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.”
JENS PETER SMITH
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.
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.
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.