How to entertain your Vail Valley guests in town for the holidays
Bacon bleu cheese grits
From chef Christian Apetz, 8100 Mountainside Bar and Grill in Beaver Creek
4 strips high-quality bacon, roughly chopped
2 shallots, finely diced
1 quart half and half
1 cup stone-ground white grits
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup bleu cheese crumbles, preferably Gorgonzola
1 cup scallions, chopped
Salt and black pepper to taste
In a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, render chopped bacon by stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until the bacon just begins to turn crispy (about five minutes). Remove the bacon and reserve the fat.
In the same saucepan, warm 2 tablespoons bacon fat over medium heat. Add shallots, stirring constantly until shallots turn translucent.
Add half and half. Bring to a boil.
Add grits and turn heat to low. Stir constantly until grits thicken to an oatmeal consistency (about 7 minutes).
Add butter and water to grits. Bring back to a simmer over medium-low heat.
Stir in bleu cheese, bacon and scallions. Allow mixture to thicken for another 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Season with salt and black pepper to taste.
From chef Allana Smith, FOODsmith personal chef in Vail
14 ounces TCHO SeriousMilk Cacao chocolate bar (53 percent cacao), or a combination of your favorite high-quality milk and dark chocolates
1 1/2 cups light cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Break the chocolate squares into small pieces and drop into fondue pot. If you don’t have a fondue pot, place on the stove a metal bowl over a large pot filled with water. Heat the water gently over medium heat to melt the chocolate. This mixture may need to be returned to the stove occasionally to gently reheat during service.
Heat cream in a separate pot until simmering. Add cream to chocolate, which prevents chocolate from going lumpy, and stir gently but constantly until the chocolate is melted and smooth.
Add vanilla extract to mix. Stir.
Try dipping crisped rice squares, graham crackers, mini gingerbread men, marshmallows, cubed pound cake, pretzels and just about any fruit.
From chef Allana Smith, FOODsmith personal chef in Vail
1/2 cup champagne vinegar
1/2 cup dry white wine, like
1 tablespoon minced shallots
Coarse-ground cracked black pepper to taste
Combine all ingredients in large bowl. Serve as a side sauce with oysters on the half shell.
Holiday wine cellar
Wine pairing is an art. But when your head is wrapped around entertaining a crowd of 20, your inner sommelier has no time to shine — and that’s where pros like David Courtney come in. The wine expert from Beaver Liquors in Avon enjoys big, bold wines during the chilly holiday season, yet when it comes to pairing, he follows a simple mantra: Drink the wine you like with the people you love. Simple enough.
Twenty Bench Cabernet Sauvignon ($24.99) – A luscious red made with fruit from Stags Leap, one of the premier Napa Valley vineyards known for wines $60 and up. It’s too powerful for sipping, but goes well with steak, stews or anything from a crock pot.
Boom Boom! Syrah ($18.99) – This syrah from Washington’s Columbia Valley is pitch-perfect for a snowy afternoon: It’s big, lush and chewy, with just a touch of spice. Bring it out while you’re prepping sides and munching on hors d’oeuvres.
Borgo Magredo Prosecco Brut ($13.99) – At the moment, Prosecco is the darling of the sparkling wine world, and the brut from Italy’s Borgo Magredo stands apart from the rest with a not-too-sweet flavor and surprisingly dry finish. The low price tag helps, too.
Schramsberg Blanc de Blanc ($33.99) – For an alternative to Korbel, try the Blanc de Blanc from Scramsberg, another Napa Valley vineyard known for affordable sparkling wines. It pairs well with rich dishes, particularly holiday indulgences like fondue or lobster.
For local chef Allana Smith, the holidays mean good food, incredible company and pink applesauce.
And no, the pink applesauce isn’t some gourmet preparation Smith dreamt up in the Larkspur kitchen, her culinary home for the past 15 years. It’s more a testament to her grandmother’s root cellar: Come Christmastime, Smith remembers bringing out everything the family canned that fall — peaches, apples, all manner of veggies — to make sides for a traditional turkey. The pink tint came from the apple skins — nothing more, nothing less.
These days, Smith spends the holiday season prepping meals for her new private chef service, FOODsmith. The pink applesauce is gone, replaced by organic mushroom stuffing, cranberry-clementine sauce, sweet potatoes gratin and roast duck from Sonoma County Poultry, the same supplier for The French Laundry in Napa Valley.
