While they spend the majority of their time in different parts of the ‘house’, when it comes to holiday cooking and actually enjoying the festive feast, chefs and owners agree one thing is essential – plan and prep ahead of time.
Case in point: with snow yet to settle anywhere but the mountain tops, Chef Spencer Watts is already in the kitchen readying the final touches for Indulge’s Christmas dinner photo shoot at Vancouver’s Left Bank. He smiles as he gives the bird a final brush from the pan juices.
“That’s the beauty. Food like this is a time machine.”
The traditional turkey owns the spotlight for our feast, skin golden and meat cooked to perfection, always a tough task with almost any turkey.
Watts admits that the ideal technique for cooking a turkey is to remove the legs to confit and cook the breast on the bone separately. Similarly, he points out that Julia Child offers up a great technique for compressing and pushing the leg meat down the bone.
“Let’s be honest, though. Most of us just want to make a good, whole bird and make sure it is not dry,” says Watts. “After all, there are other dishes to bring to the table, and the point is to enjoy your company.”
As executive chef for both Left Bank and Bistro Pastis, Watts is most certainly in good company, primarily that of John Blakeley, who owns both rooms and has a special connection to the former.
Though Left Bank came later, Blakeley’s ties to the space go back to his very first job in B.C., when 751 Denman St. was home to Café du Paris – where his culinary career in Canada began. An enduring passion for sharing French cuisine has carried him far since – in the case of Left Bank, full circle.
“French cuisine has gone through so many changes, but at heart, it is always very much a celebration of timeless food and company alike. It is always a holiday for us,” says Blakeley, who admits to a particular fondness for December 25.
“I think a great Christmas dinner is a common ground. Holidays are all about bringing favourites to the table and celebrating being together.
“For us, it is really about giving people what they want, and comfort food lies at the heart of both our rooms – and French food in general. It’s comfort food that people understand. There is a reason why a lot of this food has worked for over 100 years. There is a simplicity and family feel to it.”
Watts admits that jumping ahead for the holidays is not only a joy, but takes him back to the moment he realized that cooking would become his career.
“It’s kind of funny when you consider the Christmas connection, but when I was in Grade 9, I entered a gingerbread-house competition and won second place. That did it for me. I said ‘I am going to be a cook for life,'” he says with a grin.
“And I still love making gingerbread houses.”
That said, Watts admits he is actually fairly hands off in his parents’ kitchen for the holidays.
“The truth is, I love to watch my mom and dad in the kitchen. And (I) cook for them whenever I can, but by the time Christmas rolls around, I have done over a 100 turkeys, so I watch them work their magic on that one,” he says.
For Blakeley, the holidays have always been about roasting and hosting alike, so he takes his tips on time management to heart.
“The holidays let us all turn into children again,” he says, before adding a caveat.
“So long as things are organized ahead. Whatever time you can save ahead only adds to everyone’s enjoyment on the day. A lot of prep work can be done a couple days ahead. Root vegetables can be pre-blanched for roasting. Some dishes actually taste that much better made ahead and reheated.”
“The three hours before you sit down to eat should actually be the easiest part for the host. There is really very little that can not be made ahead and heated the next day, so the key is organizing ahead of time and taking the notion of the mis en place to heart in the home.”
As for what gifts the foodies in your family might enjoy, his eyes light up with the mention of a vacuum pack, but both he and Blakeley agree that any kitchen becomes more fun with the following: a good microplane, mandolin, cutting board, five-and-half-inch chef’s knife, kosher salt and a gift certificate for professional knife sharpening.
As for the recipes gathered for this holiday edition of Indulge, neither chef nor owner make any apologies for lack of a stuffing recipe. Both agree – every family makes their own best stuffing.
Croissant & Bing Cherries Bread Pudding
8 large croissants, diced
14 sage leaves, chopped
15 pearl onions, blanched
400 ml Bing cherries, chopped (no juice)
4 celery stalks, finely diced
5 eggs, mixed thoroughly
250 ml cream
2 Tbsp nutmeg
big pinch salt
INSTRUCTIONS: In a bowl, combine all ingredients, using your hands and fingers to evenly incorporate all ingredients together. Select your favourite terrine mold/baking dish. Line with grease, parchment paper and press the croissant mixture firmly into your mold. Cover with aluminum foil. Bake at 350 F until the top is golden brown and the center is cooked.
Warm Green Beans with Hazelnuts & Dijon Hollandaise
For the hollandaise:
4 egg yolks
2 Tbsp Dijon mustard
1 lemon, juiced
1 litre clarified butter
INSTRUCTIONS: In a blender, place the egg yolks, mustard and lemon juice. Turn blender on the lowest setting, move blender speed up to medium strength and slowly drizzle in the clarified butter. If the hollandaise becomes too thick, add a little water and keep incorporating the butter. Season with salt to taste.
For the green beans:
1 lb green beans
1/2 cup toasted hazelnuts
Trim ends and place green beans in boiling, salted water. Once green beans are tender but firm, remove from water and place in ice bath immediately. Once cooled reserve in a container.
Plating the Dish:
Re-heat green beans in boiling water for a few seconds, transfer into a mixing bowl and season with olive oil and a pinch of salt. On a nice serving platter, arrange green beans, serve a generous amount of your amazing hollandaise and garnish with toasted hazelnuts.
4 large yukon gold potatoes, peeled
1½ lbs clarified butter
Salt, to taste
INSTRUCTIONS: On a mandolin/slicer (or with your knife, if you’re feeling lucky), slice potatoes about three-mm thick and immediately place them into the clarified butter. In a casserole dish, layer the butter-soaked potatoes evenly, switching direction with every layer and seasoning with salt.
Cover with parchment paper and cook at 300 F for 1½ hours. When potatoes come out of the oven, place a weight over them using a same-size insert or a plate with some weight on it (i.e. can of tomatoes). Let cool at room temperature and place in the cooler for 24 hours.
Once chilled and set, the potatoes can be pre-cut and reheated (from room temperature) at 350 F for 8-10 minutes.