Fall might be my favorite time of year for having people over for dinner — the meals are meant to be big, hearty and lingered over, but the stress of the holidays hasn’t hit yet. To see what our cooking class program had on the menu for fall dinner parties, I dropped into the test kitchen as they prepared recipes from our “Fall Entertaining: Dinner with Friends” class. On the menu for the day were pork medallions with plum chutney and a salad of farro and kale with pine nuts, among a few others.
(You can find that class and others here.)
As Gillian, our in-house recipe tester, went over the class recipes with me, she sliced a handful of soft plums for the chutney. She tossed them into a pan that already had chunks of fruit, cider vinegar, garlic and spices simmering away before switching gears to start on the salad.
“This recipe is a good intro to chutney. It’s a quick version, not a spend-all-day-in-the-kitchen-canning version. And once you get the technique and ratios down, you can begin to experiment by substituting different herbs, spices and fruit. Once you master the fundamentals, there’s no stopping you. If I were going to make this recipe again later on in the fall or winter, I’d substitute apples or pears for the plums and add a bit of cinnamon and star anise.”
“It’s also something you can make ahead of time and then use all week. It’ll do wonders with leftovers. I like to spread chutney on a toasted cheese sandwich, or put a dollop onto a cheeseboard. This particular one would also be wonderful with a duck breast.”
While we chatted, she popped back over to check on the simmering fruit, which was now beginning to break down and take on the hint of a glossy sheen.
“You want it to be chunky and thick, and the plums should soak up most of that liquid — then you know it’s ready.”
Gillian began slicing a knobby hunk of fresh ginger for the salad’s vinaigrette and mentioned that this piece happened to be frozen.
“This is something we do a lot. Instead of using just a bit of ginger, putting it in the fridge and then forgetting it’s there for a month, just store it in the freezer. It’s much easier to peel when it’s frozen, and you can still chop or slice it easily.”
She then continued prepping the kale, working through an unruly bunch of the stuff by deftly stripping the greens from the stems and then slicing them into delicately thin strips so they’d soften up under the dressing.
“This salad is meant as an appetizer or first course. But it’s one that will travel well, so I’d make it for lunch, too. Farro is such a good grain for that. It stands up well to dressing, which makes it a great next-day salad ingredient. It also keeps you fuller, longer. You’ll want to cook it according to taste, but keep in mind that it should still be a bit chewy. Cook it until some of the grains are just beginning to burst.”
“When you’re making this recipe at home, the vinaigrette should taste bold and bright. You’ll think it’s a little too acidic, but trust it. The farro will soak the acidity up!”
“People are afraid to make vinaigrettes, and I have no idea why. It’s just an oil and an acid, and maybe some seasonings. Really, there’s not a lot that can go wrong. And don’t fool yourself into thinking there’s some magic ratio. There isn’t. It’s just what tastes right to you. Try it with half oil, half vinegar and see how you like it. Next time, go heavy on one side or the other. You can always add more of the oil or the acid to balance it, and if you make too much, pour the rest in a jar and pop it in the fridge for next time.”
She then set the salad aside and moved on to the pork, cutting two-inch slices from a hefty tenderloin. She set her skillet over a burner and poured in another glug of oil.
“When it comes to searing meat, the most important thing is to not move it! Some people will stand there the whole time, poking at the meat and nudging it around. Don’t do that. It will never develop the crispy, brown seared bits you want. Give the meat a good two minutes before you flip it. Look the other way if you have to. Just avoid the temptation to poke!”
You can try the recipes Gillian tested in your own kitchen. Be sure to let us know how they turned out!