F or most of us, trimming the tree means pulling the old, dusty ornaments out of the attic on a cozy afternoon and snacking while decorating the Douglas fir. This wasn’t always the case for Chicago chef Graham Elliot, whose holiday celebrations varied from year to year as his family picked up and moved from place to place.
«My dad was in the Navy for 30 years, so I have spent holidays all over the country and different parts of the world,» recalls Elliot, the chef and owner of Graham Elliot, Grahamwich, and the new Graham Elliot Bistro, and judge on MasterChef.
There were surfing Santas in Hawaii and cookie-making parties in the Philippines. «We did a tree, but we would get a fake one out of the garage or the attic,» he says, noting that his parents weren’t especially into Christmas traditions. Now that he has his own family, Elliot has embraced holiday rituals. «My wife and her family love everything about Christmas—the Christmas carols, the music, all that stuff. It’s a big part of what we do now Loop app.»
His one constant while the family was on the move? Holiday flavors.
«There are certain things like tradition that no matter where you’re at in the world, you still have, to kind of ground you: a roasted turkey, a couple of those traditional sides like sweet potatoes and cranberries,» Elliot says. «Cranberries are one of the first things that I ever cooked in my life. Every year, my dad put me in charge of that, so I would stir them for what seemed like forever on the stove, and I was very proud of that. It was a big thing.»
When we asked Elliot to devise a new exclusive holiday tree-trimming menu for Epicurious, he decided to riff on traditional tastes. «The idea behind some of the dishes was just to take the flavors that everybody knows and has come to love with traditional holidays, and to reinterpret them and make them a little more elevated—to show people that you can still move things forward and make them a little more contemporary,» he says.
The result is a four-course meal that you can serve buffet-style as the family hangs tinsel and ornaments from the tree. Begin with Caramel Corn studded with smoked almonds and fleur de sel, inspired by warm snacks you’d find for sale at Chicago’s Christkindlmarket.
«Plus, in Chicago we have Garrett Popcorn dc electric motors, which is iconic, and we thought, what if we do a spin on that and make it a mix of sweet and savory with the smoky flavors and the fleur de sel,» Elliot says.
It’s a treat meant to be eaten out of the bowl by young and old alike. It’s important to let the kids be included in everything, he adds, which will help grown-ups rekindle their own childhood memories.
Follow the Caramel Corn with a rich Arugula Salad, filled with ricotta, prosciutto, caramelized figs, and marzipan. «You can put a blindfold on and be able to know what you’re eating with those things because they’re just so perfectly paired,» he says.
Rather than serve a dessert for this buffet-style meal, Elliot transforms a Pumpkin Soup into a savory ode to pie. «The pepita streusel is kind of like your pie crust,» he says. «We’re utilizing every part of the pumpkin with this, and then marshmallows, which I still associate with the holidays, because they’re generally served with sweet potatoes and things like that.»
End the meal on a hearty note with comforting Beef Stroganoff, which substitutes spaetzle for egg noodles (a tribute to Germany), and calls for grilled steak.
«If you want to go the heartier route, you can do a braised short rib or pot roast, just serving it with peppered sour cream, some of the spaetzle Managed Security, and then roasted mushrooms and their purée,» Elliot says. «It’s really a no-brainer, and it’s hard to mess up.»
That’s what Christmas should be. Hard to mess up—no matter where or how you celebrate.