Make Your Holiday Vibe Essential South Jersey
By Elyse Notarianni

There’s a reason people head home for the holidays – and when home is South Jersey, there are so many uniquely SJ perks to look forward to. Just as family and friends keep people connected to the area, so do many essentially South Jersey dishes.

“Foods like cranberry sauce, corn and blueberry pie are holiday staples,” says Philip Manganaro, chef and owner of Park Place in Merchantville. “But the difference here is that this is what we’re known for. You may find these dishes all across the country, but no one does it better than South Jersey.”

Good but simple ingredients are the key to an uncomplicated but exceeding-expectations meal, and focusing on South Jersey produce is the perfect way to personalize (and localize) the celebration.

“South Jersey is known for its farms,” says Manganaro. “That’s why we’re the Garden State. It’s a part of our identity in the region, and it’s important that we keep that alive.”

You’ll taste a difference if you highlight native ingredients like corn, tomatoes, blueberries, apples and cranberries.

Of course, not all those ingredients are in season right now, but that’s when it comes in handy to plan ahead. Most of the produce can be frozen and thawed before the meal, just as fresh as the day you bought it.

“I usually make my cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving and Christmas weeks in advance and put it in the freezer,” he says. “That way, it takes something off my plate when the holidays roll around.”

Some veggies, like corn, can be cut right off the cob and stored in the freezer. Others, like tomatoes, need to be prepared first. The fresher they are, the better – which might mean stopping by any number of your favorite produce stands.

“You often get better, more personalized service at local farms and farm stands, which you can find all over South Jersey,” says Man-ganaro. “The people who run these stands understand produce. If you don’t know how to find the best potatoes, the freshest apples or the best vegetable to pair with your main dish, all you have to do is ask.”

You’ll taste the difference, too, he says. But while produce prices may be more expensive at smaller stands, that doesn’t mean you have to spend more money.

“Quality over quantity,” says Manganaro. “I’d rather have a handful of great quality dishes that feel meaningful than 37 dishes that will be only half-eaten.”

If you’re going to splurge, he says, it should be on the protein – the turkey, chicken, ham, brisket – and buying local meat makes all the difference.

“I will spend a couple extra dollars to support a small farm down the street,” he says. “It really makes a difference in the flavor.”

Although, there are always more creative ways to save money on your holiday meal – without sacrificing quality.

“Throughout the year, I love to pick and freeze ingredients like mushrooms, fresh juniper, bay leaves and greens. Even pine is great – it adds an unexpected and seasonal citrus element to the plate,” says Manganaro, known as “the foraging chef” for the food he picks in he forests in South Jersey that make it on the table at his restaurant and home. “It’s a great way to save money and feel even more connected to what’s on your table.”

But a note of warning – if you’re interested in foraging for your holiday table, it’s best to keep it on the back burner until 2023.

“Foraging can be tricky, and it’s even dangerous if you don’t do it right,” he says. “There are a lot of great meetup groups and local organizations that can help you learn how to identify what is and is not safe to eat. Take the year to learn, because there’s so much you can do with foraged ingredients.”

But when you’re turning a meal from good to memorable, the food is only half the story.

“It’s great to have delicious food on the table, but what makes the meal feel exceptional is the atmosphere people create when you walk into their homes,” says Kae Lani Palmisano, a Camden County-based food and travel writer.

“It’s about the experience as a whole, from the moment you walk in the door to the moment you leave,” says Palmisano. “That idea is especially strong in this area, where so many restaurants have long family histories or are otherwise deeply rooted in the community. It’s a feeling that you can absolutely recreate at home.”

The problem is, between cleaning, meal prep, cooking, hosting and keeping the kids from dismantling all your hard work as soon as you turn your frenzied back, there’s one obvious question – How could you possibly do more?

“Here’s what we forget – you don’t have to do everything yourself,” she says. “Get everyone involved in the fun so they can be a part of making the day, and the meal, that much more special.”

It can be hard to relinquish control in the kitchen, but those moments are often what you remember decades later.

