CoastLine: The best ideas for a home cook's holiday table from Chefs Keith Rhodes & Dean Neff
Why are so many holiday traditions, religious and secular, celebrated during the darkest time of the year? Religious Scholar Dr. Herbert Berg explains. And two local chefs — Dean Neff of Seabird and Keith Rhodes of Catch offer simple holiday menu ideas for home cooks.
Over the years on CoastLine, we typically produce a holiday episode. Most of the time, it’s a show that asks local chefs to help home cooks craft an excellent holiday menu. In this edition, we’re going to hear some of the best ideas we’ve heard from the professionals over the years.
But first, we spend a few minutes exploring the origins of some better-known holiday traditions with Dr. Herbert Berg. When he spoke with us in 2017, he was a Professor of Philosophy and Religion as well as International Studies at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.
Rachel Lewis Hilburn: The winter solstice: that's the precise moment at which the Northern Hemisphere tilts farthest from the sun. So the longest night of the year, the shortest day. Why are so many important holidays emerging during this time?
Professor Herbert Berg: Well, I'm sure all of our ancestors also knew it was the shortest day of the year. And so it is a good way, you know, you could think of it as the days are beginning to lengthen now. And so I don't think it's a surprise that many of the festivals that we're gonna talk about today involve lights, whether it's candles, lights decorating the house. I think in that dark time, that's where we're looking. And also it's a good time for some feasting.
RLH: Despite the fact that there are a lot of major and minor holidays around this time, there are no Muslim holidays and you specialize in Islamic studies. Can you talk about the timing of this?
HB: Yes. There are no major Muslim holidays right now, but if, you, me and our listeners live long enough, there will be.
The Muslim calendar is a strict lunar calendar. So it's many days shorter than the solar calendar. And in 2065, one of the eids, eid al fitr, the one at the end of Ramadan, will occur on December 29th. And Eid al-Adha, the one that occurs at the end of Hajj, will occur in 2072 on December 21st, which will probably be the solstice. And so it moves around through the calendar year. All of the Muslim holidays more or less rotate that way, too.
RLH: Let's talk about Hanukkah for a moment. You won't find anything about Hanukkah in the Hebrew Bible, according to Professor Berg. So what does that mean?
HB: Well, it's not a high holy day. You know, the ones that are found in the Hebrew Bible, particularly in the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, or as Christians would call it, the Old Testament – that's where the big ones like Passover and Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are found.
This holiday is found in, or at least the story of it, in First and Second Maccabees, which is in the Apocrypha. It's in Catholic Bibles but not Protestant bibles. And therefore, it is a different kind of holiday. And as one rabbi once told me, the best thing that ever happened to Hanukkah was Christmas <laugh>. In some ways it's meant to give Jewish children an alternative to celebrating Christmas, because it's a pretty dominating holiday.
RLH: Tell us about the origins of Hanukkah. What is the menorah about? What does that symbolize?
HB: Okay, well, in the year 167 BCE, Jerusalem had been conquered by the Saleucids, who were an empire of Damascus. And Antiochus, the king, desecrated the temple. He actually tried to turn it, you know, slaughtered pigs on the altar, and he tried to turn it into a temple of Zeus. This led to a rebellion against this, and in some ways, quite miraculously, rebellion that won against a fairly major empire at the time.
And so when the temple was being cleansed, there was a menorah there that needed to be lit. And there was one container of oil, a special, you know, prepared oil that would keep that should be lit in the menorah, but only enough for one day. And it miraculously lasted for eight days until more of this special oil could be made. And that was considered miraculous. And that is what the holiday is celebrating. And that's why you see a special menorah at Hanukkah --one that has eight branches for each day, and then one in the center for lighting the other branches each day.
RLH: How does Christmas wind up on December 25th?
Professor Berg explains.
HB: Well, the date part is somewhat arbitrary because the early Christians didn't really celebrate Christmas. Easter was by far the most important holiday. And in the third century, an important church father, Clement of Alexandria wrote, he thought it might be May 20th, April 20th, or April 21st. Others-
RLH: You're talking about the birth of Jesus,
HB: -the birth, birth of Jesus. Yes. Others suggested April 18th or 19th, March 25th, January 2nd. What seemed to help this is that there was a Roman Solstice festival, much like solstice today at roughly the same time. And there was a desire to sort of have competition and
RLH: What's the name of that Roman Festival?
HB: Saturnalia. And the conception of Jesus had been associated with his crucifixion March 25th. And therefore nine months later, December 25th was picked as the date.
RLH: There are some other, more obscure holidays – to those in the western world, that is, like Bodhi Day, when Buddha achieved enlightenment. Like Christmas, that day is also celebrated around the world at different times. Japan marks Bodhi Day closest to Christmas on December 8th. Zoroastrianists celebrate the death of their Persian prophet, Zoroaster, on December 26th.
