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Taste the Holidays: My Fabulous Menu

In the Pantry

How do you create the perfect holiday dinner? This is a tough question to answer, since tastes and tradition often influence our culinary choices. I can, however, share how I go about making my own menu. It's similar to the way I used to create menu items at my former restaurant, Grappa. Perhaps it will help you!

Let Flavors, Not Recipes, Build Your Holiday Menu

I don't start with recipes. I start with ingredients and flavors that make my mouth water. Armed with pen and legal pad, I make several columns with titles like protein, grain, veg, sauce, condiments. Sounds like an O.C.D. issue, but by listing foods that I crave I can usually put together either a good menu item or a theme dinner.

And so, I sit with pen in hand and list some of my favorite things. A recent trip to Texas brings thoughts of venison, which leads me to think of other food favorites. When I eat venison, I need to have certain items on the menu with it. My former chef and mentor could create the perfect venison dish, and that leads me to other memories and other favorite dishes from his kitchen. Pretty soon I have my list of ingredients...

Design a Fabulous Menu

My list of ingredients includes Axis venison loin, prosciutto, celery root, cipollini onions, local New York apples, brussel sprouts, chanterelle mushrooms, and, my own personal favorite, grain farro. For dessert, I am thinking of the flavor of cardamom and vanilla, maybe mixed with some pears.

Now, I create my menu...

FIRST COURSE

  • CREAM OF CELERY ROOT SOUP WITH FOIE GRAS BRIOCHE BREAD PUDDING

ENTRÉE AND SIDE DISHES

  • BONELESS AXIS VENISON LOIN AND APPLE VANILLA BUTTER WITH A LIGHT VENISON PINOT NOIR REDUCTION SCENTED W/ FRESH SAGE
  • BRAISED CIPPOLINI ONIONS AND BRUSSEL SPROUTS CARAMELIZED WITH SHALLOTS AND SHERRY VINEGAR
  • FARRO "RISSOTTO" W/ LA QUERCIA PROSCIUTTO AND CHANTERELLE MUSHROOMS

DESSERT

  • WARM PEAR TART WITH CARDAMOM ICE CREAM

Choose the Freshest Ingredients

In the meat department we have venison. While venison is available from a variety of purveyors, I suggest you check out Broken Arrow Ranch -- a domestic, online retailer of Axis venison. Axis venison is tender with a mild flavor that's incredible! For your prosciutto, I recommend La Quercia Americana. It's the only American Prosciutto being made in the U.S. Our other meat selection is foie gras. In my opinion, you should check out D'Artagnan, another company whose products are available online.

When it comes to produce, shop carefully because not all vegetables are created equal. But it doesn't have to be difficult. Always inspect the cut parts or the stems for freshness, touch for firmness and avoid anything with dried or wrinkled flesh.

Celery root looks like a large, round, dirty turnip with little roots protruding off of the sides. Look for light skin and a heavy weight, while examining them to be sure that they are not soft or shriveled.

When selecting brussel sprouts, choose sprouts that are tight and compact with fairly fresh outer leaves. The cut stem should not be too dried out. Large or mini, green or red, choose anything that looks fresh and you won't go wrong.

Go with local apples at this time of year and for pears, be sure to ripen them before eating. When you look for the perfect vanilla bean, it should be plump and supple, not dried or stiff.

Farro is my favorite grain and, in my humble opinion, is just plain delicious. Farro is available at many gourmet specialty markets or online.

Prepare Your Feast, Look to Your Mentors

So I have my ingredients, but when it comes time to cook -- do I need a recipe? The class that I teach at the CIA addresses that very question -- should we use recipes or just go by ratios and methods. My answer is both. Use recipes as inspiration and a guideline, but heavily rely on ratio and method for solid cooking technique. Recipes can be misleading and confusing, but by mastering ratio and method you can use recipes as a list of ingredients and no longer rely on them completely from start to finish.

There are many good books that discuss ratio and method, including The Culinary Institute of America's The Professional Chef, 8th Edition. And, if you need a cookbook to guide you, the finest cookbook author I know -- who tested her recipes until they were perfect and was my inspiration for getting into this business -- is icon and food goddess Julia Child.

Here are a few tips to guide you through my holiday menu.

Venison: When searing, use an extra-virgin olive oil and throw some whole, fresh sage in the pan to infuse the meat with flavor.

Bread Pudding: Get good quality brioche or challah bread for the bread pudding and you will have a winner. If you are making a custard for the bread pudding, consider a mousse of foie gras that will blend in easily. Just remember that the ratio of custard is 12 eggs for every quart of cream. This is a savory custard, so don't add sugar and substitute half foie gras mousse for half of the heavy cream. Bake it in little ramekins in a water bath as you would a créme brulée.

Celery Root Soup: Celery root oxidizes when cut so be prepared to hold it in an acidic water bath or cold milk. Celery root soup is easy and delicious. Just sweat a bunch of sliced shallots in whole butter with the diced celery root until tender. Don't let any color get on the shallots or the celery root so you get a nice, cream-colored soup. After the vegetables are tender, season with salt and white pepper and cover the vegetables with a light chicken or vegetable stock. Simmer for another half hour and blend thoroughly in a blender until silky smooth. Strain it through a fine mesh strainer and your base is ready. Just before serving, whip some unsweetened heavy cream to soft peaks and whisk it in after the soup comes to a simmer. You will have a soup that tastes like buttery celery root and is so light you will think you are floating on a cloud. The whipped cream gives it a really delicate cappuccino foam quality that you will love.

Farro: It needs to be soaked for a short period. I like to cook it slowly like risotto. Just sauté some minced shallots with a few pieces of chopped prosciutto until the shallots are translucent. Then, add a few chanterelle mushrooms and cook until dry. Add a little red wine and reduce to a syrup, then add your drained farro. Slowly add vegetable or chicken stock, making sure it is absorbed between each addition. Liberally season with salt and cook until it is tender and creamy. If you wish, finish it with a little whole butter or a splash of extra-virgin olive oil.

All you need now is ambiance. While cooking at home, ambiance is important, so put on some good music and have some inspirational food pictures near by. Try to stay organized, but most importantly, cook with passion and love. Trust me, your guests will feel it when they taste your food. Have a wonderful holiday season and, in the words of my late hero, Ms. Child, "Bon Appétit!"

About The Culinary Institute of America

For more than half a century, the CIA has been setting the standard for excellence in culinary education. Our students not only learn how to tantalize the taste buds, but how to think creatively, problem-solve, and manage others. Whether working in foodservice, research and development, at magazines, or on television, our graduates are realizing their dreams.