Times of the Islands - - Front Page - BY GINA BIRCH

The hol­i­days mean dif­fer­ent things to dif­fer­ent peo­ple, but one thing most can agree on: Food is a star of the show. You likely grew up with mem­o­rable food tra­di­tions and may have de­vel­oped some of your own as an adult. It’s the same for those who make a liv­ing in the kitchen. Many Sanibel chefs have cre­ated tra­di­tions in their restau­rants that long­time pa­trons await anx­iously ev­ery year.

Take, for ex­am­ple, the eggnog ice cream at Sweet Melissa’s. Chef/owner Melissa Tal­mage says, “It sounds crazy, but it tastes just like eggnog with all of the booze and spices.”

Her mother didn’t cook much, but one thing she did do was Thanks­giv­ing, a hol­i­day meal Tal­mage en­joys cook­ing most, ad­mit­ting to the guilty plea­sure of can­died yams with marsh­mal­lows and pecans.

This year chef is ex­per­i­ment­ing with a mod­ern twist on the old-fash­ioned Jell-O molds. She re­mem­bers, “My grand­mother would cook this—and I’m not kid­ding—green gelatin molded thing with cot­tage cheese, canned pineap­ple and nuts, but it was soooo good.”

Her hol­i­day tips for home cooks in­clude do­ing as much ahead of time as pos­si­ble and choos­ing fresh or­ganic tur­keys. She ex­plains, “The frozen tur­keys never quite get un­frozen enough; they will still hold on to enough mois­ture that you’ll never get that right crispy skin.”

She cooks hers be­tween a half to full hour at 450°500°F to crisp that skin, then turns it down for low and slow cook­ing un­til done.

Tal­mage has some­thing in com­mon with chef Chris­tian Vivet of Bleu Ren­dez-Vous: They both like oys­ters for Christ­mas. Tal­mage eats them Christ­mas Day, Vivet on Christ­mas Eve.

Vivet grew up in Paris where Christ­mas Eve cel­e­bra­tions al­ways be­gan with oys­ters, then turned into a deca­dent feast with plates like foie gras and lob­ster. The French­man re­mem­bers, ”My mom would make lob­ster once a year; it was spe­cial.” To this day, chef in­cludes lob­ster on his hol­i­day menus.

At Bleu Ren­dez-Vous Vivet puts a twist on lob­ster ther­mi­dor by re­mov­ing the meat from the tail and cut­ting it into chunks.

He then puts it back into the shell and tops it with a baked lob­ster and bread­crumb stuff­ing and lob­ster cream sauce. Now that his kids are grown, Vivet ac­tu­ally en­joys work­ing on the hol­i­days, spend­ing time with p atrons who have be­come dear friends, say­ing, “Maybe I’m not with my far­away fam­ily but I’m with my lo­cal fam­ily, my is­land fam­ily.”

His best kitchen tip: “Don’t over­cook the lob-stah. Don’t put the oven tem­per­a­ture too high.” He ad­vises us­ing a ther­mome­ter to check the meat af­ter 10 min­utes, ex­plain­ing, “It’s one of those things that is eas­ier to put back in the oven if a lit­tle un­done, than to undo when it’s over­done.”

Like Vivet, chef Teh Peng of the Tim­bers did not grow up in the United States but has adapted to some of the lo­cal tra­di­tions.

The most pop­u­lar hol­i­day at the Tim­bers is Thanks­giv­ing, ac­cord­ing to Peng, who says he cooks some 1,000 tur­keys.

It’s a tra­di­tion for many is­landers and vis­i­tors to spend Thanks­giv­ing at his restau­rant, where, ac­cord­ing to the chef, “The peo­ple are fes­tive, happy and easy to serve be­cause they are in a happy mood (laugh­ing). So are the co-work­ers.”

Grow­ing up in Malaysia, Peng and his fam­ily would pre­pare steam­boats for Christ­mas dinner. He says the dish re­sem­bles a fon­due but with a sa­vory broth that cooks fish, veg­gies, chicken and any­thing else that is dipped into it. Noo­dles, fish balls and quail eggs were also big at Peng’s cel­e­bra­tions.

On the is­land, the chef likes to pre­pare beef Wellington at Christ­mas. “I make a whole loaf with a red wine and shal­lot demi-glace and slice it in front of the guests,” he says.

New Year’s Eve is when plates at Blue Coy­ote Sup­per Club get kicked up a notch, ac­cord­ing to chef Pa­trick Fitz. Ev­ery year he cre­ates a splurge-wor­thy menu to wel­come in the new.

One of his fa­vorite hol­i­day dishes is leg of lamb; it re­minds Fitz of his mother. He says, “She used to take a par­ing knife, poke holes in the meat and put whole cloves of gar­lic in.” In ad­di­tion to the gar­lic, which breaks down into a de­li­cious fla­vor, Fitz ad­vises home cooks to rub fresh herbs and Di­jon mus­tard on the lamb, and cook it low and steady. When asked to name his fa­vorite thing about the hol­i­days,

Fitz laughs and states loudly, “When they’re over.”

Gina Birch is a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor, a lover of good food and drink, and a well-known me­dia per­son­al­ity in Southwest Florida.

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