NO OTHER TIME OF THE YEAR IS AS CLOSELY associated with food and family as the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas. This is when we reach for cherished recipes. When I was growing up in Rochester, New York, our Christmas table bore all the usual suspects, right down to the canned cranberry sauce, turned out on a plate with its tinned rings in place. We always had turkey—the bigger the better, ensuring leftovers that we devoured before bed in the form of a cold turkey sandwich made with Wonder bread, lots of mayo, and a smear of said cranberry sauce. Delish!

In my years working as a chef and front-of-house staffer, I was lucky to mostly avoid pulling stints on Thanksgiving or Christmas, and I don’t recall ever dining out for those meals. It had to be home-cooked. Still, during my years as a general manager for an American-themed restaurant in Sydney, Australia, we offered pre-holiday to-go packages for groups of diners who gobbled down plates of turkey and the trimmings while smoldering in the austral summer heat. (Christmas is traditionally the hottest day of the year there.)

Once I arrived in New Mexico, a quarter century ago, I quickly mixed local traditions with my own. I learned that red chile “gravy” was the preferred accompaniment to the requisite mashed potatoes, while sopaipillas and honey replaced the classic Parker House rolls.

Always on the quest for even more recipes to add to my personal holiday repertoire, I asked a few of our state’s top culinary professionals what they have cooking this festive season. Their answers blend Italian, Polish, East Coast, and New Mexican cuisines. Bring your appetite!


Aceq, 480 NM 150, Arroyo Seco

IF YOU FIND YOURSELF HEADING TO THE WORLD-famous Taos Ski Valley, make sure to stop at Aceq, in Arroyo Seco. Chef Elijah Safford sates the appetites of skiers who work up a hunger on the slopes or need fuel for more schussing. His hearty and eclectic menu includes such dishes as bison gumbo, bison red chile fries, and fettucine with salmon and a red pepper cream sauce.

Safford started out as a line cook at the eatery and rose to become proprietor in two years. “I got my love of cooking from helping in the kitchen as a kid,” he says. Still in his early twenties, Safford says his small Jewish family hosts Thanksgiving, where they celebrate “gratitude and community,” followed by Hanukkah in December. (He also calls Santa Claus “my homie.”)

“Traditionally, we cook turkey, baked squash, roasted root vegetables, green beans, bison liver, bison stew, and polenta pie—that one’s my favorite,” he says. “My mom is a great cook. We would make chocolate chip cookies and truffles to serve for dessert.”

Asked for a great dish to bring to someone else’s house, he recommends something that’s “easy to reheat, transport, and serve, and absolutely delicious.” You’ll see what he means when you make his polenta pie.


The Compound, 653 Canyon Road, Santa Fe

SANTA FE FOODIES WERE INTRIGUED WHEN Mark Kiffin, a James Beard award winner who has helmed the Compound’s kitchen for over 20 years, announced a new executive chef this summer. Was Kiffin retiring? The short answer is no. But Weston Ludeke lightens the load and brings a résumé that includes working with chefs such as Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Gordon Ramsay, Michael Mina, and Joachim Splichal. This summer, he introduced myriad new dishes and started to place his own culinary stamp on a classic Santa Fe eatery.

“Having spent the better part of two decades in the industry, my nostalgia for the holidays has changed,” Ludeke says. “What was time with family and friends became spending the holidays cooking for and with your new family: those you worked with in the restaurant. Cultures from all over come together within those walls, and on those special days you will regularly find the cooks, managers, and servers sharing their traditions. Over time, those traditions became my traditions.”

Ludeke, who has been known to brine and cook 200 turkeys for restaurant guests, says that main course may not even be missed when you stretch your culinary vision.

“Some of the family meals served among staff stick in your memory stronger than others,” he says. One Christmas, his best friend returned with pierogi and lump crab after visiting family in Maryland. “He proceeded to whip up a Maryland crab soup and serve the pierogi in the soup! This, to me, was the perfect representation of what the holi-days mean to us in the restaurant business: Bring a piece of your home to the kitchen and share it with all of us.”


Farm & Table, 8917 4th St. NW, Albuquerque

AT FARM & TABLE, IN ALBUQUERQUE’S NORTH Valley, chef Jens Peter Smith’s holiday memories evoke a Hallmark movie. “Our Thanksgiving feast was a turkey or a ham, and we had a nice Christmas Eve dinner with whichever one we didn’t have for Thanksgiving,” he says. “The menu also included some zingy cranberry sauce, green beans, homemade cornbread stuffing, and dessert—usually cookies and a Danish apple cake. You always knew it was Christmas when the Nambé ware was busted out for serving the sides of olives and celery.”

As a kid, Smith helped his parents with potato peeling and mashing and eventually graduated to carving the turkeys and hams. These days, he relies on someone else for the baked goods.

“My girlfriend is a trained baker and pastry chef, so I usually lean on her for anything bread- or dessert-related,” he says. And he turns to Mom for the graham-cracker almond cookies made from his grandmother’s cherished recipe.

Chef Elijah Safford of Aceq, in Arroyo Seco, calls this a perfect dish for the holiday season, one that’s easy to make vegan and/or gluten-free. Serve it as a snack, appetizer, side dish, or main course.

16 cups water

4 cups polenta (cornmeal)

1 teaspoon white vinegar

2 teaspoons sugar

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon onion powder

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

1 teaspoon cracked black pepper

1 teaspoon dried oregano

3 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese

Choose a few of these topping options—or some of your family’s favorites.

