serenade them with traditional Portuguese folk music to cap off the evening.

Over-the-Top Lebanese Spread

When Mounir Saleh, owner of Sassool Mediterranean Café in Cary, North Carolina, gets ready for his family’s Lebanese Christmas celebration, he decks the halls then dons his Sunday best. But the honors for best-dressed go to the table itself, adorned with a vibrant assortment of dishes: The feast begins with mezze, like sambousik (spinach turnovers), cheese, olives and hummus. It continues with platters of kibbeh nayeh, a dish of minced raw beef mixed with bulgur and spices, and dela'ah mehshi, slow-roasted lamb ribs stuffed with rice, pine nuts and ground lamb meat (the stuffed, roasted lamb neck is a delicacy the men fight over), with sides like garlicky potatoes, roasted eggplant and fried cauliflower with tahini. Dessert is meghli, chilled rice flour pudding spiced with caraway and anise and decorated with pistachios, dragées (sugared almonds), pine nuts, chocolate and fruit. “It’s an over-the-top Lebanese pudding parfait!” says Saleh. “This pudding is eaten when there is a birth in the family... however meghli is always enjoyed at Christmas because of the celebration of the birth of Jesus."

Family Heirloom-Worthy Cream Puffs

Since Executive Pastry Chef Samantha Mendoza’s family heritage includes Mexican, German and Northern European lineage, it’s not unusual for her family’s Christmas potluck to include dishes ranging from pork tamales to stick-to-your-ribs casseroles. But true to her pastry roots — Mendoza is responsible for the beautifully plated seasonal desserts at Killen’s Steakhouse in Pearland, Texas — she gets most excited about the sweet stuff. Every year, her family bakes her great grandmother’s cookie recipes (like German spritz and pecan shortbread) to gift to family and friends. This year, she’s starting a new tradition starring her favorite dessert, cream puffs. She’ll use a traditional pâte à choux recipe for the puff, but will pay homage to her family’s roots with the fillings, like coffee and dulce de leche using Mexican coffee and vanilla beans, and gingerbread-spiced cream, inspired by visits to German Christmas markets. “I am sure every year once my daughter is able to start helping me, we will come up with some crazy combinations!” she anticipates.

Scene-Stealing Street Food Snack

Chef Ayesha Nurdjaja of New York City’s Shuka was born and raised in Brooklyn by her Italian mother and Indonesian father; though she was exposed to both sides of her heritage growing up, the Italian influence still dominates the holiday table. There’s antipasto (olives, caponata, salumi, roasted peppers and mozzarella), followed by a Feast of the Seven Fishes-inspired dinner including a trio of fried jumbo shrimp, scallops and baccalà, plus meats, including roasted lamb and a rib roast. But the scene-stealing dish that completes the spread (while giving her dad’s heritage a seat at the table) is pergedel djagung, an Indonesia street food snack of extra-crispy corn fritters that are fried to order and served hot to kick off the meal. “They taste like sweet corn laced with cumin and coriander, slightly lemony and crispy. The smell that flows throughout the house is indescribable,” Nurdjaja says.

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