Three Tips for Putting Together a Menu Featuring Traditional Dishes Associated with Different Holidays
Experts weigh in how to cook one merry meal that combines different traditions, cuisines, and cultures.
Every December holiday has its prized food traditions, from the Feast of the Seven Fishes, the Southern Italian Christmas Eve ritual, and Christmas turkey or ham with all the trimmings, to potato latkes on Hanukkah, candied yams on Kwanzaa, and perhaps bubble and squeak on Boxing Day. While each deserves its own celebration, sometimes, when you're bringing together guests who hold different holidays, cuisines, or customs dear, it makes sense to cook one merry meal that bridges the season.
How do you create an expansive, cross-cultural menu that artfully combines traditional dishes from the December holidays? We spoke to two experts who had plenty to say on the topic!
Showcase Ingredients and Diversity
Sarah A. Abdallah, interior designer and founder and CEO of New York City-based Functional Creative Design, who consults on menu themes for hotels and restaurants she's designed, looks to her roots when devising a holiday-spanning menu. Growing up in an Egyptian household, she's celebrated the holidays with extended family from Latin, African-American, Palestinian, North African, and South Asian backgrounds. Their tradition was to assign a dish to each culture. And some of her holiday favorites—jerk chicken, latkes, stuffing, and goat cheese–stuffed dates—reveal that range of influences. "All of the dishes would be on the table at the same time to give equal importance to each," she recalls. "I feel, more than ever, this is important given the climate and increased diversity of families."
In imagining a pan-holiday menu, Abdallah's friend and frequent collaborator, Jordan Andino, the chef behind Flip Sigi, a Filipino taqueria in New York City, advises breaking down the meal into three or four different parts. "I'd decide what elements work best in terms of apps, mains, sides, and desserts, and then designate a holiday culture/cuisine to each course. I like to give each dish and ingredient it's time to shine, so this would be no different than my original holiday plan."
From Light to Heavy, Tart to Sweet
To ensure that the panoply of flavors works in concert, textures, ingredients, and the heaviness of each dish should also be taken into consideration. And ideally, Andino says, courses should progress from light to heavy. "For example, I'd start with a mixed vegetable latke topped with crème fraîche and scallions. Then I'd get heavier in the main course with roasted prime rib, mac and cheese, and jerk chicken to spice it up," he says. "I'd end the dinner with sufganiyot (jelly donuts) to really cap off a decadent meal!"
Another factor to take into account while thinking through the parade of dishes? The dishes should be balanced, he notes, ensuring that acids are present to cut through the fattiness, and sauces are tart to complement sweeter aspects. And avoid repetition of ingredients in each course. Abdallah adds that one major spice shouldn't hijack the meal by overpowering the other offerings.
And whether you're tweaking recipes passed down through the generations, paying homage to classics inextricably linked to a holiday, or putting your own signature on holiday customs culled from different countries, keep a rein, tight or loose, on tradition.
The Art of Presentation
Presentation is also key. From the eye appeal of your homemade delicacies to the way they're laid out on the table, looks matter, acting as a unifying force for disparate dishes.
"I would consider how colorful your dishes are, and then decide if you want to keep your tabletop presentation more natural (either dark-natural or light-natural) to make the food pop, or choose a dominant color to have it stand out," says Abdallah. Linen napkins, runners, tablecloths, and placemats from MagicLinen (from $16, etsy.com) do the trick. Hand-glazed ceramic dinnerware from Jono Pandolfi (from $180, food52.com) is designed for chefs and lets you set your table like a hospitality designer, she says, while handcrafted cutting boards (from $69.99, tangiblekitchen.com) and vintage, mismatched silver lends authenticity. Another seasonal touch: garnishing the table with dried flowers or berries, clippings, or evergreen pieces, perhaps plucked from your very own garden.
And if you're hoping for prosperity in the year ahead, it can't hurt to add that New Year's Day dish of black-eyed peas to the visual feast.