For Steven Morlino, chef de cuisine of Gaslight Lynnfield, holiday feasts have always included a bounty of Italian and Polish specialties. That’s because his father’s side of the family hails from Italy and his mother’s family comes from Poland.
“We always had a conglomeration of things,” says Morlino, who was raised in New Jersey near both families. “I grew up Catholic, so Christmas Eve was all about fish! We’d have scungilli salad, shrimp salad, pasta with clams, shrimp cocktail, fried whitefish, baked fish with lemon and extra-virgin olive oil. But my fraternal grandfather was a very picky eater. He didn’t eat seafood so there needed to be lasagna and meatballs.” In fact, it was making meatballs with his Italian grandmother that brought out Morlino’s love of cooking.
“I would go with my mom and hang out in my grandmother’s kitchen with all the women, and they would come to me with little jobs to do, like rolling meatballs. My great aunts would make the pasta, and I remember watching the whole process. They even put clean sheets on the beds to dry the pasta.”
Cold marinated seafood salad
On Christmas morning, breakfast was all about Polish specialties, like “eggs, ham, kielbasa, and pierogi,” says Morlino, explaining that his mother’s parents shared his two-family home and did much of the cooking. “They were great cooks and made everything from scratch. My mother, let’s just say she was better at making reservations,” he says, chuckling.
Christmas dinner combined both cultures, beginning with some antipasti of various cheeses, prosciutto, sopressata giardina, crackers, and olives. “Then, we usually had a prime rib, mashed potatoes, and the obligatory lasagna, meatballs, and sausage,” says Morlino, along with a bounty of Polish holiday cookies.
“My brother-in-law is a really good baker, and he would make these three-colored cookies with marzipan and covered with chocolate,” says Morlino. “Someone else would make kolache (or kolace)—a Polish cookie made with cream cheese and filled with fruit compote or a poppy seed or walnut mixture—these powdered sugar balls made with walnuts, and my mother would make thumbprint jam cookies.” As Morlino tells it, the holiday dishes spread from one end of the table to the other and there was “a lot of belt loosening” by the end of the night.
At Gaslight Lynnfield, this year’s holiday meal will be a Christmas Eve feast, since the restaurant will be closed on Christmas Day.
“There definitely will be seafood,” says Morlino. “I’ll make a [cold marinated] seafood salad and probably do some octopus,” which is tenderized in red wine stock before being seared and topped with sopressata, pickled shallots, lemon, and spicy breadcrumbs. For entrees, look for a meaty whitefish, like cod or halibut, pan-roasted and served over a vegetable puree such as cauliflower mousseline, with a truffle vinaigrette.
On Christmas Day, Morlino will stay home and host his Colombian wife’s extended family for dinner. In a nod to their heritage, there will be buñuelos, deep-fried Colombian cheese balls.
“They’re a little bigger than a golf ball and a bit like [a] zeppole, only denser because of the cheese,” says Morlino. “You’re supposed to put sugar on them, but I’ve never gotten to that point because they’re that good!” Per tradition, firm, cold slices of Colombian Christmas custard, or natilla, will accompany the buñuelos.
For the holiday dinner, Morlino plans to roast a crown rack of pork and serve it with a rich maple-bacon jus, “just like we do at the restaurant,” he says. “I’ll also make an au gratin of scalloped potatoes and maybe some asparagus and Caesar salad.”
When asked how hosts can minimize time in the kitchen during holiday gatherings, Morlino suggests serving an antipasti platter in lieu of hors d’oeuvres and an appetizer.
“It transcends all cultures and people love it. Buy meats and a variety of cheeses and lay them out on a nice dish, and then add some store-bought marinated vegetables, crostini and fig jam, along with some dried fruit and nuts.” Buying quality items, like the fig jam and marinated vegetables, saves time without sacrificing flavor. Also, it’s helpful to prepare whatever recipes you can in advance and cook or reheat them at the last moment, as suggested in the two recipes below.
“At the end of the day, the holidays are about spending time with family,” says Morlino. “It’s all about having everyone sitting down at the table with delicious food and creating enjoyable memories.”
Roast Crown of Pork with Maple-Bacon Jus
Brine this pork two days before you plan to cook it. You can also make the jus in advance; simply heat before serving. Serves 8-10.
> 1 c. kosher salt
> 1 c. light brown sugar
> 3 bay leaves
> 1 small bunch fresh thyme
> 1 Tbsp. whole black peppercorns
> 1 gallon ice cubes
> 1 Berkshire 10 bone pork rack (61/2-7 pounds)
> 4 strips Applewood smoked bacon, each strip cut into 1/4-inch pieces
> 2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
> 2 c. chicken or beef broth
> 3 Tbsp. pure maple syrup
> 2 Tbsp. sherry vinegar
1. Place 1 quart of water in a 12-quart stockpot, along with salt, sugar, bay leaves, thyme, and peppercorns. Bring mixture to a boil, reduce heat to medium, and simmer 5 minutes to dissolve sugar and salt.
2. Remove brine from heat, add ice and stir until melted and mixture is cool. Submerge pork rack in brine, cover pot, and refrigerate meat for 48 hours.
3. Remove pork from brining liquid and thoroughly pat pork dry with paper towels. Transfer meat to a roasting pan.
4. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Cook pork for 1 hour, or until an internal thermometer reads 145 degrees. Remove pork from oven and let rest while you make jus.
5. Place a medium pot over medium-low heat and add bacon. Cook until fat is rendered from bacon and meat is crisp. Transfer meat to a paper towel-lined plate.
6. Lower heat and whisk flour into bacon fat and cook until mixture turns golden brown. Slowly whisk in broth and then add maple syrup and vinegar. Simmer mixture, occasionally whisking, for 15 minutes, removing any excess fat that rises to surface. Season jus with salt and pepper to taste and add bacon bits, if you wish. (If not, save for another use.) Transfer jus to decorative gravy boat or refrigerate, covered, and reheat before serving.
6. Slice and serve pork; pass maple-bacon jus separately.
You can prepare this recipe up to two days in advance by not cooking the gratin until you are ready to serve it; simply bring to room temperature before baking. (Note: The amount of salt is correct; you need a fair amount to season the potatoes.) Serves 8-10.
> 6 medium russet potatoes
> 1 qt. of heavy cream
> 2 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
> 1 Tbsp. kosher salt
> 1/8 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
> 1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper
> 1 1/2 c. freshly grated Parmesan cheese (save 1/2 cup for final layer)
I. Peel potatoes and set aside.
2. Place cream, garlic, and salt in medium sauce pan over medium heat. When mixture is just bubbling, reduce heat to medium-low and gently simmer, stirring occasionally, to dissolve salt. Remove mixture from heat and stir in nutmeg and cayenne.
3. Slice potatoes into 1/8-inch- thick slices, either with a mandolin or sharp knife. Arrange potatoes over surface of a 2-quart casserole dish, overlapping slices as you go. Pour enough cream over potatoes to just cover and sprinkle with some cheese. Repeat process several more times, ending with cheese. If making gratin in advance, cover and refrigerate, removing from the refrigerator at least 1 hour before baking.
4. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Bake gratin, uncovered, for 1 hour or until a sharp knife easily slides through potatoes and top is golden.