We are now in the home stretch heading into year’s end and the height of the holiday season. We have come out on the other side of Thanksgiving, where I would guess many of you found yourselves in a food coma for a couple of days. Well, it only gets better from here as there are more meals and gatherings ahead of us.
Thanksgiving was somewhat quiet in our household this year for various reasons which some of you understand. That said, we did manage to cobble together a few good meals, one of which I wanted to share with you. This informal dinner was prepared and shared with two friends who we finally reconnected with just ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday break.
It is my hope that by sharing the whole menu, it might leave you the option to prepare it in total, as I have done, or interpret it in your own way. Or perhaps it will inspire you to try just one of the dishes, be it a starter, the main, one of the sides, or one of the desserts to include as part of your own menu.
So let’s get started . . .
I often begin with some type of simple antipasti, or appetizer, to draw my guests into the meal, and establishing a pace of nibbling and relaxing while the rest of the dishes are being assembled and served. It would not be unusual to find good bread as part of the meal’s preamble, where the bread serves as a platform for said appetizer. Bruschetta, crostini, or “raft” are used, and the crostini often finds a place at our table. To quote Cindy Pawlcyn, the chef and restaurateur of early Fog City Diner fame, and author of several cookbooks; “in old diner lingo, if something came on a raft, it meant the food was served on toast.”
Well before there were diners as we know them today, there was bruschetta and crostini. In today’s foodie lexicon the terms are used interchangeably although the differences between the two are subtle.
We could devote an entire blog post to bruschetta and crostini, and perhaps at some point I will, as it would be fun to explore the myriad of toppings there are to choose from. Suffice to say, both are considered antipasti served ahead of the main meal, and some serve them as a main course accompanied by a salad.
Bruschetta can be considered the original garlic bread. Its name is derived from the word bruscare, which means to “roast over coals.” In its most basic form it is generally a thick slice of country bread, grilled, then while still warm, rubbed with a piece of raw garlic, drizzled with good olive oil, and sprinkled with a flaky sea salt. Simple toppings are an option but the basic form is generally all you need.
Crostini, meaning little toasts, are smaller, thinner rounds or squares of different breads—a baguette for example. They are generally brushed with olive oil or butter, then lightly toasted, grilled, or even fried before the toppings are added. The toppings are generally richer than the more rustic bruschetta, and the crostini can be served either cold or hot.
For this meal I served two crostini using a French baguette and a multi-grain baguette. One topping was a fig and olive tapenade spread over Blu di Caravaggio (buffalo gorgonzola) and sprinkled with fresh minced sage. The inspiration and adaptation of the tapenade recipe came from articles I read by Food 52 and the Huffington Post.
The second crostini was topped with a lardo pesto, fennel pollen, and flaky pink sea salt. Lardo is made from the thick fatback layer from a pig, which is cured, generally using a mixture of salt, herbs, and spices. It’s Italian in origin and some of the best is said to come from northern Tuscany, although in this recipe I used lardo I sourced from a purveyor featuring this cured salumi taken from the Ibérico hogs of Spain. The inspiration and adaptation for the lardo pesto came from chef Michael White’s book, Classico e Moderno, the pollen actually came from a fennel plant we grew in our herb garden, and the salt was the pink Murray River Salt packaged in Mildura Victoria Australia; however there are many flaky sea salt options which could be substituted here.
The flavor pairings are my own, so you could follow them or explore some of your own. Below are the recipes for both the tapenade and the lardo pesto.
Fig and Olive Tapenade
¼ pound dried figs (Turkish or Calimyrna), stems removed, sliced thin
1 cup pitted and chopped Kalamata olives (you can choose from many olive options)
1 garlic clove, minced
Fresh rosemary and parsley (to taste), minced
1 generous tablespoon balsamic syrup
Either hand cut all the ingredients to a thick, chunky mix and place in a work bowl and bind together with the olive oil and the balsamic.
Or place the dry ingredients in the work bowl of a food processor and pulse several times until the chunky mix blends together, then add the oil and balsamic to bind.
½ pound slice pancetta, cold, cut into small cubes
½ pound lardo, cold, cut into small dice
3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil
1 large garlic clove peeled and flattened with the side of a knife
1 large sprig of fresh rosemary, needles stripped from stem and minced
1 large sprig of fresh sage, leaves separated from stem and minced
Fresh ground black pepper and a pinch of red chili flakes to taste
Chill the prepared pancetta and lardo in the refrigerator, and place the work bowl and blade of your food processor in the freezer for 10 minutes.
Warm the olive oil in a small sauté pan, add the garlic and minced herbs. Remove from the heat and allow the oil to infuse with the garlic and herbs.
Place the pancetta and lardo into the chilled work bowl of the food processor and pulse continuously until a paste is formed. Scrape down the sides of the work bowl as needed.
Pour in the oil, garlic, and herbs, add the black pepper and the chili flakes and again pulse until all the ingredients bind together into a smooth paste.
