November can be such a lovely time for entertaining.
The cooler air energizes, stirs appetites, and makes a warm kitchen a welcome place — well, at least for some of us. Produce is still fairly abundant and we no longer have to worry about whether it’s too warm for a slow-simmered or baked hot main dish.
This is for those who are near and dear to us and have settled into a routine so that planning a get-together around travel schedules and holiday parties doesn’t feel like advanced algebra.
In other words, the menu and guest list possibilities are limitless.
And yet, far too often, the only time we contemplate having people over during this perfect time for company is when there’s a dead turkey on the menu and at least one live one on the guest list who’s a relative we’re obligated to include but can barely tolerate.
Though it may not seem so, it really is possible to entertain in November without having a big old roasted bird in the middle of the table. Or that odd relative with his feet under it, laying waste to the conversation and reminding you that you don’t cook like your grandmother.
After all, there are 30 days in the month, and only one of them is Thanksgiving.
So set aside that feeling of obligation, put that turkey (both of them) out of your head, and take advantage of November’s limitless possibilities to plan an evening or lazy weekend afternoon that simply celebrates good food and friendship.
Fall dinners invite coziness, intimacy, and informality. And one of my favorite casual cooking methods is braising. It’s a simple technique that tenderizes, enhances flavor, is very easy on the cook, and can usually be done well ahead of time. The Italian menu that follows takes full advantage of the technique by employing it in every dish except for the appetizer spread.
You can use the entire menu or just choose parts of it and still make a handsome, company-worthy dinner. And best of all, it can all be made ahead, so you’ll be free to enjoy yourself instead of fussing in the kitchen.
After all, isn’t that the whole point of having a dinner party?
Marcella’s Whipped Mortadella
From the late Marcella Hazan’s lovely book "Marcella’s Italian Kitchen” (Knopf, 1986), this just whispers of autumn to me. Her recipe uses chopped cornichon pickle; I rarely have those on hand and often substitute capers, which aren’t quite the same, but are still quite good. The baguette from which the crostini (toasted bread rounds) come should be one with a very small diameter, preferably no more than 2-2¼ inches across on its widest side. Serves 6.
• 16 thin slices baguette
• Olive oil
• 4 ounces mortadella
• 1½ tablespoons butter
• 1 tablespoon roughly chopped cornichon pickles or capers in brine (drained)
• 2-3 cornichon pickles, sliced, or 16 capers (drained and left whole)
• About 1 tablespoon finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
1. Preheat oven to 300 F. Put bread on rimmed baking sheet and lightly brush with olive oil. Bake until golden and crisp. Can be made up to a day ahead. Let cool and store in airtight tin.
2. Remove casing from mortadella and if it contains pistachios, remove and discard them. Cut into chunks and put in bowl of food processor fitted with steel blade. Add butter and process until smooth, creamy and fluffy. Add chopped pickle or capers and pulse to mix. Can be made a day ahead: cover and refrigerate. Let sit at room temperature 30 minutes before serving.
3. When ready to serve, spread evenly over each toasted baguette round and top with slice of pickle or whole caper and sprinkling of parsley.
Pasta with Braised Mushroom Sauce
Dried porcini mushrooms and slow braising add a rich depth of flavor to this sauce. You can actually use some of the pan juices from the Beef Braised in Red Wine or another pot roast for the liquid. If using canned broth or reconstituted broth paste, however, try to mix equal parts beef and chicken broth. Serves 6.
• ½ ounce dried porcini mushrooms
• 5 tablespoons unsalted butter
• 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
• 1 medium shallot, peeled and chopped fine, or ¼ cup finely chopped yellow onion
• 8 ounces brown (crimini) mushrooms, wiped clean with a dry paper towel and diced
• ¼ cup meat broth or leftover pan juices from a pot roast
• Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
• 1 tablespoon minced flat-leaf parsley
• 1 pound fusilli or rotini pasta
• 1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1. Bring 1 cup water to boil. Put dried porcini in heatproof bowl and pour water over. Let soak 15-30 minutes, or until softened. Lift out mushrooms, dipping to loosen sand clinging to them, and put in small saucepan. Filter soaking liquid into pan through a paper towel or coffee filter. Bring to boil over medium heat and simmer until liquid is evaporated and absorbed, stirring occasionally. Turn off heat.
2. Bring 4-6 quarts of water to a boil. Meanwhile, put butter, oil, and shallot in deep sauté pan over medium high heat. Sauté until shallot is golden, about 3-4 minutes, then add fresh mushrooms and sauté until beginning to color. Add reconstituted porcini and broth, lower heat, and tightly cover. Braise until mushrooms are tender, about 10 minutes.
