Dessert may cap a meal, but there’s wisdom in putting it first and foremost, particularly when preparing a large dinner. In fact, cooking dessert before anything else is often a wise strategy. The job is then out of the way, so you can concentrate on the savory dishes. And if you can make the dessert a full day ahead, so much the better.
Enter flan, which is best made a day or two in advance of serving, its flavors improving with time. While flan is often flavored with orange, this version incorporates that jewel of winter, tangerine, and is somewhat brighter in flavor.
A flan can be made in individual ramekins or in a single large mold. Either way, it’s a bit of a fiddly process. You need to make a caramel first to cover the bottom of the mold. For the best presentation — and flavor — be sure to let the caramel go quite dark, without burning. Once the eggy custard is prepared and poured into the mold, the whole affair is baked in a water bath and refrigerated.
Then it’s on to other, more savory bits that employ the best of this cool season’s produce: a stellar salad with curly endive, and pork chops with new-crop dates.
A salad is a fine way to begin a meal, no matter the time of year. Sturdy chicories are the salad greens of choice right now — not at all like tender lettuces, but wonderfully fresh tasting. For this menu, curly endive, also known as frisée, fits the bill nicely, alone or in combination with its colorful cousins, Belgian endive, Chioggia, Treviso or speckled Castelfranco radicchio.
All chicories have a slight, pleasant bitterness that stands up nicely to an assertive dressing — in this case, a mustardy vinaigrette. Chopped egg and Gruyère add interest (and a little protein). In fact, a large portion of this salad is great on its own, served as a light meal.
Pan-seared center-cut pork chops can be a nice splurge for a main — and what drew me to them was their ease of cooking. But to ensure they remain juicy and succulent, a simple brine comes in handy. Mix it up — it’s just a watery solution of salt, sugar and aromatics — and submerge the chops for a short period or overnight. Even a couple of hours’ brining will achieve tender and tasty results.
For easy effect, sizzle soft medjool dates with butter and sage leaves to spoon over the finished chops, which gives them a blast of sweet-salty flavor. (If you can’t find dates, pitted prunes make a good substitute.) Parsnips work well as an accompaniment, but so would sweet potato or roasted squash. The date-and-brown-butter treatment tastes good with them, too.
Many elements of this meal can be prepared the day before, so being organized is key. But in return for your foresight, you’ll reap flavorful rewards, and your table-mates will applaud.
And to Drink …
The dates and parsnips will convey a sense of sweetness to this dish, so I’m thinking of both whites and reds that won’t clash or come across as overly austere. Among reds, look for wines that are dry, fresh and fruity, but not overwhelming — some of the new wave garnacha or bobal wines from Spain, perhaps a restrained zinfandel from California or good Côtes-du-Rhônes from France. Other options might include reds from the Languedoc, Bairradas from Portugal, Rosso di Montalcinos from Italy and blaufränkisches from Austria. For whites, I’d gravitate toward chenin blancs from the Loire Valley or South Africa, which can be dry yet seem sweet, or maybe a modestly sweet riesling, like a kabinett or spätlese from Germany. ERIC ASIMOV