I'll soon be gifting the family dinner table with piecaken and my deboned turkey. But, oddly enough, one of my favourite Christmas gifts as a child was pickled beets.
It's all thanks to my grandfather, a Navy chef who inspired me to put an apron on professionally. He used to pickle everything in sight, from onions to garlic. When I was a boy, we used to pickle for a week straight -- and he gave the jars out as gifts, along with homemade jams and chutneys. I can't help but think of him every holiday -- along with his signature shortbread.
This season is all about family traditions. I have a few of my own, both at home and at my restaurants: Terra and Sarpa in Richmond Hill, Francobollo in Toronto, and Rusty's in Collingwood
I'm usually working until Christmas Eve, so I make my turkey days in advance. My secret? I debone the bird, so I can roast a 25-pound turkey in about an hour at 500 degrees Fahrenheit.
There are four inches of meat before you hit the bone on the average breast. When you roast turkey whole, the exterior meat often becomes dry by the time you heat the cavity. The key to moist turkey is getting those bones out of the way, allowing it to cook quickly. Your family's mind will be blown by the difference!
I take the meat off the bone (you can ask your butcher to do this), butterfly it, put my stuffing in the center, wrap it in bacon, roll it up and tie it. Voila! The end result is succulent, juicy, beautiful pinwheel turkey slices with stuffing in the centre, followed by white and then dark meat, and crispy bacon on the edge. You can even use the turkey bones to make a rich sauce that trumps any gravy!
Barbecue is another way to surprise holiday guests -- whether dinner gathering or New Year's Eve party. Brisket is one of my go-to dishes, but I've also done a turkey on my home Traegar grill. It's easy. You make a brine -- basically salt, sugar and water -- and soak the bird for 24 hours. It captures that flavour inside, and the salt retains the moisture while cooking. I added in apple, cherry and peach wood chips, and used the smoker setting for an hour at 180 degrees. Then I cranked up the temperature to 350 degrees, and let it cook for about three hours. You end up with a beautiful, mahogany turkey with crispy skin; it's almost like cooking a turkey in an induction oven.
With a smoker, you can create more seasonal gifts than an elf. I've also done appetizers: like jalapenos stuffed with cream cheese and wrapped in bacon, and "pig candy" - essentially bacon tossed in brown sugar and crisped to create candied bacon.
At my restaurants, there are some menu favourites this time of year. For example, Rusty's Brisket Points. We take the thick, juicy, succulent part of a brisket (where all the fat melts), and we cut it into 1-inch square cubes tossed with brisket juices and BBQ sauce. When you put the meat back on the grill, the BBQ sauce is almost candied. We also do a Smoking Tail Pipe, which is a brisket point, horseradish mayo, Dijon mustard, red onions, and jalapenos all rolled up in a tortilla and fried. (It's what Santa secretly wishes you'd leave him at the bottom of the chimney.)
At Terra, we do Dream Dates year round on our tapas menu -- but they are especially popular when catering holiday parties. We start with large dates, take the pits out, stuff them with gorgonzola cheese and then wrap them in bacon (yes, you're detecting a pattern!). This dish is very Christmassy -- salty and sweet with that unmistakeable date funk -- and easy to make at home, too.
The holidays also offer a chance to establish new food traditions. This year I'll make my first piecaken -- which is pie stuffed into the middle of a cake. I'm thinking of chocolate cheesecake stuffed with a cherry pie. Given the combo, it's hard to imagine my taste experiment going badly.
But truth be told, the holidays are an exhausting time to be a chef. I feel like the only guy busier than Santa -- between pre-Christmas holiday parties at our restaurants, and catering events. I take Christmas Eve and Day off, but from Boxing Day onward Rusty's in Collingwood is booming with skiers.
Of course, a chef never truly gets time off at home. But with our family's East Coast heritage, I can combine work and play. Our festivities usually turn into a giant kitchen party -- everyone drinks and talks while one person cooks or preps. Sometimes I even get to take a breather, hold a drink, and boss people around. But then I get mocking comments from my mom like "yes chef" and "right away, chef."
I'm also delighted that my 17-year-old daughter continues one of my grandfather's traditions. She takes his Scottish-style shortbread cookie and adds a special ingredient mined from one of her mother's family recipes: Toblerone. With chocolate in the middle and an icing coating, this shortbread is anything but dry! As it is with many dishes, the secret is the butter -- a dessert chef's best friend.
It's nice to see my kids cracking eggs and mixing ingredients, and dabbling in my profession -though I encourage them to choose a more relaxing line of work. Watching them create new food-related holiday memories always reminds me of that 5-year-old boy excited to receive pickled beets from his grandfather. Through our family traditions, he still comes home for the holidays.
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