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A culinary pioneer himself, Dean Fearing of Dallas’s Mansion on Turtle Creek sought inspiration from other pioneers when he set out to create the ultimate Christmas dinner. From his own repertoire and his sizable collection of antique cookbooks, Fearing gleaned some “great little ideas” about Texas’ traditional holiday foods. Updating the vintage recipes to clarify hit-or-miss measurements and puzzling caveats (“Add enough flour to make a thin batter”; “Do not make this when the wind is coming out of the north”), Fearing has transformed Old West staples—cornmeal, beef, molasses, dried fruit—into a fresh and filling feast.

Fearing’s appetizer, deviled oysters, takes that South Texas delicacy to angelic heights. Sweet-potato confetti and dried-cherry dressing enhance a salad of warm squab, and Indian griddle cakes recall the nineteenth century’s ubiquitous corn pone. For the main course of beef tenderloin, a marinade of molasses and black pepper gives the meat an intense, almost gamy flavor. To finish, Fearing offers two favorites from his own childhood: apple-cranberry pie with cheddar cheese crust (“a Granny Fearing recipe”) and date-nut chews (“a tin of those was Christmas”).

The final result is timeless food with modern panache. Says Fearing, best known for his inventive Southwestern cuisine: “At the restaurant, we get real traditional for Christmas; that’s what people want. With this meal, I want a sense of the old and the new. I want people to leave the table thinking, ‘Now that was Christmas dinner.’ ”

Warm Squab Salad

4 squabs or Cornish hens, wings removed (may also remove wishbone to make slicing easier)
Salt to taste
Ground black pepper to taste
Dash of cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 small head Bibb lettuce
3 bunches other delicate salad greens
½ small head baby chicory, yellow and white leaves only
12–16 small leaves mizuna or watercress
2 teaspoons sherry
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons peanut oil

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Season birds with salt and peppers, both skin and body cavity.

Heat oil in medium ovenproof sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add birds and cook on all sides for about 4 minutes. Place pan in oven and roast for 15 minutes, basting frequently in juices, until cooked medium rare. Remove from oven.

Cut off legs and remove breast meat from bones. Reserve legs and breast halves, keeping warm. Reserve carcasses for dressing (see recipe, below).

Rinse and dry all lettuce leaves and set aside in large bowl. Whisk together sherry, vinegar, oils, salt, and pepper. Toss with lettuces. Arrange a leg and breast meat on each salad plate along with dressing and sweet-potato confetti (see recipe, below).

Dried-Cherry and Sorghum Syrup Dressing

Squab wings and carcasses reserved from previous recipe, chopped (may also add chicken bones)
2 cups veal demiglace (available canned or frozen; reduce by half to concentrate)
½ cup dried cherries
½ cup brandy
½ cup sorghum syrup
2 tablespoons hazelnut oil or other nut oil
2 shallots, peeled and cut in ¼-inch cubes
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
½ teaspoon fresh cracked black pepper
2 teaspoons prepared Dijon mustard
Salt to taste

Place cherries and brandy in small saucepan over high heat. Bring to a boil. Immediately remove from heat and pour into small bowl. Set aside to cool for at least 30 minutes.

Heat sorghum syrup in small saucepan over medium heat. Boil hard for 4 minutes to caramelize, shaking pan to prevent burning. Pour over cherry mixture.

Heat hazelnut oil in small saucepan over medium heat. Add shallots and sauté 1 minute. Add vinegar and pepper and cook for about 3 minutes, or until pan is dry. Add cherry mixture and cook for about 5 minutes, or until pan is dry. Add demiglace and bring to a boil. Immediately remove from heat and stir in mustard. Season with salt and serve warm with squab salad. 

Sweet-Potato Confetti

1 large sweet potato, peeled
3 cups vegetable oil

Julienne sweet potato and pat dry. Heat oil to 300 degrees in medium deep-sided stockpot. Fry in small batches for about 4 minutes each, stirring constantly with large slotted spoon. Spread in thin layers on paper towels to drain. Serve immediately with squab salad.

Indian Griddle Cakes

2 cups buttermilk
1 tablespoon melted butter
1 egg
⅓ cup flour
1 cup coarsely ground cornmeal
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons vegetable oil

In medium bowl, combine all ingredients except oil. Mixture should be thickness of pancake batter or heavy cream. Heat small amount of oil in small sauté pan over medium heat. Spoon in ¼ cup batter for each cake, cook 3 to 4 minutes, turn, and cook 1 to 2 minutes more, until golden brown. Serve hot with corn relish (see recipe, below).

Corn Relish

3 cups fresh or frozen corn
1 cup finely shredded green cabbage
1 cup chopped yellow onion
½ cup seeded and diced sweet red pepper
1 teaspoon whole celery seed
½ teaspoon whole mustard seed
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
½ teaspoon dry mustard
⅓ cup sugar
½ cup cider vinegar

Place all ingredients in heavy saucepan over medium heat and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Serve warm or cold with griddle cakes.

