Pasadena chefs from around the world share their favorite festive recipes and traditions.

If you’re wondering what to whip up for your holiday get-together — and whether to cook from scratch or bring in precooked food — think about this: Some of the world’s great chefs, writers, philosophers and gourmets have weighed in over the years on the subject of home cooking. All seem to agree that the home-cooked offering has spirit and soul, an undefinable and mysterious essence that somehow transmits satisfaction to those who gather to eat it. And the very act of cooking is an act of giving, they say. Around the globe, in every culture and corner of the world, cooking is the ritual that causes people to gather, bond and enjoy. It doesn’t really matter whether the food is plain or fancy.

“The best meals occur in a context that frequently has very little to do with the food itself,” said the late celebrity chef and TV personality Anthony Bourdain, who also said that “food may not be the answer to world peace, but it’s a start.”

So stop pondering and start planning something that will be very simple to prepare but delivers to guests a heartwarming, tasty gift from you — the preparer. Here in Arroyoland we have extraordinary access to foods from around the globe — from the profusion of small ethnic shops selling exotic spices and herbs to huge emporiums that offer gourmet delicacies. And we have an equally diverse and expandng array of dining spots headed by renowned chefs. We spoke to three who hail from different parts of the world to get their take on what holiday entertaining means in their culture, and what they like to serve. Surprisingly, many of them mentioned fish.

MARK PEEL

Prawn Coastal

Renowned American chef Mark Peel is a Pasadena native who has cooked for the one-percenters for much of his life. Starting with Wolfgang Puck’s Spago, he went on to Chez Panisse in Berkeley, then Tour d’Argent and Le Moulin de Mougins in France. Then he cofounded Los Angeles’ La Brea Bakery and the world-class, award-winning restaurant Campanile, where for about 25 years he helped redefine fine dining with an emphasis on farm-to-table fresh food.

Peel opened the seafood-centric Prawn Coastal in Pasadena about a year ago. It’s his concept of fine dining with a casual twist and approachable prices, and everything’s available for takeout. “It’s the biggest part of our business,” he says.

We caught up with Peel by phone while he was collecting his 9-year-old son from gymnastics class, and he was philosophical about holiday entertaining: “In a funny way, I think holiday parties or party eating is often not so much about food as it is about the company. With great people you could be eating cotton candy and tofu and it doesn’t really matter. In fact, it’s great to serve something very easy to prepare, so the host doesn’t have to spend much time and effort doing it.

“One of my favorite things is to get a whole filet of salmon, take the skin off and the pin bones out, and sear it. Then gently braise it in a little bit of vegetable broth. The fish will give the broth its own flavor. This doesn’t take long to do, it really doesn’t take much effort, and it’s a beautiful presentation.”

“What’s also really good is doing something like little soft tacos. Some pulled pork with assorted accompaniments like pickled onions, pickled cabbage and salsa. And some grated cheese, like a really good fontina. And diced tomatoes. One small benefit of global warming is that we get really good tomatoes right up to the end of the year. With something like tacos, the host doesn’t have to continually be cooking. You have the hot pulled pork, the warm steamed tortillas and maybe you butter them a bit, with a little bit of garlic. Just lay it all out and let the guests build their own. They can stand and hold the tacos while they converse.”

Peel says he remembers doing a birthday party years ago for the popular food critic and author Ruth Reichl. “There were all those famous folks and foodies, and I made just these little soft tacos with all the fixings and they were a very big success,” he recalls. “If you take something really simple and do it really, really well, you can’t beat it.”

STURGEON OR SALMON IN A RED WINE SAUCE

This is based on a classic French matelote, a fish stew made with river fish (often eel) and red wine. We’ve done it at the restaurant with sturgeon, salmon and trout. Monkfish also works well. I think of the dish as a winter fish stew, with rich, complex flavors. It’s a convenient dish for entertaining because you can have everything prepared ahead of time, then cook the fish in the red wine sauce at the last moment. Instead of the fish stock, you can use half chicken broth and half water. Fish stock is preferable, but you can buy chicken broth at the store.