But back to Christmas: if the meaning of this day for Christians is the birth of God’s son into flesh as the savior of the world, how does a rotund older man, dressed in red suit with a long white beard emerge as Christmas personified? This elderly man who is able to bend the laws of time, deliver gifts to every child in the world over the course of one night? How do Jesus and Santa Claus fit into the same holiday?
(And for those younger listeners / readers, just to be clear, he is absolutely real and he’s coming to your house soon.)
HB: Okay, well there is a historical Saint Nicholas, a fourth century bishop. He was an orphan. His parents died, left him quite wealthy and rich and he was known for his generosity. And one of the stories that is told about him is that there was a poor man with three daughters and he didn't have the dowry for them and there was a danger that they might end up in prostitution. And so he dropped coins down the chimney, which just happened to land in stockings that were hung on the fireplace to dry. And then the first daughter could get married and he did it again for the second daughter and again for the third daughter. So this might be at least a way of understanding where the tradition of hanging stockings and putting gifts in them come from. But he is associated with gifts,
RLH: I see <laugh>, so that's the origin, possibly of the stocking tradition.
RLH: What about that red suit?
HB: Okay, that comes along because our modern Santa Claus is a combination of the British Father Christmas and the Dutch Sinterklaas. And in the US, the red thing because, if you look at Santa Claus in earlier depictions, he's sometimes wearing a blue outfit, sometimes a green outfit, many different colors. A lot of it was formed by, sort of, popular culture here in Canada, the U.S., of course, the poem in 1821.
RLH: Professor Berg is referring to Old Santaclause With Much Delight. Two years later, Clement Moore delivered A Visit From St. Nicholas.
You mentioned a couple of characters here, Father Christmas.
HB: Yes. That's a British character. Yes.
RLH: For folks who aren't familiar with Father Christmas, explain that character.
HB: Well, he was associated with an earlier holiday, that because it was pre-Christian or Pagan, sort of got eliminated and he was, and also a holiday, that actually was eliminated, I believe by Henry VIII when they were moving the church, breaking from the Catholic church. So they wanted to eliminate some of the Catholic holidays and therefore he was bumped up to December 25th and associated with that.
But he's essentially a figure of good cheer, revelry, drinking and eating and feasting. And so not really a gift giver in quite the same way.
RLH: Professor Berg offers a couple of ideas about the origin of the Christmas tree:
HB : Well, in the eighth century, St. Boniface, who went from what is now Great Britain to Germany to preach, saw a bunch of people about to sacrifice a boy, and they were worshiping an oak. And in his anger, he cut down the oak tree and a young fir sprang up. And he saw this as a sign and it said that he put on candles so that he could preach at night.
Yet another story talks about a forester who had a knocking on his door and a poor boy was there and he fed and washed the boy and let him sleep in his son's bed. And in the morning, a choir of angels appeared and it turned out to be the Christ child who then broke off a piece of fir as a gift for a thank you. And then it entered into the home.
HB: But Martin Luther, the great reformer, is really thought to be the first person to have brought a tree into the home.
RLH: What we can be certain about, says Professor Berg, is that the Christmas tree really took hold as a tradition in early modern Europe.
HB: And initially a baby Jesus was on the top. And then it got replaced by angels and stars. An 18th century candle showed up. And then of course, as I mentioned earlier, jumped to Britain. And then from there more to the US.
And when Thomas Edison invented lights, it wasn't long. I mean, he made some decorations and not, I don't believe he put them on trees where it really got popularized putting lights on trees. Electric lights [came] after a fire in a hospital from a Christmas tree.
RLH: What are the principles that are kind of extolled and explored through the celebration of Kwanzaa?
HB: One would be unity. One is self-determination. One is collective work and responsibility. The fourth one is cooperation, economics and then purpose, creativity, and faith.
RLH: And is there a text that goes along with this?
HB: There are rituals that go along with it for each night and, but I'm not familiar with the text. If there is, I haven't read it. So I will say I'm a little bit ignorant on that.
RLH: Festivus originated, I think on an episode of Seinfeld, but the idea has persisted. What is Festivus and how do adherents or the rest of us celebrate?
HB: Well, Festivus actually from one of the writers of Seinfeld, this person's father had created this. And so Seinfeld adopted this, and it was in the episode where George Costanza is trying to fake getting out of, uh, certain responsibilities by saying he has an alternative holiday <laugh>.
And so he, although he hates Festivus, he brings it up. And so I just found out recently it's celebrated on December 23rd. I didn't know till recently what the date was, but there's an aluminum pole and it has things like the airing of grievances and then there are feats of strength. And so it was meant to be a humorous depiction, but it resonated with some people because it was a Festivus for the rest of us. So it's a sort of a secular holiday,
It’s a look at the holiday traditions that have developed over millennia – including the way we set up our holiday tables. Because food and feasting is part of the holiday, we take a look at the way two local chefs dress their own holiday tables.
