Party like the professionals: Asheville’s culinary crew knows how to host a holiday feast

During the holiday season, Asheville’s food and wine pros eat well. Xpress wanted to know just how well, so we compiled this collection of stories from some of Asheville’s culinary types. They told us holiday stories and relayed tips to make holiday cooking easier and tastier. And they even donned funny holiday sweaters at our request.

Wine and eggs

Geoff Alexander runs Appalachian Vintner on Biltmore Avenue with his brother, Charles Alexander. They learned the food and wine business growing up: their father, Jim, owns Zebra Restaurant and Wine Bar, a mainstay of European dining in Charlotte. Geoff told Xpress about his family’s Christmas tradition, and picked out a wine to go with it.

“Charles and I come from, I guess you could say, a drinking family. Our family makes wine in California, and my dad’s a classically trained French chef, so we’ve been around this stuff for a while. Really, a lot of the food pairings come off of what Pops is going to cook.

“We always do Eggs Benedict on Christmas morning. We only eat that once a year, and it’s at Christmas morning. It was one of my favorite foods, and I think it was one of my brother’s favorite foods growing up. It was always a little splurge thing.

“Oddly enough, we’ve met some French guys who say it’s commonplace in France to drink with your breakfast and have some wine. Certain wines go great with eggs. And this particular one is from Cederberg Winery. I remember when this wine was first brought to our attention; they said this is one of the varietals that you have to try before you die. The varietal is Bukettraube; that’s the grape. It was an Austrian-Germanic grape that was developed by some scientists years ago, and you only see a very small amount of them. The only ones I’ve ever seen are from South Africa.

“It’s got a little acidity, and it has a little residual sugar that helps to cut through the creamy hollandaise and the poached egg as well as the ham. It’s the ripe nature of it. It’s a little off-dry, so it has a little residual sugar. It’s rich without being oaky or without being too buttery like a chardonnay.”

Taming the bird

Jason Roy, chef at Lexington Avenue Brewery, loves turkey — when it’s cooked just right. Luckily, he’s an expert at keeping a holiday bird moist and tender. For him, the tradition of carving a whole bird at the table is overrated. “It’s Rockwell or whatever, but it’s a dry bird,” he says. “Bad is bad. There’s no reason to serve bad turkey.”

Roy told Xpress how to bring a good turkey to the table. He began his story with a disclaimer: he is a lover of animals, and while this story involves killing a turkey, he meant no disrespect to the bird.

“We’re city guys, but we’re into animal husbandry. So this farmer said, ‘Hey, you want to get this turkey?’ And we’re like, ‘Cool, yeah. It’s going to be awesome.’

“This is the first time we’ve done something like this. Typically, in the past, I would just buy heritage turkeys. But this was super big, super local. I don’t know how organic it was because it was a dinosaur. When we opened the cage to this turkey, it stood almost 4 feet tall. It was a 50-some pound bird. It was an ostrich. And this was a small one. He had bigger ones.

“Right before we go in the cage, he shows us this scar on his arm. He’s like, ‘Yeah, that one got me earlier this year.’ And we’re thinking to ourselves, ‘We’re going to get mauled by this bird.’

“And I’ve never wrestled a turkey or killed a turkey or anything. So I thought, ‘We’re going to this farmer’s house. He’s going to pluck it; he’s going to show us how to do it.’ But he was just like, ‘Here you go. Here’s your bird. Go for it.’

“He showed us all the ways to get the bird and do what we had to. So then we killed the bird; took it back to my buddy’s house and then de-feathered the whole thing.

“It was the biggest thing ever, so I was thinking to myself, ‘It’s going to be extremely tough, extremely dry.’ It was seriously one of the best turkeys ever. Now, we brined it, which is massive on any dry bird. We’ll brine. Brine, brine, brine, brine: That’s the key to any turkey in my opinion.

“[The brine] depends on whatever I’ve got in my cupboard. I always use salt and sugar, different kind of spices: bay leaf, peppercorn, juniper berries if I’ve got it. The only thing to remember is whatever flavor you put in the brine is going to be in the meat because it’s going to suck all that flavor up into it.

“I don’t like cooking whole birds. No way. We break the birds down. We make stock from the bones. We roast that and make a gravy.

“De-bone the legs and make a ballantine. Just de-bone the leg and thigh portion, stuff it with something, roll it back up, truss it, twine it whatever. I like to wrap that whole thing in bacon, too, if you want to. And then roast that whole thing, and you wind up with this awesome roulade of meat. I do that every year; stuff it with sausage. And then you have dark meat, white meat completely separate. It’s clean. You’re not cutting it off the bird with an electrical knife and all that. Just break it all down before. That way when you’re prepped up, ready to go, it’s like money.”

Updating tradition

Chef Kevin Archer came to Asheville this fall from New York City to take over the kitchen at Laughing Seed Café. When he became a vegan, he wondered how he would hang on to his family’s traditional dishes, but since then, he’s realized that tradition is more about the intention of the cook than the ingredients in the dish.

“When I think about traditional foods that go way back in my family, for as long as I can remember, the pecan pies were the staple. Everything else in the family gatherings would cycle through and rotate. But it was my great-grandmother’s pecan pie that was the centerpiece. Everybody wanted a piece of that one.

