South­west Florida Chefs


RSWLiving - - Cuisine - BY GINA BIRCH

The hol­i­days are full of tra­di­tions. And while those vary from house­hold to house­hold, food is al­most al­ways a com­mon thread. Maybe your fam­ily gath­ers around a for­mal ta­ble set with the “good china,” or per­haps uses fold­out ta­bles crammed in any avail­able space, with dis­pos­able plates and cut­lery. BRIAN ROLAND, chef/owner of Crave Culi­naire in Naples, grew up with blended hol­i­day tra­di­tions. Born and raised Jewish, he ex­plains, “My par­ents got di­vorced when I was 3 and mar­ried out­side of the faith. It was com­mon to have both Seder and Christ­mas din­ner, so I got to share the joys in all hol­i­days.”

He re­mem­bers his mother’s latkes most, say­ing, “To this day she has a latke party with peo­ple con­stantly stop­ping by, where she spends a day and half mak­ing hun­dreds of latkes.”

But his guilty plea­sure is her green bean casse­role. An epi­curean chef who makes foams and sauces in beakers and such, he mar­vels: “That recipe is so sim­ple and ba­sic, su­per de­li­cious. I don’t make it on my own but when Mom makes it I eat, not be­cause she forces me, but be­cause I re­mem­ber it and love it.”

For a gourmet caterer, the hol­i­days are some of the most de­mand­ing times of the year, but Roland al­ways man­ages to carve out time for fam­ily and for feast­ing. Re­gard­less of faith and tra­di­tion, he notes, “Ev­ery­one ap­pre­ci­ates good food, no one cares where it came from. We’re just thank­ful we are all around the ta­ble to­gether.”

When plan­ning a fam­ily gath­er­ing, “Have a time­line laid out,” Roland ad­vises. “Un­der­stand your menu and start with the things that will take the most time … set timers on your phone— some­times I have six of them go­ing.” He says do as much in ad­vance as pos­si­ble and most of all, “Don’t over­whelm your­self on the day of. It makes life more en­joy­able when the guests come over and you can spend time with them in­stead of just work­ing.”

BRIAN MCCARLEY’S Thanks­giv­ing is a rus­tic one, with tents and camp­fires. The chef/owner of Other­side Bistro in Bonita Springs, McCarley says, “It’s by far my most fa­vorite hol­i­day of the year.” While he ad­mits that cook­ing a hol­i­day meal in the great out­doors has its chal­lenges, he calls it “cool.” A Fort My­ers na­tive and the youngest of seven, McCarley usu­ally cooks three hol­i­day turkeys—fried, roasted and grilled, the lat­ter be­ing the most chal­leng­ing. He says, “If you have a Web­ber [grill], you roast it on low, keep the lid shut, turn­ing ev­ery half hour. But on a fire, you have to break it down,” by split­ting the breast and tak­ing off the legs at the thigh. The tricky part is the heat, not putting the meat on when the fire is too hot, yet not let­ting it burn out be­fore the bird is cooked all the way through, he adds.

Deviled eggs are one of McCarley’s fa­vorite sides and he’s pas­sion­ate about prepa­ra­tion, say­ing, “I don’t want any weird gourmet deviled egg, just the yoke, mayo and mus­tard … you don’t have to put truffle in ev­ery­thing.” His sis­ter, in fact, was re­lieved of mak­ing deviled eggs the year she added pick­led rel­ish, he says, laugh­ing.

When it comes to cook­ing al­most any lean meat, “Brin­ing is su­per im­por­tant … the sim­plest is just a salt and wa­ter so­lu­tion,” the chef ex­plains. The meat pulls in the salt, which in turn holds wa­ter and cre­ates mois­ture, mak­ing the meat ten­der. You can also add fla­vors to the brine that in­clude su­gar for sweet­ness. McCarley says, “Think of it along the idea of a mari­nade.”

In his restau­rant, he’ll use a sweet-tea brine for a pork­chop en­trée―or bour­bon, brown su­gar and a lit­tle salt. For a turkey, how­ever, McCarley says a sim­ple salt so­lu­tion overnight works best, as “the brine needs to pen­e­trate all the way through the bird.” Thanks­giv­ing has a spe­cial place in

HAROLD BALINK’S heart. The chef/ owner of Harold’s in Fort My­ers, Balink says, “When I was young, most of my rel­a­tives from both sides lived in the Den­ver metro area, so at Thanks­giv­ing there were like 40 or more peo­ple … it was a food fest.”

A mix of Ger­man, Ital­ian and tra­di­tional hol­i­day fare graced the fam­ily ta­ble. The chef’s guilty plea­sure is what many toss aside—turkey giz­zards. “My Ger­man grandma would pan-fry the liver, slice the giz­zards, the stuff no one wanted … she got me into it,” adding that to this day he cooks the in­nards for nib­bling while cook­ing the other dishes.

He also likes a house­ful of peo­ple. One year his ta­ble stretched from the kitchen, through his condo and to the pa­tio, full of friends and em­ploy­ees. He says, “It’s my way to do a lit­tle giv­ing, but at the same time it’s a lit­tle self­ish be­cause it’s a way to re-cre­ate the mem­o­ries I had as a kid; ev­ery­one around the ta­ble, watch­ing foot­ball, laugh­ing.”

