Easter Dinner for 25

April 7, 2009

My mother’s parents hosted dinners for our entire extended Italian family on Easter, Thanksgiving, and Xmas. When my grandmother died, her three children — my mom, her brother, and her sister — each took on the responsibility of hosting one of the holiday dinners. Mom took Easter, and has been hosting it for more than 30 years.

Regardless of the holiday, the dinners all have the same basic menu: an antipasti course, a pasta course, a meat course, then dessert. The host is responsible for the first three courses, dessert is brought by the guests. Once I proved my worth as a cook, I began helping Mom in the kitchen with the Easter dinner, but in the last five years I have taken on the role of running the kitchen, helping plan the menu, and cooking the meat course.

This year Mom threw me two curves: 1) The dinner would be served a week earlier because my niece and nephew were competing in softball and basketball tournaments on Easter weekend. 2) Since there was less time to place an order, the traditional ham would be replaced with “some sort of roast pork” for the meat course.

Cooking a ham was easy. I’d order a freshly-smoked whole ham from Nodine’s Smokehouse, have it shipped to my sister’s home (where the dinners have been hosted since my parents moved to a smaller place), cook it in the morning, then warm it up in the oven after the pasta (either lasagna or canneloni) had been reheated.

Cooking fresh pork presented a timing challenge. Mom would still need the oven to heat the canneloni before serving it at 2:00 PM, but the roast was to be served by 3:00. Working with those constraints, I came up with a menu that I could make work in my sister’s one-oven, one-stove kitchen. (My aunts all had second stoves and fridges in their basements, relocated after kitchen remodelings.) I had to make sure the pork wouldn’t dry out in a warming oven, and the side dishes had to be do-aheads that could be reheated while the roast rested before slicing.

The final menu worked out as:

  1. Antipasti, served at 1:00 PM
  2. Canneloni, heated from 1:00 to 1:30, to be served at 2:00 PM
  3. Roast pork and pork jus with mashed Yukon Gold potatoes, mashed sweet potatoes, and haricots verts in lemon butter, to be served before 3:30

On Saturday night I made both kinds of  mashed potatoes, storing them in foil pans in the fridge. I took them out on Sunday morning so they could come up to room temperature, which would speed up their reheating. Then I got to work on the pork.

I started with two whole pork loins (from Costco) which I cut in half and tied to keep then from flattening out during cooking. I prepared a brine of salt, brown sugar, garlic cloves, and whole crushed rosemary sprigs. I put the tied roasts in a large pot, filled it with the brine, and refrigerated everything for three hours.

Brined pork

I rinsed off and dried the roasts and seared them until browned on the outside.

Seared roasts

I deglazed the pan with white wine and set it aside.

Deglazing

I covered the tops of the roasts with a paste made from garlic, rosemary, salt, and pepper.

Herb paste topping

I added the deglazing liquid and some chicken stock to the bottoms of the two roasting pans (two pans, two roasts on each). They went into the oven at 350°F, the same temperature used to reheat the canneloni, eliminating any wait to reach a new cooking temp. By now it was 1:30.

I filled the now-clean brining pot half full with water, covered it and set it on the stove to boil, then started the jus by heating three jars of store-bought gravy. The pans with the potatoes were set on the two rear turned off burners on the stove, where they would start to warm from the oven exhaust heat (why waste free thermal energy?).

After 45 minutes I rotated the pans in the oven — top to bottom, bottom to top, and both front to back — in order to ensure even cooking. When the roasts reached 135°F (checked with an instant-read digital thermometer), I removed them to a cutting board, removed the butcher’s twine,  and let them sit under a loose foil cover for 20 minutes, during which time they would come up to 145°F from carryover heat.

The potatoes went into the oven to finish heating, the pan juices were whisked into the pork gravy, and the haricots verts were added to the boiling water. I melted a stick of butter, juiced two whole lemons, drained the beans, returned them to the pot, added the butter, lemon, salt & pepper, and let them stay warm in the pot while I sliced the roasts. (Is that last sentence as frantic as I felt?)

Slicing

The potatoes, beans, and jus were put in serving dishes, the sliced pork was transferred to a platter. The time: 3:15 PM. Woo-hoo!

Final platter

The pork was perfect: just past pink, still juicy, and subtly flavored with the garlic and rosemary. Our 25 guests loved it, asking if I’d make it again next year.

I felt like I had run a marathon. I had managed to pull this dinner off by relying on a few tricks known to most caterers:

  1. Make the starches ahead of time and reheat them for service.
  2. Cook the green vegetables at the last minute.
  3. Modify a pre-made gravy with meat drippings and stock.
  4. Brine the meat to keep it moist and to prevent overcooking.

But the most important factor was the same as the secret of comedy: Timing.

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