The Boise area is a melting pot of people from various ethnic and religious backgrounds who come together at the family dinner table during the holidays to celebrate their vibrant cultures.
These cultures that make up the social fabric of our community may be vastly different, yet similarities ring like bells this time of year.
For instance, it’s common for folks from different parts of the world to celebrate the holidays with traditional seafood recipes handed down over the generations. Even Midwestern farmers — who live far away from the ebb and flow of the ocean — eat oyster stew on Christmas Eve.
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Gino Vuolo, chef and owner of Gino’s Italian Ristorante in Meridian, has eaten seafood during the holidays as long as he can remember.
Vuolo was born in Naples, Italy, but he moved to Brooklyn as a young child, where his father ran an Italian restaurant across the bridge in Manhattan for 20 years. He moved back to Italy later in life before moving to Boise in 1994.
He has fond memories of his holidays spent in southern Italy.
“We always had fried eel at Christmastime. But it’s hard to get good, fresh eel here,” Vuolo says.
Naples, of course, is situated on the Mediterranean, so eating freshly caught seafood is a way of life.
“I remember my mom washing eel in the sink, and it would still be squirming,” Vuolo recalls. “The pieces even moved for a few minutes after she cut it on the cutting board.”
Now, that’s fresh.
These days, Vuolo and his wife, Tia, and their two kids, Jessica and Vincent, and other family members usually celebrate Christmas Day with a big seafood spread that includes spaghetti with clams (see recipe, below), roasted striped sea bass in pizzaiola sauce and antipasto with fried calamari, steamed mussels and fried whole sardines.
Vuolo also likes to serves an antipasto platter with Mediterranean olives, wine-marinated mushrooms, roasted red peppers and cured figs and dates. And everyone in the family looks forward to the holiday fruit tart that’s served when all the savory dishes get consumed.
This all seems like a lot of work for a guy who’s looking to take a day or two off. (Gino’s Ristorante is closed on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.)
“I try to get the prep work done the day before Christmas so it’s easy on me. That way I can enjoy the day and get into my wine cellar,” Vuolo says.
A TASTE OF SCOTLAND
Steve Robertson and his family, who own and operate Hells Canyon Winery and Zhoo Zhoo Wines in Sunnyslope, like to celebrate their Scottish heritage during the holidays.
Robertson and his wife, Leslie, along with their daughters, Hadley, Bijou and Jocelyn, run the sister estate wineries, and they are known around these parts for their refined palates.
Robertson was a chef (he graduated from Culinary Institute of America back in the day) before becoming a winemaker. He used to own Annabelle’s, a French restaurant on Vista Avenue that he operated from 1974 to 1980, and the nearby Mussels Fish Market.
Robertson grew up in the Portland area, a place where scoring impeccably fresh seafood is not an issue like it is in the City of Trees.
“We ate fish all the time. There was a fishmonger who came by our neighborhood (in Portland’s Hollywood district) a couple of times a week,” he says.
His family always ate crab casserole (a quintessential Oregon thing) and Scottish seafood delicacies this time of year.
“We had Finnan Haddie on Christmas when I was a kid,” Robertson recalls.
The Robertsons continue this Scottish tradition every year by enjoying Finnan Haddie (see recipe, below) for brunch on Christmas Day. It’s essentially smoked haddock in a garlicky cream sauce served with parsley-flecked boiled potatoes, washed down with Champagne. The real stuff, from France.
Robertson also remembers eating apple pudding cake (think bread pudding) and other freshly baked goodies during the holidays.
“My grandmother Cruzen, who was a great cook, made wonderful whole-wheat bread. We still make the bread using her recipe,” he says.
“She made her own chocolates, too.”
Julie Sarasqueta Hahn grew up in a Basque-Portuguese family in Twin Falls.
Sarasqueta Hahn remembers eating big Basque feasts at Christmastime.
“We always had a leg of lamb in the old days,” she says. (See recipe, below)
“And we also ate clams and rice and salt cod (in a garlicky pepper sauce).”
Sarasqueta Hahn and her husband, Greg Hahn, are big foodies — most conversations with them end up on the topic of food. The couple even occasionally teaches chorizo sausage-making classes at their house (put on by The Atlanta School).
She gives her mother, Marilyn Sarasqueta — the keeper of the family recipes — much credit for her love of food.
“My mom is truly an amazing cook. She has cooked for Gooding Basque Association events for a long time,” she says.
Lately, the Sarasqueta family has turned to paella (a Spanish-style rice dish) to feed the hungry masses when they all get together in the Magic Valley during the holidays. Large-batch cooking makes sense for an extended Basque family.
“My mom makes paella in one of those big pans on a gas burner. It typically has chicken, chorizo, clams and mussels in it,” she explains.
Other tasty treats have made their way onto the holiday table in recent years as well.