Ingredients

¼ pound bacon (about 4 strips), cut crosswise in ¼-inch strips

2 tablespoons water

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

½ medium onion, sliced crosswise against the grain

Kosher salt

A bouquet garni made with a few sprigs each parsley and thyme, a bay leaf, 2 garlic cloves, (halved and green shoots removed) and 1½ teaspoons peppercorns

2 cups red wine, such as pinot noir

2 cups chicken stock or 1 cup canned
         broth and 1 cup water

8 pearl onions, blanched and peeled, or small spring onions (bulbs only)

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

3 ounces wild mushrooms, cut in ½-inch-thick slices or separated into small clumps (depending on the type of mushroom)

Freshly ground black pepper

2 pounds sturgeon, monkfish, salmon or trout fillets

Minced fresh flat-leaf parsley, for garnish

Method

1. Combine the bacon with the water in a large saucepan over medium heat and cook, stirring from time to time, until the bacon is lightly browned, 5 to 8 minutes. Add the flour and cook, stirring, for a minute, then add the onion and ½ teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring often, until tender, about 5 to 8 minutes. Add the bouquet garni and the wine and bring to a boil, stirring the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to deglaze. Add the stock (or broth and water), bring to a simmer, cover, reduce the heat, and simmer 30 minutes, stirring often. Strain through a medium strainer and set aside

2. Meanwhile, make a small slit with a paring knife in the ends of the pearl or spring onions. Heat the butter in a wide, lidded skillet over medium heat and add the onions and ½ teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring often, until beginning to color, 3 to 4 minutes, then add the mushrooms. Cover and cook over medium-low heat until tender, about 5 minutes. Stir from time to time and add 1 tablespoon of water if the pan dries out and the vegetables begin to stick. Taste and adjust the salt. When tender, add the strained red wine sauce and simmer 5 minutes.

3. Taste the wine sauce and add salt and pepper as needed. Remove from the heat if not serving right away. Shortly before serving, bring the sauce to a simmer. Season the fish fillets with salt and pepper and add to the sauce. They should be barely covered with the sauce. Cover and cook gently, being careful not to allow the sauce to boil, until cooked through but not falling apart, about 8 to 10 minutes for sturgeon or monkfish, 5 minutes for salmon, 3 minutes for trout fillets. Taste the sauce again and adjust the seasonings.

4. Remove the fish to a warm platter and spoon on some of the sauce with the onions and mushrooms over and around the fish. Sprinkle with parsley, and serve with boiled potatoes or fresh noodles.

Note: If serving with noodles (I recommend pappardelle or wide egg noodles), mound the cooked noodles on a large platter. Arrange the fish fillets on top of the noodles and spoon on a generous amount of sauce. Sprinkle with parsley and serve.

Reprinted with permission from New Classic Family Dinners by Mark Peel (Wiley; 2009).

MATHIAS WAKRAT AND JEAN-CHRISTOPHE FEBBRARI

Entre Nous

New on Pasadena’s culinary landscape is Entre Nous, which opened in October. It’s owned by chefs Mathias Wakrat and Jean-Christophe Febbrari. Both were born in small French Riviera towns not far from each other, but they didn’t meet until they came to Eagle Rock, where both worked in the kitchen of Cafe Beaujolais. They became best friends, eventually taking the Beaujolais over as owners, and for 20 years their successful French cafe served up what Gayot.com called “more genuine bistro charm than most of their better known Westside counterparts,” with the kind of “simple, unpretentious fare you’d find at a family-run bistro in Paris.”

We asked Mathias why they decided to open in Pasadena. “My partner, Jean-Christophe, has lived in Pasadena for 20 years with his wife and kids. So our families spent a lot of time there together. We never wanted a second restaurant location, but we always used to look at that particular spot on Green Street, where there was already a restaurant [Ración], and we used to say it would be a perfect place for a bistro like ours. Then it became available and we couldn’t resist. So we sold our shares in Beaujolais and made the move.”

