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Ashland top chef shares ideas for a memorable Christmas dinner

Though it may seem like Thanksgiving just ended, people are already in the midst of decking the halls, trimming the tree and gearing up for yet another holiday meal.

For Skye Elder, one of the Rogue Valley’s top chefs, the Christmas dinner isn’t about wowing everyone with the latest ingredients and fancy techniques. It’s about enjoying good food and celebrating shared memories and traditions.

We checked in with the Brickroom executive chef to find out which recipes make the cut for his Christmas spread.

While he usually goes the turkey route, Elder tries something new from time to time.

“The most exotic holiday dish I made was at a winery dinner one year,” he said. “I cooked rustichella d’abruzzo, a high-end pasta, in four bottles of tempranillo. Then I made a sauce from the starchy red wine water — $240 worth of wine, some winter mushrooms, and a bit of root vegetable. It was decadent.”

A Skye Elder Christmas dinner menu for a large party might look something like this:

  • Honey- and sea salt-brined turkey, roasted on root vegetables and apples
  • Proper dressing with water chestnuts, dried cranberries and fresh herbs
  • A whipped potato flight of classic mashed potatoes and flavored versions
  • Fresh-made Oregon cranberry sauce
  • Coriander-scented sweet potatoes glazed with molasses
  • Fresh-baked dinner rolls with honey and sea salt
  • Pumpkin pie
  • Bread pudding made with croissants and pumpkin muffins
  • A flight of whipped cream

It’s a lot of food, “but we go nuts,” Elder said.

He brines the turkey the day before he roasts it. Use your favorite brine recipe and add two cups of honey, a tablespoon of peppercorns, and a half tablespoon of juniper berries.

He places some of the apples and root vegetables into the cavity of the turkey, and spreads the rest on the bottom of the roasting pan. Elder likes to use green apples, rutabagas, turnips, parsnips and sweet onions. Quarter them or cut into two-inch lengths.

His “proper” dressing includes the usual ingredients along with a cup of water chestnuts and a half cup of dried cranberries.

For the dinner rolls, you can use your favorite recipe. When you take them out of the oven, brush them with warm honey, sprinkle with sea salt and serve immediately. The kiss of sweet and salty takes the rolls to another level.

Elder says you can up your game on your favorite baked sweet potato or yam casserole by using a half cup of molasses as part of the sweetener. Add a teaspoon of coriander to the usual spice mix for a lovely bouquet. After it comes out of the oven and just before serving, drizzle another quarter cup of molasses on top.

If you have a favorite bread pudding recipe, you can tweak it Elder-style by substituting pieces of pumpkin muffins and croissants for the bread. A yummy option is to add a half cup of chocolate chips or bitter-sweet chocolate pieces to the mixture.

The flights of whipped potatoes and whipped cream can be the stars of your dinner. “They’re quick and not much work,” Elder said, “and people love them.”

Whipped potato flight: Make your favorite classic whipped potatoes, then prepare a variation or two to wow your guests.

The recipes that follow assume you’re making the basic dish with about five pounds of potatoes, then separating it into two bowls, serving a variation along with the classic. If you want to have two variations, adjust the amount of the recipe accordingly. The possibilities are endless. Here are a few.

Roasted eggplant potatoes: Roast a large, scored eggplant at 400 degrees for 40 to 50 minutes. Allow it to cool until easy to handle. Scrape the meat from the skin into a processor. Be careful not to include any skin (it’s bitter). Blend until smooth and stir into one of the bowls of classic whipped potatoes.

“It has a sweet and smoky quality,” Elder said. “It goes nicely with poultry and adds a vegetarian aspect to the holiday table.”

Roasted sweet pepper potatoes: Toss two large sweet peppers, any color, with 1/2 tablespoon of olive oil and roast in a 450-degree oven for 25 to 30 minutes until the skin is charred. Let the peppers rest covered in a bowl for 10 to 15 minutes. Remove the skin, seeds and stem, and puree the roasted pepper in a processor. Stir into half of the classic potatoes until blended.

“The sweet pepper puree adds great flavor and a beautiful color to the dish,” Elder said.

With carrot puree: Cook four peeled large carrots until soft, puree in a processor, and blend into the classic whipped potatoes.

“These go nicely with roast beef and red wine,” Elder said.

Pinot noir whipped potatoes: Open a bottle of Oregon pinot noir, fill one red wine glass 2/3 full (for you to sip) and place the remainder in a two-quart sauce pan on medium heat for 10 minutes, then turn down to medium low and reduce wine by three-quarters (30 to 40 minutes). Add the pinot reduction to slightly more than one half of your batch of classic whipped potatoes and stir until blended. If your wine was not reduced enough and potatoes are a little thin, add more of the whipped potatoes.

“These wine-scented potatoes come out a very nice rosy color and have a wonderful flavor,” Elder said. “They go well with carrots and root vegetables and are an excellent way to thread the flavor of the wine you’re serving throughout the meal. Most red wines will work for this recipe.”

Whipped cream flight:

Using two cups of heavy cream, make a basic recipe of whipped cream. Divide into two batches, the basic with 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract and 1 tablespoon of confectioner’s sugar, the other batch with or without sweetening, depending on the variation below.

With pinot syrup: Reduce by three-quarters 1/2 to 3/4 cup of pinot noir and 1/3 cup sugar, chill, and stir into an unsweetened batch. Chill until service.

“The pinot whipped cream goes well with apple or pear desserts and has a beautiful color,” Elder said.

With Guinness: reduce three-quarters of a bottle of Guinness stout over medium heat by three-quarters, chill, and stir into a sweetened half batch of whipped cream.

“It pairs nicely with lots of holiday desserts,” Elder said, “including pumpkin pie, bread pudding, and many other pies.”

Spiced whipped cream: Into a sweetened half batch, stir in 1/4 teaspoon each of nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice and cocoa powder, and chill until service.

Elder said you can add to the drama of your flights by using unique serving dishes.

There you have it: some great ideas for tweaking your traditional holiday dishes from one of the valley’s top chefs. When your guests rave — and they will — go ahead and take all the credit.

Jim Flint is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.

Ashland chef Skye Elder contemplates the possibilities of the simple russet potato. His whipped potato flight can be the star of your next holiday feast. Jim Flint photo
Skye Elder displays a flight of mashed potatoes he whipped up at Ashland's Brickroom Restaurant where he is executive chef. From front to back: roasted red pepper, carrot and pesto variations. Jim Flint photo