Creating new traditions
by Chef Tara Davis
Prior to the birth of my daughter, I was a borderline Bah Humbug type of person. The thought of the holidays used to loom over me with endless to-do lists and action items begging to be completed. My husband, on the other hand, embraced the season with the anticipation of a 10-year-old, and for a while there was some real compromise involved.
However, two years ago — as I went into labor over Christmas Eve dinner — I sensed that my less-than-joyous attitude toward the holiday was about to change. The next day, when the nurses brought my newborn daughter to me in a stocking, that was it. Christmas was magic again.
Now, I find myself in an interesting situation: I must begin traditions for my own small family. How does one begin a tradition? Aren’t they typically quaint little practices that are the result of generations? Aside from doing a little research among friends, I figured that the best place to start was in the kitchen. Once there, I could cook up memories and smells of Christmases past and future.
The first holiday I spent with husband’s family, I was introduced to the most delicious smoked salmon. My mother-in-law, Anne, is an excellent cook and has made this dish a treasured part of her holiday repertoire. It is so good that when the family gets together, we must ration ourselves away from it. She’s even been known to hide entire filets and surprise us when the last piece has been devoured — a sneaky but highly recommended move. Here, I have made a few minor additions to the recipe to make it my own. Customarily, the salmon is served as an appetizer with some good-quality crackers and cranberry honey mustard. It’s a great dish that literally draws people together and inspires conversation around the platter.
For me, the most important aspect of the holidays is time spent with family. And let’s be honest, it’s the one part of the year when we allow ourselves to truly indulge in food. For years, I’ve been making a simple roast pork rubbed in garlic and rosemary. But for special occasions, I elevate its status by wrapping it in pancetta, an unsmoked, cured, Italian bacon. The pancetta helps seal in flavor, which results in an extremely moist roast. I typically make a quick pan gravy with the wonderful drippings. It’s an elegant centerpiece to serve alongside your favorite sides. Mashed potatoes are a natural choice as well; in fact, no holiday meal in our family is considered complete without them.
So far, I’ve been pleased with my seasonal table. The pork tenderloin and smoked salmon are proven winners, but what about dessert? I’ve always loved spice cakes, and my mother and cousin are gingerbread lovers, so I’ve created a Triple Ginger Gingerbread cake just for them. It has a dense crumb and robust flavor, which I pair with a subtle lemon cream cheese frosting. While my mother has been keen to marry it with a chocolate ganache, that version unfortunately will have to wait until next year. This cake makes a fantastic accompaniment to hot cider, mulled wine or even breakfast with a strong cup of coffee.
I wish you the best the season has to offer, and hope you’re inspired to create some of your own new traditions.
Tara Davis is a personal chef and cooking instructor based in Chapel Hill. An active member of Slow Food USA/Triangle and a supporter of the local farm-to-table movement, she frequently offers group cooking demonstrations through her company, The Studious Chef. To learn more, visit www.studiouschef.com.
Recipes by Chef Tara Davis
Smoked Filet of Salmon
(serves six to eight as an appetizer)
1 to 1 1/2-pound salmon filet, with skin on
1 teaspoon each of black peppercorns, whole allspice, cloves, star anise and fennel seed
2 bay leaves
1/3-cup kosher salt
1/2-cup maple syrup
1/4-cup dark rum
1/4-cup citrus juice (lemon, lime, or a mixture of both)
1 quart water
2 cups smoking chips such as mesquite, applewood or alder
Special equipment: A smoker or grill with a smoking pan, for the wood chips
Place smoking chips in a bowl of water and let soak for several hours. In a shallow baking dish or roasting pan, make brine by mixing all other ingredients and stirring to dissolve the salt. Rinse salmon filet in cold water and pat dry, and add it to the brine skin-side up. Refrigerate 1 to 2 hours.
Remove salmon from brine and pat dry. Place on a cooling rack and allow to air dry for about two hours. Prepare smoker. Lightly grease one large sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil and place salmon on it, skin-side down. Smoke for approximately two hours, replacing chips periodically. Remove when salmon is firm to the touch and a deep, golden brown in color. Can be served warm or chilled.
Pancetta-Wrapped Pork Tenderloin
(serves six to eight)
1/2-pound pancetta, thinly sliced into strips (or rolled cuts, if preferred)
2 1/2 pounds pork tenderloin
1/4-cup chopped rosemary
6 to 7 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion, cut into wedges
2 carrots, peeled and cut into large chunks
2 ribs celery, cut into large chunks
Sprigs of rosemary, thyme or other herbs to place in roasting pan
1 cup red wine
1 to 2 cups chicken stock or broth
1 tablespoon butter
Mix garlic, chopped rosemary and olive oil in a small bowl. Season tenderloins with salt and pepper. Rub rosemary-garlic mixture on pork. Arrange slices of pancetta on a cutting board, alternating sides and overlapping in the center. Place pork in the middle and wrap pancetta around it to cover. Secure with twine and refrigerate 2 hours.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place tenderloin in a large roasting pan with onions, carrots, celery and herb sprigs. Bake for approximately 45 minutes, turning roast over halfway through and until pancetta is crispy and roast measures an internal temperature of 155 degrees. Remove from oven and let rest 10 minutes.
While pork is resting, make pan gravy by placing roasting pan directly on the stove, straddling two burners over medium-high heat. Add red wine to deglaze the pan and loosen browned bits. Reduce by 3/4, then add chicken stock and reduce until gravy is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Add butter, season to taste with salt and pepper, and strain, discarding solids. To thicken gravy, whisk in a few teaspoons of flour or thin it out with more stock. Slice pork and drizzle with gravy.
Triple Ginger Gingerbread Cake
(makes one 9-inch round cake)
For the Gingerbread Cake:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2-teaspoon ground cloves
3 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon baking powder
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
3/4-cup packed brown sugar
3/4-cup apple butter or applesauce
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger
3 teaspoon crystallized ginger, minced
1/2-teaspoon baking soda, dissolved in 1 cup warm water
3/4-cup ginger simple syrup (recipe at right) mixed with 2 teaspoons orange juice
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a nine-inch round cake pan, line bottom with parchment paper and butter the paper. Combine the first eight ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.
In a mixing bowl, beat butter, brown sugar, molasses, vanilla, eggs, apple butter or applesauce, and baking soda-water mixture. Stir in crystallized and grated gingers.
With an electric mixer set to the lowest speed, add dry ingredients to wet ingredients in small batches and beat until smooth.
Pour batter into prepared pan, and bake for approximately 30 minutes or until cake tester inserted into center of cake comes out clean. Remove cake from oven. Poke small holes in the top of the cake and pour ginger simple syrup mixed with orange juice over the cake. Cool completely. Invert the cake onto a plate, pull off parchment paper and frost. Garnish with lemon zest and crystallized ginger.
For the Ginger Simple Syrup:
1 cup water
4 to 5 two-inch-long slices of fresh ginger
Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer to dissolve sugar. Remove from heat and let steep for 20 minutes. Chill and refrigerate after using.
Note: This is a great sweetener for tea and even cocktails.
For the Lemon Cream Cheese Frosting:
1 package cream cheese, softened
1 stick unsalted butter, cut into chunks
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon lemon zest
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
Beat butter and cream cheese with an electric mixer until smooth. Add vanilla, lemon juice and lemon zest, and beat until incorporated. With the mixer on the lowest setting, add powdered sugar slowly in batches, making sure the frosting is smooth between additions.