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Comfort Meets Contemporary

Traditional Food Hopped Up for the Holidays

Ho ho ho… hum? Banish boredom with these tips to keep holiday menus fresh and festive.

They start sooner, they last longer, and they’ve usually turned everyone on your staff into shadows of their former selves by the time mid-January rolls around. Love them or hate them, caterers know the holidays are a time of big expectations. Customers want shimmer, glimmer, and plenty of interesting new treats, not just the usual holiday suspects. You want to ensure that the party you landed this year rebooks for next year. In an era when “what else have you got?” is the standard response to that “standard” menu, we’re all amping up the creativity this time of year, looking for dishes that are the exact combination of “comfort” and “contemporary.” Don’t wait until you get your first whiff of pumpkin spice latte before making a plan to take this year’s season into the spectacular zone with some new twists on traditional favorites.

Here are some tips from three caterers who’ve cracked the code on holiday creativity.

Southern style
Enjolik R. Oree-Bailey (Chef Jolié)
Low Country Quisine
Dallas, Texas

Business brief
“I started the company in 2009 with family recipes passed down from my grandparents. Some have been modernized, and some have been left exactly the same,” says Chef Oree-Bailey. “Today, our menu has evolved to include not only my family’s recipes, but customizable menus to satisfy every palate.”

“We offer truly authentic Southern food, beautifully presented with a modern point of view.’”

Worth noting
“Our holiday season begins with corporate parties the week before Thanksgiving. Lately, we’ve been catering holiday parties into second week of January.”

Known for
“Texas clients tend to be more traditional, so sometimes it’s hard to convince them to try a twist on the favorites they love to see every year. When I can’t convince them to move from a traditional choice, I try to put a spin on it. I know all us caterers are ‘done’ with mashed potato bars, but clients still love them. So I turn ours into a two-way bar with Yukon Gold potatoes on one side, and mashed sweet potatoes on the other, with candied oranges, dried cranberries, praline pecans, marshmallows, and cinnamon sugar. It’s a holiday food, still familiar but made different.

“We’ve also done a Southern biscuit bar, with buttermilk, sweet potato, and cheddar biscuits. We include honey, bourbon-infused preserves, flavored butters, and savory pepper gravy. We sometimes add a ham carving station or fried chicken.”

Surviving the season
“We alternate taking vacation time during slow season (for us here in Dallas, that’s the height of the summer). If there’s down time, take advantage of it, because when the busy season comes, it’s here, and it’s all hands on deck!

“I’m also a big advocate of meditation. Taking a few minutes to step away and breathe makes me more focused, and able to think faster on my feet.”

Favorite holiday food memory
“I spent summers and holidays with my grandparents in Charleston, South Carolina. They were both culinary professionals, and that’s where I learned to cook. My grandmother made the best sweet potato pie, and I could eat one all by myself in a couple days. I think ate my fill in my youth, though, because I really can’t eat anything that’s sweet potato-related today.”

Photo: DON CLAUSEN 2016

Sweet Potato Biscuits
Yield: 10

1-3/4 cup all-purpose flour
3 T brown sugar
2-1/2 tsp baking powder
1 T ground cinnamon
1 tsp salt
½ tsp baking soda
6 T chilled and cut unsalted butter
1 cup chilled and mashed sweet potatoes
1/3 cup buttermilk

1. In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and baking soda.
2. Using a pastry blender, cut butter into the mixture.
3. In a smaller bowl, whisk the mashed sweet potatoes with the buttermilk and then add it to the flour mixture. Be careful not to over mix.
4. On a floured surface, gently knead the dough up to six times. It will still be a bit lumpy, however, if it is still sticky, work in more flour.
5. Roll out the dough to about a one-inch thickness and use a floured two-inch cutter to cut out the biscuits.
6. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees (convection).
7. Butter a 10-inch cake pan. To keep the biscuits in position, place them close together in the pan. Brush them with melted butter and bake for 18–22 minutes.

A biscuit bar with a variety of flavors, including the sweet potato biscuits Oree-Bailey has provided the recipe for, is a hit with holiday crowds.

Luxury brand
Robin Selden, Managing Partner and Executive Chef
Marcia Selden Catering & Event Planning
Stamford, Connecticut

Business brief
Selden, who was voted Chef of the Year by the International Caterers’ Association at CSES2016 this year, runs a 14-chef kitchen and manages a midtown Manhattan event space, Above 12, which is shared with old family friend, Food Network star, and business partner Ron Ben Israel. She was recently named a Most Innovative Chef for the sixth annual Greenwich Wine + Food Festival (September 23–24, 2016), presented by Serendipity magazine.

“We see ourselves as a luxury brand. Our clients always expect a high level of creativity and service. Year round, we conduct chef challenges to come up with things we’ve never done before. We’re inspired by trends, but we want to make things our own.”

Worth noting
“We have a Greenwich, Connecticut client who throws an annual holiday party for 400 guests. The request this year was ‘over the top,’ so we’re planning a Great Gatsby theme. We’ll have raw bars, smoked salmon, Bloody Mary oyster shooters, and caviar stations with a variety of blinis. Of course, the vodka will be flowing. One of the special dishes we’re creating is a deconstructed Wellington using butter-poached, butterflied lobster tail with pan-seared foie gras. It will be served with sautéed chanterelle mushrooms and crowned with puff pastry.” 

