As chef Jean-Marie Lacroix pulls a shallow copper pan out of the oven, the smell of garlic, butter, and parsley-rich escargots hits the nose before the dish hits the table. To Lacroix, the fragrance is rich with nostalgia - snails mean Christmas to this French chef.
It's really all his Center City home needs to complete the motif. He is as adept with pruning shears as he is with prunes, so his cozy abode is filled with greenery, and now, overflowing with glitter-dusted poinsettias. Add to that his antique dishes and crisp linens, and his red sweater, and voilà, it's Christmas.
After spending more than 25 years in hotel kitchens, Lacroix no longer has to serve the countless Philadelphians who have made Christmas dinner at the Four Seasons or the Rittenhouse Hotel (location of his namesake restaurant) part of their tradition. "You get used to [being at home] very quickly," he says.
Now, he's able to revive the festive customs of his hometown of Dijon, France. Which, in the French fashion, is built around food.
It starts on Christmas Eve, after midnight Mass. The adults gather at home, and out comes a culinary spread called le Réveillon. The next day, after a coffee breakfast and present-opening, there is a more traditional lunch. "It's a pretty big family affair," Lacroix says. "Like what Thanksgiving is here, actually."
Just because the chef is free for the holidays doesn't mean he has given up his profession. In fall, he partnered with the owners of Cuba Libre to create a new brand, Brûlée Catering by Chef Jean-Marie Lacroix. The large company has exclusive rights to serve food at venues including the National Constitution Center, and caters events of any size, in any location, for any occasion.
He has also created menus that can be ordered, picked up from the South Philly commissary or delivered, and reheated at home. It's something he realized that people want these days, especially for the holidays. "It's more affordable than a full catered event," says Lacroix, who adds that it's also a common practice in France.
Even for his meals at home, the chef will take all the help he can get. The dishes served at le Réveillon vary regionally, and his version of the light but luxurious meal is easy to prepare. There are oysters on ice with a shallot mignonette, those butter-rich escargots, and a foie gras terrine. "You must have some great bread, and wine," says the chef, who keeps the Champagne flowing. He gets his bread from Parc and Metropolitan Bakery, and it's always presented with butter.
"The next-day meal is more about the kids," says Lacroix, who serves lunch about 1 p.m. "You are still at the table at 5," he says.
That doesn't mean it has to be a hassle. "It's better to choose a dinner you can prepare in advance." It's what he's always stressing to his catering cooks. "There is always a better, easier way to prepare any recipe," he says, suggesting that everything be chopped, cleaned, and if possible precooked, the days before. "It's more work before, but then you can have a nice holiday."
His Christmas Day meal manages to be traditional and easy. The centerpiece is a beef filet en croûte, basically a beef Wellington, with mushrooms, wrapped in store-bought pastry dough, that only has to be roasted in the oven for 30 minutes. Sides are equally simple. There's a side dish of braised celery and chestnuts that can be cooked the day before and reheated quickly on the stove, or slowly in the oven. He cleans and preps the lettuce for a butter lettuce salad, which is dressed with just truffle oil and a touch of the beef's warm gravy for a slight wilt.
Lacroix uses his balcony, which is illuminated with lit evergreens, as a second cooler. The Bûche de Noël (Yule Log) has been chilling out there, ready to be eaten. His version, which can be ordered for pickup from Brûlée, is pistachio and cherry.
"That way," the chef jokes, "if it's not good, you can blame the caterer."
He also suggests keeping your holiday meals flexible, a trend he's seeing in the catering business. People are requesting more snacks, hors d'oeuvres, and buffets, and fewer sit-down meals. "It's more friendly, no one wants to spend a lot of time at a table," Lacroix says. "It keeps people moving around."
After a full 24 hours of eating and drinking, supper on Christmas Day in the Lacroix house tends to be light. "It's usually soup for dinner, and leftovers," says the Chef. "And more wine."
Makes 6 servings
8 garlic cloves, sliced
4 shallots, sliced
2 bunches parsley, stems removed
1 pound of sweet butter, room temperature
4 tablespoons white wine
36 large snails, washed and dried
36 large snail shells, washed and dried
Sea salt and pepper to taste
1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Chop the garlic, shallots, and parsley in a food processor until very fine. Add the butter and wine, mix until well blended. Season with salt and pepper.