It was 2014 when Chef Keith Rhodes of Catch in Wilmington told us about his crowd-pleasing idea for a main course.
Keith Rhodes: Baked half a side of salmon. We usually have that right here in that freeway of the holidays from Thanksgiving right on into Christmas. But it’s super easy -- sprayed sheet pan, a nice piece of salmon, skin off. You want to have the skin side down and you can season it any which way but loose <laugh>, whatever way you like it. I like a simple herbs de provence sprinkled over the top, some lavender, pepper, rosemary, thyme, some kosher salt.
There's somebody from Wrightsville Beach right now making local sea salt, and so hey, why not try to source that? They've got it down at the Seasoned Gourmet. You could sprinkle it all on the top, bake it 375 for about 30 minutes.
RLH: 375 for 30 minutes. And how big a piece of fish are we talking about?
KR: I would say that side is probably gonna be about a three- pound side. So it should feed, I don't know, maybe about eight to ten people. And it's very good even at room temp. I mean, you bake it off, you can put it on a nice platter, garnish it with some fresh herbs and sit it out and people will love it. Anything leftover, little bit of mayo, mix it all together. You got salmon salad.
RLH: And this is something that everyone will eat.
KR: Everyone, everyone will eat it.
RLH: The kids…
KR: Yeah, for sure. Because you don't get that all the time. I mean, if we get seafood, it's maybe something fried or maybe something just small, but it's kind of grand to have that big side of, you know, it's kind of like the prime rib, you know, you do a whole side and it's like, oh, you know, I'm hungry and I'm not hungry, you know, you know what I mean? Yeah. But for sure. Salmon.
RLH: Keith Rhodes, what is the wildest thing that you've ever made for a holiday family gathering that you thought, well, that was risky, but maybe I won't do that again.
KR: Oh, well, I think when I was fancying myself an amateur kind of barbecue master, we did a pig one year and you know, every chef wants it, you know, it's perfect even when it tastes like rubber, you know. But, my wife came in and was like, hey, this is not good. The pig's pretty tough, you know? And, you know, she's my biggest critic, you know, <laugh> and back then, we were early on, the kids were young.
I remember shortly after there was a couple of boxes of Bojangles sitting on the table, you know what I mean? Because the pig got retired. Yeah. That was pretty crazy.
But we try to keep it really, really seasonal now. And so we really have a lot of go-to recipes that we kind of repeat, you know, year after year. We have different friends that come in and that kind of thing.
One of the best things that we cook, and I mean, it's pretty spot on because again, when you're thinking about something that everyone will eat or at least everyone will try, we do a really nice root vegetable gratin. And so, you know, right around here locally right now, you've got sweet potatoes, rutabagas, turnips and maybe some other sort of root vegetable -- beets maybe, or something like that. We peel them all, slice them into about a half- inch square, toss them in some olive oil, salt and pepper, put them on a sheet pan and bake them off in the oven.
Now they usually take about 45 minutes to an hour at 375 degrees. And you want to cook these particular vegetables -- usually when we cook them a little bit al dente.
That's kind of how I like my vegetables. A little soft on the outside, a little firmer as we get into it. But these, you want to cook them till they're fork tender where you mash them, take them out.
We take those and mix them with a little bit of heavy cream, little bit of cheese, and then we put them out in a roasting pan, cover them with breadcrumbs, and then bake them back off at 400 degrees. It's like 15 minutes.
And I will tell you something. It is, oh my God, it's so good, so comforting. It's just one of those kinds of things where you just didn't expect for it to taste that way, all these vegetables, but they all really gel really good together. And it's just hearty, it's seasonal, it's comforting.
RLH: I ask Chef Keith Rhodes about how he handles the old standards – the holiday staples, like green bean casserole. Include the dish, he says, but elevate it with fresh ingredients.
KR: You know, some sauteed shallots, some haricot verts, maybe some sliced shiitake mushrooms or something like that. But it's just taking that same thing, but just-
Simon Arnold: Using real food.
KR: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Exactly. Yeah.
RLH: That affirmative voice in the background, by the way, is Simon Arnold – who helped to open the now-closed downtown Wilmington restaurant Canape.
KR: And for us, and I think that my family's palates’ can really dig the freshness, the crispness of the beans and things like that to offset all of the heavy processed canned Campbell's mushroom soup, these breaded onion things. You know what I mean? And I think there's an overall satisfaction that we get from scratch-made food today when we are living in such a convenient type of time where time is of the essence.
