Taste memories are one of the most powerful ones we can have, and that feels especially so when we reflect on the foods that we share during the holiday season with loved ones. So many of these dishes also have their roots in our respective communities — they reflect who we are, where we’ve come from, and where we are now. And while we all have our favorite go-to-dishes when it comes to celebrating the holidays, it’s also fun to add new dishes — and memories — to the occasion.
That’s why we asked a host of New York-based chefs for their favorite holiday dishes and where to find them, so we might add them to our holiday tables. From soup dumplings and gingerbread souffle to Yorkshire pudding and pan de jamón, here’s what they had to say.
Preston Clark, Executive Chef of Lure Fish Bar | SoHo
“My favorite dish that’s on the table every Christmas Eve is a blue crab boil,” says Clark. “Every Christmas Eve, the entire family sits around the table and eats super-hot blue crabs, seasoned heavily with Old Bay seasoning and bowls of hot drawn butter.”
For Clark, eating blue crabs is a family tradition: “I loved most that in the Clark family, being able to stay up and eat crabs on Christmas Eve was a rite of passage to adulthood. All of the children in the family had to go to bed early so they could wake up Christmas morning and see what Santa Claus had left under the tree. The adults would stay up and enjoy the crab feast. So, as I got older, eventually I was invited to stay up and eat crabs.
“Next was learning how to eat the crabs. The technique of breaking open the crab body and getting to the meat was part of growing up. The difference in technique between my mother, father and the argument that always followed are some of my fondest memories of the holidays when I was a child.
“Most New York City restaurants don’t offer this style of dining as it is a bit messy. The best way to indulge is to purchase fresh live blue crabs from a fishmonger and do it yourself,” he adds. “Aqua Best [in Chinatown] has some of the best blue crabs. A restaurant called “The Boil” is the most similar to the Clark family crab feast.”
Einat Admony, Chef and Owner of Balaboosta | West Village
“When I think of the holidays, I immediately want to eat my Persian mom’s fesenjoon, which is chicken braised in a pomegranate and walnut sauce,” says Admony. “At my holiday table, Yemenite flavors are a must. My father’s Yemenite soup is my most comforting dish; the flavors of warm hawaij spice fill the house.”
Admony took her father’s soup and decided to update it for Balaboosta: “I took this traditional Yemenite soup and combined it with my love of soup dumplings to create a special dish.” (Pictured above.)
For those wanting to try Persian dishes like fesenjoon, she recommends Sofreh in Prospect Heights. “Persian food is very sentimental to me, and one of my favorite places for it here is Sofreh. [Chef] Nasim Alikhani cooks food from her heart. She’s courageous, kind, and true to herself — and it’s reflected in her food.”
Beatrice Ajaero, Owner of Nneji | Astoria
“During the holidays, red stew and white rice was a special reminder that the festive time of the year had arrived,” explains Ajaero. “The color contrast between the grains and the beef-rich tomato stew was served while still steaming hot at the dinner table.”
She recalls how her family even had a whole dinner-table tradition tied to this dish: “Eager to dive in, one might mistakenly place the rice server too close to the bright red stew and a grain would drop in! As per a rule passed down from my maternal grandmother, this was not allowed. So, when it was my turn to serve, I was ever so careful, and it became the joke of the table never to let a grain of rice fall into the red stew.”
At Nneji, Ajaero’s store and restaurant, the West African red stew is made with chunks of beef, smoked turkey, bacalao, and Norwegian dried stockfish. “It is our hope that the spirit of festive sharing and gathering is with us all year round,” she adds. “We consider red stew to be like the marinara of West Africa — many cultures put a different spin on this favored dish.”
And if you’re looking for a dish that’s similarly rich and complex in its flavor profiles, but not necessarily West African in origins, Ajaero recommends stopping by her neighbors, Rose and Joe’s Bakery. “There, the Old World kitchen is alive on every Sicilian slice,” she adds.
Ivo Diaz, Co-Owner of Casa Ora | East Williamsburg
“One of my favorite dishes to enjoy during the holidays is pan de jamón (pictured above)–– smoked and thinly sliced ham with raisins and green olives, rolled in dough that is then glazed with an egg wash,” says Diaz. “I would have this dish with my family every Christmas and New Year’s in Venezuela. There, it’s considered a holiday staple, and I love it because of its sweet, savory, and salty flavors, all wrapped up in a crisp, bready exterior.”
