Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A slice of Idaho for Christmas

In search of the quintessential Gem State meal

Express Staff Writer

In the search for a quintessentially Idaho holiday meal, this might be the pinnacle: Chris Kastner, executive chef and owner of CK's Real Food in Hailey, is roasting elk for Christmas.

The elk, which will appear on CK's Christmas menu, might be the best meat option for home cooks dedicated to making a truly Idahoan Christmas feast, Kastner said.

"There are so many hunters around here, that would be the primary meat," he said.

But that's not the only option for foodies looking for holiday meat dishes with a local connection.

Scott Mason, chef and owner of Ketchum Grill, said local cooks who also happen to be hunters—or who know one—have good options when it comes to variety of meats available.

"Typically, Idaho things are goose and duck and pheasants, because we have a lot of upland game," he said.

Mason said the best way to prepare a duck is with olive oil, garlic, salt and a lot of spice, such as curry or cayenne pepper.

While the meat itself could be barbecued for those who don't mind cooking outside in winter, or pan-roasted or slow-roasted for those who don't want to venture out, Mason said the keys to a good wild duck are lots of spice and paying close attention to cooking time.

"They can be kind of gamey, so I like to put a lot of flavor with them," he said.

Mason said he normally doesn't cook them beyond medium, rather than well-done, both to keep the leaner wild meat moist and to keep a handle on the "livery" flavor that can come out if the meat is cooked too much.

For those looking for tradition, there is always a Christmas goose, wild or farmed, which Mason said could be roasted with honey-glazed cranberries. He also said he likes to make a goose cassoulet, which is a traditional stew-like dish that involves goose or duck, sausage and beans, with a baked breadcrumb topping.

"It's very simple, very traditional, very winter," Mason said. "You have to have an appetite to eat it."

Perhaps the truest Idaho Christmas dinner would involve a fresh duck or goose, but, Mason said, the wild versions of these birds tend to be leaner and are not always easy to cook. Luckily, Atkinsons' Market meat counter can special-order farm-raised geese and ducks for those who prefer a fatter, moister bird.

Local lamb producers offer racks and legs for Christmas dinner, which Mason said would be ideal for a family that might require more food than a wild duck or two. Lava Lake Lamb, a ranch that raises grass-fed organic lambs near Carey, sells 4.5-pound legs of lamb for about $50 on special, available on their website.

The "roast beast" generally serves as the centerpiece of a holiday feast, but a Christmas dinner wouldn't be complete without the most Idahoan of vegetables—the humble potato.

Simply roasting diced potatoes in a cast-iron skillet on low heat for an hour before broiling them for a crispy finish, as The New York Times recommends, is perhaps the most low-maintenance of options. Kastner will be serving something slightly more sophisticated at CK's: a potato pavé.

A pavé is similar to a "gratin," with thinly sliced potatoes baked in heavy cream and some cheese. The difference, Kastner said, is that the potatoes are weighted down as they cool, which compresses them into a "brick" of potato that is then sliced and pan-fried.

Kastner said the name, which is French for "cobblestone," "doesn't imply the taste, though."

Roasted acorn squash will also make an appearance on Kastner's Christmas table, mostly because he can still get them locally through Idaho's Bounty, an online co-op that connects local farmers with customers.

"They're a pretty long-holding squash," he said.

Laura Theis, spokeswoman for Idaho's Bounty, said the co-op still has plenty of potatoes, squash and carrots in storage.

Unfortunately, she said, it's out of local sweet potatoes, which is sad news for those who might want to take Mason's suggestion to serve chipotle yams as a side.

"They're spicy and it gives a nice contrast to the richness of everything else," he said.

Yams aside, Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without dessert, Mason said.

"The best part of Christmas is really the sweets."

Mason's favorites include anything with apples—dumplings, pies or cakes—which are still widely available in local grocery stores and through Idaho's Bounty.

Other traditional, though not necessarily Idahoan, sweets include a bouche de Noel or Yule log. Mason said his wife, Anne, the pastry chef and co-owner of Ketchum Grill, makes a chocolate roll frosted to look like a log and adorned with meringue mushrooms.

Making the log requires rolling a sheet cake without breaking it, and home cooks who want a little less hassle might keep in mind Mason's other suggestion of a Linzertorte, an Austrian dessert that gives a nod to that country's influence on the Sun Valley ski community. A traditional Linzertorte is a low tart made with raspberry jam spread in an almond or hazelnut crust and topped with a lattice.

"It's almost like a cookie with a jam filling," Mason said.

The chefs are both putting together elaborate meals for their restaurants on Christmas Eve. However, both said they prefer more basic options when spending the holidays at home.

"Normally, we're so busy around Christmas that at home we go very simple," Mason said, adding that he and his wife usually have a huge pot of soup with homemade bread, or basic pasta.

Kastner recommended that busy Christmas dinner hosts host a potluck, as he did last year. He said he made a bison prime rib, and guests brought garlic roasted potatoes, steamed broccoli and macaroni and cheese that was "like Mom made it."

"Have everyone bring one thing," Kastner said, adding emphatically, "the one thing they do well."

Katherine Wutz:

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