RLH: And do you think that your family's palate changed, Keith Rhodes, as you grew as a chef? Or has your whole family just been born with the food gene?
KR: Well, no, the food gene wasn't inherent. I think that our palate changed, just like the American palate has changed for so many years. We were only exposed to limit to amounts of cuisine, whether it was just southern or New England or California and then--
SA: Or French. That was like the thing for so long.
KR: Yeah. And now look at what we call new American cuisine. And so we have an influx of food, and that inspires all of us. And so, yeah, our food has really changed a lot.
But I think that one thing that we really gravitated towards as I got into my twenties was a fresher, more cleaner type of food as opposed to a lot of the food that we kind of grew up eating, which was like heavy southern, low country, gravies and heavy sauces and things like that.
And I know early in my career, we had already begun to move away from demi glaces and heavy things like that. You would never find that on my menus now, and you probably wouldn't have in the last 15 years because our style and our approach is a lot different than that.
RLH: But for those who want a good old-fashioned prime rib, Chef Keith Rhodes keeps it traditional.
KR: I worked in a restaurant where we did prime rib, like every Sunday, and I, it was very, it was, you never--
RLH: Wanna see it again?
KR: I'll tell you, I would rather have my rib eye sliced raw, pan seared and eaten as a steak as opposed to a slow roasted prime rib. But anyway, you know, a hunter doesn't go to hunt a deer and figure he's gonna jump the deer and choke him. You know, <laugh>, he has his necessary equipment to go out and to pursue that game. And so that's the same way we should be when we are thinking about our attack on the food in the recipe.
So an internal meat thermometer would be essential in this particular case for the home cook or the novice. So we get our prime rib, which is about as long as a forearm and probably as wide as a football.
Preferably when you get that prime rib, have the bone in. That bone tends to impart more of that beefy flavor. And normally there's a fat cap on the top. So we're gonna just kind of slice a half inch of that fat cap, gonna pull it all the way over the whole length of the beef, season it really hard with chopped garlic, salt and pepper. Put that cap back on the top of it.
RLH: Really? So you season it and then treat it like a sandwich…
KR: Yeah, that fat is going to baste it and that kind of deal. Put that thermometer in the middle, in the center of that, put it on a roasting pan in the oven.
We're thinking at about two hours, at 350 degrees. We're looking for an internal temperature of about 140. We still want it pretty rare. So when we pull it out, it's going to still continue to cook some. And I would let it go just like that.
And I think that you can see the temperature as it rises. You'll get that when you do it slow at that particular temperature, you'll get a nice browning effect on the outside. And I would encourage you to give it a try.
RLH: If he was helping a home cook put together a holiday menu, here’s what Chef Keith Rhodes suggests for an appetizer, salad, main dish, and dessert:
KR: Appetizer -- I would just say shrimp cocktail. I think being off the coast, you could still get some local shrimp right now, that'd be a great choice.
A salad, let's go with the root vegetable salad where we roast those vegetables. Simon mentioned earlier about white truffle oil. You know, you can make a little truffle vinaigrette to drizzle over those warm vegetables out of the oven. Great little salad, maybe for an entree. It just kind of varies for me.
I'm definitely the seafood kind of guy, but I would also say, you know, something that I encourage people to try, and it's kind of popular these days: get you a piece of lean pork belly, roast that off in the oven, and you do it about two hours.
But I think that's something where you get that really crispy top on there and you slice it and it's very moist. Not smokey, like a piece of bacon, but definitely has that mouth feel of bacon. And I guess for a dessert, a really nice homemade sweet potato pie, which is really, take the cake, you know, whipped cream with flavors of eggnog, spices in it would just be really dope.
RLH: So thinking about home cooks putting together a menu, what's the biggest mistake that a home cook could make trying to put together a holiday menu for a big crowd?
RLH: Both Simon Arnold and Chef Keith Rhodes have something to say on this point.
SA: I would just keep it simple, you know, just keep it simple. Stay within your comfort zone. If you're doing something that you don’t know, it's just gonna put too much stress on you just and clean as you go. Prep anything that you can prep in advance, prep in advance, cranberry sauce, you can do that two days before.
It'll keep fine in your refrigerator. Your soup, whatever, if you're doing that, you can do that the day before you can even cook your bird. If that's what you're doing. You, I mean, that's what I would do. I would cook it the day before, you know, and heat it up.
KR: Keeping it light, you know, taking shots at the bar. It's like, how many do I take? And now I feel this way. You know, it's more like a fine brandy or a fine liquor. You, you do it slow. And, that's how you become successful. If you rush it, if you don't put the love in it, that's exactly what you're gonna get out of it. So take your time.
SA: Have fun. Cooking's fun.
KR: Have a few shots, and just take your time and cook it with a lot of love. You know, and that's what it's all about. You know, you're not gonna cook that prime rib in 45 minutes. Yeah.