“We’ve added more things as time went on, like membrillo (hard Manchego cheese with quince paste, almonds and walnuts),” she says.
TAMALES AND MORE
Ed Herrera comes from a huge Mexican-American family who make a big deal of the holidays. He and his wife, Stephany, along with their two kids, Torry and Andrew, stay busy this time of year.
“We have such a large family that Christmas goes on for about a week, with everyone going to different houses on different nights,” says Herrera, the coordinator for Child Nutrition Programs at the Idaho State Department of Education.
His family originally hails from Zacatecas, a state in north-central Mexico that’s far from the ocean. So, seafood dishes don’t ever make it onto the menu in the Herrera household during the holidays. But tamales? Now, that’s another story.
“We generally have a house full of people making masa and putting it in corn husks and steaming them. It’s an all-day affair,” he says.
“Everyone gets to go home with about a dozen tamales.”
His family typically makes pork tamales with red chili sauce at Christmastime, yet the moveable feast often includes other time-honored family recipes such as posole (spicy hominy soup) and arroz con leche (ultra-creamy rice pudding).
“Back in Mexico, my grandmother always made arroz con leche. She would get fresh raw milk from her neighbor and cook it with rice, condensed milk and cinnamon,” he recalls.
“My aunts still make it sometimes during the holidays.”
Anika Smulovitz, a metal arts professor at Boise State University who’s a member of the Ahavath Beth Israel Congregation, grew up in Eugene, Ore., in a family with mixed northern European heritage.
She has Dutch and Scandinavian blood running through her veins, which means her family enjoys kosher European specialties throughout the eight days of Hanukkah.
Her mother, Constantia Smulovitz, does most of the cooking during the holidays — all from scratch.
“There’s fried bread (oliebollen) in Holland that she started doing at Hanukkah,” Smulovitz explains.
“She made that our tradition.”
Oliebollen (see recipe, below) symbolizes The Miracle of the Expanding Oil, a Jewish tradition that celebrates the oil that burned for eight days in Jerusalem after the Maccabees defeated the Syrian-Greeks in 165 B.C.
During Hanukkah, her family also observes this centuries-old ritual with fried zucchini latkes (crispy fritters), a variation of the popular potato latkes.
A nice roasted chicken with apples and yams, which the Smulovitz family also have during Passover, often makes it onto the table. They like to eat this hearty meal throughout the year, though.
“Some people do brisket. We do roasted chicken,” she muses.
Looking for a paella recipe? Check out this link to the Basque Market, featuring many Basque dishes. The Boise market is in Downtown Boise.
Looking for a tamale recipe? Try this one from the PBS website.
Some stores where you can find ethnic & flavorful foodstuffs
The Basque Market
608 W. Grove St., Boise
Basque country goodies such as cured meats, cheeses, olives, rice pudding, wines and more.
888 W. Fort St., Boise
2350 N. Eagle Road, The Village at Meridian
Well-stocked meat and seafood counters, cheeses galore, specialty foods, artisanal breads, beer and wine.
Boise Farmers Market
Inside on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at 516 S. 8th St, Boise, through Dec. 19.
Expect to find lots of locally produced meats and produce, wild Alaskan salmon, artisanal cheeses, jams, freshly baked bread and local wines.
413 N. Orchard St., Boise
A colorful store packed with Mexican goodies such as marinated meats, tortillas, masa harina, baked goods and corn husks for making tamales.
Capital City Public Market
Outside on 8th Street (between Main and State streets) on Saturdays from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. through Dec. 19.
Open daily at its new indoor Vista Village annex, 1036 Vista Ave., from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. through Dec. 24. (Limited food vendors.)
A profusion of locally produced foodstuffs and artisan crafts.
Choice Cuts Meats
12570 W. Fairview Ave. Boise
Full-service butcher shop with fresh meats and seafood and smoked meats.
Irena’s European Fine Food
1580 N. Stonehenge Way (near Fairview Avenue), Meridian
European meats, baked goods, imported cheeses, smoked fish, caviar and other specialty foods.
Reel Foods Fish Market
611 Capitol Blvd., Boise
Go-to place for fresh seafood and prepared and smoked seafood items.
3914 W. State St., Boise
A profusion of smoked hams, turkeys, sausages and seafood, as well as lots of cheeses and holiday gift baskets.
Tres Bonne Cuisine
6555 W. Overland Road, Boise
The full-service European eatery also has a small store with imported and domestic meats and cheeses, chocolates and other Euro treats.
Whole Foods Market
401 S. Broadway Ave., Boise
Well-stocked meat, seafood and cheese counters, baked goods and all kinds of other natural foods.