2. Place one small dollop of butter in the bottom of each shell. Place a snail in each shell, over the butter, and push into the shell, leaving ½ inch space. Fill with butter.
3. Place snails in a shallow pan and bake until butter is melted and sizzling, about 3 to 5 minutes. Serve immediately with crusty bread, and snail or cocktail forks.
Per serving: 352 calories, 23 grams protein, 6 grams carbohydrates, 0 grams sugar, 31 grams fat, 216 milligrams cholesterol, 382 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 4-6 servings
For mignonette sauce:
4 tablespoons crushed white peppercorns
4 tablespoons finely chopped shallots
2 cups champagne vinegar
2 lemons, cut in half
8 slices pumpernickel bread
Sweet butter, room temperature
Parsley, for garnish (optional)
1. To make the mignonette, combine all ingredients and refrigerate until ready to serve. Divide into two small containers for serving.
2. Pack a shallow serving dish with crushed ice. Open oysters, and serve on the half shell. Garnish with parsley, if desired. Serve with lemon, mignonette, and buttered slices of pumpernickel bread, sprinkled with sea salt.
Per serving: 375 calories, 36 grams protein, 24 grams carbohydrates, 0 grams sugar, 13 grams fat, 267 milligrams cholesterol, 1070 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Makes 6 servings
2 pounds beef tenderloin
4 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 shallots, finely chopped
1 pound mushrooms, finely chopped
1 pound all-butter puff pastry (store-bought and defrosted)
1 egg, lightly beaten with one tablespoon of water
Salt and pepper
1. Generously season beef with salt and pepper. Melt 1 tablespoon butter and 2 tablespoons olive oil in a saute pan, over high heat. Sear beef on all sides, until brown. Set aside to cool completely, or wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to use.
2. Using the same pan, melt remaining butter over medium heat. Fry shallots until translucent. Add mushrooms and cook until the liquid has evaporated. Season to taste.
3. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the puff pastry to form a rectangle large enough to enclose the whole filet. Spoon the mushroom mixture onto one half of the pastry, leaving an inch margin from the sides. Set the beef on top of the mushroom mixture. Brush the margins of the pastry with the egg wash and wrap pastry around the beef to form a parcel. Trim excess and press edges to seal well, on the bottom to hide the seam.
4. Place beef on sheet tray, and decorate with leftover pastry if desired. (Cut out leaves, holiday trim, etc.) Brush the whole surface with egg wash. Refrigerate until ready to bake.
5. When ready to cook, heat oven to 425 degrees. Make a ½-inch hole on the top of the pastry to allow steam to escape. Roast for 10 minutes, then reduce heat to 400 degrees and cook for 20 minutes more. Let rest, and slice to serve.
Per serving: 868 calories, 53 grams protein, 38 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 56 grams fat, 190 milligrams cholesterol, 347 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.EndText
Makes 6 servings
8 celery stalks, washed and trimmed
2 ounces sweet butter
Salt and pepper
2 cups chicken stock
1. Carefully cut an X with a paring knife in the shell of each chestnut and soak them in a bowl of warm water for 15 minutes. Drain well. Meanwhile, heat the oven to 425 degrees. Roast the chestnuts in a single layer on a baking tray for 20 minutes, or until they open. Wearing protective gloves, peel away the shells and the skin.
2. Peel the fibrous outer part of each celery stalk with a vegetable peeler. Slice each stalk into 2-inch pieces on the bias. Melt the butter in a saute pan over medium heat. Add the celery, salt, and pepper. Cook for 2 minutes, then add the chestnuts and chicken stock and stir well. Cover with a lid, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low. Cook until the celery is tender. Remove cover, and cook until liquid is reduced to a glaze. Serve immediately or chill and reheat.
Per serving: 121 calories, 1 gram protein, 11 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 8 grams fat, 20 milligrams cholesterol, 328 milligrams sodium, 7 grams dietary fiber.EndText