RLH: And, well, Keith Rhodes, what does that mean? Cook it with a lot of love. Has there ever been a time when you've been in the kitchen cooking and you've suddenly gone, wait a minute, I'm not cooking with love.
KR: Well, yeah. And, and, and those were the times early on, again, when I'm feeling like I've gotta run the show and I didn't have the proper plan, and I'm in there and I'm just running with my head cut off and, you know, it's like, okay, let me step out of this now, the next holiday. How am I gonna make this a little bit better? How I'm gonna be a little bit more relaxed, where I'm really enjoying the experience and not feeling overwhelmed with the experience. Keep it very simple. Don't try to go far outta your box and know your customer. Know your family, know what they like. You know, don't serve them Chinese when all they want is Italian.
SA: But also, don't sweat over the details too. And like you said, learn from your mistakes.
RLH: If we're talking about elevating a traditional dish, so going back to our old friend, the green bean casserole or I don't know, even thinking about figgy pudding, what's a traditional Christmas dish – yams -- that you can help people kind of bring to the next level, bring into this century?
KR: Well, I mean, with sweet potatoes or yams or something like that. It’s so varied with what you can particularly do with that. But, you know, I mean, something that I would enjoy that I think that we kind of bypass a lot. You know, we didn't talk about a soup today and we're talking about the holiday season when it's normally a little chilly or something like that.
You know, peel these sweet potatoes, dice them a half inch or so, cover them with water, cook, cook them until they're fork tender. Now at this point, we don't want to drain them, keep that water in there, add a tablespoon of yellow curry, paste a cup of heavy cream, get your blender out, blend all that stuff together, season with a little salt and pepper and taste that.
Now we've got a really nice sweet potato soup. You could call it a bisque if you like. And we, you know, and, and I think that that's very gratifying. Something that's very easy. It's very light. I mean, even your model sister that comes in would definitely have some of that, you know, from time to time. Yeah, exactly. And it's a new spin on something that we are very familiar with. Instead of roasting the potatoes whole, you know, or making the sweet potato pudding or, or any of those kind of variants that we're very accustomed to.
RLH: On the sweet potato front, Chef Dean Neff of Seabird in downtown Wilmington would take a different approach – that is if he is not using the sweet potatoes for a soup. Here’s what he suggests in this holiday food episode of CoastLine in 2019 – when we were hearing about Covid-19, but it hadn’t yet arrived in the Cape Fear region.
Dean Neff: And with sweet potatoes, for me, it's all about kind of concentrating natural sugars within the sweet potato. Boiling sweet potatoes is not a great thing because it kind of will pull out flavors, pull out sugars, if you roast them slowly, you kind of really concentrate all of those natural sugars. And then if you want to enhance the sweetness at all, use a little bit of sorghum, brown butter. Uh, that's, that's always kind of a good way to go, just so it's not overly sweet.
RLH: But really -- as Chef Dean Neff says in this episode of CoastLine that happened a full three years earlier, he doesn’t think sweet potatoes need help on the sweetness spectrum.
DN: And by cooking them properly and roasting them slowly, you actually concentrate the natural sugars in the sweet potato. And so, you know, you can develop a lot of that.
When I was in Asheville, we had wood burning stoves, and we would actually pull the coals out at the end of the night and put them into a large metal trash can, and we would bury sweet potatoes and butternut squash into the embers. And then the next day we would come and dig them out. And it's, it is crazy how concentrated, I mean, you get flavors of molasses and sorghum from those sugars kind of naturally, you know, reducing down as they cook.
RLH: It’s impossible to miss the fact that over the years, in 2016, 2017, and 2019 – and these are only the holiday food discussions, Seabird’s owner and chef Dean Neff is stunningly consistent in his food philosophy, his recommendations, and the best ways to keep the central ingredient the star of the dish.
In this 2016 holiday food episode, I ask him how to keep menu choices doable for home cooks.
2016: How many, for instance, side dishes would you have? Dean Neff? What's reasonable and, and what becomes excessive and ridiculous?
DN: I don't think you have to, I think you just need to provide some sort of, uh, wide offering of food. It doesn't necessarily need to be a set amount of dishes, but you need to have probably a green salad of some sort, having a soup, um, squash is always in season, sweet potatoes, if you're covering that area, I think you're good.
Also something that's really great right now and being in Wilmington, having access to oysters that are in season is something that, you know, so many people get really excited about oysters. And so if you bring those, it's gonna be something different that, you know, most people aren't doing at their holiday party. But it's something really exciting.
Also having a vegetable dish of some sort that is gonna work and be substantial enough for, you know, somebody as an entire meal.
