Story by Bob Townsend. Photos by Jenni Girtman
The holidays are a time of indulgence, when rich food and strong drink fuel celebrations among family and friends.
Often, the party favorite is a boozy dessert, like a special recipe for flaming plum pudding or rum cake. But savory dishes can represent the season just as well, and be made with spirits, too.
Chef David Bies and barman Greg Best of Ticonderoga Club at Atlanta’s Krog Street Market offered some ideas about what to eat and drink this holiday season.
Bies and Best are known for takes on cooking and cocktails that are imaginative and flavorful without being fussy. And putting the two together is a specialty of the house.
Bies not only introduced a favorite dish from the Ticonderoga Club menu — Gulf Oyster Gratin enlivened with rich Amontillado Sherry — but shared the recipe.
“When I play with booze and food, it’s primarily with shellfish,” Bies says. “And it’s aways something light, like sherry or Madeira or things like that.
“I want something where the flavor is there, but it’s not like eating a cocktail. The thing with sherry is that there are so many different flavors. But when you cook with it, it changes drastically.”
Bies broke down the dance of flavors and textures in his gratin recipe, which includes charred Vidalia onions, pancetta, heavy cream, and a sprinkling of fresh thyme and Parmigiano Reggiano.
“With shellfish, you want to go with something that’s medium-bodied and not too sweet,” he says. “An Amontillado is medium-dry and when you cook it down with cream, it brings out a nuttiness that plays with the oysters, which aren’t cooked too much in this dish.”
“With the pancetta and the cream, you get some richness, but that comes through with the sherry, too. But there’s a whole depth of flavors, including the charred Vidalias, which give you a bit of sweetness and smokiness.”
Bies says serving the gratin bubbling hot, to spoon on toasts or crackers, adds to its appeal as a party hors d’oeuvre that draws guests around at the holiday table.
“It can certainly be served as an individual starter, but it’s really fun as a big communal thing to bring everybody together,” Bies says. “It’s also something that would be really fun to serve outside on a chilly night. You could even try cooking it on the grill.”
The question of what to drink with Bies’ gratin is exactly the sort of culinary equation Best enjoys solving.
“I think the gratin would be ideal with a nice, crisp, fino sherry,” Best says. “Another thing that would be good is some Spanish cider with some salinity. And for the same reason, it would do well with a mineral-driven white wine, like a Sancerre.”
When it comes to pairing cocktails, Best avoids making drinks that might overpower a dish.
“I tend to use brandy, almost exclusively, when I’m making cocktails to go with food,” he says. “That’s because it has a roundness to it, maybe because it’s fruit-based, and it tends to be a little softer around the edges. So cognac and armagnac are what I use in food pairings.
“There’s a classic cocktail called the Stone Fence, which is rum and hard cider and bitters. I would go in that direction, but brandy-based rather than rum-based, with the gratin dish.”
Ticonderoga Club. 99 Krog St. 404-458-4534. ticonderogaclub.com
During the holidays, Best suggests serving stronger spirits as palate cleansers between courses, with desserts or after dinner. “Whiskey, rum and cognac are the three big, brown ones for the holidays,” he says. “I like rye because it’s a little spicier. But one of my favorite things to do for a holiday soiree is that old school way of having two or three decanters on the table and people can just pour their own.”
Gulf Oyster Gratin
David Bies’ easy-to-assemble dish can be prepared in about 30 minutes in an oven-safe skillet or casserole dish or four smaller casserole dishes. It can serve four as an appetizer or eight as hors d’oeuvres.
3 Vidalia onions
Kosher salt and black pepper to taste
1 cup pancetta, chopped small
1 cup heavy cream
24 fresh shucked gulf oysters
Zest of 2 lemons
Thyme, picked and stems removed
Toasted bread crumbs or small croutons
Peel the Vidalia onions and slice each onion in half lengthwise so you have two thick slices like you would for onion rings. Leaving each piece intact, place the onion slices on a tray or plate and drizzle both sides with olive oil. Season well with kosher salt and black pepper.
Using a hot grill or cast iron skillet place the onions cut-side down and allow them to char completely. Carefully flip the onions and char the other side. This may take 10 minutes to complete. Keep the onions intact the whole time. They should not separate into rings yet. Place the charred onions back on the tray and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Let the onions steam until they are cool. After they are cool enough to handle, use a wet towel to wipe the char off the onions on both sides. You should be left with beautiful, dark brown, soft onions that you can separate into rings.
Over medium heat, toss a healthy handful of pancetta into large pan. Spread the pancetta evenly and cook until crisp, then remove and set aside. While the pan is still hot, deglaze the drippings with the sherry. Reduce by half, add the heavy cream, and reduce by half, again. Add salt and pepper to taste. Lower heat to a light simmer.
Lay the oysters out evenly in the pan and cook for just a minute or two. When the oysters’ “skirts” start to get frilly around the edges, remove the oysters from the pan and set aside. If using individual dishes, transfer 6 oysters to each dish. Layer the charred Vidalia onion rings around and atop the oysters. Pour the reduced sherry cream over the dish. Sprinkle the crisp pancetta on top of the onions. Evenly sprinkle the lemon and picked thyme on top of the onions. Cover with toasted, finely ground bread crumbs. Grate the Parmigiano Reggiano evenly over the bread crumbs.
Set oven to broil and place the dish about 10 inches below the broiler. Broil until the breadcrumbs and Parmigiano Reggiano are golden brown and bubbly. Serve hot with toast or crackers.