While Johan Svensson of Aquavit prefers to take it easy with meatballs and ice cream on Christmas Day, Lidia Bastianich performs her magnum opus of the year – with the help of a few generations of women in her family. Four top New York chefs tell the Resident what they’re having for holiday dinners, and regardless of having the day off, they’re all still obliged to cook.
– Cotton Delo
NORTHERN ITALIAN CORNUCOPIA
Christmas isn’t a day off for restaurateur and TV personality Lidia Bastianich. Luckily though, she gets help preparing formidable amounts of food for her immediate family of 16 at her Long Island home.
“My mother, 87, is a great prep. She will put up the soup early in the morning, and I can sleep a little longer, and she’ll begin to clean the vegetables and so on,” said Bastianich, 60, owner of a culinary fiefdom including Felidia and Becco restaurants in New York and author of several cookbooks. “When I come down, I am all fires – head on.”
Christmas begins for Bastianich’s Catholic family, “of course,” with midnight mass, preceded by a fish dinner that deviates from the Italian tradition of seven courses, though she always prepares baccalà mantecato (dried salted cod).
Bastianich wakes up the following morning to attend to the meat roast – usually pork dressed with prunes, apricots, rosemary or porcini mushrooms – and guests nibble on antipasti, including affettati (cured pork), pickled olives, and cheese, as they begin to trickle in. There’s also a pot of sauerkraut, sausages and smoked pork – a nod to the region of Italy where Bastianich was born, now part of Croatia.
The first sit-down course is a capon soup with either tortellini or gnocchi thrown in, and a pasta dish – lobster risotto or risotto and truffles – sometimes comes after. Next, the roast comes out, accompanied by a winter salad and vegetables smothered in garlic and peperonchino.
Big bottles of good wine are “absolutely necessary,” starting with prosecco and ultimately descending into reds, and the table is strewn with tangerines, oranges, quinces and sometimes persimmons and chestnuts.
Next comes a dessert buffet with apple strudel, tiramisu with limoncello and crepes. The espresso machine is turned on, the grappa appears, and the chocolatinis are mixed.
Though Bastianich arrived in the U.S. at age 12, she can recall her matriarchal grandmother in Italy commandeering the Christmas dinner, superintending everything from the killing of the goose to the plucking of the capon. But what ultimately appeared on the table was less bountiful than now.
“I think there’s much more of everything at our table,” she said. “It was maybe a much leaner situation.”
Aquavit’s executive chef Johan Svensson recalls a table of outraged Scandinavians at Christmas Eve dinner last year on the verge of storming the kitchen because the restaurant’s provision of lutfisk – air-dried whitefish prepared in lye – had run out.
Svensson, 36, is less demanding when it comes to his own Christmas spread, and though he assiduously helps prepares a smorgasbord of herring, salmon, gravlax, boiled trotters, rainbow trout, liver patés and various kinds of sausage for the restaurant’s Dec. 24 diners, he makes simpler fare for himself and his wife.
“She’s American, and she wants to know for the next generation down what we should serve our kids,” said the Swedish-born Svensson, whose vision of holiday bliss is duck and meatballs, topped off with ice cream. He remember his mother slaving away in the kitchen for a week before Christmas and doesn’t long for tradition enough to inflict that on himself.
In the past, Svensson and his wife have fused Swedish and American staples by adding lingonberries and mashed potatoes to the mix. They also eat asparagus – which hails from no particular tradition, but Svensson’s wife happens to love it.
But one traditional Swedish element he doesn’t hesitate to prepare is Glögg, a drink with spiced red wine, port, orange juice, cloves and cinnamon that’s ideal for winters by the Arctic Circle.
PUERTO RICAN SOUL
Lucy of Gramercy’s renowned chef Carmen Gonzalez likes turkey and cranberry just fine, but when December rolls around, she hearkens back to her male family members digging a pit at 3 a.m. on Christmas morning.
“From 3:30 until dinner there were two guys making sure that the pig was going around and around and around the rotisserie,” said Gonzalez, 49, who’s originally from Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, but made her name as a chef at top Miami restaurants. “They would drink a lot of beer and rum, and that’s what they would do.”
For the past several years, Gonzalez has hosted dinners at her house in Miami, and this will be her first year recreating the meal in the confines of her New York apartment.
Staples of a Puerto Rican Christmas feast are eaten year-round, including arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas) served with pernil (roast pork) – marinated for a week in advance and cooked at low heat to keep its moisture. There are also pasteles made with yuca and green bananas, stuffed with pork and chickpeas, wrapped in plantain leaves, and then steamed.
For dessert, there’s tembleque – a wiggly custard made of coconut milk and orange flour that’s the color of panacotta – and arroz con coco (coconut rice). And since the holiday season in Puerto Rico continues well past New Year’s Day with the Octavitas – an eight-day party fueled by music, dancing and rum – a good cocktail is in order. Gonzalez makes a mean coquito, containing coconut milk, egg yolks, and “a lot of rum, so people like it.”
The Mediterranean flavor profiles of Greek and Italian cooking might be similar, but Michael Psilakis of Anthos and Kefi restaurants has to do justice to his Greek Orthodox heritage and his wife’s Italian Catholic background in two separate bacchanals during Christmas.
“The thing that’s most important in both these cultures is that food is the vehicle they’ve used for centuries now to bring people together,” said Psilakis, 38, the oldest of four children, who claims to have eaten dinner with his family every night for the first 30 years of his life. “It holds a higher level of importance.”
Christmas Eve in Psilakis’ Garden City, Long Island, home is dedicated to the Italian side with a traditional fish dinner, featuring braised scungilli, calamari, mussels and baked clams oreganato prepared by the host. Dinner peaks with lobster and culminates with Italian pastries before gifts are opened.
The gluttony continues on Christmas Day, when Psilakis’ big Greek family gathers at the house, and men cluster outside to roast lamb – basted constantly with lemon and extra virgin olive oil – on a spit over charcoal. Sweetbread, heart, liver and spleen will ultimately be eaten – a holdover from leaner days when his relatives felt at pains not to waste anything, Psilakis said.
Meanwhile, his mother is inside preparing avgolemono, a Greek soup made with lemon and egg. There’s also a spread of meze – small appetizer plates featuring roasted peppers, olives and other finger foods – and the sprawling meal is eaten family-style, with people helping themselves and taking frequent breaks, instead of the formalized sequence of fish courses served on Christmas Eve. But the Italian influence sometimes creeps in with servings of manicotti and stuffed shells.
Psilakis calls the feeling toward the end of the day a “blissful sick,” but the decadence of the previous night is in its league.
“Oh my God, man,” he said, “they’re equally stuffing!”
Pro Holiday Foods
Here’s a cheat sheet to help home cooks find the same items the pros are using for their holiday tables. –C.D.
Zabar’s handsliced double-smoked nova salmon, starting at $22
Lutfisk (1.75-pounds) at Scandia Food and Gifts in Norwalk, Conn. $16, plus shipping
Tiramisu for 12-16 people at Ferrara Café in Little Italy, $48
Single Rack of Lamb from Dean & Deluca, $160
Large Antipasto from Agata & Valentina, $100
Large Meze Platter from Balducci’s, $120