I love cauliflower. I think cauliflower is a very underrated, underutilized vegetable. There's so many great things you can do with it, and that can kind of become a centerpiece vegetable dish. If you put a little thought into it. You know, also having green vegetables, you know, aside from the salad and then having some thoughtful meat preparations.
Turkey is great if you're maybe just cooking the breast alone and you're smoking it. I really don't like cooking whole birds, and if I do, they have to be really small.
RLH: Why is that?
DN: There was a good analogy that I heard years ago. Somebody said you would never cook a cow whole, so why would you cook a turkey whole?
Because these different muscles cook at different speeds.
They require different, you know, cooking times. And so by taking it apart, you can really control the cook time better and make sure that you're not overcooking the breast meat, for example, while you're trying to cook the leg meat through.
RLH: But if you’re having a small gathering, say, just a couple of people, you probably don’t need to deal with such a large piece of meat. What does he suggest for two people?
DN: I think that can be a really happy way to spend the holidays for sure. You know, doing this pureed soup that we talked about at the beginning, kind of having maybe some, maybe multiple courses and treating it less like a buffet line and, you know, having a soup, having a salad, and really thinking about the components of the salad.
We didn't really talk a whole lot about meat, but I love roasted lamb leg. You can also kind of grill that and serve it medium rare even, you know, having it, I guess more plated than buffet style I think would make it more special. And it would be easier since it is a two-person meal.
Also incorporating, you know, seasonal ingredients that are fun and really great right now. Satsuma oranges are in season, the tangerines, pomegranates, incorporating these things into your salad would be fun and exciting and different and still seasonal.
You’re listening to CoastLine. We’re taking a look at what some of our local star chefs have taught us about holiday menus over the years.
Chef Dean Neff of Seabird in downtown Wilmington has appeared on CoastLine to talk about food for a pretty broad spectrum of reasons – including his participation in community efforts to give everyone a place at the table.
He’s also talked with us about how to choose fish that carry a lower toxin load and how to cook them to minimize contaminants instead of concentrating them.
But on the subject of holiday food, he’s appeared at least three times and his message on how home cooks can best manage a holiday menu is also, perhaps unsurprisingly, consistent.
In 2016, he offered his own update on the classic green bean casserole.
DN: I think there are a lot of good things to be discovered from reinterpreting dishes like that. And, you know, I'm not anti-green bean casserole as much as I am anti sweet potato fluff, <laugh>.
But, you know, I think that by thinking about things you don't necessarily like about that dish, you can sort of troubleshoot and say, you know, what can we do to make this better? If it's the cream of mushroom soup that seems like it's not a good idea, you know, you could try making a bechamel on your own and using that.
You could also try crisping up some leeks at the very end, maybe blanching the green beans, using fresh green beans instead of canned can, you know, give you a better result. So, I think, you know, if you're using great ingredients and you're putting thought into it, there are ways to update some of those older recipes.
And, I think, you know, hoppin’ john -- people have known about that for a long time, but if you really take time and put thought and effort into making really wonderful hoppin’ john, it's pretty mind blowing.
RLH: And that is a traditional southern side dish. Is that accurate?
DN: Right. Yeah.
RLH: So for people who aren't from the South, what is hoppin’ john?
DN: Hoppin’ john is, most simply put, you know, typically it's rice, peas, and when we say peas, we think of like field peas or sea island red peas. You'll often see bacon in there as well, but it's kind of an idea of cooking things sort of separately, bringing them together in the right proportion and then seasoning everything really well. Seasoning with bacon, seasoning with, uh, fresh herbs and, you know, aromatic vegetables minced beautifully and kind of sweated down.
RLH: Any good ideas for a home cook’s holiday brunch menu?
DN: I love the idea of frittatas. Frittatas are versatile. You can use any kind of vegetables that happen to be in season. A lot of times what I'll do too is shave potato really thinly and then sort of get a cast iron pan or skillet, with a little bit of clarified butter, kind of create a layer of very thinly-sliced potatoes and then arrange them, you know, in a nice beautiful pattern kind of fanned around the bottom.
And then you can pour your egg mixture with, you know, cheese or bacon or leeks, things like that, and then bake it at 325 until it sets up, it gets, you know, nice and fluffy.
You can flip it out and then cut it into slices. You can serve it hot or room temperature.
I think also with brunch, having a really wonderful seasonal salad is great.
Right now, persimmons are in season here in North Carolina and, you know, there's also lots of beautiful spinach and greens that we're seeing from different farmers. And so, you know, taking, doing a spinach salad with persimmon and toasted chestnut or pumpkin seed and just doing a very simple vinaigrette goes a long way.
I think, for brunch people don't want something really heavy. They want something that's light and it's gonna make them feel energized after they eat it. And that's kind of why I think the salad's a good idea.
RLH: Are there any pitfalls with persimmons that people should know about?
