CINCINNATI -- While the city’s snazzy hotel dining rooms are open Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, many of their farm-to-table cousins will be taking a day or two off.
So what’s on the home menu for some of Cincinnati’s most ambitious chefs? And what are a few of their favorite things? WCPO asked four farm-to-table chefs for their thoughts on Christmas dining and came away with tales of influence that range from Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati to Ecuador and Louisiana.
Jackson Rouse, head chef at the Rookwood and one of the area’s leaders in farm-to-table cuisine, said he will be moving kitchen operations to his own home, where he and his wife will host a dinner for about 14 people, including two chefs who will travel from Chicago to enjoy a meal that will include rabbit terrine and porchetta.
“Christmas Eve is when my wife and I cook for our family,” said Rouse. “This is the one [home event] where we kind of really like to be cheffy, where we really push it.…
“We always have brandade. That’s a tradition in my family — a salted-cod warm potato dip.… It’s old school, very Old World.
“It’s [also] become tradition for us to make a rabbit terrine.… My family, growing up in Northern Kentucky, days like Christmas and Thanksgiving we would go rabbit hunting, so it was a big tradition with my uncles and my father and I.
“Those are things that are staple. [From year to year] we change the menu. This year’s menu is definitely Italian [and includes a] porchetta.
“My wife always makes a traditional cranberry sauce. We’ll be using some ginger from Carriage House Farm in the cranberry sauce. [There will also be] sautéed black kale with wild mushrooms and raisins poached in Marsala wine with shallots.
“Tradition for us also is to have is this really 1950s oyster casserole, which is oysters and Ritz crackers and Worcestershire. Growing up that was my favorite, favorite thing, and [my grandmother] only made it for Thanksgiving and Christmas.”
On the vegetable side of things, he said:
“We char or caramelize whole heads of cauliflower, and then we cut them into steaks or ledges, and then we serve it with butternut squash puree and we put brown butter on top. And then spaghetti squash on top. And then we put curried cashews on top of that. It’s easy, too — that’s on my menu here [at the Rookwood] now. So it’s easy for me to transition into that.
“We always do a traditional eggnog in our family. We whip the egg white, and we add incredible amounts of booze. As a family there’s sometimes 15 or 16 of us, and then we all stand around and we drink it. It’s a big thing for us to do the right way.”
Brad Bernstein, chef and proprietor of Red Feather in Oakley, described a combined-family (his wife’s and his own) celebration. Bernstein, whose parents owned the well-known El Greco restaurant in Northern Kentucky as well as other area restaurants, borrows from traditions handed down by his grandparents via Ecuador, where they were Peace Corps volunteers:
“Christmastime,” he said, “it’s all built around tradition, so there’s a lot of family [regulars] that my family does and that my wife’s family does that have become staples.
“I was raised both Catholic and Jewish holiday-wise.… For Christmas, traditionally, we do a big rib roast — that’s our big thing on Christmas Eve. My wife’s family has been doing it for 30-something years. It’s a bone-in rib roast — you really don’t get any more decadent than that for Christmas Eve.
“And then we do shrimp cocktail” with tobacco sauce, heavy horseradish, and ketchup … and chestnuts and wild rice.
“We do a nice little plate of caviar.… It’s all done up to the nines. All really simply done, just very high-end ingredients.”
One dish in particular that Bernstein looks forward to, he said, is his grandparents’ ceviche, a dish of raw seafood cured, or “cooked,” in lemon or lime.
“One thing my family does that’s different — my grandparents spent time in Ecuador, and they do an Ecuadorian-style ceviche, and I bring it to whoever [in the family] has the Christmas Eve dinner. It’s simply shrimp in a tomato-lime juice marinade with yellow onions. It’s traditionally served with corn nuts, but we do popcorn because that’s how they did it at El Greco [where ceviche was a signature dish].
“I do look forward to that very year. That’s something I always eat three or four bowls of being sitting down to dinner.”
Mark Seeberger, chef and proprietor of Bite Restaurant in Milford, along with his wife, Rachel, said his family’s holiday traditions include either turkey or rib roast, with a little bit of creole.
“In the past when we were a young family we would do prime rib,” the Blue Ash native said, “and we would make little slits in it and stuff gorgonzola cheese into it and then put a rosemary rub all over it and serve it with a horseradish sour cream.
“This year we got our turkey from TS Farms, an organic turkey. We brine it for two days and then roast it off, and we serve it with sweet potato gravy and oyster stuffing. Then we do the horseradish mashed potatoes, and the vegetable could be whatever we get from the farmers, whether it’s acorn squash or butternut squash or candied carrots — things like that.
Sweet potato-eggplant gravy?
“It’s dynamite. You take the sweet potatoes and the eggplant, you chop them up and then you just keep adding stock; you keep it on a simmer until they start breaking down, and then you’ll add some more stock and some more sweet potatoes and eggplant, and you keep simmering and simmering until it’s a gravy.
“That came from — I was in New Orleans, and I was staying with a friend of mine, and his neighbor, she was an old creole lady, and we just talked about it — what she liked to eat — ’cause I was still in [culinary] school at that time, and I was asking her questions.... And she gave me the recipe. Then I saw it again in Paul Prudhomme’s cookbook. But I got it from her many, many years ago.”
“We usually do a derby pie, that’s my favorite. Then next one would be a banana cream pie with chantilly on it. And we do a mixed-berry cobbler with 1,000-spice sauce.”
Vegetables seemed to play an even larger holiday-table role for Justin Miller, who is co-executive chef (along with Simion Israel) of La Poste in Clifton. At 25, he may be the youngest of the chefs featured here, and he once worked for Bernstein at Red Feather:
“I like traditionally good cranberry sauces. I like figs. Good hearty vegetables, root veg and mashed potatoes, nice gravies, some chicken or turkey or ham.
“We do a nice pork dish in our restaurant. It is a potato hash with roasted asparagus, onions and mushrooms with a nice fig reduction on top. It’s a nice holiday [dish]. Me and my partner [Israel] put it together ourselves — that’s one of our pride and joys.
“I have been served some nice sweet-potato casseroles — those are always good around the holidays, some good hearty food. We are doing a play [on foods] right now with sweet-potato gnocchi. We do a mix of different vegetables and a nice sauce. The sauce right now is an herb brown butter, rosemary, thyme, sage and some sweet potato chips on top. It’s got that nutty holiday feel to it and a nice texture.
“I like to be touched in my soul by food, not just my stomach, something that makes me feel like I’m back at home. Back at home we would always do a nice turkey with gravy, and then we’d do mashed potatoes and green bean casserole and macaroni salads and pasta salads, homemade cranberry sauce."
How would he describe his style of cooking?
“I would call [my style] a new-American kind of concept: mainly influenced by the seasons, whatever’s fresh and whatever’s going on in the culinary world and whatever’s seasonally going on — what we can get directly from the farmers, trying to cut out the corporations and kind of keep it small, you know, local.”