Vancouver chefs suggest inspired seasonal sides for the holidays

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      The Middle East might not seem a likely place for traditional Christmas dinner.

      Chef Karan Suri, however, became adept at cooking turkey during his time at a luxury chain in Dubai. Situated in a city made up of more than 80 percent foreigners, the hotel offered a “turkey to go” meal. It proved crazily popular.

      “One year, I roasted 60 turkeys in December,” Suri says in a phone call with the Georgia Straight. “I did about 20 a day.”

      That was in 2010, the Delhi native going on to join Fairmont Hotels, overseeing a trio of properties in Africa before landing at the Fairmont Vancouver Airport. Last year, he moved to the Fairmont Waterfront, where he’s prepping for a busy holiday season at its dining room, the ARC Restaurant.

      The establishment will be offering classic Christmas dinner, with Suri using his preferred method of preparing the bird: he removes and debones the legs so that the dark and white meat can be cooked separately, each perfectly.

      But although the turkey always takes centre stage, it’s the sides that truly make the meal. Green beans amandine and mashed potatoes are fine, but they’re also predictable and border on boring. Suri and other Vancouver chefs have several ideas to help home cooks make this year’s holiday dinner one for which Santa would travel the globe.

      “This is the season for beets, and you can get a lot of character out of them by roasting them,” Suri says. “The moment you roast beets, you bring out this herby sweetness that complements turkey really well.”

      Chef Karan Suri also recommends tossing heiloom carrots with olive oil, salt and pepper, maple syrup, and butter.

      Before sautéing them with kale or Swiss chard, Suri roasts them in a salt crust at ARC. Although that may be too time-consuming at home on Christmas Day, he suggests selecting baby beets—trimming them prior to putting them in the oven so they’re easy to peel—and tossing them with Tuscan-herb olive oil from the Vancouver Olive Oil Company.

      (He describes the menu at the Waterfront as hyperlocal, featuring other regional ingredients like greens from Hannah Brook Farm, Oyama Sausage Co. meats for charcuterie, and cheese from Golden Ears Cheesecrafters.)

      “I also highly recommend heirloom carrots,” Suri says. “We get red, yellow, and orange and roast them with our rooftop honey and sage.

      “If you want to keep things really simple, take all your veg into one mix, roast with good-quality olive oil and salt and pepper, then toss with good-quality maple syrup and butter,” he adds. “That will add a nice glaze and a little bit of sweetness.”

      With Brussels sprouts being the Susan Boyle of the food world—overlooked in the past but having risen to stardom—consider Suri’s version: he dresses them with lemon, chili, and Parmesan or pecorino cheese. His preferred method of cooking is deep-frying, but at home you could bake them before frying them with the other ingredients.

      A half or full head of cauliflower served the way it’s done at Belgard Kitchen is worthy of a place at the holiday dinner table. Chef Reuben Major explains that the crucifer is cooked sous-vide and tossed with salt, pepper, apple-cider vinegar, and garlic confit (one of his kitchen staples), then served atop romesco sauce in a skillet with crispy capers and “a ton of shaved Grana Padano”.

      Although consumers can pick up sous-vide machines at Costco, home cooks who don’t happen to have the small appliance on hand could instead blanch the veg, then, when ready to serve, fire it in the oven till hot.

      Winter-vegetable succotash is another idea. “Take any combination of butternut squash—or any other squash, for that matter—parsnip, turnip, and celery root, toss it all in garlic oil and seasoning, then put it in the oven till it’s chewy but caramelized,” Major says.

      “I would put some raw grape or cherry tomatoes in there or serrano-chili coins—just thinly sliced—and some parsley and cilantro leaves and dress it with a maple-walnut vinaigrette. It’s very festive and would go great with turkey or ham.”

      If you’re seeking a hearty side, Juniper executive chef Sarah Stewart suggests oxtail smashed potatoes. “This is a great way to use leftovers,” she says. “You could use any braised meat. Take red jackets and smash them with a fork so they’re still chunky, and add cream and butter. I would use tourtière spices in there—cinnamon, allspice, marjoram, clove, rosemary, and thyme.”

      You could use the liquid from the braised meat to cook black lentils, then add diced mirepoix vegetables, Stewart says, while vegetarians could substitute veggie stock. She’s also fond of rye berries, which she uses to make risotto that’s served with a roasted-parsnip purée. “I would add some Meyer lemon in there and walnut to make it festive,” she says. “Rye berries are whole rye kernels and are really healthy.”