DN: That's a good question. <laugh> Sounds like you might be asking this from experience…
So, uh, yes. When persimmons are not in season and they're extremely hard, they can be very bitter. There are also a couple different kinds of persimmons -- you can buy them dried. Those are typically wonderful. Fresh persimmons, when they ripen, they get very soft. Sometimes we'll even get kind of spotted black in color. They're really beautiful orange. And you'll see like black spots that begin to form. That's actually not really a bad thing always with persimmons. As they ripen and as they soften, they get really super high concentrations of sugar in the fruit.
RLH: Dean Neff’s restaurant, Seabird, well, the name says it all. Of course, for him, seafood belongs on any holiday table.
DN: There are so many great things this time of year available from the ocean. And you know, as far as fish goes, we have this really beautiful variety of speckled trout that's kind of close-to-shore fish. So if you're fishing around the marshes here, fishermen are catching lots of 'em right now. They're in season, they're very different from a mountain rainbow trout, and they're really delicious.
We're serving them. You can serve them skin on or skin off if you want. If you do serve them skin on, we always try to get the skin nice and crispy, with little clarified butter as we're cooking them.
But that could make it really fun, it's always really fresh too, when you're eating local and you're eating in season, the food is, you know, oftentimes just so much better because it's not traveling from far away.
RLH: Even farmed catfish is a good option these days, says Chef Neff.
DN: Well, I think catfish is making a comeback, or at least I hope it is. There are a lot of problems in the way, you know, the oceans are being fished. And so from that, over the past, you know, past 10 to 15 years, there have been a lot of creative, more sustainable concepts that have come into the ingredient world in the fish world, the shrimp world, oysters.
But when we talk about catfish, you know, there was a time maybe 15 years ago when we would order catfish farm-raised, and half the time it was great. Half the time it was terrible. And I think because of this problem and this ongoing sort of dilemma with catfish, catfish farmers became better at what they were doing.
But they basically realized that by increasing filtration in their tanks and also by feeding the catfish better food, they were kind of addressing problems with, you know, unsustainable, stagnant water- styles of farming. And so catfish these days is very clean, much healthier. It's really consistent. And that's one thing I have on the menu that I will not take off. And we've actually served this catfish to people, and I think their minds have been changed about it, you know, which is a good thing.
We take a lot of care and love with what we do. We brine it for two hours in a really lemony and herbaceous brine, and then we cold-smoke it, on applewood, and then crust it with good corn meal and pan fry it. And so it's really fun and really satisfying.
RLH: Shrimp and grits with high-quality ingredients could also fit well on a holiday menu. Chef Dean Neff developed one version of this recipe that wound up in the James Beard Award-winning cookbook, A New Turn For The South.
DN: I think we were using Georgia shrimp in this recipe. Anson Mills is this wonderful farm and producer of heirloom grain and seed varieties that almost went extinct, and they kind of brought them back in. And so, you know, one of the keys to this recipe is, or any recipe using grits, is to use good grits. And Anson Mills is a great source for that. But using good shrimp, the broth, you know, we use a lot of andouille sausage, just a simple smoked andouille, leek, tomato, a little fish stock, and some tomato juice, fresh tomatoes also chopped into it.
And just cook everything down really slowly. Starting with the andouille and the tomatoes and the leek, and cooking that down, adding your broth into that, and then finishing at the very end with the shrimp -- you want to make sure that shrimp don't cook for more than a minute or so -- just until they turn pink. And just go over the grits with it. It's super simple. It's definitely something you can do at home.
RLH: Seabird’s Dean Neff is inclusive; he won’t bash any particular dish or food trend, but he says he would like to see more vegetables taking center stage on menus – with meat showing up less. He also would like home cooks to pay more attention to the sources of their food.
DN: …caring about where your ingredients come from, enough to, you know, ask questions about sustainability and, you know, how farms are raising your pigs and things like that too. …
RLH: One year later, in 2017, I asked Chef Neff to explain why locally-sourced food matters.
DN: I think sourcing food locally forces you to cook within season. Oftentimes if you're shopping at a grocery store, it's kind of easy to be confused by what the season actually is. When you're at the farmer's market, you know, you find ingredients that are growing right here and, you know, they often taste better for a number of reasons. They're not traveling as far typically. You know, farmers locally will put a little more thought into the varieties of vegetables that they're growing.
Things like oysters - Jessica mentioned oysters being something that were great for Christmas. I totally agree. I love oysters and we, you know, we have local oyster farmers that are farming oysters and, you know, you're getting them hours out of the water in certain cases, and that of course just tastes better than something that's been, you know, held for a week.
RLH: Sometimes when you think of farmed seafood, I know this isn't always true, and this can be a minefield for people who aren't experts in this, but you can think of dirtier seafood, you know, sea life that has been kind of stuck together without proper, I don't even know what the terms are flushing, but you know, in some cases you're warned about farmed seafood.
