"Neon red is a perfect color for Christmas hot dogs."
These days there seems to be a hot dog for everything. Almost anything you can think of, someone out there has done it. At least half a dozen hot dog joints do Thanksgiving-style dogs with some combination of stuffing, potatoes, cole slaw, gravy, and cranberry sauce.
So I was surprised to not find anything out there resembling a Christmas-style hot dog. Last year around this time we featured Alaska's reindeer dogs, but this year I decided to get in the kitchen and come up with my own.
I wanted something that really looked and tasted like Christmas, considering everything from a riff on Philly surf and turf with oyster stuffing to some sort of deconstructed fruitcake hot dog nightmare. I finally settled on this concoction that has roots in a traditional Southern slaw dog, but loaded up with lots of sauces and garnishes, like a Colombian fast-food hot dog with a holiday twist.
I had a lot of crazy ideas for Christmas garnishes but the main component (other than the dogs) was venison chili. I was going for a milder, gamier version of Cincinnati chili, with Christmasy flavors like cinnamon, chocolate, and allspice, along with chili and paprika. Then red wine and cherry Coke to take it towards some sort of holiday Cincinnati venison of bolognese.
The slaw I kept pretty basic, just a standard creamy Southern style one with a bit of sweetness and a hint of mustard. Then homemade mint aioli is made with fresh mint leaves and a splash of creme de menthe for that neon green color, and a crazy cranberry-maraschino cherry mustard that turned out surprisingly good.
I also had a whole assortment of garnishes on hand: fresh chopped onions, diced red pepper, crushed candycanes, pink peppercorns, and a few experiments. The creme de menthe/candy cane reduction, for example, tasted like toothpaste. The maraschino cherry hot sauce (made with maraschinos, red wine, star anise, black peppercorn, and three different dried chilis) that was pretty good but kind of intense.
I found venison at D'Angelos, a great butcher shop specializing in game meats in Philadelphia's Italian Market, where my deer was ground in front of me. Bright red hot dogs are common in Maine, down South, Hawaii and apparently the Philippines, but not Philadelphia. So I was surprised to find a whole section of bright neon red hot dogs in all sorts of sizes and cheese-filled varieties at a local Asian grocery store.
Martin Purefoods hot dogs are Phillipino-style franks made in California: pork and beef, skinless, ten to a pound, cheap, and taste exactly like the Jesse Jones and Bright Leaf brand red dogs you find down south.
Neon red is a perfect color for Christmas hot dogs, but other than that, the Martin's franks are nothing special, so I also picked up a pack of Zweigle's natural casing "Texas hots."
I cooked all the hot dogs in a mixture of lard and butter and toasted the buns in the same pan.
The first specimen was a neon red Asian market hot dog butterflied both to hold lots of toppings and to pay tribute to the "split and grilled" cooking style that's popular in Philadelphia and other places. It looked great, and the overload of toppings was pretty intense: slightly gamey; spicy chili; creamy slaw; then the sweetness, bite and crunch of the various sauces and garnishes bleeding into each other; and somewhere, far down below, a hot dog.
For the next one I held back a bit, garnishing a red dog with just the chili, slaw, a line of mint aioli, lots of cranberry mustard and few scattered onions and red peppers. This was the overall favorite—it still looked like Christmas, but if you closed your eyes it could almost be a traditional Southern slaw dog, with a little twist from the slight gaminess of the chili and notes of maraschino, cranberry and mint.
Much more suited to a heavily topped dog was the fatter, more flavorful Zweigel's hots. The ratio of dog to toppings was well balanced and the addition of pink peppercorns cut through some of the sweetness. Pretty awesome and my favorite of all the combinations, just go easy on the crushed candycane, too much will kill the whole thing.
The overall verdict? The hot dog tasting crew was surprised at how good they were, considering all the wild accouterments. The Zwiegle's dogs were the favorite, and everyone seemed to agree on the cranberry maraschino mustard, fighting for the squeeze bottle to squirt more on their dogs. Also universally enjoyed was the chili, all the elements of gaminess, red wine cherry sweetness, and Cincinnati spice kept nicely balanced.
Opinions on the maraschino hot sauce ranged from "awesome" to "this tastes like cough syrup." At the end of the day, a successful Christmas hot dog style that sounds crazy but is deceptively traditional, with some optional toppings for the thrill seekers out there.