While some dishes stay the same, his stuff­ing changes―from sausage and sage, to chorizo, to a fa­vorite Ital­ian blend with toma­toes, toasted pine nuts, fresh rose­mary and cia­batta bread. Balink in­dulges in mak­ing pump­kin pies from scratch, roast­ing his own squash for the fill­ing.

This chef’s big­gest tip for hol­i­day prep is to pay at­ten­tion to tem­per­a­tures. “Have enough re­frig­er­a­tion and do as much ahead as pos­si­ble,” he ex­plains. In ad­di­tion, “Cook ev­ery­thing—from meats to pies—slow and low. Ev­ery­thing is juicer and holds bet­ter … slow and low for the hol­i­days makes ev­ery­thing bet­ter.”

A key cook­ing tip from HEATH HIGGINBOTHAM, ex­ec­u­tive chef at The Mad Hat­ter on Sani­bel, is sea­son­ing. He says, “Salt to me is

“… slow and low for the hol­i­days makes ev­ery­thing bet­ter.” —CHEF/OWNER HAROLD BALINK OF HAROLD’S IN FORT MY­ERS

the most im­por­tant in­gre­di­ent in your pantry. If you don’t sea­son well, the food doesn’t taste as good as it can.” For in­stance, when mak­ing mashed pota­toes, “Salt the wa­ter when you are cook­ing them, then taste them sev­eral times as you are mash­ing.”

Higginbotham grew up in Fort My­ers, where his fam­ily had many food tra­di­tions—oys­ter dress­ing be­ing one of them: “We would get a bushel of oys­ters, eat some raw, and my mom would make dress­ing out of them.” He can’t quite get his young chil­dren to buy into the idea yet, but hopes to re­vive the tra­di­tion some­day.

Each Christ­mas, Higginbotham changes the main course. “It’s been an Ital­ian feast or a ham. Last year it was prime rib,” he notes. The chef is, how­ever, con­sis­tent when it comes to hol­i­day desserts: “I al­ways make pecan pie and ap­ple, but pecan is a fa­vorite; ev­ery­one likes it.”

Higginbotham’s fam­ily em­braced the South­ern tra­di­tion of serv­ing black-eyed peas and col­lard greens on New Year’s Day. He ex­plains, “The greens rep­re­sent money for new year and black-eyed peas good luck.” For the greens, Higginbotham uses a smoked ham hock, su­gar and vine­gar, adding, “I tend to cook them a lit­tle less th­ese days. I’ve found they have a lit­tle more tex­ture that way.”

Dur­ing the years he worked on New Year’s Day, Higginbotham jokes, “I’ve had to throw the luck thing to the wind, but even­tu­ally made it [peas and greens] when I had the chance.”

While most lo­cal chefs close their doors to cook at home on the hol­i­days, DARIO ZULJANI and his gra­cious wife, Alice, serve Christ­mas Eve and Christ­mas Day din­ners at their Cape Coral restau­rant, Ari­ani’s. Grow­ing up in Is­tria, on the Ital­ian bor­der but un­der com­mu­nist rule, Zuljani’s hol­i­day tra­di­tions were hum­ble at best.

His mother worked as a maid and cook for a wealthy fam­ily and was able to bring home some of her specialties—twisted breads with can­dies on top, and bac­calà man­te­cato, which is salt cod, soaked and mashed. “We some­times had a small tree with a cou­ple of small ap­ples and maybe an or­ange and ev­ery­body waited to split the or­ange,” Zuljani notes.

At age 17, he had his first taste of a true Ital­ian im­mi­grant Christ­mas cel­e­bra­tion, in his aunt’s home in New York City. Zuljani re­mem­bers, “Thirty-plus peo­ple in a base­ment where maybe 20 could fit. I’ll never for­get the kids, the food, the party, the singing—and an ac­cor­dion.” He’s since learned to play the in­stru­ment and of­ten does dur­ing the hol­i­days.

As for the food, he mar­vels: “She pre­pared a feast for me … braised meats and duck. I’d never had duck be­fore, but there was a freak­ing duck among ev­ery­thing else.”

The Zul­ja­nis have been in Cape Coral for 40 years. When it comes to open­ing on Christ­mas, the chef says, “It’s like a gift. So many peo­ple say this is like home to them. We wel­come and treat guests like ex­tended fam­ily.” (He even makes bac­calà man­te­cato.)

And when din­ers leave his restau­rant, Zuljani re­bukes any warn­ings to “be care­ful.” He ex­plains why: “Be­ing care­ful is a bad predica­ment. A mother is full of care when her child is sick. Why would you wish some­one to be full of care? Why not ‘have a safe and joy­ful jour­ney?’ ”

So be sure to eat well, keep fam­ily food tra­di­tions alive, cre­ate some of your own tra­di­tions, and have a safe and joy­ful jour­ney wher­ever you end up this hol­i­day sea­son.

Gina Birch is a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor, a lover of good food, fine wine and fun times. She’s also a well-known me­dia per­son­al­ity in South­west Florida.

“I al­ways make pecan pie and ap­ple, but pecan is a fa­vorite; ev­ery­one likes it.” —EX­EC­U­TIVE CHEF HEATH HIGGINBOTHAM OF THE MAD HAT­TER, SANI­BEL

Other­side Bistro, Bonita Springs | boni­tasprings­

Harold’s, Fort My­ers | harold­scui­

Crave Culi­naire, Naples | crave­culi­

Ari­ani’s, Cape Coral | ari­

The Mad Hat­ter, Sani­bel | mad­hat­ter­restau­

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