This week’s tastes bridge a change in the calendar as well as a change in attitude. There is the seismic shift from ordinary food to the ritualistic fare that graced our family tables on Thanksgiving. It will continue in the weeks to come as we buy our prime ribs and smoked hams, peel potatoes (and a bit of our finger) for making latkes, start baking a thousand Christmas cookies as my friend Judy Rundel has done for 30 years, find a credible fruit cake, send honeybells from Florida to friends as gifts, clip new holiday dishes to try, while we preserve our unique heritages with tattered family recipes. With the holiday lights now flickering on every street corner, we observe piles of tangerines in the stores, Christmas trees and poinsettias lining the sidewalks, and a whiff of holiday expectation in the air.
Even restaurant going this week had a sense of the season. A meal at the venerated Four Seasons restaurant, located in the Seagrams building, always has a bit of festivity about it — especially in the Grill Room during lunch. Eating across the way from Ralph Lauren, it was festive indeed to dive into a puddle of creamy polenta topped with a small poached egg and a shower of shaved truffles; followed by fluke sashimi with lemongrass, steelhead salmon with wild mushrooms and green beans with an almond-caper beurre noisette (a nutty brown butter sauce), and sauteed Arctic char — an unappreciated fish as I see it — accompanied by salsify (an unappreciated root vegetable!), mizuna, and a truffle sauce. Disks of key lime pie and walnut tart were a gastronomic kick-off to the holidays.
Another indication that the holidays are upon us is the level of activity in New York on Saturday night: We had an impossible time trying to get reservations, anywhere! After two hours of searching and relying on Open Table, we found ourselves at a very good, acoustically comfortable (yet very busy) restaurant on the corner of Thompson and Spring street in Soho. Few know the chef, or owner, and it is hardly a venue in which to see or be seen, however we enjoyed it very much — primarily for those reasons, but also because the food was unexpectedly delicious and we had wonderful service, from a staff that hailed from Poland, India and Sicily. Also unexpected was a quiet table in the corner near the window overlooking the bustle of New York night life. We devoured creamy burrata (a cheese from the south of Italy) with excellent tomatoes (from where I wonder?), terrific fried calamari with “strings” of crispy fried vegetables, fabulously toothsome spaghetti with a sauce of fresh clams (really cockles) zucchini, olive oil and spicy garlic; mixed homemade sweet and spicy sausage with lentils, squash and broccoli rabe; filet of king salmon with a mustard sauce, celery root (another unappreciated veg!) and asparagus (thick, meaty and fresh from somewhere). My husband enjoyed his pasta special laden with duck and we toasted his prowess, and patience, in finding such an unassuming spot. Oh yes, the restaurant is called Savore. The executive chef is Francesca Bergamini and the Chef is Edilberto Soriano.
And now begins a slew of holiday recipes to get you in the mood. Here’s a sugar-coated, crackling holiday ham which will trigger mouthwatering desire. Elemental in its flavors — salty, sweet, sharp, aromatic, its simple cooking technique keeps it moist and succulent.
Sugar-Coated, Crackling Holiday Ham
10-pound smoked ready-to-cook ham, shank portion
1 cup coarse-grain mustard (such as Pommery)
1/4 cup bourbon
1 cup sugar
1-1/2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground cardamom
kumquats with their leaves, for garnishing
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Place ham in a shallow roasting pan and add 1/8 inch water to the pan. Cover ham with foil and bake 2-1/2 hours. Remove ham from oven and increase temperature to 450 degrees. Pour most of the fat from the pan. Using a sharp, thin-bladed knife, remove the rind, except for the area around the shank bone, and most of
the fat. Score the remaining fat by cutting diagonal slashes in a diamond pattern. Stir together mustard and bourbon and cover the surface thickly with the mixture. Stir together sugar, cinnamon and cardamom and coat the ham, patting down to cover completely. Add freshly ground black pepper and return to the oven for 25 minutes until the sugar melts and hardens: it will become a bit crackly. Present on a large platter and decorate with kumquats with their leaves. Carve and serve while hot. Serves 12