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Innovate your holiday menus

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Chef advocates for some new twists within the framework of your familiar family traditions
Erik M. Lunsford/St. Louis Post-DispatchGluten-free vanilla bean cheesecake
Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune/TNSCrisp Sprouts served with a simple sweet and sour vinaigrette.
Ed Haun/Detroit Free Press/TNSQuick and easy beef stroganoff

Take it from Hilary Cano: It’s OK to take a break from elaborate holiday menus and expectations around entertaining.

As the manager of special events at Jacksonville’s Bigham Knoll, Cano called it quits amid last year’s coronavirus surge. Once pandemic restrictions eased, she decided against resuming her job overseeing three catered meals each day, Thursday through Sunday, from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Eve.

Cano’s expertise that served countless company holiday parties easily could feed her family of 26, whose gatherings the chef likens to “mini catering.” But the family divvies up dishes among its members in a major departure from Cano’s childhood, when her grandmother spent all day in the kitchen — starting at 5 a.m. — while the men watched football and the kids “harassed” her.

“It doesn’t work for anybody anymore,” says Cano. “There are some concessions that have to get made.”

While many families crave holiday nostalgia, Cano advocates for some innovation within a familiar framework. The chef has spiced winter squash with curry, in lieu of serving candied yams, and mingled mashed potatoes with steamed and riced cauliflower.

“It helps really lighten it up for people,” she says. “You feel like you’re eating a vegetable; it tricks the kids into eating a vegetable.”

There’s no mistaking, however, the green golfball-sized spheres of Brussels sprouts — “strangely” the item most requested at Bigham Knoll’s holiday events, says Cano. The most popular protein from Bigham Knoll’s German-themed kitchen was beef Stroganoff, which Cano promotes as budget-friendly, easy to make a day ahead and forgiving enough to keep hot throughout an hours-long gathering.

Cano’s events typically started with charcuterie boards, which can tempt every taste and dietary requirement. And given several years’ buzz around “boards,” there are plenty of ideas for eye-catching arrangements, including in the shape of a holiday wreath.

“If you’ve got the time, get creative,” says Cano.

A canvas for seasonal vegetables, Cano’s stuffing is more like a casserole or savory bread pudding, accommodating fresh produce from leeks and kale to apples and fennel. Fall vegetables, in particular, tend to hold up to advance cooking and reheating, says Cano.

To build a menu like a culinary professional, Cano says to “find your salad,” matching its tone to the overall spread, whether upscale or “pizzeria-style.”

“The salad really sets the stage for the rest of the meal.”

Then “perfect your starch,” which for all the anti-carbohydrate sentiment is the element that excites so many people. Cano notes that diners often eat more potatoes than turkey or ham and are disappointed when spuds don’t deliver. Regardless of the base ingredient, cooks shouldn’t cut any corners on a satisfying starch, she says.

“Are we doing mashed potatoes? Are we doing au gratin? Are we doing rice?

“You’re gonna have gluten-free friends; you’re probably gonna have a vegetarian or vegan,” she adds.

“How do I appease everybody without isolating anybody?”

Cano’s latest strategy is merging a new family tradition with the old. Recently married, Cano decided to swap Christmas eggnog with another spiced, milky beverage — horchata — in a nod to her husband’s Mexican heritage. She’s also working to update her family’s traditional tapioca pudding with the flavors of apple pie.

Some foods, for good reason, bridge generational and cultural differences and bring everyone to the table, says Cano.

“Everybody loves cheesecake in any format.”

Gluten-Free Vanilla Bean Cheesecake

For crust:

3 cups crisp rice cereal

1 cup pecans

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup packed brown sugar

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

For cheesecake filling:

16 ounces cream cheese, softened

1 cup sour cream

1 cup granulated sugar

1 vanilla bean

2 tablespoons butter, softened

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 tablespoons cornstarch

For mousse topping:

1 cup heavy (whipping) cream

3 tablespoons powdered sugar, divided

4 ounces white chocolate, chopped coarsely

4 ounces cream cheese, softened

1 vanilla bean

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Make crust. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 10-inch, springform pan. Process the rice cereal in a food processor until fine crumbs form. Transfer to a mixing bowl. Add the pecans to food processor and process until they start to stick to bowl’s sides. Add pecans to rice mixture.

