Serious Entertaining: A Blowout Christmas Dinner
In my family, Thanksgiving is all about family (or at the very least, all about pretending that it's all about family for a night). Christmas, on the other hand, is where we tend to get a little wild. It's the one meal of the year where we go for a no-holds-barred, pedal-to-the-metal, full-tilt blowout. It's like we go all year saving up our calories for a rainy day, and that rainy day is Christmas. Missing the point of Christmas? Maybe. Overly extravagant? Possibly. Extremely, mind-blowingly, opulently delicious? You bet your a$$.
Here's what a typical Christmas dinner at the Alt family might look like.
The initial few bites we enjoy in the later afternoon around the living room table while my dad sips his first ultra-dry vodka martini (Ketel One, with a twist, no vermouth), my mom breaks into the room temperature Charles Shaw White, and my older sister wonders whether my grandfather's customary ancient bottle of poorly-stored Bourgogne rouge with the disintegrating cork and the murky color will finally be the one to do us in. My kid sister brings the cheese (served properly at room temperature, of course) and salumi, which keeps people occupied while she arranges the many bottles of Scotch that we all exchanged as gifts earlier in the day, wondering whether it's better to do it by price, region, or age. Then things get serious.
As a cross-breed of New Englander mixed with Japanese, mine is a family of raw seafood lovers through-and-through. Oysters are one of the cornerstones of raw seafood, and nothing beats an ice cold, freshly harvested oyster from the winter waters around Boston and Cape Cod. Wellfleets are our favorite (last year we were lucky enough to get some that my dad harvested himself on Christmas morning), though even the widely available Island Creeks from Duxbury will do in a pinch.
Lemon or a simple peppery mignonette are classic, but you can get fancy with something like Oysters with Irish Stout Granita.
It's no longer a financially or ecologically viable option to get the ultra-fancy Russian or Iranian caviar, but the American caviar industry has come a long, long way in the last decade or so. There are now plenty of relatively inexpensive, high quality caviars available sourced from American paddlefish and spoonfish. Sometimes we'll use it to make extra-decadent sashimi—a slice of hamachi wrapped around a tongue of sea urchin with a dollop of caviar—and sometimes we'll keep it classic with some blini and crème fraîche.
I'm of the mind that you eat foie gras so rarely, that when you do eat it, you ought to eat enough of it that you can really taste it. No puny slivers of pâté or seared slices so thin that they melt before they even hit your tongue for us. We'll generally purchase a whole lobe (we get ours from La Belle Farm in the Hudson valley), and split it between the 8 to 12 of us, which makes for at least a couple ounces apiece.
Preparation can vary from plated pan-seared pieces (that's on years when I don't mind being shut up in the kitchen all night), to a lobe roasted whole and sliced at the table, or, if we want to keep it simple, a torchon, served sliced with toast and some fruit preserves.
After we've had our fill of small talk and Scotch-admiring, we move to the dinner table, where we have a few appetizers before the main roast arrives. Those appetizers vary from year to year, but they'll always include...
First course is soup. Occasionally we'll spend the time to make tiny little tortellini for an Italian-style tortellini en brodo, but more often, it's a creamy, seasonal vegetable soup that we might spruce up with a few interesting toppings. Roasted Pumpkin Soup with Brown Butter and Thyme would be a good one. Roasted Squash and Raw Carrot Soup would work as well.
Martinis have now progressed into the first of the real white wines.*
* Mom continues to drink her Charles Shaw because she read an article once that said nobody could tell the difference between any wines. We've stopped disagreeing with her on that point.
My grandfather loves lobster more than anyone should reasonably be allowed to love a crustacean. I'm sure it's illegal in some states and seriously frowned upon in Canada. But what can you do with an obsessive but feed his obsession? We'll usually pick up one whole lobster from Boston and bring it down on a bed of seaweed. We might boil or steam it whole, leaving the juices in the carapace for gramps to tilt back into his gullet. If we want to keep it light, I might make a lobster ceviche (more raw seafood? Yes, please!), or if we're going tragically-hip casual, we might even make some hot lobster rolls, which we all know is the best way to enjoy lobster, right?
The Main Course And Sides
Our main course changes from year to year, but at least every other year, it's a big dry-aged hunk of prime rib, roasted pink, served in fat slices, with a horseradish cream sauce and some form of crispy potato on the side, with perhaps a couple vegetables and a refreshing salad. I use this method, which produces a perfect medium rare from edge-to-edge roast with a crisp crust.
Oh, and wine. Plenty and plenty of wine. (And for the record, yes, Granddad's 1976 Burgundy is undrinkable. At least until we've run out of everything else.)
A good winter salad needs to combine crunchy, sweet, bitter, and acidic ingredients. My mom's favorite salad is this Roasted Pear Salad with Endive, Pomegranate, and Stilton. It's sophisticated, not too complicated to make, and freaking delicious. We have it almost every year.
No roast dinner would be complete at the Alt family table without at least one drink too many along with a side of Brussels sprouts. Deep-Fried Brussels Sprouts are new and makes-you-want-to-be-nice-to-your-mom-so-she'll-pass-you-more awesome, but classic Roasted Brussels Sprouts are excellent as well.
You can't have beef without potatoes, and you can't have potatoes without them being crispy-on-the-outside and fluffy-in-the-middle. This year, I'm gonna make Crispy Fingerling Potatoes with Garlic-Parmesan Butter, which is what happens when duck fat-fried potatoes and garlic knots get together and have a baby. A Christmas miracle baby. If you're more of a traditionalist, here's the best way to roast potatoes. They're insanely crisp, and there are never enough of them, no matter how many you make.
While my family may dabble in the occasional Whole Roasted Suckling Pig or perhaps even a Deep-Fried, Sous-Vide, 36-Hour, All-Belly Porchetta once in a while, aged prime rib is the mainstay of our holiday table. Is there anything so majestic, so regal, so darned delicious as perfectly aged and roasted beef? I cook my beef using the method I developed here, which delivers the moistest, most perfectly cooked results. Pale pink and packed with juice from edge-to-edge, with nicely rendered fat and a crisp crust.
In all honesty, dessert in our household generally consists of a few cursory bites of ice cream, followed by an immediate retirement to the living room for Scotch and music (which mostly consist of us telling our dad that his banjo is too loud). If we do have dessert, it'll be something simple like a classic Apple Pie or perhaps a 10-Minute No-Bake Lime and Cracker Pie.
Welcome to life as an Alt child.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.