Deck the Plates
, but growing up I always regarded Christmas as my Winter Olympics. Instead of competing against others in skiing, skating, and ice hockey, I’d attempt to surpass my personal best in menu planning, baking, and decorating.
Inspired by cooking and entertaining magazines, I really looked forward to the closing ceremony – Christmas Eve. Sure, this wasn’t technically my holiday, but no one I knew celebrated Hanukkah, much less understood its significance. So if I couldn’t have the Christmas gifts, at least I had a day’s worth of preparations to make me feel part of the holiday festivities.
Every year I’d create the picture-perfect meal of roasted turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, sautéed green beans, and nutmeg-y apple pie. My mom usually had to work the late shift, so I’d invite my friends over for predinner visits. But my sparkling apple cider bubbles were inevitably burst once my companions left to eat with their families, and I was stuck eating alone until my mom got home for reheated leftovers.
Since moving to San Francisco, certain aspects of my holiday tradition have changed. As a vegetarian, I’ve traded turkeys for Tofurky, and since many of my friends now fly home in December, predinner visits are off the menu.
To end my years of holiday solitude, though, I decided to invite six friends over for a Christmas dinner a month early, long before their busy schedules could interfere with my plan. To ensure that it would be a meal to remember, I enlisted the help of Jacob Des Voignes of Local: Mission Eatery, a nine-month-old establishment founded on cuisine that is “entirely local, humane, and housemade.” I have a reputation to uphold, for god’s sake – and I was hoping Jacob could help me with some cooking tips.
Before we met, I’d told Jacob that I wanted to design a gourmet menu that would be both vegetarian and within my budget of $100. Upon arriving at Local: Mission Eatery, I knew I’d chosen the right chef to apprentice with. I was immediately impressed by the Eatery’s cookbook lending library, which includes Jacob’s personal collection as well as titles donated by other local chefs. I also liked the idea of its cooking labs, which are training a new generation of cooks to resist the temptation of take-out in favor of making simple, wholesome meals.
After introducing himself, Jacob whipped out an amazing looking three-course menu. We’d start with a beet salad and then move into a main course of stuffed delicata squash, served alongside cider-baked sweet potatoes and apples. The dessert would be an apple rosemary pie.
Heading out from the Mission, we drove over to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, Jacob’s preferred spot for picking up fresh local ingredients. Even though he’s worked for some big names – Top Chef ’s Tom Colicchio among them – Jacob wasn’t one of those high-strung, arrogant chefs that you see on reality TV. His casual air made it easy to chat with him. He even joked about the obnoxious foodies in this city, people who spend their days searching in vain for the perfect peach just so they can tweet or blog about their superb find.
Pulling up to the Ferry Building, we were given a coveted curbside parking space, thanks to Jacob’s parking placard, which is granted to chefs as an added encouragement to buy locally. As we hurried between stands for various fruits and vegetables, I noticed Jacob didn’t search for the most aesthetically pleasing pickings, which he considers a needless step if the fruit or vegetable will be peeled and cooked anyway.
Heading into the marketplace area, we bought maitake mushrooms from Far West Fungi and a rustic round from Acme Bread Company, which Jacob said would work well together in the stuffing. Cowgirl Creamery had a nice fromage blanc for the pie, and Stonehouse California Olive Oil had our oil. For the King Arthur Whole Wheat Flour we needed, we hit Farm Fresh To You, and at Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant, Jacob recommended either a full-bodied white or a lighter red to pair with the mild vegetarian meal, so as not to overpower it. I settled on a few bottles of a California Pinot Gris.
Before I knew it, we were back at Local: Mission Eatery, picking herbs from the restaurant’s modest rooftop garden. Jacob handed me some aromatic rosemary, thyme, and sage for my dishes. The secret to a successful herb garden, he explained, is to make vertical cuts against the stems rather than plucking the herbs off the top, and to avoid pruning too low. Back inside, he also offered me apples from his grandfather-in-law’s farm in Lodi (the same farm that grows Muscat grapes for Robert Mondavi Wines).
Now it was time to glean Jacob’s kitchen tips. He didn’t have time to actually cook the meal with me because he had to get lunch and dinner together for the restaurant. Instead, he offered great prepping advice for the different ingredients.
I learned, for example, that scallion tops and their outer layers must be removed because of dirt accumulation and crate damage, and before mincing garlic, you should initially crush the clove with the side of a blade to release its flavorful oils. Jacob suggested cutting the sweet potatoes into large chunks because the bigger pieces give the dish better texture. His no-mess method for removing pomegranate seeds involved cutting the fruit in half and loosening the membrane with a knife – before turning it over a bowl and beating it with the knife’s flat end. When we got to the maitake mushrooms, Jacob explained that cooking them in olive oil over a high heat best brings out their deep nutty flavor. He then cooked up a sample for me, and one taste of those maitakes erased forever my memories of bland button mushrooms.
I was most taken by the way that Jacob cut the produce. He handed me the knife and explained that the secret lies in keeping your knuckles against the knife and your fingers out of the way. After trying this method, I am happy to report that I left Local: Mission Eatery with all 10 digits intact.
A few days later I was in my kitchen creating a holiday dinner for my guests, excited to bring Jacob’s recipes to life. His cooking techniques really proved useful, and after a few hours, all the dishes were ready to be plated.
Cracking open the wine, I poured myself a glass to steady my nerves, but I was feeling pretty confident about the meal. I’d been sampling as I was cooking, and it seemed the Satsumas added a nice bright color and sour acidity to the beet salad; the cider-baked sweet potatoes and apples had just the right balance of sweetness and acidity; the stuffed delicata squash seemed savory and substantial; and I had a truly unique apple rosemary pie.
I wasn’t yet positive that my friends would share my opinion, but once they began arriving, excited to spend the “holiday” with me, my anxiety was eased. They were all dressed in Christmas garb, donning Frosty the Snowman glitter appliqué sweaters, red-and-green plaid pants, Santa hats, and holiday pins. In true San Francisco tradition, one friend even wore a red patent leather dog collar. As we dug into the gourmet meal, the compliments about the food flowed along with the wine.
Instead of telling Christmas tales, my guests wanted to hear about my religious traditions. I ended up recounting the story of Hanukkah and demonstrating how to play dreidel. By coffee and dessert, I realized that I didn’t need to conform to superficial holiday customs. I’d spent years placing too much emphasis on a specific date. I proposed that if I couldn’t have people over for Christmas dinner in the future, we could always set an alternate time of year to share an especially fabulous meal. I no longer need an excuse to enjoy great food and fantastic company.
To create your own local-shopped holiday dinner, head to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Tuesday or Thursday (10 a.m.–2 p.m.) or Saturday (8 a.m.–2 p.m.) and purchase regional produce and groceries. If you want to brush up on your cooking skills, sign up for a Local: Mission Eatery library membership ($35 annually). The restaurant also offers cooking labs ($40–$65) on Tuesday evenings from 7–9 p.m. You can register in-store or online.