There’s a reason the foods that grace your holiday dinner table just taste better: Dishes steeped in family history and tradition are about more than the ingredients and the taste. The stories—and the memories—associated with meals matter, too.
And even the best cooks around—esteemed chefs and restaurateurs—have favorite fares that hold a permanent place in their hearts (and on their celebratory dinner tables).
So what do the folks behind some of your go-to Boston restaurants make for the holidays?
We caught up with three culinary pros at just-opened or soon-to-open Hub eateries for the tales behind their festive feasts. Read them here, then scroll all the way down for the delicious recipes, just in time to add them to your holiday table.
The Chef: David Verdo, executive chef at newly opened The Envoy Hotel’s Outlook Kitchen & Bar
The Dish: Sunchoke Soup with Morels, Candied Hazelnuts, Melted Leeks, and Black Truffle
The Dish on the Dish: David Verdo is no stranger to cooking in the fanciest hotels around—he has more than 10 years of experience in the hospitality biz (including stints at four- and five-star hotels like Asana at the Mandarin Oriental and Miel at the Intercontinental Hotel). But as it turns out, his close-to-home holiday dish has seriously humble roots.
“It’s really a story behind the ingredients in the dish,’’ Verdo said of his beloved Sunchoke Soup.
Seeing or tasting sunchokes brings Verdo back to childhood trips to Quebec with his father. Along the way home, the duo would stop at a little farm his father’s friend had right over the Vermont border.
“I remember this old man would be in the fields picking his vegetables for his farm stand. From the look of him, it appeared that he lived in the field,’’ said Verdo.
The man’s hands and fingernails were covered in dirt. As a young kid, Verdo said he learned the hard work it takes to produce even a small amount of vegetables.
And while Verdo was familiar with most of the veggies he saw on that farm, there was one he didn’t recognize: “It looked really dirty and unappealing, but ended up being one of those flavors that you eat and it automatically brings you back to your childhood: the Sunchoke,’’ he said.
Sweet and crisp when raw, but nutty and creamy when roasted, the vegetable proves to be both versatile and unique.
“We roast them whole before pureeing them into the soup, which adds a wonderfully earthy flavor. Once puréed, you have a very silky texture that pairs well with the sweetness of the candied hazelnut and confit leeks,’’ Verdo said.
He continued: “My father passed away a few years ago, but that farm and the taste of sunchokes will always hold a distinct spot in my memory.’’
(Good news: The soup will be featured on Outlook Kitchen & Bar’s signature New Year’s Eve menu.)
The Chef: Tiffani Faison, chef and owner of Sweet Cheeks and just-opened Tiger Mama
The Dish: Parmesan Bacon Creamed Onions
The Dish Behind the Dish: Faison was born in Germany to American parents and raised as a self-described “army brat’’ in various parts of the U.S. (from Northern California to Boston). Faison’s menus at both Sweet Cheeks and Tiger Mama, while very different, both represent a journey, with quaint and creative stamps on classic dishes.
And her favorite holiday dish is no different. While making a private holiday dinner for a regular guest at the now closed South End eatery Rocca Kitchen & Bar, the client requested creamed onions for dinner that night.
“I had no idea what they were—I thought they were a regional specialty that I was unfamiliar with,’’ said Faison, a former Top Chef runner-up.
Turns out, creamed onions are originally an English dish storied to be so beloved it’s said they were carried over on the Mayflower.
“It also happens to be one of Julia Child’s least favorite dishes,’’ Faison said.
When figuring out where to start, Faison looked at a couple of recipes—finding mostly completely white dishes “that looked like mush and were not appealing in the least,’’ she remembered. But intrigued by the idea, she knew that with some caramelization, texture, and depth of flavor, the fare would be a hit. So she dug in, creating a dish with sherry, bacon, and caramelized onions that’s—as she puts it—magic.
“It’s rich and indulgent and lush,’’ she said. “It’s everything crave-able you want in a holiday dish made to look pretty.’’
Plus, it paints a picture of her journey to Boston, she said. “It’s a perfect snapshot of my life. It’s a dish that has roots in New England, but was unfamiliar to me because I didn’t grow up here. Now that I’ve made Boston my home, it’s fun to have something in my holiday meals that feels like I’ve been cooking it forever and whose origins are here.’’
The Chef: Kathy Sidell, president and founder of the Metropolitan Restaurant Group, opening her sixth restaurant, Saltie Girl, this spring
The Dish: Pear Tarte Tatin
The Dish Behind the Dish: For the famed restaurateur, Sidell—whose father, Jack, helped launch the careers of chefs like Todd English, and whose sister owns Stephanie’s on Newbury Street—food runs in the family. So it should come as no surprise that a dish steeped in family history makes its way to the table during the holidays.
“My dad had a home in a small magical Swiss town called Rougemont,’’ Sidell said. “There was a dessert that we would often eat in local restaurants called stublis or tea rooms in neighboring towns after a long, cold day of skiing.’’
The treat: a well known, old school French dessert made mostly with apples.
“We liked the dessert so much that my sister, who is a fabulously talented baker, and I—by trial and error—figured out how to duplicate it,’’ Sidell said. “But we make ours with pears.’’
For Sidell, pears are a fruit that speak of winter and Christmas. Eating them on that holiday feels right, she said.
“The Tart Tatin is a regal- and elegant-looking dessert, yet simple—four ingredients, basically,’’ she said.