Some recipes to try this holiday season
Spaghetti con vongole
Courtesy of Gino Vuolo, Gino’s Italian Ristorante
5 pounds clams, shells and all, rinsed with cold water
8 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup dry white wine
6 ounces Italian parsley, chopped
2 pounds dried or fresh spaghetti (linguine works, too)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
Boil pasta in a large pot until it’s al dente (about eight minutes for dried pasta with frequent stirring). Place clams in a separate covered pot and steam (with white wine, olive oil and garlic) until the shells start to open. Add the rest of the seasonings and let sit for about 10 minutes. Stir in pasta and serve.
Courtesy of Steve Robertson, Hells Canyon Winery
5-6 pound frozen smoked haddock fillets (smoked cod works, too)
5-6 large russet potatoes, rinsed and peeled, cut into 8 half-inch chunks (not slices), boiled
1/4 cup parsley, chopped
3 tablespoons garlic, minced
1/2 cup butter, cut into 1 tablespoon-sized pads
3 1/2 cups heavy cream
Salt and ground black pepper to taste
Thaw fish overnight in fridge. In a large cast iron pan, sauté fish fillets in garlic butter, dot each fillet with a pad of additional butter, add heavy cream and cover pan and bake at 325 degrees for a minimum of 30-45 minutes until the fish is flaky.
Boil potatoes in large pot, drain and add chopped parsley. Slice fish fillets into portions and season heavily with freshly ground pepper and serve over well-toasted crumpets or English muffins and boiled parsley potatoes. Pour cream sauce over everything, garnish with more parsley and enjoy with French Champagne.
Roasted leg of lamb
Courtesy of Julie Sarasqueta Hahn
Serves a large family. A note from Julie, who had never written this recipe down before, offers a warning: “We each have our own tricks. The measurements are about as accurate as I can make them. Maker beware.”
1 leg of lamb, bone in (about 6-7 pounds)
1/2 to 1 head of garlic, peeled and cut into slivers
4 russet potatoes, cut into wedges
4 carrots, peeled and chopped into 2-inch segments
2 onions, quartered
1 cup red wine
Olive oil, enough to coat the lamb and a sheen in the pan
Salt and ground black pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Pat the leg of lamb dry with paper towels. With a very sharp knife, make small incisions (with the grain) throughout the leg of lamb. You don’t want the cuts to be deep enough to let all of the lamb’s juices escape while cooking, but you do want them to be deep enough to insert the garlic. Fill each incision with a sliver of garlic. This takes some time. Pour yourself a drink (preferably a glass of Rioja).
Smear the leg of lamb with olive oil and liberally season with salt and pepper. Brown it on all sides in a sturdy skillet or Dutch oven. Transfer the lamb to a roasting pan, and don’t forget to save the juices in the skillet. Deglaze the skillet with red wine and scrape the bottom of the skillet to release the browned bits from the lamb. Add the vegetables to the deglazed skillet and stir them to coat them in the juices. Season with salt and pepper.
Transfer the lamb, vegetables and deglazed drippings to a roasting pan. Make sure you get all of the drippings in there. That stuff is gold and will caramelize the vegetables.
Put the whole thing in the oven and roast until the lamb reaches a temperature of about 135 degrees. (You’re going to let it rest, so the internal temperature will keep rising until it is about rare to medium-rare.) Remove the lamb from the oven and put it in a foil tent for at least 15 minutes.
The vegetables should be caramelized; if they’re not, continue roasting them in the pan in the oven. To serve, arrange the vegetables around the lamb. Don’t even think about letting mint jelly near it!
Courtesy of Anika Smulovitz
A note from Anika: This is a Dutch recipe and traditional Dutch New Year’s treat. My mother, born in the Netherlands to a Dutch father and Swedish mother, and raised in Sweden, started using this recipe when I was a little girl during Hanukkah in the place of traditional Israeli sufganiyot (jelly-filled doughnuts).
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon additional sugar
2 packets rapid dry yeast
4 cups flour, sifted
2 cups milk
1 teaspoon salt
8 cups canola oil for frying
Mix 1 teaspoon of sugar into a half cup of warm water (100-110 degrees). Sprinkle yeast on top of the water and sugar mixture. Let stand for 10 minutes (yeast should bubble) and stir yeast into the mixture.
In a separate bowl, mix flour and 1/4 cup sugar, and then add eggs and yeast mixture. Warm the milk (on stove or in microwave) until it’s lukewarm. Slowly add half the milk and mix thoroughly, then incorporate the rest of the milk. Cover with damp cloth. Let rise for two hours.
Once the dough has doubled, stir in salt (and raisins, if you want). In a deep, heavy-bottomed pan, heat oil to 350 degrees. You can tell if the oil is ready by placing a wooden spoon in the oil and seeing if it has little bubbles all around it. Place tablespoon-sized dough balls into the oil and fry for 5 minutes. Serve immediately.