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Comfort and joy 

Local chefs share their holiday favorites

Food, for most of us, is inextricably linked to the holidays. It just isn't Christmas until you've had grandma's creamed spinach or mom's mystery-spiced (or spiked) eggnog. We wanted to know what holiday foods the professionals look forward to all year. Are the city's best chefs and bartenders traditionalists, or do they bring as much creativity to their holiday tables as they bring to their restaurants' menus? What seasonal dishes comfort them? Creative Loafing consulted Atlanta's experts to get their take on the best classic and creative holiday dishes, and to find out what foods and drinks make the holidays for them.

For Aaron Russell, co-chef at the Chocolate Bar in Decatur, the holidays do mean those American staples, such as his mother's green-bean casserole. "It's a trend to take classical dishes and add new twists to them, especially in the professional world," he says. "But at home, I wouldn't want to have the classics changed."

Kevin Rathbun, chef and owner of Rathbun's, Krog Bar and Kevin Rathbun Steak, wishes he could add new twists to the staples at home. "My wife and I've been married 17 years, and she's a traditionalist," Rathbun says. "So I argue every year with her about trying to do something new and exciting, but she's always got to have the basics."

For the Rathbuns, the basics include a sage-and-thyme roasted turkey, oyster dressing and baked macaroni-n-cheese. When Rathbun does get to play around with dishes, like at annual dinners for the staff at his restaurants, he loves to make hot sausage and cornbread dressing. His favorite winter food, though: Nantucket Bay scallops that come into season in the beginning of November. "Starting Nov. 1, my favorite food in life is Nantucket Bay scallops," Rathbun gushes. "I like to eat them raw like candy with nothing on them. They're just spectacular."

Nicolas Bour, executive chef at the Farmhouse at Serenbe, puts a spin on the classics at his restaurant and at home with his cranberry sauce: "Every year, I bring the turkey and the cranberries. I'm known for my cranberry mostarda with organic cranberries."

But Bour's also a sucker for the traditional comfort foods. "My favorite thing to have is the sandwich the day after, with the turkey, bread, a little bit of mayo, mustard, and cranberry sauce," Bour says. "It's the best thing about Thanksgiving, or any holiday for that matter."

The best thing about the holidays for Linton Hopkins, executive chef at Restaurant Eugene, is the goose his mother makes every year. "I am a petulant son," he admits. "That roast goose is the best and I demand it every year." Hopkins is also a fan of his mother's mushroom casserole and foie gras; it seems haute cuisine runs in the family.

At his own table, Hopkins sticks with seasonal ingredients such as root vegetables and chestnuts. "Chestnuts are one of my favorites," he says. "I get them from this farm right here in Georgia.

"My belief is that we're attached to these icons a lot of time, that may or may not be in season," Hopkins says. "For me, everything is about what's the best that's local and seasonal, and that defines what my holiday meal is."

If you're more concerned with what to drink this holiday season, take a cue from mixologist Lindy Colburn, the woman behind Beleza's cocktails. Colburn infuses her drinks with fresh ingredients, such as the real pomegranate she uses in her holiday mimosa. "This is probably going to make me sound like a lush, but on the holidays when I'm cooking, I start out with the passion-fruit-and-pomegranate mimosa in the morning and then I'll have a mulled cider after dinner," she says.

For holiday parties, Colburn recommends sticking with the classics: "I love all the old-fashioned nogs and punches. It's also nice to send people off with a warm cup of something."

Cocoa is all the rage at home for Crawford Moran, the biermeister at 5 Seasons Brewery. "I've got two little girls, so hot chocolates and apple ciders are the ticket at our house," Moran says.

When Moran does brew beers for the holidays, he likes to go with seasonal flavors, such as the pumpkin beer he made for the brewpub. "I've always enjoyed drinking pumpkin beers at the holidays, but this is the first year that I've actually made one," he says. "I got close to 100 pounds of just beautiful pumpkins from a small, local organic farm and I used a few of the traditional pumpkin-pie spices."

At home, Moran also opts for fuller-bodied Belgians. "I'm the cook at my house, so for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, I always serve big Belgian beers," he says. "They're just so full of flavors and complex characteristics that really go nicely with typical holiday foods."

Greg Best, Creative Loafing's 2007 Critics' Pick for best mixologist, plays with holiday spices in cocktails and punches. "One of my favorite things to do is just to take a nice bottle of bourbon or rye and drop a stick of cinnamon stick in it, some cloves, some peppercorns, and let it sit for a week or two," he says. "That makes the perfect autumn/winter-based spirit for a number of cocktails."

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