I look for an impressive entree that I can prepare ahead: something I can combine with a couple of elegant but easy side dishes and create a memorable meal that tells my companions how important they are to me.
Ah, December: the time of year many of us eagerly anticipate big holiday celebrations. But really, it’s more than the big holidays. So many opportunities arise to connect with friends and family for get-togethers, gatherings and special meals. It is a great time to just be with our nearest and dearest.
As a cook, I always aspire to create expressions of love through food. My goal during the holidays is not to make something fast, but to make something unique even though it may take more time. And a cold and blustery day in December often provides an occasion to stay in and try some of those harder to achieve recipes, to allow my imagination full reign.
But the day I’m having people over is not always the day I want to indulge my experiments in the kitchen. As you may know from previous columns, I love to plan meals that will please my guests while also allowing me to visit with them.
To do this, I look for an impressive entree that I can prepare ahead: something I can combine with a couple of elegant but easy side dishes and create a memorable meal that tells my companions how important they are to me.
During the holiday cooking season, incorporating the right flavors into a main course is important. Herbs like sage and rosemary, fruits like dried figs and apples, savories like onions and garlic, are the tastes and smells that really say “holiday” to me. And the good news is that many different meats can work well with these sweet and savory accents.
My go-to main course usually involves pork. I love the beautiful way it incorporates a variety of flavor themes, and its cooking times are relatively predictable. Pork tenderloin, for example, is one of my favorite cuts as it is tender and cooks quickly. But it is usually a bit more costly than other cuts of pork.
I have found that a 2-pound pork loin, with the right handling, can easily stand in for the tenderloin. And if you have a larger crowd, you can double or triple the recipe without sacrificing convenience.
The secret is in the preparation.
Slice open the loin lengthwise, leaving it intact at the end, and lay it flat. Then with a sharp knife, cut slits on the long sides of the pork, creating a thinner surface.
Arrange a mixture of apples, apricots, figs, onions and herbs along the length of the pork and tie it up into a tenderloin-sized roast. Tuck a few sprigs of rosemary and thyme under the kitchen twine.
When preparing it in advance, wrap the roast in a sheet of parchment, then wrap again in foil. Place in the refrigerator for up to 2 days. Bring to room temperature the day of your gathering, unwrap, and place in a baking pan. No need to put anything in the oven until after everyone arrives.
A perfect seasonal accompaniment to the pork is butternut squash. Vivid color, versatility and availability make it an appealing side.
You can peel and cut into cubes earlier in the day or even the day before, then toss with olive oil, garlic and herbs an hour or so before cooking. Roast the squash on a baking sheet at the same time as the pork — they will be done together.
Allow the pork to rest for a few minutes on a board to distribute the juices. That way, if the squash isn’t brown enough, you can return it to the oven.
Another of my favorites is asparagus, which is elegant and always seems to be available. Like the butternut squash, the flavor and color of the asparagus will enhance the whole meal.
Cook it on the grill for a slightly charred, smoky essence. Or if your grill is put away for the winter, place the asparagus on its own baking sheet, drizzle it with olive oil, and roast for the last 15 minutes in the oven alongside the butternut squash and the pork. You can also make it ahead; it tastes just as good at room temperature.
The day of the dinner, set the table with your most festive dinnerware and table linens. Place an assortment of candles around the house. A bowl of good mixed nuts or olives is enough of an appetizer unless somebody wants to bring one. (If your other guests insist on bringing something, you could also assign dessert.) Start with a glass of New Mexico’s own Gruet sparkling wine, and you have a festive evening in the making.
Enjoy your guests while the meal roasts in the oven. Then when everything is cooked, slip away to fill the platters, slice the pork, and serve to everyone’s delight. And while you make it look effortless, your undertaking will speak volumes about how much you care. Happy holidays!
STUFFED PORK LOIN – WITH APPLES, FIGS AND APRICOTS
2-pound boneless pork loin
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 crisp apple, peeled and chopped
2 tablespoons ghee (clarified butter) or half butter and half olive oil
2 teaspoons chopped garlic
1/4 cup chopped dried apricots
1/4 cup stemmed and chopped dried figs
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary
1 teaspoon salt, divided
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, divided
1 tablespoon olive oil
Fresh rosemary and thyme branches
With a sharp knife, cut a slit down the center of the pork loin, leaving it attached at one end. Open up the loin, then, using a sharp knife on each side, further cut a channel along the long end through the thick parts to create a long flat rectangle.
To make the filling: Melt the ghee in a large saucepan, and add the apple and onion. Sauté, stirring occasionally, until the onions are translucent, and add the garlic. Continue to cook about a minute, then add the dried apricots and figs. Turn the heat to low, and, stirring often, cook for about 8 minutes, until the fruit is softened. Sprinkle with the fresh rosemary and cook for about 30 seconds. Turn off the heat and allow to cool slightly.
Evenly spread the filling in the center of the pork loin, leaving a bit of pork on each side. Sprinkle with half the salt and pepper. Press the lengthwise edges together, encompassing the filling, and tie securely with butchers twine, making a loop about every 1-2 inches. At this point, the pork loin can be made ahead. Wrap in parchment paper, then foil, and refrigerate for up to two days.
To roast: Preheat oven to 425 degrees. (Unwrap stuffed loin if made ahead.) Place the pork loin seam side up in a shallow baking pan and brush with the olive oil. Sprinkle with the remaining salt and pepper on all sides. Set the pan on the middle rack in the oven, and roast for 20 minutes. Turn seam side down and tuck the rosemary and thyme branches into the string. Roast another 20-25 minutes, or approximately 45 minutes for a 2-pound roast. Allow to rest for 10 minutes before removing string and slicing.
Makes about 4 servings.
You can choose to double or triple the size of your pork roast for a larger crowd. First, double or triple the ingredients for the filling. Follow the rest of the directions. Then roast the pork for about 20 minutes a pound, turning seam side down halfway through. You’ll know it’s done if the juices run clear when pierced with a skewer.
Makes 8-12 servings.
BUTTERNUT SQUASH WITH GARLIC AND SAGE
1 2-pound butternut squash, peeled and cut into dice
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh sage (or 1 teaspoon crumbled dried sage)
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Toss together the squash, olive oil, garlic, sage, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper.
Spread on in one layer in a baking pan and roast for 20 minutes. With a spatula, turn the squash pieces over. Return to oven and bake for 20-25 minutes more, until softened and lightly browned.
This recipe is easily doubled or tripled for a crowd.
SMOKY GRILLED ASPARAGUS
1 pound asparagus spears, washed and trimmed
1 tablespoon olive oil
Smoked salt and freshly ground pepper
If your asparagus is thin, proceed directly to the next step.
If you have thick asparagus, microwave for 1-2 minutes on high. Plunge into cold water to stop the cooking. Cool, and drain. Pat dry with a clean towel.
Brush the asparagus with the olive oil. Grill for about 5 minutes total. (Or roast in a 425-degree oven for 15 minutes.) Remove to a platter, and sprinkle with the smoked salt and freshly ground pepper. Drizzle with balsamic glaze.
Easily doubled or tripled for more guests.
In order to read our site, please exit private/incognito mode or log in to continue.