The Holiday Spread: Simplicity & Flavor
‘Tis the season – for holiday parties. And as you prepare for your own festivity and consider what to lay out for your holiday spread, you don’t have to be an expert chef to stand out from the rest.
To gain some culinary perspective on the matter, we spoke to chef Ryan Smith and butcher Jarrett Stieber of Empire State South in Atlanta, and James Beard winner chef Sean Brock of McCrady’s Restaurant and Husk in Charleston (and soon Nashville). Each has his own recommendations for what to include on your table this season, but the overarching theme remains constant: focus, simplicity and, above all, flavor.
For The Love Of Meat
Ryan, Jarrett and Sean are all fans of naturally raised, hormone-free meats, and each has a suggestion for how to not only introduce charcuterie into your holiday spread, but also make your meat selections a piece of the party conversation. The guys at Empire State South recommend laying out different types of salami, such as soppressata (a dry-cured, Italian-style sausage), as well as country ham. Ryan also suggests including a chicken liver paté and a country terrine, such as paté de campagne, a delectable mixture of lardo, pistachios and smoky bacon.
Sean is a proponent of making meat the center of the conversation by serving it in its most pure and simple form. At his restaurants, he has created a charcuterie program centered on the terroir technique, known as the “breed and feed” approach, which focuses on highlighting the natural flavors of the breed of the animal and the food it ate. For example, he would serve a terrine from a Berkshire pig from Virginia that fed exclusively on turnips. Charcuterie is an excellent focal point of a gathering, introducing people to types and cuts of meat they might never have considered eating before.
Pickling The Season
Pickles hold a prominent place on the table for these three men, making an excellent complement to any meat and cheese selection. From okra, carrots and sunchokes, pickles are a great way to celebrate the flavors of the year’s seasons. “Preserving produce in their season and eating them in the off-season is the whole idea of preserving,” says Ryan. “I love to serve pickled summer vegetables in the winter.” In addition to vegetables, Sean never hosts a party without a large bowl of pickled shrimp, complete with delicate slivers of shaved fennel and carrots, and the tang of citrus juices and vinegar.
To complete the holiday spread, Ryan recommends including several cheeses from a local dairy farm, along with homemade jams and spreads, such as pear butter and quince marmalade. Ryan and Sean both consider pimento cheese with crackers and sliced celery to be a foolproof addition to the table, as well as a crockpot full of salty boiled peanuts. These two chefs also make boiled peanut hummus at their restaurants, which takes a different approach to a typical party dip. Another option is a smoked trout mousse, which is a light, flavorful seafood spread that puts most mini crab cakes to shame. Sean also recommends deviled eggs, made simply with mayonnaise, yellow mustard, a dash of hot sauce, bread-and-butter pickle juice and bits of chopped up pickles, and finished with a sprinkling of paprika.
So this year, venture beyond serving an average spinach-artichoke dip and offer your guest charcuterie, locally sourced cheeses and a mix of pickled vegetables. As Sean says, “It’s about the classics. You don’t want to go too crazy, but you don’t want to be boring either.”
Photo by Andrew Thomas Lee