This can be served immediately, or jarred and stored in the refrigerator for a week or more, or frozen indefinitely with a drizzle of olive oil on top.
The main menu consisted of a braised pork tenderloin dish which yielded a variation of pulled pork that was tender and flavorful. I discovered the recipe, which I eventually adapted, on a Twitter post sent from my longtime friend, broadcast and music aficionado Bob Marrone, who shared a link to a video hosted on a site called 12 Tomatoes. The recipe calls for using a slow-cooker pot, which I don’t have. So instead I modified the ingredients just a little to achieve the flavor I was after, and braised the pork tenderloins slowly on the stovetop in a heavy ovenproof saucepan with a lid.
The pork was accompanied by a Spanish tapa-style warm gigante bean salad with pimentón and celery. The Greeks, the Italians, the Spanish, among other nationalities, include gigante beans in their cooking, which are also known as butter beans.
Along with the pork and beans, broccoli confit was served, which is simply a long— cooked vegetable side dish of broccoli and garlic until they are meltingly tender. The idea and approach was introduced to me by a recipe I read in the Food 52 Genius Recipes book, along with another I discovered in Sameh Wadi’s book The New Mediterranean Table. He featured a recipe for green beans entitled Grandma’s Slow Cooked Green Beans, which, although not part of this menu, did highlight the long slow cooking approach and is nonetheless addictingly delicious. I plan to prepare it again using the long green beans found in most Asian groceries . . . but that is for another time.
To add some color to the menu, a bunch of rainbow carrots were included as another side dish. They were dusted with Ras el Hanout, a North African, Middle Eastern spice blend, often referred to as the national spice of Morocco, and roasted until lightly charred and tender. They were served drizzled with pomegranate molasses and sprinkled with finely chopped spearmint leaves and red chili flakes.
As a punctuation for the pork I prepared a chutney using sundried Angelino plums sourced from California. Just a word about chutneys, I like them and make variations of them all the time. For me they are a versatile pantry staple, used for example, in this menu to accompany the pork, or simply included when serving some favorite cheeses. It must be the play of the sweet and savory flavors that I like so much, or the endless flavor combinations which are just fun to explore.
The meal was finished with two very straightforward desserts, one an Italian pear cake in which I was able to incorporate the small Seckel pears I had on hand, and a cornmeal cake paired with a cranberry compote, although a drizzle or two of your favorite honey paired with some seasonal berries or grapes would have been just perfect as well.
Slow-Braised Pork Tenderloin
2 pounds pork tenderloins
3 tablespoons soy sauce (Note: I used Bourbon Barrel Foods Bluegrass small batch microbrewed soy sauce from Louisville, KY)
1 generous teaspoon porcini mushroom powder
Juice and zest from 1 lime
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 cup honey (Note: these are many options; I used thyme blossom honey)
½ teaspoon ground, powdered ginger
3 garlic cloves minced
¼ teaspoon red chili flakes
Lightly coat the loins with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. I also coated them with some garlic jam that is one of my pantry staples.
Sear the loins in a hot pan to form a crust all around.
Pour the braise sauce ingredients over, lower the heat to a gentle simmer, cover and braise for 3 hours.
Test the loins for tenderness, they should be easily pierced using a fork. Remove them from the pan and tent on a platter.
Raise the heat and cook the braising liquid down by half to thicken and serve as a gravy for the pork.
Using two forks, shred the pork on the serving platter so as to resemble pulled pork, then plate with a drizzle of gravy over.
Warm Gigante Bean Salad with Celery and Pimentón
2 tablespoons of tomato paste
1 large garlic clove, minced
1 medium shallot, minced
1 teaspoon smoked pimenton dulce (sweet Spanish paprika)
2 celery stalks thinly cut on the bias ¼-inch thick
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1 15oz can gigante or butter beans, rinsed
Finely minced parsley
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat.
Sauté the garlic and shallot until they just begin to soften.
Stir in the tomato paste and the pimentón until fully incorporated.
Add the celery and the beans, mixing to fully coat and combine.
Add the vinegar and salt and pepper to taste.
Serve warm with the minced parsley sprinkled over.
1 large bunch of broccoli
8 large cloves of garlic
1 cup water
Salt, pepper, chili flakes
Trim the hard, thick stems from the broccoli and then split the bunch into quarters or eighths keeping the florets attached to the main stem.
Trim and skin the garlic, keeping the cloves whole.
Place the broccoli in a large saucepan that will hold all of the trimmed pieces, and scatter the garlic cloves around.
Drizzle olive oil all around and over the broccoli, pour in the cup of water, and season with the salt, pepper, and chili flakes.
Cover the pan, start the cooking on medium high heat until the water begins to sizzle. Lower the temperature and very slowly simmer the broccoli and garlic until very fork tender, no more than 1 hour.
