Gallery: Southwest Florida Chefs - November/December 2017 [5 Images] Click any image to expand.
Photo by Megan DiPiero.
The holidays are full of traditions.
And while those vary from household to household, food is almost always a
common thread. Maybe your family gathers around a formal table set with the
“good china,” or perhaps uses foldout tables crammed in any available space,
with disposable plates and cutlery.
is a rustic one, with tents and campfires. The chef/owner of Otherside Bistro
in Bonita Springs, McCarley says, “It’s by far my most favorite holiday of the
year.” While he admits that cooking a holiday meal in the great outdoors has
its challenges, he calls it “cool.”
A Fort Myers native and the
youngest of seven, McCarley usually cooks three holiday turkeys—fried, roasted
and grilled, the latter being the most challenging. He says, “If you have a Webber
[grill], you roast it on low, keep the lid shut, turning every half hour. But
on a fire, you have to break it down,” by splitting the breast and taking off
the legs at the thigh. The tricky part is the heat, not putting the meat on
when the fire is too hot, yet not letting it burn out before the bird is cooked
all the way through, he adds.
Brian McCarley, Otherside Bistro, Bonita Springs. Photo courtesy of Brian McCarley.
Deviled eggs are one of McCarley’s
favorite sides and he’s passionate about preparation, saying, “I don’t want any
weird gourmet deviled egg, just the yoke, mayo and mustard … you don’t have to
put truffle in everything.” His sister, in fact, was relieved of making deviled
eggs the year she added pickled relish, he says, laughing.
When it comes to cooking almost any
lean meat, “Brining is super important … the simplest is just a salt and water
solution,” the chef explains. The meat pulls in the salt, which in turn holds
water and creates moisture, making the meat tender. You can also add flavors to
the brine that include sugar for sweetness. McCarley says, “Think of it along
the idea of a marinade.”
In his restaurant, he’ll use a
sweet-tea brine for a pork-chop entrée―or bourbon, brown sugar and a little
salt. For a turkey, however, McCarley says a simple salt solution overnight
works best, as “the brine needs to penetrate all the way through the bird.”
Thanksgiving has a special place in
Harold Balink’s heart. The
chef/owner of Harold’s in Fort Myers, Balink says, “When I was young, most of
my relatives from both sides lived in the Denver metro area, so at Thanksgiving
there were like 40 or more people … it was a food fest.”
Harold Balink, Harold's, Fort Myers. Photo courtesy of Harold Balink.
A mix of German, Italian and traditional
holiday fare graced the family table. The chef’s guilty pleasure is what many
toss aside—turkey gizzards. “My German grandma would pan-fry the liver, slice
the gizzards, the stuff no one wanted … she got me into it,” adding that to
this day he cooks the innards for nibbling while cooking the other dishes.
He also likes a house full of
people. One year his table stretched from the kitchen, through his condo and to
the patio, full of friends and employees. He says, “It’s my way to do a little
giving, but at the same time it’s a little selfish because it’s a way to re-create
the memories I had as a kid; everyone around the table, watching football,
While some dishes stay the same, his
stuffing changes―from sausage and sage, to chorizo, to a favorite Italian blend
with tomatoes, toasted pine nuts, fresh rosemary and ciabatta bread. Balink
indulges in making pumpkin pies from scratch, roasting his own squash for the
This chef’s biggest tip for holiday
prep is to pay attention to temperatures. “Have enough refrigeration and do as
much ahead as possible,” he explains. In addition, “Cook everything—from meats
to pies—slow and low. Everything is juicer and holds better … slow and low for
the holidays makes everything better.”
A key cooking tip from Heath Higginbotham, executive chef at
The Mad Hatter on Sanibel, is seasoning. He says, “Salt to me is the most
important ingredient in your pantry. If you don’t season well, the food doesn’t
taste as good as it can.” For instance, when making mashed potatoes, “Salt the
water when you are cooking them, then taste them several times as you are
Higginbotham grew up in Fort Myers,
where his family had many food traditions—oyster dressing being one of them:
“We would get a bushel of oysters, eat some raw, and my mom would make dressing
out of them.” He can’t quite get his
young children to buy into the idea yet, but hopes to revive the tradition someday.