You can find this dish on Diaz’s menu from Thanksgiving to New Year’s — made by Diaz’s own mother and Casa Ora’s executive chef, Isbelis Diaz. Sometimes, she also gets a bit of help for the holidays: “My aunts also often come into town during the busy holiday season to help with the preparation and share their stories.”
Another restaurant where you can find pan de jamón is Cachapas y Mas, which has locations in Inwood and Ridgewood.
Sohui Kim, Chef and Co-Owner of Gage & Tollner and Insa | Downtown Brooklyn & Gowanus
“I’ve been married for 17 years and for the past 17 years, we’ve had Christmas Eve dinner with my amazing-beyond-belief in-laws,” says Kim. “Jane and Peter Schneider are the most incredible home cooks that cook up a traditional Christmas dinner, complete with roast beef on the bone and Yorkshire pudding.”
“It’s so silky and delicious because she cooks it in the same roasting pan,” she explains. “Once the roast is removed and the rendered fat is bubbling, she pours the batter in and pops it back into oven until it sets, puffy and golden brown.”
“The recipe for the pudding is so simple, but you really do need to cook it in a good pool of beautiful beef fat. And when else would you cook a four-rib bone in beef roast but for Christmas for your family of 25?” (The Schneiders have a big family.)
If you’re dining out, Kim recommends stopping by on a Sunday at Tea and Sympathy for their roast dinner, which comes with Yorkshire pudding. You can also find Yorkshire puddings on the menu during Churchill Tavern’s Sunday roast.
“There are many restaurants that do pop-overs really well, which is basically a Yorkshire pudding without the beautiful pan presentation,” Kim notes. And a proper Yorkshire pudding should be on the Gage & Tollner menu soon.
Kurt Gutenbrunner, Chef and Owner of Wallsé and Wallsé Next Door | West Village
“Roasted Christmas goose has been a house staple on many Christmas tables throughout my childhood and the lifespan of my restaurants,” says Gutenbrunner, who has run Wallsé for 21 years. “It’s luxurious and juicy in all the right ways. The skin is fatty and crispy, leaving the lips wanting more after each bite.” Indeed, goose has been on the menu at Wallsé for more than a decade, served with red cabbage, semolina dumplings, and lingonberries.
And much of Gutenbrunner’s holiday menu draws from memories he’s had of holiday celebrations from Austria. “I also enjoy chestnuts and preserved fruits. From that, I drew inspiration and created a chestnut soup in 1998 that quickly became a favorite during our holiday seasons at Wallsé. Adding a true Viennese twist, I replicated the plating of this soup with a milk foam, drawing from the coffee house experiences you can find in Vienna. Also, it adds wonderful light creaminess to the dish. It is served with Armagnac candied prunes.”
And no holiday meal is complete without a dessert: “I also love a gingerbread soufflé with rum ice cream. At Wallsé we have created a mold-less soufflé which is difficult to execute, but absolutely worth it. You might even find it on the menu this Christmas,” he adds.
While it might be difficult to find these dishes exactly as Gutenbrunner describes them anywhere else but Wallsé, you might be able to find them at Bâtard, Café Katja, and, of course, Wallsé Next Door.
Leland Yu, Chef and Founder of Run for Chinatown | Manhattan Chinatown
“My mom makes a really good roast turkey,” Yu says. “Lots of Chinese people don’t like turkey because they say it’s dry. But it’s not, when momma cooks it right!”
Her secret? Chinese flavors. “She makes some kind of fermented bean paste marinade and lets the bird sit in it overnight. Then, when it’s cooking time, she throws it in the oven until the breast part is nearly done, then covers the breast with foil to protect it from the heat, and leaves it in the oven until the dark meat is cooked through. Also, toward the end of cooking, she will add carrots and potatoes to the bottom of the roasting pan and let that cook and soak up all the juices. It’s a truly Chinese American dish.”
While Yu hasn’t found any restaurants in the city that offer roast turkey similar to his mother’s, some Chinese barbecue restaurants may offer their spin, applying the same techniques that they use to make Chinese roast duck. Some places that offer it include New Yee Li in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, and New Kim Tuong and Yue Wong in Manhattan Chinatown.