5 Favorite Recipes for Intimate Winter Celebrations

Our food editor’s personal picks offer casual sophistication for hearth and home

5 Favorite Recipes for Intimate Winter Celebrations
Joan Nathan's savory brisket recipe is a riff on the one her mother used to make. (Evi Abeler)
Dec 23, 2020

It’s unanimous: Everyone I’ve spoken with was happy to stay home for Thanksgiving. No, Aunt Betsy, it’s not that I don’t love seeing you and our family and eating your great food. It’s just that it was nice to not drive, dress up or worry about meeting a deadline for mealtime—even though we ended up with leftovers stretching out before us like Hadrian’s Wall.

Now as we huddle at home for the remainder of 2020’s holidays, we are turning to other winter favorites: shared foods that warm the body and make the house smell great during these short, cold days. Gather your smaller family unit, pour some wine and serve up some of the following dishes.

Bowl of mushroom soup topped with a dab of goat cheese and accompanied by bread and a glass of red wine
This soup is hearty and rich; a garnish of tart goat cheese and a full-bodied wine with fresh acidity help balance it. (Erin Kunkel)

Portobello Mushroom Soup with Goat Cheese

Despite a change in ownership, a renovation and a reinvention of the restaurant, some things never seem to change at Bernardus Lodge in Carmel Valley: The chef is still Cal Stamenov, who has been there since it opened in 1999, and he is still serving this soup, which hasn’t left the menu in 10-plus years. In 2013, I made the 20-minute drive uphill from Monterey’s beautiful, rugged coast to the destination resort in the warmer valley to write a menu story. (The current iteration of the restaurant is called Lucia, and it holds a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence for its wine list.) For a chef of his stature, who has served at top fine-dining restaurants in Europe and California, Stamenov is unassuming, shy even. His focus is unmistakable, however, and his style is to use his haute-cuisine chops to elevate even an apparently simple mushroom soup.

This recipe—from a menu that also includes a chestnut soufflé worth checking out—is dead simple, but has the neat trick of incorporating a wine reduction before putting in the stock. The addition of goat cheese brightens the seriously earthy dish. Honestly, the hardest part is washing the blender. Keep matching simple: Serve a Pinot Noir you love to play off the earthy mushroom. And do pour some in the soup too, to build a bridge between them. Try one of the chef’s signature dishes.

Appetizer of smoked trout with yellow beets and greens, accompanied by a glass and carafe of white wine
A Viognier with a hint of oak stands up to the rich fish, creamy dressing and sweet beets. (Beall & Thomas)

Smoked Trout and Golden Beet Salad with Crème Fraîche

On New Year’s Eve, my family and I normally stay in and have a huge spread of smoked fish from Russ & Daughters in New York—with Champagne, of course—and I have my annual argument with myself over which is best: Scottish salmon, sturgeon or trout. There’s no resolution; the fun lies in trying to find one. Grand Award winner Blackberry Farm chose trout for this Rhône-pairing holiday menu, and who can blame them? They get great local, fresh fish at their east Tennessee home, steep them in a kind of tea, then smoke them until just done. Beets and greens topped with sweet-tart creamy dressing round out the plate. I know it’s faddish to pooh-pooh oak in wines, but here’s a dish that will shut off that static. Smoke and oak can sing together; an elegant Condrieu pulls off that trick here. Champagne would do in a pinch too, but is that ever not the case?

I can’t think of Blackberry Farm without mentioning the people there, some of whom I’ve known for 15 years. It’s that kind of place, fusing local pride with the why-would-I-ever-leave dedication of people from away. Beverage director Andy Chabot moved there from New Hampshire, married local Sarah Elder (now Chabot) and now also runs a farm with her. Resort proprietor Mary Celeste Beall is the widow of Sam Beall, who was a great beacon in the fine-dining firmament. His extended Blackberry family has continued to make his dreams real. Capture some of their magic at home with this menu.

