The traditional American Christmas dinner calls for a table laden with turkey or ham and all the trimmings, from stuffing, potatoes and gravy to casseroles and cranberry sauce.
But American immigrants have always introduced international flavors into the mix, brightening the holidays with dishes from around the world.
To celebrate this year, we asked three Atlanta chefs to tell us about their family Christmas traditions, and share some recipes for the favorites they make this time of year.
Pat Pascarella, the executive chef and owner of the White Bull in Decatur, came to Atlanta from Norwalk, Conn., where he owned Bar Sugo, a well-regarded Italian restaurant.
“Both my parents are from Italy,” Pascarella says. “My mother moved here when she was 15, and my father moved here when he was 19. They’re both from outside of Avellino near Caserta.”
For the Pascarella family, the Italian Christmas Eve dinner known as the Feast of the Seven Fishes is the most important holiday tradition. And it always includes baccala, a salted cod dish served in various ways.
“It was a huge tradition for us, and especially the baccala,” Pascarella says. “It’s one of my father’s favorite dishes, so my mom had to have it. And she does it so many different ways. But the salad is my favorite. It’s always one of the first courses, when we do it.”
Chef George Yu is a second-generation Chinese-American who grew up in a restaurant family in Milwaukee, moved to Atlanta, and married a Korean woman.
“For my family, because we are Chinese and Korean and American, we kind of celebrate everything,” Yu says. “But roast duck is always a big part of it. So we do roast duck, roast pork, I’ll cook a prime rib, and my mother-in-law will bring a big Korean stew. And then there are sides galore. We have everything from sushi to bi bim bop.”
Yu notes that roasting whole Pekin duck is not difficult. But the proper preparation does take some time: “In the recipe, there are only like six or seven ingredients,” he says. “It’s just a matter of doing it. And for my family, it’s a labor of love.”
Chef Pano Karatassos is the force behind Kyma, his critically acclaimed and much beloved Atlanta Greek seafood restaurant.
And as the son of Buckhead Life Restaurant Group founder and CEO Ignatius Pano Karatassos, he’s also the scion of an extended Greek family of chefs and home cooks.
“We do incorporate our traditions into the celebration of the holidays,” Karatassos says. “For us it’s Christmas and then New Year’s. Those are the two big traditional meals we do. And we usually do a whole prime rib of beef and racks of lamb.”
With the prime rib and the lamb, the traditional sides are Greek Eggplant Stew and Greek Wild Mushrooms “à la Grecque,” which are both featured in Karatassos’ new cookbook, “Modern Greek Cooking” (Rizzoli, $37.50).
“The wild mushroom salad that’s in the book is my brother Niko’s favorite dish,” Karatassos says. “It’s amazing with meat like the prime rib. The eggplant stew is great side dish, and it’s easy to double or even quadruple that recipe for a crowd. You can layer it in one of your favorite baking dishes. When it’s all done, it’s like eggplant candy.”
Feast of Seven Fishes Italian Baccala Salad
“Being Italian, we celebrate the Feast of the Seven Fishes every Christmas Eve, and this dish is always served,” says chef Pat Pascarella. “My mother has been making it for longer than I can remember, and we look forward to the baccala each year. It’s by far one of my favorite recipes.”
Christmas Chinese Roast Pekin Duck
Chef George Yu says that for his family, making roast Pekin duck is “a labor of love.” But, he cautions, for the three-day process, “make sure you have enough room in your fridge to stand the duck up. You can use a metal clothes hanger to prop it up. And you will need a wood or metal skewer to pierce the duck.”
Greek Eggplant Stew With Onions and Tomato Sauce
“Greek friend and restaurateur John Lefkaditis inspired this meze I call ‘eggplant candy’ because the longer it stands, the sweeter it becomes and the softer the texture,” says chef Pano Karatassos. “Small enough to be a side and hearty enough for an entree, this versatile stew can be served hot, warm, at room temperature, or reheated.” It’s worth multiplying the recipe just for the leftovers; they’re very good in a folded omelet.
Greek Wild Mushrooms “à la Grecque”
“À la grecque is the French culinary nod to the Greek style of cooking vegetables in olive oil and vinegar or lemon juice,” says chef Pano Karatassos. “In this recipe, I — a Greek chef — pay my respects to the French by sautéing mushrooms, then tossing them with oil and vinegar.”