Known for
“We make our own ice cream and gelato, and we have a very popular holiday ice cream dessert we call The Trio: gingerbread with crushed gingerbread cookies mixed in and chopped spiced gumdrops sprinkled on top; pumpkin with candied pepitas and chocolate with our housemade white chocolate peppermint bark mixed in. We do that as a passed dessert, in a sundae bar, or in small shot glasses.”

Surviving the season
“You just need to power through the crazy times and run on adrenaline a little bit. The good news is I’ve curated the most amazing team. I trust them and care about them, and we’ve created an environment makes them want to take ownership. It’s a kind, fun, nurturing place. Everyone has a voice and an opinion in our kitchen.”

Favorite holiday food memory
“My grandmother was Miss Cuba 1938. Part of the prize was a trip to New York, where she landed a modeling contract and became a Ziegfeld Girl. My grandfather, a Jewish dentist, saw her in a show, and pursued her ardently for a year before they married. Thanks to them, my family background is what I call ‘Cubish’ (Cuban-Jewish). I especially loved my grandmother’s traditional Cuban food at the holidays. We use her recipe for the coconut flan we serve at parties today.” 

Butter Poached Lobster Tails
Serves 6

8 T clarified butter
½ cup onion (peeled and chopped)
1 stalk celery (chopped)
1 piece carrot (peeled and chopped)
1 piece shallot (peeled and chopped)
2 cloves garlic (crushed)
1 cup white wine (sweet)
1 cup fish stock
Salt and pepper to taste
6 (6-oz) lobster tails
1 T fresh lemon juice

1. Place 8 T of the butter in a saucepan and turn the heat to medium. When butter is melted, add the onion, celery, carrot, shallot, and garlic. Cook, stirring until the vegetables soften.
2. Add the wine and stock; reduce the mixture by about half.  Strain, pressing on the solids to extract as much liquid as possible, and set aside.
3. Bring a pan (big enough to fit the tails) fill with butter mix and bring to a boil. Poach the tails in the shell for 4–6 minutes, until cooked through and hot. Transfer the lobster to a warm place. Add the lemon juice, salt, and cayenne to taste. Spoon over lobster and serve.

For Robin’s deconstructed Wellington, she makes tiny crowns of puff pastry; instead of a mushroom duxelle she sautés mushrooms in herbed butter and finishes them with a heavy cream. Finally, the foie gras shown is pan seared. Between the lobster and the foie, says Selden, it’s incredibly rich—oy!

Photo: Lynne Graves

Go blonde
Renee Scharoff, Chef
Blonde On The Run Catering
Boston, Massachusetts

Business brief
“Our catering company travels near or far for a great party,” says Chef Renee Scharoff. “We cater at the beach, in barns, backyards, on rooftops—and in your own dining room.”

“We love cooking for people, because it feeds their souls. Since 99 percent of our business is from word of mouth, we’re only as good as our last meal.”

Worth noting
“We just did a party in Beacon Hill for a couple who had brought eight cases of wine back from a trip to Italy. They asked for wild boar ragout over pasta, but I warned them: ‘It will look ordinary,’ so instead we made wild boar chops, which is something you probably wouldn’t eat unless you went to Italy.”

Known for
“We do a lot of work on the cocktail party circuit. I love to take classic concepts and put a cheeky spin on them. One favorite is glazed short ribs on mashed potato, served on a silver spoon. For dinners, we take festive holiday meals and present them different ways. A standard lamp chop is traditionally served smothered in mint jelly. At Blonde on the Run, we grill the chops and serve them with a mint herb sauce. It elevates and brightens a familiar dish.”

Surviving the season
I drink a lot of coffee, take vitamins, exercise and go to bed early when I can. I tell my staff: ‘You’re going to need stamina, so don’t stay out all night and come in hungover.’ I used to work in a kitchen where the chef handed out packets of Emergen-C to everyone. You don’t need a sick and sad staff. And when you’re the one in charge, you need tenacity. I pray a lot.”

Favorite holiday food memory
“My mom makes this wonderful shrimp dip that the whole family hovers around at the holidays.  We scoop it up with cracker after cracker.” 

Photo: ©Renee Comet

Grilled Lamb T-bone Chops
with orange-mint gremolata
Yield: 2 servings

Gremolata is a mix of fresh herbs, garlic, and citrus zest. It’s an easy way to add fragrant flavors to grilled meat. Use the leftover orange juice to simmer some sliced carrots for a side dish.

4 Australian lamb T-bone chops, trimmed
Kosher sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 T olive oil
1 bunch fresh mint leaves, finely chopped
2 organic oranges, finely grated
2–3 cloves, garlic, minced
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup dried cherries or cranberries, chopped

1.  Preheat a grill on high heat. Make sure the grates are clean.
2.  Bring the lamb to room temperature.
3.  Season the chops well with the olive oil and salt and pepper to taste.
4.  Grill the chops for 4 to 5 minutes on each side for medium-rare, or until they’re cooked to your liking.
5.  Let the lamb rest off the grill for 5 minutes before eating.
6.  In a bowl, stir together the zest, garlic, mint, and extra-virgin olive oil. Mix well to combine and season with salt and pepper. Fold in dried cherries or cranberries.
7.  Serve the gremolata on top of each grilled lamb T-bone.

Scharoff used True Australian lamb to “rescue” Boston-area citizens with holiday meals in need of updating. This is one of the recipes for a catered dinner for up to 10 guests that Scharoff prepared in home.

Julie Kendrick

Julie Kendrick is a Minneapolis, MN food writer with a love for learning. Visit her at