Cooking for our nearest and dearest
A holiday pork to prepare ahead
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 t he 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.
Set the table with your most festive dinnerware and table linens. Place candles around the house and put on the music. You have a festive evening in the making.