My memories of the holidays always include two things: food and love. And my favorite part of the holiday season is pretty simple: everyone in the family being together.
Growing up as an only child, I was always so excited when my entire family would get together at big parties at my grandparents’ house that were always laid-back and fun. I wish it was possible to capture and save that magic of Christmas you felt as a kid.
We would have family breakfasts that would last for hours and I would pull up a chair and eavesdrop on the adult conversations. So often in society, people forget their elders, but I was always fascinated by older people and their stories. The older generations hold all the wisdom.
The wisest and most influential of all was my grandmother Dora. Today, she has Alzheimer's.
We were so close when I was growing up; my mom and I lived in the same neighborhood as my grandparents and I had dinner at their house multiple times a week. Grandma was the matriarch of a tight-knit family — the greatest cook and my greatest inspiration.
My grandma changed as soon as my grandpa passed away. She went from being incredibly sharp to saying odd things and having memory lapses. Today, she doesn’t know who I am when I visit her. I get the sense that she is still there inside and is frustrated by what is happening to her; she knows she’s not herself. And that is why I think Alzheimer’s is the cruelest disease there is.
She was the type of person who went back to college in her 50s because she so badly wanted a degree, who drove miles and miles to visit me and hang out with my college friends, and who went on whitewater rafting trips. She was always up for a good time. And now this disease has taken her before her life is even over.
Who was my grandma before Alzheimer’s?
My grandma was the first woman I was able to watch be strong and to fight for what she wanted. I always knew that I could do anything I wanted in my life, and I got that from my grandma and my mom. Watching my grandma follow her dreams, even later in life, made me realize that it’s never too late to do what makes you happy.
My career has flourished due to the love for food she instilled in me early on when she taught me how to cook. To this day, I still think she is the greatest cook on the planet. NO ONE cooks like my grandma. I would give anything to have one of her meals again.
The first thing I ever learned to make were biscuits. When I was a little girl, she would pull a stool up to counter and I would help her cook.
There is an art to timing when it comes to cooking, and my grandma had it down to a science.
She would cook a Thanksgiving meal for dozens of people, with a beautiful juicy turkey and the best mashed potatoes you could ever imagine. At Christmas, it was a crisp ham and the best seasonal side dishes. That’s the taste I am always trying to recreate with her recipes — the taste of the holidays.
My grandma got into healthy eating later in life, taking traditional recipes and making a lightened version. No one even knew the difference, because everything was always so delicious! I take those tips and recipes and use them in my cooking today. I may make comfort food, but I don’t use unnecessary salt or fat. If food is good to begin with, you don’t need all of that extra stuff!
I have a lot of be thankful for this year. I recently got married, and I am so looking forward to our first holiday season as husband and wife. My husband has a wonderful, big family and everyone is very close. I can’t wait to cook for all of these people I love. After all, In the food industry, the holidays are our Super Bowl. I love making homemade gifts, like a batch of cookies or pumpkin bread. That kind of gift says more than anything you can buy.
When I think about my grandma, all her love and everything she taught me, my biggest accomplishment has to be the day my show “The Kitchen” aired.
It was my dream to have a show on the Food Network. The day of the premiere, I was at an airport. I got the attention of an employee who grabbed a remote control so that I could see the first episode of my show in in the waiting lounge. It was a surreal moment, an entire room of random people watching the episode with me! I really wished in that moment that my family could be there to see it with me.
I feel so blessed with the success of the show. I have such a good time doing it, and it never feels daunting. And it doesn’t feel like work at all! I am lucky to have a job I really like and am so passionate about.
Around the holidays, that passion comes out through the recipes of my family. I stock up on butter for baking and for grandma’s famous mashed potatoes. I load up on sage, that flavor that is so perfect in a turkey, or in my pumpkin sage lasagna recipe. Then I grab all the warm spices, the ones you would find in a pumpkin pie or gingerbread cake — cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves. You can also use a tiny bit of spice in a cranberry relish or to take a spice rub to the next level! Those flavors bring me straight into the holidays, and right back into the loving kitchen of my grandma.
This holiday season, I want to share my Brussels Sprouts Salad recipe with you. I love this easy salad; it includes dates, almonds and a pecorino cheese. When you are using all of your racks in the oven and on the stovetop for your holiday cooking, this simple, clean salad is something you can make ahead of time without compromising any cooking space. It has a nice lemony dressing and goes well with all the rich holiday foods you’ll be serving. Enjoy!
Shaved Brussels Sprouts Salad with Dates, Manchego and Almonds
1/2 cup lemon juice
2 tablespoons minced shallots
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper
One 16-ounce bag shaved Brussels sprouts
1/4 cup chopped dates
1/4 cup diced manchego cheese
1/4 cup chopped almonds
In a small bowl, combine the lemon juice and shallots. Let stand five minutes, so the acidity in the lemon juice can begin to break down the shallots. Whisk in the Dijon and honey until well combined. Slowly whisk in the olive oil until emulsified. Season aggressively with salt and add pepper to taste.
Add the sprouts, dates, manchego and almonds and toss to coat. The salad can be dressed 15 to 20 minutes in advance if you like more tender Brussels sprouts.
About Katie: Katie Lee is the co-host on Food Network’s “The Kitchen,” host of Cooking Channel’s “Beach Bites with Katie Lee” and she can be seen regularly on Food Network shows, “Best. Ever.” and “Beat Bobby Flay.” Katie is the author of three cookbooks; her latest “Endless Summer Cookbook” was released to rave reviews. She sits on the board of the Food Bank for New York City and is an ambassador for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s 96 Elephants campaign.