      Here’s a tip for a flavourful stuffing: add cherries poached in beer. “You could also use squash along with leftover bread to make a savoury bread pudding,” Stewart says.

      The secret to outstanding stuffing is adding your favourite chutney, says chef Angie Quaale, owner of Well Seasoned gourmet foods in Langley.

      “I like to cook my stuffing outside the bird in a cake pan so it gets nice and crispy,” Quaale says. “The chutney mixed into the broth that you add to the stuffing adds a little fruity sweetness with a hint of ginger to the mixture that is a bit unexpected but really delicious.”

      Veteran chef Dino Renaerts, partner in West Vancouver’s Bon Vivant Catering, suggests warm, crushed nugget potatoes with avocado-and-kale pesto to elevate Christmas dinner. After sautéing chopped shallots with a shredded head of kale, put those ingredients in a food processor along with two cloves of raw garlic, six basil leaves, one tablespoon of butter, and one avocado and pulse until the mixture is still slightly chunky, then fold into lightly mashed potatoes.

      Chef Sarah Stewart of Juniper suggests using the liquid from braised meat to cook black lentils.
      Amanda Siebert

      “A tip is to look for seasonal ingredients, like B.C. nugget potatoes and B.C. kale,” Renaerts says. “Also, try to find avocados from Mexico, as these are always in season and still have good quality in the winter.”

      Mamie Taylor’s executive chef Jeff Koop—who will be making a vegan turducken, or “turnumpkin”, for his mom this Christmas by putting a roasted turnip inside kabocha squash along with a stuffing of eggplant “bacon”, mushrooms, and bread—points to homemade mac ’n’ cheese as a side dish.

      The restaurant’s version consists of cheddar, Swiss, Parmesan, and Stilton cheese as well as smoked ham hock. “I’d probably omit the ham hock for a Christmas-dinner side dish, but you could still add it in there—pull it apart—for the meatatarians in the family,” Koop says.

      Vancouver Aquarium Ocean Wise executive chef Ned Bell—who uses sustainable Dungeness crab in a stuffing with chestnut and brioche—suggests a new spin on cranberry sauce by using blueberries and birch syrup instead.

      “The birch syrup gives you this tangy, caramelized, sweet-and-sour relish/sauce with your turkey instead of same old, same old,” he says. “B.C. frozen blueberries are amazing and they’re abundant.”

      Bell also loves emphasizing side dishes. “I’m all about nutrient-dense plant-based ingredients, about the vegetable taking a more significant role in the entire meal,” he says. “We have rutabaga and turnip; I’m not saying don’t have mashed potatoes, but why not try something new?”

      You could try, for instance, re-creating Nightingale’s roasted delicata squash with Walla Walla onion, Macedonian feta, and sage.

      “This dish is interesting because the skin of the squash is fully edible,” says executive chef and owner David Hawksworth. “I like that it has lots of good, natural sugars that make it a very tasty and luxe vegetable dish. The cheese adds a salty complexity.” Bonus? You can par-cook the squash ahead of time for efficiency.

      A lighter option is Hawksworth’s apple salad with toasted walnuts, Sichuan pepper, and Avonlea clothbound cheddar in a lemon vinaigrette.

      “We use organic apples from Pemberton in this dish,” Hawksworth says. “If you’re making it at home, choose a tart, crisp apple and go for a slightly sweeter cheddar like Avonlea—mild, not sharp or aged. Lightly toasted walnuts and celery bring added crunch, and a little heat from the Sichuan pepper offsets the lemon vinaigrette.”

      In his home country of Peru, Ancora Waterfront Dining executive chef Ricardo Valverde grew up eating tamales along with turkey for Christmas dinner.

      Although those packets are labour-intensive, another common side dish he remembers fondly is Russian salad “with beets, potato, eggs mixed with mayo, onions, and vinegar to balance the acidity—that was very Christmassy for us,” Valverde says, noting that his mom would inject her raw turkey with beer and baste it for 24 hours before roasting it with Peruvian chili.

      “When I do a Canadian-style Christmas dinner, I go for root vegetables: celery root, turnips, Brussels sprouts, carrots. I love roasting them in butter and herbs—thyme and rosemary—and roasting them very slowly.”

      And Christmas for him wouldn’t be the same without hot chocolate and sweet Italian bread.

      “Panettone is as big in Peru as it is in Italy,” Valverde says. “You know it’s Christmas when you start seeing TV commercials for panettone.”