“I grew up in Texas, and the pecan was the state tree of Texas, so it was not just family pride, but state pride was on the line. Everyone wanted a slice of her pie, and there were, like, a hundred of us. So that led to her daughters and her granddaughters and all the cousins working on trying to duplicate that pie or make that pie so it could be as good as hers.

“It’s one of those things where she had a knack. She knew just when to flip that thing or turn it that way. And then, of course, nostalgia kicks in and everyone says, ‘This is not as good.’ It’s the Holy Grail of pies. It was this unspoken, unacknowledged competition that everyone wanted their pie to be as good as hers.

“Growing up, my mom always made them. She still makes them for the holidays. And when I took on a vegan diet, it was like, ‘Well, OK, what can I do with this pie?’ It wasn’t, to me, a matter of, ‘I’ve got to give up the pie.’ It was, ‘How can I convert this pie? What can I do to keep the tradition going.’

“I realized then as with all my dietary shifts — when I quit eating meat and when I quit eating dairy and eggs as well — I didn’t feel like I gave up any family tradition because I realized that the real tradition was making and preparing the best food possible for your family.”

Conquering pie phobia

Emilou Cadmus of Emilou’s Famous Homestyle Goods sells her pies and other treats at Short Street Cakes in West Asheville and at tailgate markets around town. She’s a self-taught baker. “I do not come from a family of cooks,” she says. “I was raised by my mother, and she doesn’t make anything unless you can microwave it.”

Cadmus sympathizes with the home cook, and she has lots of tips to share. She says aspiring bakers should not feel oppressed by the difficulties of pie crusts; it takes practice to perfect the pastry. She told Xpress some tricks of the pie trade.

“There are a lot of terrifying things in this world, and pie is not one of them. The revolutionary moment for me that came when I was practicing making pie crust to get good at it was that when you combine all the ingredients — you cut the butter into the flour and salt mixture and you add whatever you’re using for moisture — when you combine that, it’s not a dough. It’s crumbly. And then you put the crumbles out, and when you roll it, it becomes a dough.

“Keeping the butter and whatever liquid you’re using separate from each other is what’s going to make it flaky. Sometimes people add a little vodka. I use vinegar to add to my water. I don’t know exactly how it works. I read about it in the Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery, which is full of really good hairdos if you’re ever looking for inspiration.

“Something that’s really simple that I think is really kind of special that pretty much anybody can do so long as you have a whisk and a bowl is flavored whipped cream. You’ve got traditional whipped cream with sugar and maybe a little vanilla in it, and that’s really good. And you can keep it really simple and just put almond extract in it or cocoa powder, and that makes it a little bit different. Or you could get really complicated with it and put caramel in it and Maldon Sea Salt.

“You can also switch up the kind of sweetener that your using. Use sorghum or molasses or brown sugar, and that brings out a nice fall flavor. You can put nutmeg, cardamom — you can even use jam and jelly to make it fruity. You can make an infusion of Earl Grey tea or lavender or mint leaves, and that makes it very good. Or you could put that in the pie, too.”

The family that cooks together …

Peter Pollay, chef and owner of Posana Café, does a lot of holiday cooking. In addition to what he prepares for his customers, he cooks for his family as they celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas. At home, Pollay focuses on no-fuss braised dishes that cook for many hours at low heat. He also brings his family into the kitchen with him and teaches his children to prepare the holiday meals.

“The traditional family favorite, it was for Hanukkah. It was braised beef brisket with a lot of onions in it, potato latkes and homemade applesauce. We make it all the time. It’s a lot of fun. It’s relatively easy, and it’s just great. The whole family gets involved: The kids like to peel the onions and the apples for the applesauce and also peel and shred all the potatoes for the latkes. I try to keep them away from the oil [for frying the latkes], but they’re getting to the age where they can start helping. It’s a real fun time with the family and hanging out in the kitchen and eating good food.

“[Brisket] is one of those easy dishes that you can prepare in advance so that you just reheat, so you can spend more time with your friends and family. [Cooking in advance] gives it more time for all the flavors to work and meld together, but it also gives you more time to cool the meat and be able to slice it — because it’s a lot easier to slice it when it’s cold than when it’s hot. So that’s real important: to make it the day before, cool it, pull the meat out, slice it and then reheat it in its juices or in its sauce.

“With braises it’s almost better the second day because it has more time to sit. And when you cool it off, you cool it off in the cooking liquid. With meat, when you cook it, the cells expand and release the juices. So it’s good for it to cool off, and then it kind of sucks the juices back in, so it’s more flavorful that way.

“From the restaurant, since we’re gluten-free here, we’ve had to come up with gluten-free stuffing for Thanksgiving and for Christmas. Our base is a gluten-free cornbread. Most cornbread should be gluten-free as long as the corn flour and the corn meal are made in a gluten-free facility.

“We go to my wife’s family’s house every year, and their company, they make bacon, ham and sausage. So we use their raw sausage and cook it, put it in with the cornbread and a bunch of aromatics and herbs and a little bit of chicken stock, and it’s just a fantastic stuffing.”

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