For Bryan Voltaggio, this holiday season is about beginnings.
His latest restaurant venture — and the first outside Frederick — is slated to open. It will be his family's first Christmas in their new Urbana home. And with a son age 5 and a daughter who's not quite 2, that tender age when he's pretty sure Christmas memories start to truly cement, the chef and father is determined to do it right.
No surprise, he'll be making most of it happen in the kitchen — Santa's workshop with cinnamon, nutmeg, orange peel and peppermint.
"Roasted meats and braises, caramelized vegetables, root vegetable puree, the aromas of fall going into winter," he says. "I find the holidays such a comforting season."
Voltaggio is a man who embraces not only family but ritual and gesture. The annual ornaments he and his wife add to the tree for each child. They way he and his cousins draw names for a homemade gift exchange. How Christmas Eve always ends with Jennifer and him planting presents under the tree, and the following morning always begins with the couple tiptoeing downstairs before their son wakes so they can be there — cameras poised — capturing his surprise.
"My mother still sends me new Christmas pajamas every year, and I'm 36 years old," he says, laughing.
Taking a cue from the movie "A Christmas Story," Voltaggio tries to hide one extra gift for his son behind the tree. Like the holiday classic, it's the present his boy gets when he thinks he's already gotten everything, often the thing his wife thought they'd agreed not to get.
The favorite gift Voltaggio ever got? He shrugs that off. He says the best thing he ever gave was last year, when he walked into a Frederick Walmart and became one of the store's layaway angels, asking to see the biggest unpaid layaway ticket, putting it on his card and walking out of the store.
"For me," he says, "it was the best feeling I ever had at Christmas."
This year the Voltaggio family expects more than 40 people for Christmas Eve dinner, everyone clinking glasses in the family room as the fireplace crackles, then sitting down together at a series of pushed-together tables, sharing and passing platters.
Voltaggio, of course, will cook. He's not certain what exactly, just that he wants it to meet everyone's "Top Chef"-ian expectations with but-once-a-year, remarkable dishes that also have to be warm and approachable.
There will be his holiday non-negotiables — roasted meats, potatoes of some sort, autumnal root vegetables. There's a good chance he'll reinterpret a holiday dish he and his brother grew up on — their mother's sausage balls, little bites of savory meat and cheddar, crisped with something he guesses was Bisquick. And he wants to somehow highlight his Italian heritage, perhaps with a pasta or gnocchi.
"I wish I could talk to you next year when we'll have a better idea of 'The Voltaggio Family Christmas', " he says. "This year we're going to create all of this."
Bryan Voltaggio's Brussels Sprouts and Chestnuts
10 small radishes, about 1-2 inches in diameter, washed
½ teaspoon sugar
4 tablespoons butter
½ teaspoon apple cider vinegar
¼ cup sliced blanched chestnuts
1 lb. Brussels sprouts, blanched and split in half
1 cup chicken/poultry stock
2 teaspoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
½ teaspoon chopped fresh chives
Blanching Brussels sprouts
Measure out four times the volume of Brussels sprouts in water.
Place water in a pot that's large enough for the Brussels sprouts to be separated and easily stirred. Salt the water so it tastes like seawater.
Separately, fill a bowl or casserole dish with 50 percent water and 50 percent ice.
Bring the salted water to a rolling boil. Add the Brussels sprouts and cook until tender, but not so long that they lose their bright green color.
Remove sprouts from the water and "shock" them in the ice bath to stop the cooking process.
Leave in the ice bath until cool, then immediately remove from the ice bath and reserve for later use.
Making the dish
Split the radishes in half from stem to root.
In a medium sauté pan, add radishes, sugar, one tablespoon butter and the apple cider vinegar. Reduce to a glaze and until the radish is tender. Remove and reserve in a bowl.
Add 2 tablespoons butter to another medium sauté pan over medium heat. Start to froth the butter but not quite brown; add the chestnuts and start to brown over very low heat. Stir constantly; remove from pan.
Add Brussels sprouts to the pan and place on medium heat. Slowly cook the sprouts in the butter until lightly browned; add the chestnuts and toast lightly.
Add the radishes to the Brussels sprouts and chestnuts; add the chicken stock and remaining butter. Reduce the stock until it creates a sauce consistency. Season with parsley and chives and serve.