By Jeff Kronenfeld, November 2020 Issue.
Is there a holiday dish that transports you back in time?
For me, it’s my Dad’s latkes. There’s the sound of the oil popping and then the aroma as he places the steamy potato pancakes on the table. The toppings are sour cream, jelly and applesauce, and there’s plenty of each. It isn’t really a holiday without at least a dozen or so of these greasy carb cakes stuffed in my belly.
Chefs also have their cherished favorites. We spoke with five of the Valley’s finest greasy spoons to see what foods embody the holiday spirit for them. Some revel in elaborate dishes that take hours if not days to craft. Others prefer something simple yet sentimental. Learn what foods fill the hearts and bellies of these pros during the holiday season while getting tips on how to make these delicacies for your holiday crew.
Kevin Binkley of Binkley’s Restaurant
Since 2004, Kevin Binkley has dazzled the Valley with his epicurean culinary stylings. Around these parts, his surname is synonymous with the most sumptuously over the top dining experiences. However, when it comes to the holidays, he doesn’t need anything fancy.
Binkley explained his Yuletide favorite is a dish made of oysters and cream which doesn’t even have a formal name. Every Christmas growing up, Binkley’s stepfather would bring a big pot of cream to a boil before pouring the steamy white fluid over raw oysters. This firmed and plumped the little mollusks up just enough.
Of course, Binkley has made some slight tweaks over the years. He starts by sweating some chopped garlic in butter until it turns translucent. Next, he adds and reduces a little white wine before turning off the stove and tossing in the shucked oysters. The chef recommends smaller oyster varieties harvested from the cold waters of the Pacific Northwest. Then, you just pour in the steaming cream spiced with white pepper, salt and the littlest bit of nutmeg. Let it sit for four minutes and, voila, it’s done. Of course, you can’t forget the most important ingredient, and one Binkley’s stepfather never scrunched on.
“The best part about eating good food is when somebody’s love has gone into it,” Binkley explained. “You taste that and I think every year I had that with my stepfather.”
Gio Osso of Virtù Honest Craft and Pizzeria Virtù
Gio Osso’s parents are from Italy, which is still where most of his family lives today. Both his restaurants reflect these Mediterranean roots, as do his holiday traditions. He closes both businesses on Thanksgiving and Christmas to give his employees and himself time with loved ones. While these may be two days off for the ever-hustling chef, they’re not days outside a kitchen.
In the Osso household, the first dish on the holiday table is lasagna. This means prep starts early, because, according to Osso, you can’t rush a lasagna. It begins with a tomato sauce slow cooked throughout the day with pork, beef and other goodies. When at last ready, the sauce is carefully layered with long flat noodles, a ricotta mixture, pieces of sausage and — this is the special part — hardboiled eggs.
Even after this pasta cake is out of the oven, it’s still not quite done. Again, Osso stresses patience. He advises giving the dish plenty of time to cool and congeal. If you don’t, he warns all your hard work could end up a hot soupy mess.
For this chef and his family, lasagna is as much a part of Christmas as the tree. He hopes his three ravenous children will continue the family ritual someday, just as he does every December.
“It’s a tradition in my family for as long as I can remember and I’m sure before then, too,” Osso said. “It’s my mom’s recipe. My mom’s no longer with us, so, therefore, it holds a special place in my heart, too.”
James Fox of Vecina
James Fox is one half of the culinary tag team behind Vecina, a restaurant whose inspired takes on Latin classics made it Arcadia’s favorite new neighbor last year. Of course, his family knew of Fox’s talents in the kitchen long before this. Whether it’s Thanksgiving, Christmas or another holiday gathering, this chef knows his relatives expect to see his butternut squash soup on the menu.
This family favorite begins early at the farmer’s market, but it won’t break the bank since there are no pricey cuts of meat. After picking up some ripe gourds and other produce, Fox prepares a vegetable stock with garlic, onions, ginger, shallots, celery and black peppercorns. When that’s ready, he tosses in some peeled butternut squash and maybe some carrots too. After cooking that down, the soup gets blended to the perfect consistency.
Fox explains there are two variations, one dessert-like and another more of a first-course soup. The sweet tooth edition gets cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and other ingredients that stir controversy when in a latte. The starter style can be spiced a few ways, with Fox sometimes adding aji amarillo, a Peruvian chili paste that is pure peppery gold.
When Fox shared the family favorite at Vecina last year, it was served with a sort of arugula pesto (pureed arugula, jalapeno, lemon juice and parmesan cheese), which Fox explained cuts through the rich soup with a perfect herbaceous acidity. Finally, he topped it all with a curlicue of crispy carrot.
“If it’s cold outside and you want something to warm your soul, this is the perfect thing to do that,” Fox said. “It’s just something my family has always loved.”
George Frasher of Frasher’s Smokehouse, Mrs. Chicken, and Frasher’s Tavern
George Frasher usually spends his holidays sweating over a stove so other people can share meals with their families. When you run as many restaurants as he does, it’s a hazard of the industry. Still, these working holidays aren’t without perks. Foremost among them are a peppercorn steak soup that can stand alone, serve as a sumptuous gravy or get poured over noodles for beef stroganoff.
This is another dish that takes all day, so Frasher recommends popping a bottle of wine and engaging in some good conversation while the aromatic soup cooks. In the smokehouse, Frasher cuts all his own steaks, and, for this dish, he uses pieces of beef tenderloin. If you want to try it at home, he recommends picking up a teres major steak.
After you sauté the hunk of meat, the next step is to whip up a béchamel sauce. The simple white sauce might sound intimidating, but don’t be fooled, it’s just butter, flour and milk. To this, Frasher adds peppercorns, rosemary, brandy, and other herbs and spices. Then, he lets it cook all day.
The results are a delectable soup with a near-cult following. In fact, Frasher is even planning to give this popular dish its very own Facebook page. As always, this cook is a man of the people who shows his love through his food.
“It warms the heart every time I think of that peppercorn steak soup,” Frasher explains. “It’s a nice hearty dish that is able to be used in a variety of ways. People absolutely love it, so that’s why it’s special to me. We came up with it at Frasher’s and it’s my own little soup that I can share with people.”
Aric Mei of The Parlor Pizzeria
Aric Mei not only helms one of Phoenix’s swankiest pie shops, but he also practically grew up in pizzerias. With much of his family also in the restaurant industry, holiday meals are extremely important. For Mei and his wife Sarah, herself an accomplished pastry chef, prepping for Thanksgiving can eat up almost a week.
It all starts with getting the best birds. Mei swears by the small flock of heritage breed turkeys from Two Wash Ranch, a local poultry farm. Unlike the rotund meat monsters carved up by the tens of millions every November, these are slimmer and less ungainly. When Mei first tried one, it was like he’d never eaten turkey before.
The next step is prep, which Mei also doesn’t scrimp on. Instead of popping the whole bird in the oven, Mei and his family carefully carve it into separate parts. Each is then prepared in the manner best suiting its particular qualities. The breasts are roasted in a wood-burning oven, while the thigh gets cooked in a pan with butter and herbs. Every piece is used to create a feast that truly brings their big family together.
“In my humble opinion, that’s how every turkey should be cooked,” Mei said. “This country has really become enamored with this idea of pulling a whole turkey out of the oven and it goes down on the table, but it’s really — from a gastronomy standpoint — not what the bird wants. The breast meat versus the thigh meat versus the leg meat versus the giblets. They all want to be cooked in different ways, and so for us, it’s really important that we do that.”