Southwest Florida Chefs: Holiday traditions and tips from our region’s top gourmets
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.
Brian McCarley’s Thanksgiving 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.
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.”
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, laughing.”
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 filling.
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 mashing.”
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 likes it.”
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.”
Brian Roland, chef/owner 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 holidays.”
He 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.”
But 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.”
For 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.”
When 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.”
While 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.
His 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.
At 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.
As 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 else.”
The 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 baccalà mantecato.)
And 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?’ ”
So 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 season.
For more information
Otherside Bistro, Bonita Springs
Harold’s, Fort Myers
The Mad Hatter, Sanibel
Crave Culinaire, Naples
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.
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