Learn what our culinary director likes to cook and how he sets a sense of hygge in his home for the holidays.

The holidays are an exciting time of year when the temperatures drop and we move festivities indoors, getting cozy with our friends, families, and of course, plates of roasted deliciousness and mugs of cocoa, (or mulled wine).

Earlier this week, we sat down with culinary director Justin Schwartz to talk holiday parties at home.

First off, can you share some personal holiday party traditions of your own?

As a kid, the holiday traditions we celebrated surrounded the Jewish holiday Hanukkah. My mom would make loads of latkes, which we’d dip in applesauce, and we’d all sit around eating until we fell asleep. Those were the good ‘old days.

Now my family also celebrates Christmas, which adds another layer of fun traditions, (and food).

The more traditions the merrier! Do you have any go-to dishes you make now?

For some reason, I always make roasted brussels sprouts. I dress them with orange zest, a little sugar or honey, and apple cider vinegar – creating a simple citrus gastrique.

In recent years I’ve also begun roasting chestnuts, which I do the long way.

Which is…?

I buy whole chestnuts, score the outside, and toast them in the oven until they open up. Then, I boil them and finish them off with a butter and sugar glaze. It’s a really long process, so it’s the perfect activity for a long indoor day – it’s very Hygge [a cozy quality that makes a person feel content and comfortable], as Scandinavians say.

I also love to make sweet, mulled wine, which is as much for the taste as it is for the aroma. My recipe [below!] includes port, apple brandy, red wine, mulling spices, and citrus – all of that good stuff. The mulled wine plus the chestnuts roasting really gets me in the holiday cozy zone.

Wow, your house must smell great.

Are there other ingredients you’re excited to include in your holiday cooking this year?

I’m always excited this time of year about squash. Butternut squash, honeynut squash, acorn squash, candy squash. I love, love, love winter squash, and I use it in so many different recipes. In fact, I make the same squash soup at home as we do at the company. It’s a pureed butternut squash soup with coconut cream and a little bit of chili…a perfect holiday soup in my opinion.

Oh gosh, yum!

Okay, so you have some of your favorite dishes. What about the rest of the meal? Do you plan a menu?

Honestly, I don’t. At work we plan all our menus in advance, based off what the client wants; but at home, I’m way more spontaneous. I’ll go to the farmer’s market and just see what looks good and go from there. Maybe they’ll have the most beautiful purple potatoes, flowering cauliflower, or turnips. I’ll base my menu on what the market offers. What matters most to me is that it’s a fun shopping experience.

Speaking of fun, do you involve your family in any of the prepping and cooking tasks?

Oh yes, absolutely. For my kids, the perfect task seems to be peeling garlic. They LOVE it. I give them a paring knife and they’ll stand up on a chair at the counter and help me peel all of the cloves.

I once heard someone say that cooking with your kids slows you down, which it definitely does, but maybe that’s the point. I let them set the pace, mess things up, and cut vegetables all wonky.  We have a blast and it’s still always delicious.

Kids and garlic, check. Do you have any other tips for prepping holiday meals?

Plan ahead! Ina [Garten] will tell you that too, and she’s absolutely right. I mean, my entire career is based around being prepared and planning ahead.

Prep the day before, the week before, or even the month before. That’s why we have freezers! There are so many great recipes that can be premade and saved in the freezer, which will save you a lot of day-of party stress. So, if I have one piece of advice, it’s to get ahead and prep in advance.

Wise.

Apart from the food, how do you set the atmosphere for holiday parties at home?

Like I mentioned earlier, I like to create a sense of Hygge in my home, which I do with candles. Boatloads of candles. I put them all around my home until it’s glowing. Candles, plus mulled wine brewing and chestnuts roasting create the perfect atmosphere. (And yes, my home does smell amazing.) I’d say those three elements are key to getting my holiday evenings going.

So, get 100 candles, mull a pot of wine, roast some chestnuts, and you’ll be set!

Justin’s Mulled Wine Recipe

INGREDIENTS

1 Bottle (750 ml) of Red Wine (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, or another fruity red)

1 Cup Port Wine

1/2 Cup Apple Brandy

1/4 Cup Honey or Sugar (adjust to taste)

1 Orange

1 Lemon

3 Cinnamon Sticks

6-8 Whole Cloves

4-6 Cardamom Pods

1-2 Star Anise

Optional Garnishes: Orange Slices, Cinnamon Sticks, Cloves

INSTRUCTIONS

Prep

  • Wash and slice the Lemon and Orange.
  • If the Cardamom Pods are hole, slightly crush them to release more flavor.

Combine

  • In a large pot or saucepan, pour in the Red Wine, Port Wine, and Apple Brandy.
  • Add in the sliced Orange and Lemon, Cinnamon Sticks, Cloves, Cardamom Pods, and Star Anise.

Heat

  • Heat the pot over medium-low heat. Avoid boiling to the prevent the alcohol from evaporating. Let the pot gently simmer for about 20-25 minutes to infuse the flavors. Stir occasionally.
  • Taste and adjust sweetness if needed by adding more Honey or Sugar. Stir until it dissolves completely.

Serve & Savor

  • Once heated and thoroughly infused, remove the pot from the heat.
  • Pour into your favorite heatproof glass, top with garnishes, and enjoy!

Notes

  • If you prefer a non-alcoholic version, you can replace the alcohol with grape or cranberry juice.
  • Mulled Wine tastes even better when allowed to sit for a while to let the flavors meld. You can prepare your wine in advance and reheat gently before serving.