Asked about his holiday food memories growing up in France and his thoughts on holiday cooking, he said, “Where we’re from, on the Riviera, is different from big cities like Paris or L.A. We come from small coastal villages, so everything has to have fish. There was no special holiday dish I remember growing up. We always ate bouillabaisse, even at the holidays. We grew up with that, we love it and we serve it as much as we can at Entre Nous. Of course it’s not exactly the same as in France because we don’t have the rockfish here that we have there. The fish we serve here depends on the daily catch. Whatever is the most fresh and highest quality at the market that day is what we put in our fish stew. We also had sea bass in France growing up. We serve that over lentils at Entre Nous, along with mussels and all sorts of other great regional dishes that are like those where we’re from. We have amazing escargots on the menu that we import directly from the Burgundy region.” Most popular so far in the restaurant’s short tenure, he says, is ribeye steak with peppercorn sauce and fries.

Is there something special he’d recommend for a small casual holiday dinner party? “Anything French,” he says with a chuckle. “You might try serving mussels and homemade French fries with a green salad afterward, which is when the French serve their salads. And perhaps a crème brûlée for dessert.”

Moules Provençales (Mussels)

Proportions are for one order

Ingredients

3 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon minced shallots

2 ounces white wine

1 pound mussels

2 ounces heavy cream

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

Freshly ground pepper

Sea salt

Method

Melt 1 tablespoon butter in a large sauté pan on high heat, then add shallots, white wine and mussels. Cover, and when the mussels start opening, add heavy cream, 2 tablespoons butter, parsley, pepper and a small pinch of sea salt. Cover again. When mussels are all open, remove them to a bowl with a slotted spoon. Reduce the liquid in the pan by one-third, taste for seasoning, pour liquid over mussels and sprinkle generously with more freshly chopped parsley. Enjoy with homemade French fries.

ERWIN TJAHYADI

Bone Kettle

Chef Erwin Tjahyadi of Pasadena’s Bone Kettle restaurant was born in Indonesia and made his mark as a chef here by keeping Asian culinary traditions alive. “Being Asian, you’re always interested in assimilating both cultures, and the holidays are a time when it’s fun to do that,” he says. “In America, the traditional holiday dinner might be turkey or a great ham. To add an Asian touch, it’s all about incorporating spices and herbs that are indigenous to Southeast Asian cooking, although you’re using them on food that is not necessarily available in Southeast Asia. We actually don’t have much ham in Indonesia, for example. It’s a luxury item. But if you add sambal, which is Indonesian chili sauce, to turkey or ham, it’s a great way to introduce Southeast Asian flavor and also put a little heat into your dishes. You can also add sambal to batter or curry or sauces and use it with any meal as a condiment. It’s very versatile.

“At holiday season we love using yellow turmeric rice as a staple with all our savory meat dishes. It’s bright yellow, has a beautiful aroma and is distinctive in taste. And it’s easy to make at home. You can shape it into a beautiful cone, something like a Christmas tree.

“We also love to infuse pandan essence into our desserts and baked goods. Pandan is a leaf that grows in Southeast Asia. It adds a beautiful green flavor that’s unique, naturally sweet, fragrant and delicious — just right for baking at the holidays. For dessert, maybe a jackfruit eggroll served with banana pudding for dipping.”

We’re lucky there are so many Asian groceries nearby where all these things are available, Tjahyadi notes, making it easy for anyone who loves Asian flavors to try adding them to holiday dishes.

TURON (Fried banana rolls)

Ingredients

12 bananas, sliced

2 ripe jackfruit

1½ cups brown sugar

12 pieces spring roll wrapper

2 cups cooking oil

Powdered sugar

Method

1. Pour the brown sugar onto a plate, and roll each banana slice in it, ensuring that it is coated with enough sugar. Place the coated banana in a spring roll wrapper and add about 6 ounces of jackfruit. Fold and lock the spring roll wrapper, using water to seal the edge.

2. In a pan, heat the oil and add leftover brown sugar. When the brown sugar floats, add wrapped banana and fry until the wrapper turns golden brown and the extra sugar sticks to the wrapper. Dust powdered sugar on the banana and serve with banana pudding (see below) for dipping.

BANANA PUDDING

Ingredients

8-ounce package of cream cheese

14-ounce can of condensed milk

1 packet of vanilla pudding mix

1½ cups milk

1½ cups heavy cream

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

4 ounces of whipped cream

2 to 3 bananas, sliced

Method

Place all ingredients in a bowl, mix together and serve cold in individual bowls.