Deviled Oysters

12 well-cleaned oysters with deep shells
Cayenne pepper to taste
2 hard-boiled egg yolks
raw egg yolks
teaspoon fresh lemon juice
tablespoon melted butter
Salt to taste

2 tablespoons toasted bread crumbs
12 sprigs fresh thyme

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place one oyster in each shell and sprinkle with cayenne.
In small bowl, mash hard-boiled yolks. Mix in raw yolks, lemon juice, butter, and salt. Spoon mixture over oysters, then cover with bread crumbs. Bake on cookie sheet for 5 minutes, or until bread crumbs are toasted. Garnish with thyme.

Beef Tenderloin Marinated in Molasses and Black Pepper

1 cup molasses
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons ground black pepper
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
large shallot, peeled and finely chopped
2 teaspoons finely grated fresh ginger
teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme
Crushed red pepper flakes, to taste

2 pounds center-cut beef tenderloin, trimmed of all fat and silver skin
Salt to taste

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
sprigs fresh watercress

In small bowl, combine molasses, vinegar, pepper, garlic, shallot, ginger, thyme, and pepper flakes, and pour over beef in glass dish. Cover and marinate in refrigerator 24 hours, turning meat occasionally.

Remove meat, reserving marinade to glaze meat and for smoked-bacon compote (see recipe, below). Cut meat into 8 medallions and season with salt.

Heat oil in large cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Brown medallions 3 minutes on one side, 2 minutes on other side, or until desired doneness.

Just before removing beef, add 4 tablespoons marinade to skillet and very quickly glaze both sides of meat. Serve with compote, garnished with watercress. Serves 4.

Smoked-Bacon Compote

½ cup marinade reserved from previous recipe
1 cup veal demiglace
cup smoked slab bacon cut into ½-inch cubes
tablespoon vegetable oil
2 cups wild mushrooms, such as brown Italian or shiitake, cut to about size of pearl onions
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
cup sweet-potato balls (prepare with melon bailer before cooking)
½–¾ cup pearl onions, peeled
tablespoon brown sugar
2 teaspoons cider vinegar
½ cup glazed pecans (see recipe, below)
Salt to taste
Fresh lemon juice to taste

Place marinade in saucepan over medium heat and reduce by half. Add demiglace and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 5 minutes, or until sauce coats back of spoon. Remove from heat and keep warm.

Render bacon in sauté pan over medium heat for 5 to 7 minutes, or until golden brown. Drain and set aside.

Heat vegetable oil in sauté pan over medium heat and cook mushrooms 3 minutes. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Melt butter in medium ovenproof sauté pan over medium heat. Add sweet-potato balls and pearl onions and cook 3 minutes. Stir in sugar and vinegar and cook another 2 minutes, then put pan in oven and cook 7 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Remove from oven and add reduced marinade mixture, bacon, mushrooms, and glazed pecans. Stir and season with salt and lemon juice; serve with beef tenderloin.

Glazed Pecans

½ cup water
½ cup sugar
2 dried red chiles
1 cup pecan halves
¼ cup molasses

Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Combine water, sugar, and chiles in small saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat. Add pecans and return to a boil. Lower heat and simmer 10 minutes.

Drain pecans, place on cookie sheet, and bake 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove pecans from oven, pour into small bowl, and stir in molasses. Place on fresh cookie sheet and bake another 45 minutes until very crisp. Do not burn.

Date-Nut Chews

¾ cup flour
¼ teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
½ cup sugar
¾ cup corn syrup
½ teaspoon pure almond extract
cup finely chopped dates
cup chopped pecans
⅓ cup sifted confectioners’ sugar

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease bottom of two 8-inch-square baking pans. Sift flour with salt and set aside. In mixing bowl, beat eggs with sugar, corn syrup, and almond extract until light and fluffy. Stir in flour mixture, dates, and pecans, and blend well.

Pour into baking pans and cook 20 minutes, or until done. Cut into ½-inch squares while warm, in pan. When slightly cool, form squares into balls and roll in confectioners’ sugar. Let cool before serving.

Apple-Cranberry Pie With Cheddar Cheese Crust

Crust
1 ¾ cup flour

teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
cup finely grated cheddar cheese
1 ¾ sticks chilled butter
2 tablespoons chilled shortening
¼ cup ice water

In medium bowl, combine dry ingredients and mix in cheese. Cut in butter and shortening with pastry blender until texture resembles coarse cornmeal. Gradually stir in water and compress dough into two balls. Place in plastic wrap and chill 20 to 30 minutes. Roll each ball out to form two ⅛-inch-thick crusts.

Filling
¾ cup brown sugar
⅓ cup sugar
⅓ cup flour

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
cups peeled, cored, and sliced tart apples
2 cups fresh cranberries, washed and dried
2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. In large bowl, combine sugars, flour, and cinnamon. Add fruit and toss. Pour into unbaked pie shell, dot with butter, and cover with top crust. Bake 40 to 50 minutes. Makes one double-crust pie.