Despite the stress and preparation, a holiday meal with friends and family is worth the year-long wait, so when tackling this year's menus, why not go for a surprise and think outside of the supermarket?
We turned to a few Central PA chef's for inspiration.
Rich Pusey, executive chef at Fraiche in Camp Hill, recommended sticking close to the farm for the best food. At Fraiche, Pusey said he keeps a strict farm-to-table philosophy. They grow their own herbs and buy about 95 percent of their ingredients from local farmers. There’s no freezer.
“We actually pick up our trout live,” he said. “We dry out our own onions and garlic to make onion and garlic powder.”
During fall, acorn and butternut squashes are in season and on the holiday menu. He suggested roasting the squash with butter, salt, pepper and brown sugar as an alternative to serving a sweet potato.
“The best thing in the fall is typically root vegetables: potatoes, turnips, rutabagas and carrots,” said Robert Dacko, executive chef at Home 231 in Harrisburg, who shares Pusey’s passion for all things local. “Cut them down to thumb size, toss them with olive oil, salt and pepper, fresh herbs and a little bit of honey, lay them out on a roasting pan in the oven and let them cook slowly. They’ll get caramelized on the outside and super-sweet on the inside.”
And don’t ignore the often-misunderstood Brussel sprouts. Fresh sprouts — in season during the fall — sautéed with onions, garlic and cured pork such as bacon or pancetta will change your mind about the vegetable, Dacko said. “I like to finish them with an acid like sherry vinegar,” he said. “Even a squeeze of lemon juice would be fine.”
While side dishes add variety, the main event is usually the protein. Instead of roasting the typical ham or turkey, Pusey recommended trying a goose or duck this year. “People are scared of them, because they’re so fatty,” he said. “But the fat is what makes them so good. And you don’t have to eat the fat.” Simply roast either with rosemary, thyme and garlic, then remove the fat, and cut like any other poultry. “It’s juicier, it’s got a little more of a gamey taste to it,” he said.
Allen Friend, executive chef at Woods Creek Grill in Union Twp., has created menu specialties such as alligator, rattlesnake, boar and locally raised venison, beef and trout on a regular basis. For him, skipping the fowl completely is a no-brainer. Free-range, grass-fed meats tend to be leaner, he said. So when cooking these meats, you have to include some fat or acid, he said. “Take a venison steak and wrap it in bacon,” he suggested. “Or, if you want to do a slower-cooking braising method, cook it slowly with good red wine and tomatoes.”
If a turkey’s still on your must-have list, skip the grocery store. “Last year for Thanksgiving, I bought a couple of turkeys from a local farm,” Dacko said. Many Central PA farms keep their birds freerange with a natural, hormone- free diet. These birds are often smaller so plan on getting more than one to feed a crowd.
“I always recommend doing a brine ahead of time,” Dacko said. First, boil enough water to cover the bird, and dissolve a saltand-sugar solution into it. While it’s still hot, pour it over fresh aromatics including thyme, rosemary, garlic and citrus zest, then cool it and soak the bird in the mixture for at least 24 hours before cooking. The result is a juicy, moist main dish.
The No. 1 secret to an amazing holiday dinner? Start with good ingredients. All three chefs rely on farmers to dictate their restaurant menus. “People say the food’s great, but it’s kind of easy because the ingredients are great,” Pusey said.
“All of our produce is local, and in Pennsylvania, it’s not hard to do,” Friend said. “It’s more affordable, and it’s better for you. It’s not genetically modified.”
Try taking a risk on your own menu by using what the farm has to offer. “If you experiment a little bit, you may be surprised how easy it is,” Dacko said. For example, he said, try rutabagas, which are cheap during the fall.
Or turn spaghetti squash or pumpkin into a soup by pureeing it with butter or cream, Friend said. Or, dust off your grill and add some char to the vegetables.
The biggest perk of using fresh ingredients might not hit you until the next day when those holiday leftovers greet you in the fridge. “I’m a big fan of turning stuff into soup,” said Pusey, who keeps that bird carcass to make a stock. “It’s probably one of the healthiest things for you.”
Root vegetable sides also make creamy soups. “Take what you have left over, add it to a pan, add enough chicken stock to cover them, and bring them up to a boil,” Dacko said. Later, puree the mixture in a blender.
Turn leftover meats into terrines — Frenchstyle meatloaves usually served room-temperature, Friend said. Or slice it for appetizers. “Use with a cranberry-cream cheese mixture on a piece of toast,” he said. Portion and freeze other leftovers right away for later use on a busy autumn evening.
“At home and in the restaurant, I preach that if you buy really good ingredients — things that are in season and handled the right way — there’s not a need to overcomplicate things or cover them up with heavy, fatty sauces,” Dacko said. “By starting out with high-quality ingredients in the first place, and then treating them the right way and simply seasoning, you can’t go wrong.”
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