Holiday flavors have strong ties to people’s pasts, conjuring up fond memories along with hearty appetites, but sometimes a few modern tweaks can refresh a classic. “The flavors of the holidays are rooted in tradition, if you don’t pay homage to these many flavors, the holiday experience and the tradition is lost,” says chef-owner Azmin Ghahreman of Sapphire Laguna, the local restaurant and shop (Sapphire Pantry). “Keeping tradition alive means repeating it, but it’s certainly fine to update these traditions, as long as you maintain the sentiment.”
To kick off the season, we asked some our favorite foodies and celebrated local chefs to reminisce about their own must-have holiday dishes and gathered their insight on how to reimagine classic entrees with new flavors, healthier alternatives and fresh, locally sourced ingredients; this year, traditions can live on while meals evolve to match modern palates.
If the chefs’ suggestions stir up cravings but you’re not in the mood to spend all day at the stove, Laguna restaurants promise a nostalgic taste of the holidays—and you won’t even have to tidy up the kitchen afterward.
Soup & Salad
“At Sapphire Laguna, we serve up mixed greens with pears and other winter fruit, shaved cauliflower, pecorino and chopped almonds,” Azmin says. “We also have a great salad dressing made with spiced red wine vinaigrette.” Incorporating seasonal fruit into a fresh salad can elevate a simple starter dish to the star of the meal. Make the spiced red wine vinaigrette at home by warming up a good red wine with cinnamon, star anise and ginger, Azmin suggests.
“Since I was a little girl, or maybe even before I was born, our family did chili on Christmas,” says Lindsay Smith-Rosales, executive chef and owner of Laguna’s Nirvana Grille. Nostalgia aside, the chef has made small tweaks to her family’s beloved recipe. “It’s in the choice of ingredients,” she says. “It’s artisan bread from a local bakery instead of a Costco roll, and all the extra fixings, like bacon, onions and chives. There is a bit more flair, and more attention to ingredients we choose.”
Green Beans in Brown Butter
“I’ve actually never had the green bean casserole with the fried onions on top,” Lindsay says when thinking about traditional holiday dishes. “I’m not a fan of using canned soups.” Instead, she suggests a fresh approach, like the green beans in brown butter with hazelnuts and fresh tarragon, served at Nirvana Grille. “You get the nutty, buttery flavor with a bit of a crunch; it’s savory and not heavy,” Lindsay says. “Besides, I’d rather waste my calories on the stuffing!”
Stuffing With Fresh Herbs
“I really encourage people to use as many fresh ingredients as possible,” says Ryan Adams, chef-owner of Three Seventy Common Kitchen & Drink. “My favorite holiday dish is still my grandmother’s stuffing. She made it with sausage, sage, celery, onions and good brioche bread. At grandma’s Thanksgiving dinners, there were many times that I would only eat the stuffing. It was that good. I’ve just made some minor tweaks, like using fresh herbs, whereas my grandmother used dried herbs.”
Wild Mushroom-Stuffed Pork Loin
“Pork loin is a traditional holiday dish, but we serve ours stuffed with wild mushrooms, topped with an applejack jus and apple glaze,” Ryan says of the entree you can find at Three Seventy Common this season. “It’s an earthy, fun and flavorful twist, yet still maintains the traditional quality of the dish.”
Salmon With Winter Vegetable Puree
Turkey or ham might come to mind initially for a seasonal main course, but this year, take inspiration from our coastal locale and mix it up with protein fresh from the sea. At Nirvana Grille, Lindsay flavors cedar plank salmon with a ginger-infused glaze. She serves it with root vegetable puree—a silky smooth combination of potatoes and turnips that may convince you to retire the standard roasted vegetable or mashed potato dish for good.
Dutch Apple Pie
“We offer a Dutch apple pie at Three Seventy Common—our twist to this dish is the addition of fresh thyme and toasted hazelnuts, served with a bourbon and caramel hazelnut ice cream,” Ryan says. “The traditional apple pie with vanilla ice cream is very good, too, but this dessert is truly amazing.”
Warm Spiced Apple Cobbler
“There are many flavors that are often overlooked during the holiday season,” Azmin says. “People do seem to get obsessed with pumpkin spice, but there is also nutmeg, star anise, cinnamon and clove to consider. You can make a simple cookie with cloves and cinnamon.” Or, indulge your cinnamon craving with spiced apple cobbler, like the one served warm at Sapphire Laguna with Tahitian vanilla ice cream.
—Written by Alina Orozco | Photos by Jody Tiongco