Photo © Jonny Valiant
When your relatives have a country house in a place called Christmas Cove, it's inevitable that at some point you'll be spending the holidays there. Here, chef Michael Tusk's family traditions and his incredible Christmas dinner menu.
Christmas Cove, Maine, might sound like the perfect place to spend Christmas. But with winter temperatures that can occasionally dip down to 20 degrees below zero, everyone but the hardiest locals flee. Still, this year, San Francisco chef Michael Tusk and his wife and business partner, Lindsay, are defying the weather and flying to Christmas Cove to spend the holidays with Lindsay's mother, who has a house there. What helped seal the deal: Maine's gigantic, sweet scallops, which are in season in December.
For Michael, a New Jersey native who trained at Berkeley's Chez Panisse and Oakland's Oliveto, the trip to Maine is a brief time-out from his flagship French-Italian restaurant, Quince, and its more rustic sister spot, Cotogna, as well as projects like his upcoming pasta cookbook and his under-wraps third restaurant. For Lindsay, spending the holidays in Christmas Cove (located on Rutherford Island, an hour-and-a-half from Portland) is a homecoming of sorts. She was born in northern Maine into a family of shipbuilders and naval architects, with a father who sailed the America's Cup twice. Her family lived in Greece until she was about ten, and in recent years, she's only had time for occasional trips to Maine. She'd been missing the snow falling on the rocky beach outside her mother's house. "In the winter, you go for the nature, the beauty, the quiet," she says.
Michael brings a few ingredients with him from California, including some in-season produce like blood oranges. Just after landing at the Portland airport, the Tusks go on a food-shopping expedition. At Browne Trading Company, a revered purveyor of fresh and house-smoked local fish and shellfish, they find enormous, briny-sweet scallops, hand-harvested by scuba-diving fishermen in the Gulf of Maine. For Christmas dinner, Michael browns them in a pan with capers, butter, and fennel pollen and places them atop a salad of crunchy shaved fennel and those tangy blood oranges—the flavors of Sicily.
He skews more traditional for the main course, presenting a classic American beef rib roast basted in butter, garlic and thyme. To add a kick, he prepares an assertive, slightly spicy sauce of horseradish, black pepper, Champagne vinegar and the Basque chile powder piment d'Espelette. Quince, a sweet-tart, apple-like fruit that grows well in California, makes more than one appearance on the menu—fittingly, since it's one of the chef's favorite ingredients and the namesake of both his restaurants. (Cotogna means quince in Italian. quincerestaurant.com, cotognasf.com) "I've always loved quince," Michael says. "I studied art history in school and found lots of images of it. It's such a beautiful, fragrant fruit."
Even though Michael leaves Maine's quintessential ingredient, lobster, off the menu—he and Lindsay have been eating it daily at the nearby Osier's lobster co-op, which is open year-round—it sparks ideas he'll bring back to San Francisco. "For an amuse-bouche, I might do a spin on a Maine lobster roll," he says. "Instead of a hot dog bun, we'll make our own brioche, or create a canapé. In our own way, we'll pay tribute to Maine."
Chef Michael Tusk's Christmas Menu
Prime Rib Roast with Horseradish Cream
Kabocha Squash Puree with Balsamic and Sage
Tuscan Kale alla Parmigiana
Chicory Salad with Pickled Quince and Pomegranate
Pair with: 2009 G.D. Vajra Albe Barolo
Quince Tarte Tatin