You can almost smell the holiday aromas when you talk to chef Chris Hastings, whose approach to making memories is anything but cook’s day off. As he describes the crackling fire pit outside his Lake Martin home, the crunch of leaves beneath his feet, that special brand of crispness in the air, and his rich and layered recipes from scratch, you want to be there. To taste, to smell, to experience.
But for Hastings, who serves the rest of the year at his restaurants Hot and Hot Fish Club and OvenBird in Birmingham, holiday cooking at the lake is all about family. He’s happy to give a glimpse into the magic, but at the table it’ll be his wife, Idie, along with sons Zeb and Vincent, surrounded by their dogs, who savor the setting as much as their humans do.
“I do the whole thing,” says Hastings of the main holiday meals – at Thanksgiving and Christmas (and impromptu lake visits tucked in between). “For me, cooking is my profession and my work, but it’s always my place to be Zen and to relax, a knife in hand with my family around, a nice fire in the fireplace. It’s a place of solace and quiet, filling the house with beautiful smells and getting back to the very nonbusiness part of cooking for your family. It’s magic and always has been.”
The Hastings touch
Here’s how it plays out. First, the arrival at the Nickels Cove house the Hastings purchased eight years ago. Second, the lake effect taking hold. “From the second we get there, I decompress instantly,” he admits. “It’s a great and wonderful gift and I feel lucky to have it.”
Then comes the meal prep, which begins several days before the sit-down itself. Whether it’s a turkey or a standing rib roast meal – both appear on holiday tables – the chopping and lead-up work begin early.
For instance, Hastings plunges the turkey into its brining process then shucks the oysters for the oysters-and-champagne gathering before dinner. He bakes the family’s traditional pies, lemon buttermilk and pecan. And tees up the ingredients for the traditional sides – usually mashed potatoes (“because the boys insist on them”), a big pot of greens (“cooked slowly with very little bacon, very little onion and no water added”), and the gratin of cauliflower, chestnut cream and Parmesan (“super-rich, yummy and not that complicated”).
And, of course, there’s always the dressing if turkey’s on the table – with not a crumb of cornbread in sight. “I think it’s probably the way I grew up in Charlotte and my maternal grandmother being from Virginia, but I am not a big fan of cornbread stuffing,” he says. Instead, the family enjoys the traditional oyster treatment Hastings remembers from childhood. “I’ve modified it slightly to my taste with lots of mirepoix, oyster liquor, broth I make from the trimmings of the turkey, and then sage, thyme, lots of chopped parsley and butter – lots of butter. It’s unbelievable and one of my favorite things.”
Hungry yet? Here come red meat moments. “For Christmas dinner I’ve adopted my dad’s tradition of a standing rib roast,” Hastings says. “I rub it with coarse salt and coarse pepper and roast until it’s rare to medium-rare. The juices from the roast, once you carve it, become the jus for dipping with the bread.” The beef fat candle dish at OvenBird grew from the memory of sitting to his dad’s right and sopping bread with the salty, herb-infused juices from the meat.
Save your appetite
As we all do, the Hastings have their meal-day traditions. No breakfast on The Day – perhaps a bit of grazing on leftovers, but “we definitely save ourselves,” says Hastings. An evening meal, aiming for 7 p.m. Boys lighting the fires inside and out and tending to chores. Idie, co-owner of the restaurants and a whirlwind of behind-the-scenes energy, staying calmly on the sidelines. “She gets her dogs and her books, just reading and chilling out by the fireplace,” her husband says. “I look at this day as my responsibility for everybody to have a relaxing day – especially my wife.”
Idie, surrounded by dogs Hans, Coco Chanel, Butter and Nigel, is involved in the planning of it all back in Birmingham. “We talk about the menu in advance, staying with the season,” she says. “And I love decorating the table, choosing the plates and linens, and often going outside to pick natural things to add.” One go-to tradition alternates between Hastings’ family history and Idie’s Italian heritage. “We implement a soup to start if it’s cool enough outside – growing up we always had a great wedding soup with homemade chicken broth with spinach, very small veal and pork meatballs and a little bit of egg,” she says. “Or Chris makes his mother’s soup, which is a consommé.”
One thing is a constant, especially in the bracing months of fall and winter – and that’s Lake Martin itself. “The lake was a love-at-first-sight kind of deal for us,” says Hastings, who consulted with Russell Lands and the Spring House restaurant in earlier days. “We’d always been beachgoers, not lakegoers, but now we look for any window of our time to go to the lake. Right now it’s super-quiet, super-peaceful, and not about the water. We’ll even find a little time to do some quail hunting in the area – and they end up, of course, on the dinner table at some point.”
Wondering who tidies up after the big holiday feasts? “Chris does the food,” says Idie, “So the boys and I all pitch in for the cleanup. He sits and chats with us while we’re busy doing it.
“So it’s still a family moment at the lake.”
HEIRLOOM CAULIFLOWER GRATIN with roasted chestnuts, Parmesan cream and black truffle oil. Recipe courtesy of chef Chris Hastings of the Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham, from Hot and Hot Fish Club Cookbook.
Makes 8 servings
1 pound white heirloom cauliflower florets, cut into small, bite-sized pieces
¾ pound purple heirloom cauliflower florets, cut into small, bite-sized pieces
12 chestnuts, roasted, peeled and diced*
4 cups heavy cream
¾ cup freshly grated Parmesan
½ teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
1½ teaspoons kosher salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 to 2 teaspoons black truffle oil
1½ cups herbed breadcrumbs
Preheat oven to 400°F.
Combine cauliflower, diced chestnuts and heavy cream in a medium stockpot or Dutch oven. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 10 to 12 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove the cauliflower and chestnuts from the cream and set aside to cool.
Add the Parmesan and thyme to the cream and return to a boil; reduce heat and simmer until cream mixture is reduced by half and slightly thickened, about 20 minutes.
Return the cauliflower to the cream mixture and season with salt and pepper. Drizzle truffle oil into the cauliflower and cream mixture and stir to combine. Spoon cauliflower mixture evenly into 8 (1-cup) ramekins. Top each ramekin with 3 tablespoons of the herbed breadcrumbs.
Place gratins in the oven and bake for 4 to 5 minutes, or until the crust is golden and the sides are bubbling. Serve immediately.
Makes about 3¼ cups
½ (8-ounce) fresh French baguette, torn into 2-inch pieces
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley leaves
1½ tablespoons chopped fresh chives
¾ teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest
¼ teaspoon minced garlic
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup unsalted butter, melted
Place bread in a food processor and pulse until bread is a uniform crumb consistency; transfer crumbs to a large mixing bowl. Add all ingredients except the butter and mix well. Drizzle melted butter over the crumbs and toss to evenly coat. Use immediately or refrigerate until ready to use.