1 cup salsa

1 cup New Mexico green chile, roasted, peeled, seeded, and chopped

1 cup seasoned black beans, canned or homemade

1 cup sautéed onions

1 cup sautéed red bell peppers

1 cup chopped scallions

2 cups ground bison, browned

2 cups sausage or chorizo, crumbled and browned

Serves 12

  1. Bring the water to a boil in a large pot. Slowly whisk in polenta and keep a close eye on the mixture. Stir continuously with a whisk to avoid lumps. Once polenta becomes thick and pulls away from the sides of the pot (about 20 minutes), reduce heat to low and stir in all the seasonings.
  2. Pour polenta into a buttered 3-quart Pyrex baking pan. Spread evenly in the dish and let cool in the fridge, covered, for roughly 2 hours or until cold to the touch. Now you have the base for your tartine.
  3. Top with the cheese and bake in the oven at 350° until the cheese is melted and bubbly and the center of the polenta is hot, about 30 minutes.
  4. Add your toppings of choice, cut into squares, and serve.

East Coast native Weston Ludeke, who became executive chef at the Compound, in Santa Fe, this past summer, admits he is just starting to play with our chiles in his cooking. Consider adding a dash of red or green (your choice) to this gourmet first course.


2 cups flour, plus additional if needed

½ cup warm water

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon salt


1 russet potato, peeled and chopped

8 ounces lump crab meat

4 ounces cream cheese, cut into ¼-inch cubes

2 scallions, sliced, tips and roots removed

2 tablespoons finely chopped red onion

4 ounces butter


2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon flour

1 yellow onion, chopped into a small dice

3 cloves garlic, chopped fine

1 tablespoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon paprika

½ teaspoon Old Bay seasoning

1 cup dry white wine

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

Juice of ½ lemon

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon fresh ground pepper

4 cups chicken stock

1 pound lump crab meat, preferably blue crab

Serves 8


1. In a large bowl, mix all ingredients until a thick, sticky dough forms. Continue to work it with your hands, adding more flour as needed, and start to knead until dough becomes smooth.

2. Roll dough into a ball and let rest for 30 to 60 minutes. This will relax the gluten, making the dough easier to work with.


1. Boil potato in salted water until tender, about 20 minutes. Remove from the water and mash until smooth. Allow to cool to room temperature.

2. Stir the crab meat, cream cheese, scallions, and red onion into the mashed potatoes until incorporated.

3. Dust a large, clean surface with flour. Using a rolling pin, roll out the dough until it is ⅛ inch thick. Use a circular cookie cutter or the top edge of a round drinking glass to create 3-inch-diameter pieces. The excess dough can be re-rolled and cut. Continue until no dough remains. You should have 18 to 20 circular pieces.

4. Create one pierogi at a time: Spoon about 1 tablespoon of the potato-crab mixture onto the center of a dough circle. Dab your fingers in a small bowl of water and rub along the perimeter of the circle. Fold the dough over the filling and pinch edges together. Set aside on a plate lined with paper towels to absorb excess water. Repeat until all dough pieces are filled.

5. When you are ready to cook the pierogi, melt the butter in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Cook, in batches of six, until the pierogi are golden brown and crispy on both sides, about 5–8 minutes per batch. Do not overcrowd the skillet. Repeat until all pierogi are cooked. Keep warm until they are served in the soup.

Note: You can serve the pierogi on their own. To do so, sauté ½ cup diced yellow onion, then toss with cooked pierogi in
the pan.


1. Melt the butter in a medium-size Dutch oven or soup pot over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and cook until combined and frothy. Add the onions and allow them to sweat. Add garlic and sauté until soft but not browning.

2. Add garlic powder, paprika, Old Bay seasoning, and white wine. Simmer until liquid is reduced by half.

3. Add Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and chicken stock. Simmer until soup just starts to boil. Gently stir in crab and cooked pierogi, then serve. Garnish with a dash of paprika.

Chef Jens Peter Smith from the heralded Farm & Table, in Albuquerque’s North Valley, offers this must-have side dish for your holiday table, complete with authentically New Mexico flavor.

3 tablespoons butter

1 pound Italian sausage (hot or mild)

½ cup diced celery (¼-inch pieces)

1 cup diced onion (¼-inch pieces)

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1 cup green chile, roasted, peeled, seeded, and ¼-inch diced, or to taste

4 eggs

½ cup milk

1 cup chicken stock

1 tablespoon salt

1 teaspoon ground pepper

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano

6 cups cubed day-old cornbread (or cornbread that’s been dried in a low-heat oven)

3 cups cubed sourdough or other favorite bread

Serves 8

  1. Preheat oven to 325°. Heat butter in a large skillet over medium heat; add sausage. Brown the meat, using a spatula to break it into small chunks. When cooked through, remove meat from pan, and drain excess fat from both the meat and the pan, leaving behind 2 tablespoons.
  2. Return pan to medium heat and add celery, onion, green chile, and garlic. Cook until vegetables sweat and onions are translucent.
  3. Deglaze pan by adding 2 tablespoons of chicken stock, stirring to scrape up any caramelized bits from the bottom. Return sausage to pan. Mix to combine. Place mixture in a bowl and allow to cool in the fridge, about 20 minutes.
  4. In a large bowl, whisk eggs, milk, stock, salt, pepper, nutmeg, and fresh herbs. Add the cooled vegetable mixture and cubed bread. Toss well. Place in a buttered 3-quart baking dish and bake 35–40 minutes until nicely browned.