Remove to a large platter using a spoon so as not to break up the broccoli pieces. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Roasted Rainbow Carrots
1 bunch rainbow carrots, or regular organic carrots if rainbow are not available
Ras el Hanout spice mix or other preferred spice combination
Fresh spearmint leaves
Red chili flakes
Wash and trim the carrots, don’t peel. Place the carrots in a roasting pan, drizzle all around with olive oil and sprinkle the spice mix over.
Place in a preheated 350-degree oven and roast for an hour or until fork tender. Arrange on a serving platter while still warm. Lightly drizzle with pomegranate molasses and sprinkle with the chopped mint leaves and chili flakes to taste. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Angelino Plum Chutney
1 medium sweet onion, diced
2 cups dried Angelino plums or other dried plums
1 cup golden raisins or cranberries
½ cup red wine vinegar + ½ cup sherry vinegar
1½ cups light brown sugar
1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled
1 cinnamon stick
2 whole star anise
8 allspice berries
8 whole cloves
2 teaspoons brown or yellow mustard seeds
1 teaspoon celery seeds
Salt and pepper to taste
In a heavy saucepan with a lid, sauté the onion over medium heat in 2 tablespoons of olive oil until just beginning to soften.
Slice the plums in half and place with the raisins in the pan stirring to coat and combine.
Add the vinegars, the sugar, and the peeled ginger piece, again stirring to combine.
In a piece of cheesecloth wrap the cinnamon stick, star anise, allspice, cloves, mustard, and celery seeds, tying to form a sachet, then add to the pan.
Bring the pan to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer, cover, cooking down to a jam-like consistency for approximately 2 hours. Check periodically and stir, adding a little water if it looks too dry.
Remove from the heat, discard the sachet, taste to check seasoning, and allow to cool. Can be stored in jars in the refrigerator or frozen indefinitely.
Italian Pear Cake
Zest + juice from 1 lemon
3 full-size Bosc pears or 8 Seckel pears, firm but ripe
1½ cups all purpose flour
5 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon baking powder
¾ cup sugar + 1 tablespoon to sprinkle before baking
3 large eggs
1 cup mascarpone or 1 cup full fat Greek yogurt
2½ tablespoons olive oil
Pinch of sea salt
Butter and flour a 9-inch-round springform pan and set aside.
Finely zest the lemon and set aside, then squeeze the lemon juice into a large work bowl, removing the seeds.
Clean and core the pears, do not peel. Slice into 1/8-inch pieces and place in the lemon juice to keep the slices from turning brown.
In another large work bowl whisk together the flour, cornstarch, and baking powder and set aside.
In a separate work bowl whisk the eggs and sugar until pale and creamy. Fold in the mascarpone or yogurt along with the lemon zest until smooth.
Rough chop a few pear slices and along with the dry ingredients, the oil, and a pinch of salt, fold together with the wet ingredients to form the cake batter.
Spread the batter into the prepared pan and then carefully place the pear slices in the batter, on edge all around the circumference of the baking pan. The slices should be close together to form a tight circle. Fill in the center of the circle with any remaining slices. Sprinkle the reserved tablespoon of sugar over the pear topping.
Bake for 50 to 60 minutes in a preheated 350-degree oven until done when tested with a tooth pick that comes out clean.
Allow the baking pan to cool completely on a rack before removing the form and plating the cake.
Cornmeal Cake with Cranberry Compote
½ cup sweet butter, softened, plus more to butter baking pan
1 cup sugar
1 cup yellow or white cornmeal
¾ cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon sea salt
2 large eggs + 1 large egg yolk
2/3 cup half & half
2 cups fresh cranberries
1 whole star anise
1 cinnamon stick
½ teaspoon Szechuan peppercorns
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
1½ cups sugar
2 cups dry red wine
Butter and flour an 8-inch springform pan, set aside.
In a large work bowl beat the butter and sugar until pale and creamy.
Slowly fold in the remaining cake ingredients, then beat at high speed until a smooth, pale batter is formed.
Pour batter into the prepared baking pan and bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 40 minutes or until done when tested with a tooth pick that comes out clean.
Allow the baking pan to cool completely on a rack before removing the form and plating the cake.
In a piece of cheesecloth gather and tie together the star anise, cinnamon, peppercorns, and rosemary to form a sachet.
In a heavy saucepan place all the ingredients and sachet over medium high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Lower the heat and continue cooking until the cranberries begin to pop.
Once the cranberries are all cooked, about 5 to 7 minutes, remove them with a slotted spoon and set aside. Discard the sachet and bring the poaching liquid to a boil over moderate heat, reducing down by half to a syrup consistency.
Return the cranberries to the reduce syrup and allow to cool.
Serve alongside or on top of a piece of the cornmeal cake.
Well not exactly how I remember pork and beans back in the day, but an approach to consider. And, if there are any leftovers, a pulled pork sandwich on toasted slices of that good artisan bread is a nice treat, but I’ll leave all that to you!
Eat well. Be well.
We can treat food as nothing more than fuel or instead enjoy and appreciate its every quality.