3. Uncover and if a lot of liquid remains, raise heat and cook until liquid is reduced and thickened, about 3-4 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper, toss, and turn off heat.
4. When ready to serve, add small handful of salt and pasta to boiling water and cook to al dente, using package directions as rough guide. When almost ready, return sauce to medium heat and gently warm. When pasta is ready, add parsley to mushroom sauce, drain pasta and immediately toss with sauce. Add ½ cup cheese, toss, and serve at once, passing remaining cheese separately.
Beef Braised in Red Wine, Italian-Style (Stracotto al Vino Rosso)
In the Piemonte community of Barolo from which this recipe comes, they use their own red wine, which bears the village’s name, but it’s not always available here, so I generally use a good pinot noir. Merlot can also be substituted. Serves 6.
• Olive or vegetable oil
• 4 pounds boneless beef chuck, trimmed
• Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
• 3 tablespoons diced yellow onion
• 2 tablespoons diced carrot
• 2 tablespoons diced celery
• 1½ cups dry red wine such as pinot noir, merlot, or if available, Barolo
• 1 cup meat broth
• 1 tablespoon tomato paste
• 1 large sprig fresh thyme or ¼ teaspoon dried
• 1 large sprig fresh marjoram or oregano or ¼ teaspoon crumbled dried
1. Preheat oven to 325 F. Film bottom of heavy, braising pan or Dutch oven (preferably enameled iron) with oil and warm over medium high heat. Add meat and brown on all sides, about 2-3 minutes per side. Remove meat and season with salt and pepper.
2. Reduce heat to medium. Add vegetables and sauté, stirring often, until beginning to color, about 3-4 minutes.
3. Add wine and raise heat. Let come to boil, stirring and scraping bottom of pot. Return meat to pot and add broth, tomato paste, and herbs. Cover and bake 3 hours, or until meat is fork tender, occasionally checking to make sure liquid doesn’t completely evaporate and regulating heat to maintain a steady slow simmer. Replenish liquid with water if necessary.
4. Remove meat to platter or cutting board, loosely cover and let rest 15 minutes. If liquid is not evaporated and reduced, return pot to direct heat on stovetop and let boil down, stirring to loosen any cooking residue from bottom. Taste sauce and adjust seasoning. Cut meat into serving chunks, pour sauce over, and serve.
Braised Broccoli and Cauliflower alla Parmigiana
We usually think of “alla Parmigiana” (in the style of Parma) as something that’s baked under a blanket of the city’s celebrated cheese, but Parmigiani cooks also prepare vegetables in this way. Serves 6.
• ¾ pound broccoli
• ¾ pound cauliflower
• 3-4 tablespoons best quality unsalted butter
• 6 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1. Wash vegetables under cold running water. Peel the stems of broccoli and cut the heads of broccoli and cauliflower into florets. Prepare large pot with steamer insert and at least 1 inch water (Water should not touch bottom of insert). Bring water to boil over medium high heat.
2. Put vegetables in steamer basket, cover, and steam 2 minutes. Sprinkle vegetables generously with salt, cover, and steam until almost tender but still a bit crisp, about 2-4 minutes more.
3. Immediately remove vegetables and rinse under cold running water. Drain, spread on rimmed sheet pan, and cool. When cold, cover until ready to finish. Can be prepared several hours ahead.
4. When ready to finish, melt butter over medium heat in large, deep lidded skillet. Add vegetables and gently toss to coat. Simmer, uncovered, until vegetables are hot through and tender, about 3-4 minutes. Sprinkle with cheese, cover, and let cheese just melt. Serve at once.
Braised Pears with Marsala Cream
This simple but lovely dessert can be made completely ahead, so it’s perfect for entertaining. Serves 6.
• 3 large, firm, not too ripe Anjou, Bartlett, or Bosc pears
• 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
• About ¼ cup sugar
• ½ cup medium-dry Marsala
• 1 piece orange zest, 1 inch by 3 inches
• 1 cinnamon stick
• 1 cup heavy cream
1. Peel, halve, and core pears. Melt butter in a lidded skillet over medium heat. Add pears, cut side up, sprinkle with sugar and sauté, turning once or twice, until sugar begins to caramelize and pears are coloring.
2. Add Marsala, zest, cinnamon, and enough water to bring liquid halfway up sides of pears. Bring to simmer, cover, and adjust heat to slow simmer. Cook until tender, about 5-10 minutes.
3. Transfer pears to serving platter or individual plates. Raise heat and bring poaching liquid to boil. Cook until reduced by at least half and lightly thickened. Add cream, bring to simmer, and cook until lightly thickened, about 2 minutes longer. Remove and discard zest and cinnamon.
4. Spoon sauce over pears and serve warm or let cool to room temperature.