CHEFS TIPS & TRICKS
FAVE MEMORIES AND COOKING ADVICE
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.