It's the season when supermarkets transform into giant candy stores for adult foodies. Aisles overflow with sugar and spice and edible vice, including uncured bacon jam, chocolate chip panettones, gingerbread houses, and tubs of duck fat. Here's my A-list of seasonal gems that come but once a year, so grab them while they're good and plenty.
No Skid Roe: Caviar is a luxurious, energizing indulgence with a rich store of vitamins, minerals, and protein that'll make you feel like Jay Gatsby during the holidays. To the caviarphile, the lightly salted, non-fertilized sturgeon eggs or roe from Iranian and Russian producers in the Caspian Sea are nonpareil.
The cream of the caviar crop comes from three species — Osetra, Sevruga and Beluga, the latter producing exquisite roe coveted for a soft texture that's firm to the bite, with uniform pearl-size grains ranging from glossy jet black to pale grey. That accounts for Beluga's sticker shock — $200 to $300 per ounce. Bargain basement prices for other delectable (and more eco-friendly) varieties are available if you shop around.
Finely chopped red onions and hard-boiled eggs are traditional accompaniments to caviar. Be sure to use a non-metallic serving spoon such as one made from mother-of-pearl as metal imparts an unpalatable flavor to the delicate roe.
An Eggnog Monologue: Upper crust Brits from the 17th century, who owned large dairy and chicken farms, whipped up concoctions of milk, eggs, spices, and a splash of brandy to warm the cockles of their hearts during dank winters.
Eggnog has become a celebratory seasonal beverage around the globe with various countries adapting the recipe to suit their climates and palates. The Mexican version called rompope has a heavy-handed sprinkling of Mexican cinnamon and rum. In the Netherlands the advocaat loaded with brandy, cognac, egg yolks and vanilla bean is so thick it can be eaten with a spoon, while Japan's tamagozake, nicknamed "sake nog," blends a raw egg and sugar into warm sake.
As eggnog typically contains raw eggs, use high-quality, cage-free, organic or pasteurized ones to decrease salmonella risks. If that doesn't give you a dose of comfort, whip up a vegan version, or buy an organic, reputable brand.
You Quack Me Up: A whole citrus glazed roasted duck with wild rice pilaf is a festive way to celebrate the holidays. A completely dark meat fowl, duck provides an excellent source of protein, vitamins and minerals, but also a high-fat content — saturated, mono- and polyunsaturated. Alas, the cholesterol-conscious should eat moderately.
If you like to give your jaw a good workout, buy Mallard with flesh that's lean yet greasy, and somewhat tough. The Muscovy has an overpowering flavor so is best used for its liver to make foie gras, (now legal after a Los Angeles judge reversed the statewide ban on the controversial food). The White Pekin, the country's most popular breed has a rich flavor minus the gaminess, along with leaner, more succulent meat.
From Soup to Chestnuts: This time of year Nat King Cole's iconic tune chimes in my head, "Chestnuts roasting in an open fire," and my mouth waters for these treats. They come whole with tough mahogany skins encapsulating creamy white soft kernels, or already peeled in decorative tins or jars.
Chestnuts are as divine in savory dishes as they are in sweet ones. Due to the high starch content (but thankfully low in fat and calories) the kernels are used as spud substitutes, especially in European cuisines. Take the chill off a winter's night with a steamy bowl of toasted chestnut almond bisque. For a riff on classic Italian try chestnut risotto or ravioli.
For some seasonal sides, stuff the hollows of acorn squash with mashed chestnuts, or whip up a chestnut soufflé with a brandy drizzle. A bittersweet chocolate chestnut torte would satisfy the most discriminating sweet tooth. My personal favorite is this chestnut puree with an avalanche of whipped cream that has been savored around the world, particularly at the romantic, century-old Gerbeaud Café in Budapest, a glamorous haunt of the Habsburg royal family and Queen of Hungary, along with such celebrities as Madonna and Brad Pitt, who signed the elegant eatery's gold-leafed guestbook when they dropped by for their fix of this blissful delicacy.
— Recipe: Holiday Chestnut Puree
• 12 ounces chestnut puree (canned)
• 1/2 cup heavy cream
• 2 tablespoons Brandy, or pick your poison (Amaretto, Frangelico, Cognac)
• 1/4 teaspoon almond extract
• 1-tablespoon chestnut honey
Combine ingredients in a food processor and blend to a smooth texture, like Spackling paste. If it's too thick, add more cream. Chill. Serve in martini glasses. Garnish with shaved bittersweet chocolate, and a tower of whipped cream. Serves 6.
(For the authentic recipe translated directly from Gerbeaud Café's Hungarian master confectioners, visit freerangeclub.com)