Each Christmas, Higginbotham
changes the main course. “It’s been an Italian feast or a ham. Last year it was
prime rib,” he notes. The chef is, however, consistent when it comes to holiday
desserts: “I always make pecan pie and apple, but pecan is a favorite; everyone
Higginbotham’s family embraced the Southern
tradition of serving black-eyed peas and collard greens on New Year’s Day. He
explains, “The greens represent money for new year and black-eyed peas good
luck.” For the greens, Higginbotham uses a smoked ham hock, sugar and vinegar, adding,
“I tend to cook them a little less these days. I’ve found they have a little
more texture that way.”
During the years he worked on New
Year’s Day, Higginbotham jokes, “I’ve had to throw the luck thing to the wind,
but eventually made it [peas and greens] when I had the chance.”
of Crave Culinaire in Naples, grew up with blended holiday traditions. Born and
raised Jewish, he explains, “My parents
got divorced when I was 3 and married outside of the faith. It was common to
have both Seder and Christmas dinner, so I got to share the joys in all
remembers his mother’s latkes most, saying, “To this day she has a latke party
with people constantly stopping by, where she spends a day and half making
hundreds of latkes.”
his guilty pleasure is her green bean casserole. An epicurean chef who makes
foams and sauces in beakers and such, he marvels: “That recipe is so simple and
basic, super delicious. I don’t make it on my own but when Mom makes it I eat,
not because she forces me, but because I remember it and love it.”
a gourmet caterer, the holidays are some of the most demanding times of the
year, but Roland always manages to carve out time for family and for feasting. Regardless
of faith and tradition, he notes, “Everyone appreciates good food, no one cares
where it came from. We’re just thankful we are all around the table together.”
planning a family gathering, “Have a timeline laid out,” Roland advises.
“Understand your menu and start with the things that will take the most time … set
timers on your phone—sometimes I have six of them going.” He says do as much in
advance as possible and most of all, “Don’t overwhelm yourself on the day of.
It makes life more enjoyable when the guests come over and you can spend time
with them instead of just working.”
Dario Zuljani, Ariani's Cape Coral. Photo courtesy of Dario Zuljani.
most local chefs close their doors to cook at home on the holidays, Dario Zuljani and his gracious wife,
Alice, serve Christmas Eve and Christmas Day dinners at their Cape Coral
restaurant, Ariani’s. Growing up in Istria, on the Italian border but under
communist rule, Zuljani’s holiday traditions were humble at best.
mother worked as a maid and cook for a wealthy family and was able to bring
home some of her specialties—twisted breads with candies on top, and baccalà
mantecato, which is salt cod, soaked and mashed. “We sometimes had a small tree
with a couple of small apples and maybe an orange and everybody waited to split
the orange,” Zuljani notes.
age 17, he had his first taste of a true Italian immigrant Christmas
celebration, in his aunt’s home in New York City. Zuljani remembers, “Thirty-plus
people in a basement where maybe 20 could fit. I’ll never forget the kids, the
food, the party, the singing—and an accordion.” He’s since learned to play the
instrument and often does during the holidays.
for the food, he marvels: “She prepared a feast for me … braised meats and
duck. I’d never had duck before, but there was a freaking duck among everything
Zuljanis have been in Cape Coral for 40 years. When it comes to opening on
Christmas, the chef says, “It’s like a gift. So many people say this is like
home to them. We welcome and treat guests like extended family.” (He even makes
when diners leave his restaurant, Zuljani rebukes any warnings to “be careful.”
He explains why: “Being careful is a bad predicament. A mother is full of care
when her child is sick. Why would you wish someone to be full of care? Why not
‘have a safe and joyful journey?’ ”
be sure to eat well, keep family food traditions alive, create some of your own
traditions, and have a safe and joyful journey wherever you end up this holiday
For more information
The Mad Hatter, Sanibel
Ariani’s, Cape Coral
Written by Gina
Birch, a regular contributor, a lover of good food, fine wine, and fun times.
She’s also a well-known media personality in Southwest Florida.