Why is it different with oysters and local oysters?
DN: So some of those problems, you know, with the cesspool farming, which is kind of a really gross term, but, you know, we've got shrimp farming that happens in very closed, stagnant water areas.
Oyster farming is putting something back into the aquaculture environment that is actually improving the quality of the water, and it's in open, free water. So if you're anti-shrimp farming, you should be pro-local oyster farming. It is very confusing with each different, you know, type of farming. You need to kind of research it to see if it is a good type or if it's a bad type. And stagnant water is one of the key things. And oyster farming is great and it creates jobs too locally.
RLH: You’re listening to CoastLine. We’re hearing from Chef Dean Neff about holiday menu options for home cooks.
If we’re moving towards a more veggie-heavy table, how does a James Beard semi-finalist for Best Chef in the Southeast make vegetables exciting?
DN: You always want to blanch vegetables most of the time. And I think you can be kind of safe to assume with most vegetables, it's a good idea to blanch them.
With cauliflower, I like doing them, kind of treating them like a steak almost, and blanching them first, and then you can marinate them if you wanted to. You can also kind of create like a spice crust. And then cauliflower does really well when you put color on it. So by cooking it in a good canola oil at first and kind of throwing in butter to let that brown and baste it, as you cook it, you're gonna develop a lot of beautiful flavors. A lot of times with vegetables, people neglect to caramelize the vegetable and that adds a, that that will make your kids eat vegetables if you caramelize them.
Brussels sprouts, I mean, you know, so, basting it and then finishing it with fresh herbs. And then if you were to serve it, there's a great kind of Argentinian condiment or herby vinaigrette called chimichurri. And it's very satisfying, it has, you know, parsley and garlic and olive oil and red wine vinegar and chilies, and you just create this really simple vinaigrette with that. And you can use that to finish off the cauliflower after you've pan roasted it. You could also grill it, but you wanna start with that blanching, kind of spicing it and then roasting it or grilling it.
RLH: So Dean, if people are thinking about adding all these vegetable dishes to the holiday table, how do you plan that? So it's not overwhelming in terms of having things coming out at the right time and having things still hot when they're on the table. Is there a strategy?
DN: There is, you know, a lot of things that can kind of be done the day before, like with, you know, we were talking about blanching vegetables that you're getting at the farmer's market, whether it's Brussels Sprouts or cauliflower. If you get butternut squash, you can roast it the day before and then you can kind of, you know, reheat it and try to develop a little bit of color on it.
So there are a lot of steps that you can take ahead of time, but I think you'll kind of see as you begin to plan out a meal, I think a lot of times people get overwhelmed by thinking about, you know, many different ingredients.
They think about, you know, looking at doing, you know, a hash with potatoes and butternut squash and you start thinking of like too big, where really, if you think about one single ingredient, you're gonna make it a lot easier on yourself, and you're oftentimes gonna end up with a much better kind of side because you're thinking through the process and thinking about the process and the ingredient, the single ingredient more than overwhelming yourself and trying to think of, you know, these big side items like green bean casserole and things like that.
Those are a little bit, you know, complicated where you can, you can blanche and sear green beans and put toasted almonds in a, like a lemon brown butter…
RLH: How complicated is doing a lemon brown butter?
DN: So, there's a number of ways you can do it. If you were to blanch green beans or whatever vegetable, you can also do it with brussel sprouts would be great as well. So you blanch your brussel sprouts, you heat up a saute pan and brown those a little bit lightly with olive oil. And then just before they're done, you're gonna finish with a decent sized pat of butter and let it lightly brown in the pan. And then you just squeeze in lemon juice to sort of deglaze the pan and, and get all of the brown, uh, bits off of the bottom of the pan. And then use that as a sauce to drizzle over them. And then just crumble some, some toasted almonds or black walnuts, or really any kind of nut would be really nice there.
RLH: Do you think that there are parts of vegetables that people can use that maybe people are used to throwing away that might add something to the dish, Dean Neff?
DN: For sure. You know, Swiss chard is something that we're, we're getting a lot of right now, and the stems are, there's a million things you can do with the stems. And, you know, a lot of times when you're, you know, shucking, collard greens, collard stems can be difficult to work with, but Swiss chard stems are a little bit different and we definitely don't throw them away. We'll sear the greens off and then we'll take the stems and cut 'em into a kind of matchstick and saute 'em down with a little bit of shallot and white wine and kind of serve them with the green.
RLH: And for dessert? Custards are the way to go. Chef Neff says to make them three days ahead, put them in the fridge and they’re ready to go.
In keeping with the great traditions, both religious and secular, we wish you a light-filled holiday season!