What does your family eat for Christmas Eve dinner? In my household, it was always a casual night of hors d’oeuvres. Dec. 24 was the one day of the year my mother went to a deli outside of the supermarket to procure “the good stuff.” She’d fill platters with different cheeses and charcuterie, plus always made her famous (within my family) deviled eggs and my grandma’s favorite Black Velvets, allowing me a sip or two. I have since carried these traditions over to my Christmas Eve’s in California, integrating them with those of my husband’s family.
The annual Feast of the Seven Cultures at Acacia House celebrates that Christmas Eve traditions are different in every family and every country. For seven nights in the month leading up to Christmas, the restaurant hosts a traditional, multi-course Christmas Eve dinner of a specific culture. Chef Chris Cosentino brings in six guest chefs from all over the U.S. for the occasion, each one choosing a culture they want to represent. This year’s dinners highlighted Israel (aptly held at the start of Hanukkah), Italy, France, Germany, Portugal, Mexico and Spain.
Last year, Cosentino chose California for his featured Feast night. But for the series’ second year, he drew inspiration from his upbringing in Rhode Island. Surrounded by a large Portuguese community, he was exposed to many traditional Portuguese dishes.
Cosentino took the task so seriously, that he didn’t use an ounce of butter in the entire meal. In Portugal, they use olive oil, so that’s what he worked with. The meal also featured a lot of eggs, for in Portuguese culture, eggs (or ovos) are a staple in their cuisine, symbolizing new life and rebirth. Finally, guests who opted for the wine pairings were treated to a mini crash course in Portuguese wines, carefully selected by Acacia House Sommelier and Beverage Manager Zoe Hankins.
The evening began with a glass of sparkling, paired with an amuse bouche of fried dough topped with caviar. The caviar set the stage for what was going to be a seafood-dominant meal.
If this were a sporting event, an announcer would say that Cosentino came out strong with his first course, an octopus terrine that was sliced as thin as prosciutto. I’d never had octopus prepared this way, and prefer it greatly to eating full-on tentacles. It was also incredibly beautiful, like a slab of purpled marble topped with potatoes cooked in the octopus broth, quail egg and mandarin slices that added great acidity to the dish.
Admittedly, the octopus was a particularly hard act to follow for the second course of halibut cheek stew with olive, carrot and cabbage. The dish was acutely salty — I heard the same sentiment from neighboring diners — but the white blend pairing from Cartuxa did a solid job of cutting through the salt and mellowing it out.
A medley of clams, smoky chestnuts and linguica sausage came next. This was an elevated play on a popular Portuguese street food, where linguica and chestnuts are served up on skewers. The addition of the clams balanced the flavors out and it was truly a treat to find some longnecks in there.
The first non-seafood dish of the night was served family style. Feijoada, a traditional bean and meat casserole, is made differently across several cultures. Cosentino went with duck many ways: blood sausage, braised duck leg, puffed duck foot chicharrons, and big, juicy cuts of 15-day aged roasted duck breast that was practically falling off the bone. Our server also made sure we found the hidden treasure: foie gras cubes. This ended up being my favorite course, with the octopus coming in a close second.
Finally, a palate cleanser—a refreshing, port-poached quince granita — reset our palates for dessert, which was the definitely the most personal dish to Cosentino. A traditional sweet potato and egg yolk cake, the recipe was one he fondly remembered from childhood, cooked by his neighbor’s mother.
Cosentino went as far as to track down his old friend via Facebook to get the recipe, and I’d say it was worth the trouble. This was also the only course paired with a local wine, a 10-year tawny port from Prager (one of my personal favorites).
As for his own Christmas Eve traditions, Cosentino orders lox, bagels and other fixin’s from Russ & Daughters. Then on Christmas morning, he’ll make doughboys (reminiscent to his Portuguese amuse bouche) for this family. One can’t really blame him for not going all out, for he’s already cooked up seven big Christmas Eve dinners this holiday season.
Malasadas (Portuguese Donuts), AKA Doughboys
1 package dry yeast (2 teaspoons)
3/4 cup lukewarm water
2/3 cup unbleached white flour
2 1/2 cups unbleached white flour
1/4 cup rye flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup cold water
1 cup whole-wheat flour
1/2 cup chestnut flour
1/3 cup olive oil
Oil, for frying
1. Sponge: In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast in lukewarm water and stir in the flour. Allow the mixture to sit until quite bubbly, about 30 minutes.
2. Mix together the white flour, rye flour and salt in a bowl. Stir 1 cup of this mixture and 1 cup of cold water into the sponge. Mix thoroughly and allow to sit another 30 minutes.
3. Add the whole-wheat flour, chestnut flour and the olive oil. Knead the dough either by hand or in an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook. Mix until the dough is soft and elastic, about 5 minutes. You may need to add a little more flour if the dough is too wet, but you want a soft, slightly sticky dough. Very soft, moist dough makes the best crust.
4. Put the dough in a large bowl, cover with a towel and allow it to rest in a warm place until it has doubled in size, about 2 hours. If you are making the dough a day before, put the bowl in the refrigerator and let rise slowly overnight.
5. To cook the doughboys, preheat a deep-fryer or heavy-bottomed pot, with enough oil to come halfway up the sides of the pot, to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
6. Be sure to use a frying thermometer to be accurate. Pull the dough into odd shapes that look like elephant ears, then drop them into the fryer, in batches, and cook until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Flip them over with a chop stick and cook the other side until golden brown, a few more minutes. Repeat the process until all of the dough is used. Arrange them on a serving platter and serve with jam, maple syrup, and powdered sugar. Sit down, get coffee and eat.
7. Cook’s note: The dough usually made a day before using.