As Christmas Eve approaches each year, Mary Attea always looks forward to visiting her family in Buffalo, New York, and to the promise of a seafood feast—pickled herring, king crab and lobster—complete with Lithuanian dishes her grandmother used to make. Think mushroom and sauerkraut soup, potato salad and coleslaw.
“Growing up, Christmas Eve was always the larger celebration in my household,” says Attea, executive chef of The Musket Room, the acclaimed Michelin-starred restaurant in New York’s Nolita neighborhood. “My grandmother was of Lithuanian descent, and though we didn’t follow all the exact traditions, some parts of the Lithuanian culture were strewn throughout the evening.”
Like many this year, however, Attea won’t be traveling to see family. Instead, she’s planning a more intimate celebration at home with her partner, renowned chef Anita Lo. While the meal will, of course, be smaller, the question is, what does a professional chef make for her holiday feast when there are no expectations from family to contend with? Well, the answer is more seafood.
“When it comes to these special holiday meals, I generally always focus on what I love eating,” says Attea. “I don’t necessarily want to spend the time experimenting with something to be unsatisfied at the end.”
In Attea’s ideal world, that means lots and lots of sushi. “My dream Christmas meal would still mainly focus on seafood, but it would be heavily inspired by Japanese cuisine, which is one of my favorites,” she says.
The chef’s perfect Christmas Eve celebration would start off with glasses of Champagne, and a spread of her favorite sushi and sashimi—kinmedai, akamutsu, aji and otoro.
“Given the Japanese inspiration of the meal, I would definitely be enjoying junmai daiginjo sake—a perfect accompaniment to all the seafood,” says Attea.
From here, the showstoppers keep coming. Next up is her version of savory Japanese custard, chawanmushi, but piled high with uni and caviar. Chawanmushi (recipe below) is a blend of dashi, eggs, soy sauce and mirin that’s steamed to a silky consistency. It can be topped with any seafood or veggies your heart desires.
“Because in my dream meal I wouldn’t get full too fast, my main course would be surf and turf—a dry aged tomahawk wagyu ribeye steak and a bowl of rice topped with king crab, ikura and uni,” she says. At this point in her dream Christmas Eve meal, Attea would go for a bowl of red miso soup as a digestif and, for good measure, a final heaping spoonful of hokkaido uni.
While traditionally she would end her meal with Christmas cookies made by her mom and aunt, her fantasy meal would end on a more modest note: “a single red bean mochi sprinkled with kinako.”
And “to help digest the fattiness of the steak, I would finish out the meal with a nice bourbon,” says Attea.
Dreamy though it is, Attea contends that her visions of chawanmushi and mochi are probably not in the cards for this Christmas Eve. But “I hope once we get through this pandemic I can make this meal a reality as a way to celebrate with family and friends,” she says.
In the meantime, she and Lo will be paying homage to Attea’s family traditions this Christmas Eve with a pared down spread of caviar and king crab. “It’s simple, but it will be perfect.”
By Mary Attea
- 2 cups Dashi*
- 2 Eggs
- 1/4 cup Soy sauce
- 1/8 cup Mirin
- 120 g Hokkaido Uni
- 1 oz Caviar
- Garnish: 1 Scallion green, chopped
Blend the dashi with eggs and strain to remove excess bubbles and impurities. Season the mixture with soy sauce and mirin. Separate it into four small cups or bowls. Cover with plastic and steam for about 10-12 minutes until custard is just set on top but not puffed. Top with uni and caviar and garnish with scallion.
- 1 piece Kombu, about 4x4 inches
- 1 cup Bonito flakes
- 6 cups Water
Rinse the kombu and place in a pot with water. Bring to a simmer for about 20 minutes. Add bonito flakes and let steep for another 15-20 minutes. Strain and reserve the liquid.