The taste and sight of perfectly caramelized pears cradled in a buttery crust brings Sidell back to a place in time where she began to recognize the power of seeing and eating beautiful crafted and carefully made food.
“This is one of those aspirational dishes that made me want to bake,’’ she said. “There is something about this dessert that of course reminds me of my father and my family times in Switzerland.’’
DAVID VERDO’S SUNCHOKE SOUP
A Pro Tip for Making It Yourself: Invest in a chinois; “soups are all about texture,’’ Verdo said. Make sure yours is spot on by cooking the sunchokes through, puréeing them long enough, and passing the purée through the chinois, he said.
1 1/2 pounds sunchokes scrubbed clean, dried
5 tablespoons olive oil
3 shallots, peeled and chopped
2 cloves garlic
8 ounces white wine
Freshly ground black pepper
3 sprigs thyme
2 cups vegetable stock
3 cups cream
Place the sunchokes on a baking sheet. Drizzle them with 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place the tray in the center of the oven and cook until they are completely yielding when pierced with the tip of a knife, 30 to 45 minutes. Meanwhile, sauté the shallots until translucent and deglaze with white wine. Add vegetable stock and heavy cream to shallots. Once sunchokes are done, cut in half and pass them through a food mill into the stock and cream mixture and bring to a boil. Place soup in a blender and puree until smooth. Pass soup through a chinois and cool.
8 ounces black trumpets
Clean the mushrooms and set aside. Keep whole.
1/4 cup chopped hazelnuts
1 1/2 tablespoons light brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons egg white
1/8 teaspoon salt
Combine the first four ingredients, tossing well to coat. Place hazelnut mixture on a nonstick baking sheet coated with cooking spray; bake at 350 degrees for six minutes or until lightly browned. Remove from oven; cool.
1 stalk of leeks, julienned
8 ounces butter
Melt butter and place leeks in pot, keep heat on very low. Keep stirring, and about one to 1 1/2 hours later, the leeks will be very soft. Then cool.
1 each shaved for garnish
Warm soup to a boil. Sauté mushrooms with olive oil, add salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Warm melted leeks. Mushrooms, leeks, hazelnuts are placed in bottom of soup bowl, soup is poured over dish tableside, and truffle is shaved on top for garnish.
TIFFANI FAISON’S CREAMED ONIONS
A Pro Tip for Making It Yourself: Prep it in stages. “Get your onions peeled and cut a couple of days before—whole pearl onions and cipollinis take a little time to peel and they’re not negatively affected by being peeled early,’’ she said. “And don’t skimp on the Parmesan. If you really want to blow it out for the holiday, this dish loves white truffles.’’
1 pound (2 bags) red pearl onions, peeled
2 pound cipollini onions, peeled
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ pound thick cut bacon, cut into batons
2 tablespoon garlic, sliced
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, picked
1 cup sherry
1 pint chicken stock, homemade
2 cups heavy cream
2 cups Parmesan cheese, grated
¼ cup chives, minced
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees
Sear the raw onions in batches over high heat and remove. Don’t cook them all the way through, you’re looking for great browning on the outside, raw on the inside. Remove and cool.
Cook the bacon over medium heat until it becomes slightly crispy.
Add the onions to the cooked bacon.
Add the sherry and deglaze, add the chicken stock and thyme after the sherry has reduced to 1/3 of the original volume or until it looks glaze-y. Add the cream and reduce everything, allowing the flavors to meld.
Taste and adjust with salt and pepper for seasoning. This is great with an increased amount of black pepper.
Pour the onion mixture into a baking dish. Cover with Parmesan, and ground black pepper, and heat in the oven at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes or until the cheese is browned. Garnish with the minced chives and enjoy!
KATHY SIDELL’S PEAR TARTE TATIN
A Pro Tip for Making It Yourself: “Make sure that you let the caramel get pretty dark before adding the pears,’’ said Sidell, adding that it’s the golden hue that the pears take on from the burnt sugar that gives the dish its splendor.
24 cold cubes of unsalted butter
4 cups flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon salt
1/2 to 1 cup ice water
Mix flour, sugar, salt in a bowl. Add cold butter pieces and pinch and rub through the flour mixture to create a crumb like texture.
Add iced water slowly. As dough comes together, form into a ball. You should still see pieces of the butter in the dough—this creates the flakiness.
Refrigerate for an hour or longer.
When ready to use, roll out into a 9-inch round.
12 Bosc pears
2/3 cup sugar
4 tablespoons butter
Juice of a lemon
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Peel, core, and cut in half 12 pears. Keep in acidulated water (add juice of lemon to cold water) while caramelizing sugar on top of the stove.
On top of the stove in an 8-inch nonstick pan, melt butter and add sugar. Over medium heat, carefully let sugar/butter caramelize and turn dark golden brown. When color is right, start adding half pears (on their sides) one nested against the other until you make your way around the pan full circle—the top of pear toward the center of the pan. Take two halves and do the same in the center of the pan.
Let pears cook over medium heat until pears become soft. As they cook you will want to add more halves to the circle to make a tight nesting. Cook for 30 to 40 minutes.
Take your rolled out dough and place it over pears, tucking it into the sides of the pan to cover completely. Make two small slits in center of dough to let air escape while cooking.
Put tart in preheated oven and cook another 40 minutes until crust is golden brown.
While still warm, take a plate and flip crust and pears in one motion onto the plate. Pears should look perfectly lined up and have a dark caramel color.
Serve warm with whipped cream.