Plate of sliced brisket with roasted root vegetables and a glass of red wine
This hearty, tender brisket is a perfect holiday centerpiece—full of flavor, with an aromatic braising liquid and an earthy accompaniment of root vegetables. (Evi Abeler)

Wine-Braised Brisket with Roasted Winter Vegetables

Just about all of Wine Spectator magazine’s menus come from restaurant chefs. But for a Hanukkah story, I dropped that rule because, although there are plenty of excellent sources, one stands apart—and I really wanted to interview her. Joan Nathan has written 11 books, nearly all on Jewish food (though I also recommend her An American Folklife cookbook). She combines her scholarly background with boots-on-the-ground time as assistant to the mayor of Jerusalem, followed by similar work in New York, and approaches her writing with real practical sense for home cooks. Her life, which my story only skims the surface of, is fascinating.

This recipe—the centerpiece of a menu that also includes a starter of smoked salmon with radicchio, endives and dill, a side of potato zucchini latkes and an orange olive oil cake for dessert—is a version of her mother’s brisket, her favorite because it is a savory take on the dish. It needs to be made ahead to let the flavors meld, which also relieves you of work on the day you serve it. It’s now a standard in my house and, believe me, it fills the place with comforting meaty aromas as it braises. While it’s great for a crowd, these days a bigger selling point is its versatility as leftovers. (My favorite use is in a sandwich on a crunchy roll with either shaved Parmigiano and arugula or with lettuce, Cheddar and mayo spiked with hot sauce.) Try it with a spicy Rioja red.

Plate of Hugh Acheson’s hunter’s chicken with white rice
This recipe lightens a simple one-pot meal with olive oil instead of lard and adds a touch of exotic spice. (Andrew McCaul)

Hunter’s Chicken

The James Beard Awards are known as the Oscars of the food world, bringing all the glitz and glam you might expect. Restaurant industry people come from all over to celebrate each other’s work, schmooze and carouse. Some years back, at the after-party, which sees old friendships renewed and not a little looking around to see who’s there and talking to whom, I spied Hugh Acheson off to the side, tie loosened, speaking quietly and sipping Bourbon; so for five or 10 minutes, I spoke with the most down-to-earth guy in the room.

Acheson, a Canadian transplanted to Georgia (his wife is from the Low Country), is an example of how sometimes an interloper sees their new home more clearly than those raised there. His restaurants—the original is Five & Ten in Athens, and he now has two in Atlanta, too—take traditional Southern dishes, often from historical research, and lighten and modernize them to reflect the changing world. He doesn’t try to make them all fancy, just brings them up to speed. So to a chicken-in-a-pot dish, he adds Urfa chile and soy sauce and uses a great trick to work the liver in. When I asked him why he chose a specific Nero d’Avola to match, he said, "Well, why not? It’s really good," then laughed and gave a thoughtful, knowledgeable answer. Let him broaden your Southern food repertoire.

Chocolate layer cake with a slice cut out
Use the best chocolate you can find to deepen the flavors in this cake. (Andrew Purcell)

Chocolate Layer Cake with Bittersweet Ganache

At Wine Spectator magazine, we typically photograph our menu stories ourselves. We hire a food stylist to prepare the food, we shoot it, people taste it or pack it up as leftovers, and we go home. Not with this cake though. You’d think a bunch of chocolate-loving hyenas were in the studio that day. What sets it apart? The cake itself is really moist from using oil as the fat, and the ganache is pretty dark and speaks of grownup indulgence. Simple, right?

Restaurant cooking is repetitive work. You cook the same things over and over, and if you move to another restaurant, they’re still going to have some version of roast salmon, chicken and a strip steak. How to stand apart and make your mark? Well, there are lots of ways, but I favor the one chosen by Meg Galus, who was at NoMi in Chicago when I interviewed her for this story. She spoke very directly about her guiding ethos: to make any dish "just the best," meaning to not put a personal flourish on it or show off or surprise people with unexpected flavors. She also said her job is to "make people happy," which is certainly honorable work. These two goals are joined in her version of an iconic recipe.

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