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‘Escape’ at the end of the year with these celebratory holiday dishes

A collection of dishes that let you "travel" for the holidays, contributed by L.A.-based recipe pros.
(Silvia Razgova / For The Times; prop styling by Kate Parisian)

There are two types of people come the holidays. Some of us like to decorate and make a cozy home by staying in baking and drinking mulled cider in anticipation of opening presents or being with family by year’s end. And then there are those people who just need to get out of Dodge for some end-of-the-year escapism.

The latter scenario isn’t an option this year, so with everyone forced to be at home, what better way to travel — in your mind, at least — for the holidays than with a meal that allows you to feel as if you’ve broken free of your four walls? In search of specifics, I talked to four food-industry friends in L.A. to ask what they’ll be making for the holidays to escape the routine of this year.

Los Feliz-based recipe developer and food stylist Susan Vu likes to take stock of what’s left in her fridge at the end of the year to make a special meal that reflects her Vietnamese heritage.

“Every Christmas I usually look at what I have in my freezer left over from photo shoots and then plan my menu around that,” said Vu. “One year, I made a whole duck for my sister and myself. Two years ago I did bossam and bought banchan, but I made my spicy take on mỡ hành (Vietnamese scallion oil) to serve alongside it. This year, I’m going the whole-duck route again, but [I] think I’ll spatchcock it and roast it until it’s really crispy. I’ll serve it with my herby spin on nuoc mam, a classic dipping sauce that my mom makes — think of it more like a Vietnamese take on chimichurri. It goes great with any roasted meat, some rice and lettuce for wraps, but would also be great with roasted potatoes and a cold beer.”

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Jonathan Melendez, a food blogger and cookbook author who lives with his husband in Glendale, likes to make a Roman classic of whole branzino slowly braised in a tomato and wine sauce, flavored with olives and capers, to transport him to the south of Italy.

“The first time I ever tried branzino was in Rome, and I fell in love with it instantly,” Melendez said. “Since we can’t travel at the moment, I’m going to make that for Christmas dinner this year so it’s special — a taste of Italy in my kitchen for the holidays. It’s one of my husband’s favorite things I make for him.”

Adeena Sussman, the author of “Sababa: Fresh, Sunny Flavors From My Israeli Kitchen” and coauthor with Chrissy Teigen of the “Cravings” cookbook series, will be looking forward to a fresh, crunchy vegetable salad to welcome her back home after months of working with Teigen in Beverly Hills.

“Having spent the last few months in Los Angeles, I’ve found myself dreaming about Tel Aviv and the stalls of the Carmel Market I frequent every day back at home,” Sussman said. “When I think about the first dish I will eat when I return to Tel Aviv in the next couple weeks, my mind inevitably goes to chopped vegetable salads served over a bed of yogurt or labneh and sprinkled with dukkah, a nutty, seedy Egyptian spice mix. Cutting the vegetables into large chunks and keeping everything raw makes the salad hearty and filling, and I pick and choose the ingredient list based on what’s fresh and crisp. Adding a bed of labneh (strained yogurt), a version of which can be found in so many Middle Eastern kitchens from Palestine to Persia to Israel, adds tartness and heft. And I think of dukkah as the original ‘everything’ topper. It’s fragrant with cumin and crunchy with hazelnuts and sesame — there is no dish it can’t improve.”

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Gaby Dalkin, cookbook author and founder of What’s Gaby Cooking, takes the opportunity to “travel” to another Angeleno neighborhood, far from her home in Valley Village, a sentiment most anyone who lives in the L.A. Metro area can understand.

“One of my favorite neighborhoods to explore in Los Angeles is Koreatown,” said Dalkin. “It took me eight years to finally get there (in my defense, I don’t have a car, and it’s across town!). But once I did, I couldn’t stop thinking about beef bulgogi, thin slices of beef that are marinated with garlic, soy sauce and chile flakes, then griddled to caramelized perfection and served over rice. So I’m taking some Ktown inspiration for this bulgogi bowl by including classic Korean flavors and ingredients plus an herb salad for maximum freshness.”

All these dishes might not be what we think of as “traditional holiday” dishes, but in this untraditional year, a little vacation from the norm for the holidays is exactly what we all will need.

The Recipes:

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Spatchcocked Roast Duck With Vietnamese-ish Herb Sauce

Time 2 hours, largely unattended, plus 48 hours chilling
Yields Serves 4 to 6

Roasted Branzino With Tomatoes and Olives

Time 50 minutes
Yields Serves 2 to 4

Rough Chopped Salad With Yogurt and Dukkah

Time 20 minutes
Yields Serves 2 to 4

Beef Bulgogi Bowl With Kimchi

Time 1 hour 45 minutes, largely unattended
Yields Serves 4
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