“When I was a kid, I loved stuffing the turkey,” says Palmisano. “I would go at it like play dough, and my grandma always had to scoop some out. There’s something about happy food memories that really stick with people.”

The meal isn’t going to taste better just because you decided to do everything on your own, she says. By easing your workload, you can connect one-on-one with your guests better. One of her favorite hosting tips is to have people contribute a plate and ask for the story behind the recipe.

“Sometimes, it’s a recipe passed down through their family for generations,” says Palmisano. “Sometimes you hear about the afternoon they spent making 6 different pie crusts because they couldn’t get it right.”

“People feel valued when you give them that space to share,” she adds. “And that makes the get-together that much more personal.”

Pineland’s Cranberry Relish

Chef and owner of Park Place Philip Manganaro

Pinch star anise
1 – 2 cinnamon sticks
Pinch black peppercorns
Pinch cloves
750g cranberries
450g sugar
300g fresh orange juice
100g water
15g orange zest
7g grated ginger
5g salt

In cheesecloth, tie up: Star anise, cinnamon stick, black peppercorns, cloves (amounts vary on personal preference, and can be omitted if disliked. Pre-made pumpkin pie spice mix makes a great substitute for all spices.)

Combine the rest of the ingredients into a pot and bring to a simmer. Continue to simmer until some berries have broken down and the cooking liquid has a syrupy consistency.

Chill before using. This can be frozen and used at a later date.

Don’t forget the drinks

Create unforgettable drink pairings for your holiday meal

Nothing says celebration more than a glass of wine with your meal, says Louis Caracciolo, founder of Amalthea Cellars Farm Winery in Atco.

“That’s how it’s been for millions of years,” he says. “There’s something about popping a cork that’s very celebratory.
Wine is also one of the most universally accepted – even cool – hostess gifts without being very expensive. For $20, you can give someone a thoughtful gift that doesn’t look cheap.”

While it’s true that the wine you drink can change how your food tastes, and vice versa, there’s no need to get caught up in finding perfect wine pairings – especially at a holiday meal with lots of different foods on the table.

“There are a million different wines that can go with a million different foods – there’s no need to stress over finding the perfect note that will pull out the flavors of your cranberry sauce,” says Caracciolo. “Go back to the tried and true – white with white, red with red. Meaning: Take a look at the color of your food, and match the wine from there. It’ll work most of the time.”

Although if you want to get a little more specific, a few tips will help you narrow down the choices.

“You don’t want to pair red wine with seafood like shrimp – it’ll taste like iodine,” he says. “A bright, acidic white like a sauvignon blanc will cut through heavy cream sauces. Deep, heavy reds like a Bordeaux go best with red meat, while a lighter red like a pinot noir will go with almost any meat.”

And if all else fails, a dry rosé or sparkling white (like Prosecco and champagne) can go with pretty much everything.

“Drink what you like, and focus on enjoying the experience,” he says.

Give your dessert a little spirit.

What’s better than dessert? Dessert and a nightcap, all in one. Ice cream and liquor can make the most unlikely (and most delicious) partners, says Diane Kane of Lickity Splitz in Maple Shade, known for their alcohol-infused ice creams.

“It’s a delicious way to elevate your dessert,” says Kane. “With even one or 2 options, you can offer a dessert that feels more personal and curated without much extra effort.”

The options are endless. You can pour the spirit over the ice cream, serve them side by side or even infuse it into a homemade recipe. Here are some perfect winter pairings to try out:

Pink Squirrel: Vanilla ice cream, créme de cocoa and razzmatazz syrup

Pumpkin Pie Martini: Pumpkin ice cream, vanilla vodka, fireball and graham cracker topping

Boozy Java Float: Java chip ice cream, coffee liquer and Captain Morgan

Autumn Breakfast: Bourbon butter pecan ice cream, maple whiskey and maple syrup drizzle

White Russian: Vanilla ice cream, coffee liqueur and vanilla vodka

Vanilla Organic Creamsicle: Orange creamsicle ice cream, orange soda and vanilla vodka

December 2022
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