After the hustle and bustle of the holidays, it’s no wonder most of us begin the New Year looking for ways to slow down and relax.
Roast turkey, gravy, stuffing (or dressing), mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, perhaps some brown-sugared yams: the combination is quite simply a dictionary definition of seasonal comfort food.
It’s almost always the default dinner for the season: but what if you don’t like – or simply want a bit of a change from – the traditional holiday meal? The choice is excellent in Waterloo Region: between specialty food shops and butchers – Vincenzo’s, Dana Shortt Gourmet, Victoria Street Market, Oakridge Acres, Charles Quality Meats (CQM), Stemmler’s – there are lots of sources for alternatives. Of course, the farmers’ markets in Kitchener, St. Jacobs and Cambridge also offer endless possibilities to get just about the same comfort-food feel at home. As well, area restaurants, from locally-based smaller groups to ma-and-pa venues, can help create new food traditions at a time when tradition rules.
Long before there was roast turkey for the holidays, there was roast goose. Though a little bit harder to find, a goose is rich and tasty dark meat that is moist and with complex flavours lending themselves to the wonderful accompaniments of citrus, cloves and other winter spices that are bona fide part of the holiday season. With locations in the Kitchener and St. Jacobs markets and with a retail store in Waterloo, CQM can provide geese for your special dinner. Stemmler’s in Heidelberg is also an excellent source for free-range birds that are procured from producers in nearby Wellesley and Elora.
Duck is another good fowl alternative to roast for the holidays. While area restaurants often feature duck wings and the classic duck confit on their menus, there are local sources so you cook with a difference at home. Frozen duck is available at grocery stores, and Hilltop Acres in Breslau is another good source (they, in turn, get them from local Mennonite farmers). Both Stemmler’s and CQM can also furnish you with local duck.
But put the classic French duck à l’orange on the back burner for the moment and head to China – where they are masters at preparing duck – for some Cantonese-style seasoning: that means heady, aromatic and autumnal flavours of star anise, ginger, green onion, hoisin and five-spice powder. Glaze it with a plum sauce and you’re elevating holiday dinner.
If you’re looking for something even further off the poultry radar, Waterloo Region has that too: you can find Hungarian partridges at Tanjo Family Farm in Millbank.
A beef tenderloin certainly speaks to the idea of something special at this time of the year. It’s a simple and quick oven roast that announces loud and clear that it’s a “festive” occasion. A béarnaise sauce of egg yolks, vinegar, shallots and tarragon is the perfect accompaniment that enhances, but won’t overwhelm, the delicate and buttery tenderloin flavour.
Waterloo Region has several excellent specialty butcher shops to help you locate the tenderloin that will replace the traditional turkey: that includes Brady’s, Victoria Street Market, Bauer Butcher and Forequarter, in addition to CQM and Stemmler’s. (Just a note: buying tenderloin at the grocery store might require trimming it, but your favourite local butcher can take care of that for you.)
Our butchers can also source out excellent local lamb and ham as alternatives to turkey. Using the former, you can make the classic Roman pork dish porchetta: pork belly is heavily seasoned and marinades for a day with pepper, salt, garlic and fennel. Chopped pork shoulder is placed on it and the ingredients are rolled into a roast and tied. It cooks low and slow for about four hours – that’s just about a perfect amount of time for the wonderful aromas to permeate the house as your guests arrive.
While it’s a festive meal that Italian Americans reserve as their own, and on Christmas Eve, the “Feast of Seven Fishes” (festa dei sette pesci) would be a unique and delicious way to have a gathering with each guest contributing a special fish dish, from a calamari salad to salt-baked trout to sautéed scallops and linguine con vongole. A wide range of excellent seafood is available from T & J Seafoods and Caudle’s Catch, the latter of which is located in the St. Jacob’s, Cambridge and Kitchener markets, as well as at Vincenzo’s and Victoria Street Market. (After the seven fishes dinner, I recommend a Netflix binge-watch of “The Sopranos.”)
There are a growing number of vegan options to go with gluten-free and other dietary preferences and needs at area restaurants, including for the holidays. Restaurants such as Beertown (where there is a “Naughty” and a “Nice” burger, for the season, for instance) and Wildcraft serve robust menus of plant-based dishes that could be an alternative when you want to book a holiday party of people and make sure everyone can have a good time and be satisfied around the table. The former, a casual venue in The Charcoal Group’s collection of restaurants, has nearly two dozen vegan selections, including desserts and kids’ choices; the latter has 20 or so, including pastas and inventive twists on “duk” à l’orange and “chik’n.”
Regardless of where you eat, generally when most people eat it’s a conventional menu of appetizer, main course and dessert; however, shake the holiday meal routine up somewhat by sharing small plates and many dishes. Kitchener’s Swine and Vine has a collection of shareable plates (mussels, duck and seasonal tatare) as well as a selection of charcuterie boards that are the essence of sharing. Public Kitchen and Bar in Kitchener is a specialist in “small plates” and tapas-style dining that can help create a robust sharing menu from more than a dozen items: dishes range from pâtés and terrines to roasted beet and radicchio salad and on to caramelized eggplant. A half-a-world away, Waterloo’s Loloan Lobby Bar serves unique appetizers that will add up to a very interesting new dining tradition: mango salad, confit duck, octopus, water buffalo and yellowfin tuna are just a few examples.
In Cambridge, the Blackshop! Restaurant and Wine Bar has a large appetizer platter as well as scallops and rainbow trout rillettes, to name a few shareable dishes; the esteemed Cambridge Mill is a divine setting for a special holiday meal that could include fresh-shucked oysters, burrata and beef tartare along with a selection of Canadian cheeses.
Consider a holiday brunch of the small steamer baskets filled with a selection of delicious dumplings and other dishes that make up dim sum – which translates loosely to something like “heart’s delight:” they’re a perfect way to change your dining routine. Casual restaurants like Sam’s Kitchen and Cameron Seafood in Kitchener, and King Tin and Crystal Palace in Waterloo offer dim sum.
Middle Eastern restaurants offer more than a shawarma wrap: for a holiday meal out, load the table with eight or nine dishes (or more) from the “mezze” (appetizer) menu. Among the menus is a good selection of vegetarian options as well. Venues such as Arabesque Family Restaurant in Kitchener along with Shawerma Plus, Chic Pea and Naranj Middle Eastern Cuisine in Waterloo have table arrangements to accommodate larger groups and the groaning board of mezze that you can dig into with family and friends.
Sharing memories and sharing time with family and friends over new foods can help you create a new and flavourful holiday tradition.