December is a month for feasting -- which is not necessarily to say gorging, though it sometimes seems like it. Eating well is not the same thing as stuffing yourself and eating sensibly is not the same as being dull.
Take this holiday menu, for example.
This porcini soup looks and tastes richer than it is. One secret is that it’s not a smooth puree -- leaving the texture a bit chunky makes it feel more substantial.
Here are a few more. You won’t have to saute the mushrooms in butter or oil, because they’re dried. All you have to do is rehydrate them. Cook a little rice in the broth, and when you puree it, the rice will thicken the soup and you won’t need a butter-and-flour roux.
When you do use fattening ingredients, use only the best and use them in a way that makes them count. Two tablespoons (not a cup) of whipping cream will give the soup a lovely feeling of richness. Serve the soup in a large, shallow bowl to make the portion feel larger than it is.
A bone-in pork loin makes a handsome display, and it’s a good choice for the main course because today’s pork has been bred to be lean. (In fact, it’s so lean you have to be careful not to overcook it, or it will dry out.)
Ask the butcher to cut through the chine bone between each chop to make carving easier. Make little pockets between the bones and stuff them with dried apricots, sage and garlic for an intriguingly sweet, herbaceous note. I like to spoon lightly buttered bread crumbs on the roast for extra flavor and texture.
When it comes time to make the gravy, again, forget about the roux. Just a tablespoon of a light, stock-based sauce made with a little Port wine will give another dimension of flavor and a suggestion of richness.
Take a little time to roast some fresh chestnuts for a garnish. Not only will they look great, they’ll taste better then canned chestnuts. Give each diner two chestnuts to peel and savor.
Braised red cabbage is wonderful with pork, but it doesn’t need the traditional duck fat or loads of slab bacon. Two slices of bacon, rounded out with fennel seed, are enough. The cabbage can be prepared a day ahead and will taste even better reheated.
In place of a heavy dessert, I like a few sweet bites that are rich with interesting flavors. This time, I start with a Seckel pear, poached in a cinnamon stock with orange zest and a little Port, mainly for color. It stands overnight in the poaching liquid to absorb more flavor. The Seckel is the smallest of pear varieties, so the sauce penetrates it better. For those who think poached pears are a deprivation dessert, the deep, complex flavors of this one will be a revelation.
Set each pear half on a little pedestal of spongecake. You can buy the cake, or make your own up to a week in advance. (Just cover it well and seal it in a plastic bag before freezing. Take the cake out of the freezer an hour before serving. Cut out the rounds of cake and let them stand, covered, until you’re ready to serve.) Then just top it with the pear half, a touch of vanilla yogurt and some honey.
This is a dessert that should please everybody; what makes it really memorable is chestnut blossom honey. This rugged, robust honey brings out a whole new side of the pear, and a touch of vanilla yogurt tempers its bitter edge.
The flavors are luxurious, just like the rest of the meal.