I’m looking at the family calendar for December and it resembles a patchwork quilt; colour-coded entries for each member of the household collected in an exuberant, albeit clashing, composition. There are school concerts and charity sales, work receptions and social gatherings, each attended by one, some, or all of us. Decorating parties, parades, cocktail hours and open houses, plus brunches, lunches and dinners all in herald of the season.
When it comes to hosting such festive feasting, an essential strategy of mine is in the not-too-holiday holiday meal: celebratory enough to differentiate from just any old get-together without speaking to any specific tradition.
Foremost, I maintain an appropriate sense of grandeur. My January-to-November dining plan is often a cluster of recipes to encourage grazing at the table. But I believe the holidays require a monolith; a laden platter, presented with flourish and ceremony, to anchor the table. There is an undeniable sense of bonhomie in sharing, family style, a dish of plenty. As a cook’s respite, one dish as the focus of your kitchen time also means all the less to clean later.
When the festivities are stretched across the month, menu fatigue is a real concern, lest we arrive at the main event already tired of the fuss before it’s really begun.
As such, I avoid the usual suspects. No glistening and gilded goose or turkey, no proudly vertical rib of beef. I embrace the scale of the holiday with a braised leg of lamb, a golden brassica gratin, a crackling tourtière, a brawny vegetable pie or a crenelated rigatoni bake.
All of these sing a note of the familiar. I lean on nostalgia, either full-blown, with dishes my parents used to make, or from the start of my marriage, or new ones of the same spirit. I’m looking for both the comfort of recognition and the associated joy.
The meal must be bedecked. It is the time for bay leaf crowns encircling a joint of meat, citrus fruit with leaves on for the party, glittering pomegranate seeds and bowls of lucent chutney. There should be brightness in these days, so colour, texture and the extra effort – even as small a gesture as a smattering of candied nuts – add to the revelry.
This roast pork, generously sized and impressive, fulfills all that’s required of a December date. As a bonus, both meat and vegetables cook in one dish, with little attention needed. The flavours are big and bold, with harissa tempered with fruit. In the nod to sentiment, I use the harissa I developed for my cookbook, one that I’m happy the children still enjoy rather than resent from all the taste testing they did. It’s a touch that feels ours, so find your favourite and use that.
I season the roast the night before and refrigerate, and set the vegetables (whole) in their roasting tin on the counter. The next morning I almost forget it was my hands that were busy, and not those of elves setting me up for the day’s success.
I start the roast high, so it obtains a sufficient tan, then turn the oven down to finish off. I want the meat and veg cozy in their surroundings, so that resultant juices might mingle rather than cook away; sweet potatoes are especially good at sopping up the flavours, and onions and garlic add aromatic depth. Halfway through cooking the roast gets its glaze.
The roast is pulled from the oven, and we marvel at how the glaze bakes down, bonding to the flesh in a vibrant carapace. While it rests, I assemble a salad of simply dressed radicchio with diaphanous slices of shaved fennel and apple. Back to the roast, zest from a clementine and minced herbs act as fragrant confetti, showered just before serving. The salad and some crusty bread are already on the table, and all is merry.
Lacquered Harissa Pork Roast
Serves 6 to 8
- Medium-grained kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons cumin seeds, toasted and ground
- 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, toasted and ground, optional
- Freshly ground black pepper
- One 4-pound pork loin-end, frenched rib roast, chine bone removed
- 2 tablespoons fruity olive oil, plus more
- 6 small sweet potatoes
- 4 to 6 small red onions, papery skins removed
- 2 heads garlic, plus 3 cloves
- 6 sprigs fresh thyme
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 1/2 tablespoons harissa, mild or hot, as you like, divided
- 2 to 3 tablespoons apricot preserves or orange marmalade
- 1 clementine or small orange
- 1 pomegranate, seeds or in quarters
- Plucked herbs, to serve; mint, parsley and cilantro are nice
- Crushed roasted hazelnuts, to garnish
In a small bowl, stir 1 1/2 tablespoons salt, sugar, cumin, fennel and 1 teaspoon black pepper. Season the roast all over, then set in the fridge (unwrapped) at least six hours and up to overnight.
Let the pork come to room temperature as you preheat an oven to 500°F with the rack in the lower third.
Grab a good-sized roasting tin for the pork and vegetables – something around 9-by-13-inches should do. Slice the sweet potatoes lengthwise, and do the same for the onions. Cut the whole heads of garlic in half, exposing the cloves. Toss the sweet potatoes and onions into the pan. Slick with olive oil, then push most of the vegetables toward the edges of the pan, all face down. Tuck in the cleaved garlic and anoint each with a pour of oil. Pop in the thyme sprigs and bay leaf.
Stir 2 tablespoons harissa and the 2 tablespoons olive oil together in a small bowl. Pat dry the roast, then paint the paste all over the meat. Set into the pan with the vegetables, rib side down.
Roast for 15 minutes, then turn the oven temperature down to 325°F and roast for 40 minutes more.
Stir the last of the harissa into the preserves and spread the glaze over the meat. Carefully shuffle the potatoes and onions, flipping some over. Using a microplane or similar, finely grate the remaining 3 cloves garlic over the entire tray.
Return to the oven until the thickest part of the meat registers 135°F, 20 to 30 minutes more. Tent loosely for 10 to 15 minutes; the roast will continue to cook as it sits, reaching 145°F. Zest the clementine over the meat, and squeeze the juice over the vegetables. Garnish with pomegranate seeds, herbs and nuts as desired.
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