The Critic Cooks: Family Treasures

November 21 2013, 10:30 AM

In my house, the Christmas dinner menu changes every year. For Thanksgiving, however, there is little flexibility. A late-November feast just wouldn’t be a late-November feast without Melvin’s turkey (pictured), Barbara’s giblet gravy, and Rosalie’s recipes for oyster dressing and pumpkin pie. While I take some liberties with an opening soup and a post-entrée salad or cheese course, these family recipes are non-negotiable. The dishes remind us of the bronze dinner bell that my paternal grandmother would ring to ceremoniously begin a special meal. They keep alive visions of my paternal grandfather carving “the bird” from the head of the table—fat running from his wrists to his elbows, through strategically placed kitchen towels, and onto a now oil-stained white tablecloth that we still use. In the next several weeks, I'll be among the masses running around town looking for that rogue ingredient that honors lost generations through their recipes.

Marczyk Fine Foods, for example, will be packed with customers who have special-ordered lobsters, caviar, foie gras, and truffles; or are on the hunt for things such as food-grade lye, suet, and caul fat. “You name it, I’ve had a request for it candied,” grocery buyer Christopher Weir says of the family-recipe hunters. Adventuresome home cooks aren’t the only ones honoring their heritage this month. So too are some of Denver’s most celebrated chefs.

At TAG, chef-owner Troy Guard is serving a pheasant entrée inspired by his father’s hunting excursions in their home state of Hawaii. “My Dad always did this pheasant dish,” Guard remembers. “He would place it in a heavy duty pot with bacon, onions, chicken stock, and ginger.” To accompany it, Guard’s mother would make "cheese buttons," a pan-fried crêpe filled with cheese curd and mozzarella. This month at his Larimer Square restaurant, Guard is serving the seared pheasant with leg confit, a pate made of the liver, and his mother’s cheese crepes. 

At Fruition Restaurant, chef-owner Alex Seidel is currently featuring a dish inspired by his youth. This might surprise those who know that the nationally-honored chef—a self-described latchkey kid—would make himself after-school snacks of raw pasta and peanut butter. When his mother had enough time, she baked a frozen Chicken Cordon Bleu. “They took an hour and a half,” Seidel says, “not good timing for a single parent.” Seidel’s much-elevated spin on the classic includes Madrange ham, cave-aged Gruyère fondue, and a savory bread pudding that includes levain, brioche, pumpernickel, and cornbread.

Next month, the menu for a Swedish Christmas dinner event at Trillium will feature flavors from chef-owner Ryan Leinonen’s childhood. The chef grew up on pasties, a handheld meal from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula that is a cross between an empanada and a pot pie. The lunchbox dish of dough folded over a mixture of ground meats and root vegetables was popular among the Scandinavian immigrants who worked in the area’s copper mines. For the Trillium dinner, Leinonen will roll meatballs made of the same ingredients as a pasty’s filling, including: ground beef, pork, potatoes, onions, carrots, rutabaga, and allspice. The meatballs will be plated over seared kale and topped with macerated lingonberries, which are common to both his Northern Michigan and Scandinavian roots.

In Boulder, Eric Skokan honors his heritage at the end of the meal with his paternal grandmother's recipe for gingersnap cookies. "I made a slow meal of cracking walnuts, gingersnaps, and cold milk as a kid," Skokan says. The traditional Czech recipe includes fresh and powdered ginger, molasses, cardamom, and lard; and makes a thin, crisp cookie. At Black Cat the chef-owner serves them on a gingerbread cake. Over at Bramble & Hare, the cookies accompany a pumpkin mousse. 

For chefs and home cooks alike, recreating age-old recipes from modern-day grocery aisles can be a time-consuming labor of love. I can’t think of a better excuse to justify a break from my own holiday cooking than the opportunity to taste the family recipes of these chefs. 

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