Add the salt and brown sugar to rice mixture; blend well. Add the melted butter and 1 tablespoon vanilla extract. Mix until mixture starts to stick together when lightly pressed. Press into bottom and slightly up sides of springform pan.

Make filling. In a large bowl with an electric mixer, combine the 16 ounces cream cheese, the sour cream and granulated sugar; mix until sugar is dissolved. Split 1 vanilla bean in half and gently scrape seeds into cream-cheese mixture. Add the softened butter, 2 teaspoons vanilla extract and the cornstarch. Beat with mixer for 2 minutes or until smooth. Do not overmix.

Pour filling over crust and smooth gently with a spatula. Bake in preheated oven until edges brown slightly, for 30 to 35 minutes. Let cool for 1 hour. While cheesecake is cooling, chill a mixing bowl.

Make mousse. In cold mixing bowl, beat the cream until soft peaks form. Gradually beat in 2 tablespoons of the powdered sugar until stiff peaks form. Transfer to a clean bowl, cover and refrigerate.

Melt the white chocolate in microwave in 30-second bursts, taking care not to overmelt. (Chocolate does not have to be completely liquid, but it should not have any visible chunks.) Place the 4 ounces cream cheese in unwashed mixing bowl. Add remaining 1 tablespoon powdered sugar and beat until fluffy.

Split second vanilla bean in half and gently scrape seeds into bowl with cream cheese. Add melted chocolate and the 1 teaspoon vanilla extract; beat until smooth. Fold in whipped cream one-third at a time.

Spread mousse over cooled cheesecake with an offset spatula. Refrigerator for 4 hours or until cold. Run a warm knife around edge before removing sides of springform pan.

Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Quick and Easy Beef Stroganoff

4 cups uncooked, medium, no-yolk noodles (about 8 ounces)

1 cup reduced-sodium, fat-free beef broth

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar

2 teaspoons tomato paste

1 teaspoon salt, divided

1/4 teaspoon black pepper, divided

Cooking spray, as needed

1 pound boneless sirloin steak (about 1/2 inch thick)

1 cup chopped onion

1 (8-ounce) package presliced cremini mushrooms

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1/2 cup reduced-fat sour cream

1/4 cup chopped, fresh parsley

Cook the noodles according to package directions, omitting salt and oil. While noodles cook, whisk the beef broth in a medium bowl with the Worcestershire sauce, vinegar, tomato paste, 1/2 teaspoon of the salt and 1/8 teaspoon of the pepper.

Spray a Dutch oven or large pot with some of the cooking spray and heat over medium-high heat. Sprinkle the beef with remaining salt and pepper. Add beef to pan and cook for 3-1/2 minutes. Remove from pan.

Add the onion and mushrooms to pan; sauté for 3 minutes or until mushrooms are tender. Stir in the flour; cook for 1 minute, stirring continuously. Stir in broth mixture; cook for 1 minute or until slightly thick, stirring continuously.

Cut beef into thin strips; return to pan. Stir in cooked pasta, the sour cream and parsley; cook for 1 minute or until thoroughly heated.

Makes 5 servings.

Recipe adapted by Tribune News Service from Cooking Light magazine’s September 2002 issue.

Crisp Sprouts

1 pound fresh Brussels sprouts

3-1/2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 teaspoon kosher salt

3 strips bacon, cut crosswise into thin strips

2 tablespoons chopped red onion

1-1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

3/4 teaspoon sugar

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1 small garlic clove, peeled and mashed with a bit of salt

Trim root ends of the sprouts. Halve sprouts through root ends. Heap sprouts onto a baking sheet. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons of the oil. Toss with the salt. Scatter on the bacon. Spread out sprouts, cut sides down.

Roast in a 450-degree oven, tossing once or twice, until dark and crisp, for about 20 minutes.

While sprouts are cooking, let the chopped onion mellow in the vinegar with the sugar. After about 20 minutes, whisk in remaining 1-1/2 tablespoons olive oil, the crushed red pepper flakes and garlic.

Toss roasted sprouts with vinaigrette. Alternatively, simply sprinkle sprouts with a bit of red wine vinegar. Scrape onto a serving platter. Makes 3 servings.

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.