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Multi-talented chef, winemaker and TV star Michael Chiarello shares holiday favorites with F&W, including a great way to winterize a classic cocktail, an easy recipe that makes a delicious gift and the 5 best places to visit on a trip to Napa Valley.
What’s your favorite holiday food gift?
Parmesan cheese spread. We use it as our butter at Bottega: A mixture of Asiago, Parmigiano-Reggiano, scallion, a little bit of Calabrian chile or chile flakes, basil, parsley, garlic and olive oil. Simply dice up the cheese and scallion, throw it all in your food processor and grind it all up until it’s the size of BBs. If you make a half-gallon of it on December 1, you’ll eat a quarter of it yourself, and if you have a few little French canning jars like we sell at NapaStyle, you can pack them with the rest of the mix and it will last for a month in the fridge. Then instead of bringing an $80 bottle of wine, you can bring a $5 jar of something you made that won’t give anyone a hangover. It’s an affordable way to spread holiday cheer. You can make it with any firm cheese: pecorino, Grana Padano, dried Manchego, dry Jack. You can also mix in truffles, different flavored oils, any number of things. And it’s just superversatile: It’s fantastic on bruschetta or a cracker, spooned on a slice of prime rib; I put it under the skin of a chicken before I roast it so the cheese melts. For a terrific sauce, you can add 8 ounces of it to 1/2 a pound of cooked pasta, along with a little pasta water. Oh, and this may the best of all: drizzle it on popcorn. Ordinary grated cheese floats to the bottom, but this sticks like butter. With a glass of Prosecco, that is so good.
What’s your favorite holiday cocktail?
A pine-flavored Negroni. There are these pine extracts that you can buy. It only takes a couple of drops, but then you hold the drink to your nose and it’s like you’re going Christmas-tree hunting.
What’s a great entertaining tip?
Don’t cook for people you don’t like. That’s what take-out is for. Around the holidays, everyone has that dinner they have to host for that guy they don’t like, the boss or some cranky relative. Don’t waste your good spirit on people who are ornery. Bring some great dim sum home.
Can you share 5 top places not to miss on a holiday visit to Napa?
- The 12 Days of Christmas dinners at Meadowood Napa Valley. I’m a big fan of chef Chris Kostow. I think he’s America’s most reasonable supertalent: He doesn’t stretch it so far that you have to strain to get your head around it, and yet it still blows your mind. He invites a dozen chefs to come and cook with him in his kitchen, one every night, so you get to see two great chefs cooking together in a magical setting. God forbid you spend the night at Meadowood afterward, in the middle of calm Napa Valley. That’s a nice gift to give a partner before the holiday madness descends.
- Cave Caroling. A number of the wineries in Napa and Sonoma host musicians in their wine caves during the holiday season. There’s something primal about it, with the sounds reverberating all around you. If you’re having a hard time getting into the holiday spirit, step into a cave and you’ll be surrounded 360 degrees with it.
- Preholiday couples massage at Villaggio Spa in Yountville. At most spas, what normally happens is you and your partner take turns getting massages and then meet up in the Jacuzzi later. Villaggio Spa has a couples room with a couples Jacuzzi outside with heaters and Champagne, so you can take the whole room for two to three hours. From a couple of the suites you can see out to Domaine Chandon vineyards.
- Peterson Family Christmas Tree Farm for a tree or trimmings and great sparkling wine. The owner, Richard Grant Peterson, is a famous Napa winemaker, and sells his own sparkling wine there. You come up to the Napa Valley, they have hot cider for the kids and sparkling wine for the adults, you go pick the trees, and the trees are beautiful, they’re nicely maintained.
- Drive to Limantour Beach in Point Reyes in West Marin for Dungeness crab and a campfire. Limantour Beach is my little boy’s favorite beach. There’s a small hike to get there so it feels like an excursion, which makes it even more fun. You tie the grill from your Weber to your backpack, and bring in precooked crab. It’s pretty easy to get a fire permit, then you build a fire, sit on the beach, throw your crab onto the grill, eat them and rinse your hands in the ocean.
What’s your most popular dish?
Our cold-smoked and braised short rib. I first put it on the menu at Tra Vigne and it’s now at Bottega. We brine the meat overnight, then cold-smoke it for 4 hours, then braise it for 12 hours. I like barbecue as much as the next guy, but sometimes it feels like you just licked an ashtray. Brining and cold smoking gives the meat a gentle smoke that goes all the way through. In the winter, from January to June we cold-smoke with Cabernet canes. The rest of the year we use oak or alder chips.
What’s your favorite cookbook of all time?
Seven Fires, by Francis Mallman. Francis Mallman is a new friend of the past couple of years. His techniques clearly come from a chef comfortable in his own skin. I’ve had live fire in my restaurants since 1984, so Seven Fires inspired me to write a book of my own. It’s not just what he does with fire; he does things you would never see anywhere else. He does these smashed beets on this plancha that I freaking love—they’re burned and salty, yet crispy and delicious. He also does a salt-crusted whole striped bass in this outdoor oven he builds that he calls an infiernillo, or “little hell,” with fire up top and fire down below—he did it when we did a party of 300, it was mind-bending. I also think it’s a cookbook that focuses on the pleasures of cooking, not simply the finished product, which you don’t often see.
What’s one technique everyone should know?
Braising. It saves you 25 percent of your food budget if you’re a meat eater. Don’t be afraid of the crock pot; I never use one, but I may as well, since I cook so many things at about that temperature—225, 250. Sear everything first to caramelize it, cover the meat with an inch with liquid, and you can put a lid of parchment paper on top as well as the pot lid if you want to preserve extra moisture. Let’s say we’re making braised pork shoulder: dice up the meat, season it more than you think, sear it in olive oil or a mix of olive oil and butter depending on what you want to braise it in (if stock, then olive oil; if milk or cream, use butter). I’m just not a fan of braising on a stovetop; I think it’s ripe for disaster. The oven is your silent sous-chef and you should use it that way. Bring the braise up to a simmer first on the stove, then put it in the oven or crock pot and walk away. I’ve also learned from these cooking competitions that the pressure cooker can be your friend. Sometimes it makes sense to give up 10 or 15 percent of the quality in order to save 4 or 5 hours of braising time. It will give you most of that tender, moist, braised deliciousness in one-tenth the time. Last, sometimes I don’t like everything to have the same texture—I think texture is a flavor—so I’ll often roast any vegetables separately and put them in at the end.