But the holidays are more than gourmet grub, and Smith knows it. Even though she has spent nearly two decades cooking for others on Christmas — she and her husband usually ring in New Year’s Eve at 2 a.m. with champagne and oysters — she still has a soft spot for pink applesauce. It’s a family tradition on par with leaving cookies for Santa Claus, and during the holiday season, even small traditions form the backbone of an unforgettable celebration — particularly when you’re far from home.
“So many people come here to visit their second home and just want to enjoy it while they’re here,” said Smith, who began taking holiday meal orders in October and will likely be fully booked by early December. “It’s a vacation place — they don’t want to leave it every second for the grocery store or the wine or anything, but they want it to feel like home.”
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A FAMILY AFFAIR
Like Smith, chef Christian Apetz, of 8100 Mountainside Bar and Grill, thinks of family at the holidays. His mother was Finnish and his father married into a Sicilian clan, so Christmas meant a bustling kitchen with aunts, uncles, cousins and his four brothers.
“I was the chunky little fat kid who had my fingers and hands in everything,” said Apetz, whose family also canned everything from peaches to asparagus. “I loved food, and I loved trying to learn the simplicity of grinding and pickling.”
That simplicity translated into a traditional dinner at Christmas: Sicilian-style tomato sauce, or gravy, made with plum tomatoes crushed and canned at home. Prepping the meal was a daylong affair, but family recipes demand little more than a few simple ingredients and plenty of love.
“Christmas was when all the hard work we did during summer and fall would come out,” Apetz said. “I appreciate the most simple, straightforward foods, because I really know how much hard work and labor goes into them.”
For his wife and two children, Apetz spices up a traditional holiday meal with outstanding side dishes, like his gourmet twist on down-home grits. Bacon and bleu cheese bring a touch of savory flavor to the recipe, and it can easily be tweaked for large groups.
For brunch, Apetz suggests eggs benedict and a homemade Bloody Mary. His mother’s family occasionally gave the dish a Finnish twist with smoked salmon or cod, but it was always paired with pickled asparagus.
“I can remember it vividly: My dad was stirring asparagus into his Bloody Mary and we were putting it into the eggs benedict,” Apetz said. “Asparagus and the holidays always go together.”
THE KIDS’ TABLE
As parents, Apetz and Smith both know any holiday meal should be made with children in mind. A gourmet dinner is well and good, but sometimes even the finest ingredients don’t earn the youngster seal of approval.
When Smith cooks privately for families, she always makes dishes that can easily be tweaked. Take something simple like chili: She makes a mild batch — spicy food doesn’t always sit well with young tummies — and includes hot sauce with grilled jalapenos on the side.
And almost anything can be made with the whole family in mind. Try separate “kid” and “adult” batches of stuffing or sweet potatoes, and put out plenty of healthy finger foods like carrots, tomatoes, celery and nuts to munch before the main meal. For very young kids, take a cue from fine dining and split dinner into two parts. Serve a round of kid-friendly dishes in the late afternoon, and once they’re fed and happy, clear the table for the adults. It takes a bit of legwork, but it’s perfect for large families with lots of tykes.
Over the years, Smith has noticed an interesting trend: families now replace traditional dishes like turkey and ham with steak or oysters. The shellfish are tough to come by in the mountains, but private chefs like Smith can work with suppliers to bring them into local homes. Steak is much easier to come by, and it’s a simple way to please kids who’d rather munch on burgers and fries.
“I’ve found that a lot of kids who live in this valley are well-traveled and they’re open to new dishes,” Smith said. “As long as the sides stay fairly simple, a kid will try steak. He’ll even like steak — maybe he doesn’t want the veal demi-glace served with it, but that’s for the adults anyway.”
For the Smith and her husband, fondue at Christmastime is a must. They invite family friends to bring kids and a batch of fondue, turning their kitchen into a holiday buffet. Kids have a blast dipping different breads and meats, while parents have just as much fun doing the same with a glass of champagne on the side. No one is forced to sit at a table, and over the years, the low-key atmosphere has become part of the Smith family tradition.
“You can make fondue as an appetizer, something to throw pieces of bread in, or you can make it the whole meal,” Smith said. “That can be a lot of fun for the kids because it’s interactive, and for our family it’s become a tradition.”