Balsamic-Fig Compote

It seems I claim that just about everything on this site is “fast and easy.” But, yeah, it kinda is.

Since I spent my professional life working with limited hours in a rented kitchen or with unlimited hours at god-awful times of the night (holla to the bakers who work while you sleep!) and had only four hands to do the work, easy was a must.

You don’t make a profit in a small food business unless you are seriously efficient. We turned out great food, but we didn’t make anything that took 3 hours to prep. I started out with overly ambitious menus but I’d have been broke within a year if I’d kept it up.

Over time, my area of expertise necessarily became healthy food that doesn’t take too long to make. A skill I’m especially glad to have now, since I am being kept up at all hours of the night by Little Miss Flashdance, the tiny lady residing in my pregnant belly who just loves to schedule her auditions for 3 am. Later, she’ll want to eat at 3 am. Later still, she’ll be on the phone with boys at 3 am.

So I’ll continue with the fast and easy, yes?

You already know how to cook perfect pork tenderloin, which is indeed fast and easy. Now serve that succulent strip of piggy with a luscious fig compote. This is a sweet sauce, for sure, but it’s sweet in a grownup kind of way—sweet with balsamic vinegar, honey, and the concentrated figgy-ness of the dried fruit, stewed until plump and thickly glazed with a syrupy reduction.

And yeah, it’s fast and easy.

Balsamic Fig Compote
Sweet, tangy, and succulent figs are great paired with roasted pork tenderloin. The initial prep takes very little time but the figs will have to simmer (unattended) for 20-30 minutes, so start these first before you prep the rest of the meal. 

6 Servings

1 tsp. olive oil
1/4 cup shallots, minced
1 (7-oz) bag dried figs
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
3 Tbs. honey
1/2 cup water
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp. fresh thyme, minced

Prep figs: Remove the tough stems and cut in half lengthwise.

Heat oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add shallots and cook until soft, stirring often to prevent burning with so little oil.

Add figs, balsamic vinegar, honey, and water. Season with salt and pepper.

Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer 20-30 minutes or until figs are plump and tender. If you lose a lot of water to evaporation and your figs aren’t tender, add more water, cover, and simmer longer.

Remove cover, raise heat to medium, and cook until the liquid reduces to a thick, syrupy consistency.

Add fresh thyme. Adjust salt and pepper as needed.

Note: If reheating leftover figs, you may need to add a bit of water to loosen the reduction.


Perfect Pork Tenderloin – A Method

There are some skills in the kitchen that, once mastered, pay off again and again. Basic techniques that can transform all of your cooking from good to great.

Proper salting is an example. Or blanching vegetables to keep them crisp and vibrant. And, of course, cooking meat so that it is tender and flavorful before any sauce ever touches it. I’ve already covered how to grill chicken, now it’s time for some juicy piggy!

Pork tenderloin is a great meat to cook at home. It’s very lean with a fat content only slightly higher than chicken breasts, you can successfully roast a small loin that will serve as few as 2 people, and it cooks quickly due to the small size. It’s also one of the most tender cuts of pork, which is especially important now that commercial pork has lost its former succulence; pigs are now bred to be very lean in order to be “the other white meat.”

Pork tenderloin is also terrifically easy to master. All you need is a standard meat thermometer. With one of these in your kitchen toolkit, you can cook perfect piggy every time.  Aim for a final temperature (after resting) of 145F, and you’ll have luscious (yet safe to eat) pork on your plate.  You can also use an instant-read thermometer, but you can’t leave that in the oven.

The easiest way to reach the optimal final temperature and also develop a flavorful brown crust is to sear first, then bake to finish.


How to cook perfect, moist pork tenderloin: 

1. Buy pork tenderloin, not pork loin. I find that people are often confused about this.  Learn the difference: pork tenderloins are relatively thin strips of meat, with a maximum 2-inch diameter and a dark color.  Pork loin is much larger, pale, and often sold as “loin roast” or cut into “butterfly loin chops”. Pork loin is not nearly as tender and is best when brined before cooking.

2. Remove the silver skin. It’s that wide piece of silvery membrane attached to the thick end and it is chewy and tough. Great video demonstration here.

3. Season well. Rub pork with a little oil and plenty of kosher salt, freshly cracked pepper, and any dried herbs or seasonings. Don’t be timid with salt or spices — the interior will not be in direct contact with the seasonings and you need to go heavier than you might think.

4. Sear on all sides in a preheated skillet set over high heat until golden brown.  Do not sear for too long or you risk overcooking the meat and making it tough. One minute per side is plenty. Sear only one loin at a time to prevent overcrowding your pan, which will create steam and reduce browning. Don’t shake the pan or shift the meat while it’s browning. Move the meat only when you’re ready to turn it over.

5. Finish in the oven and check internal temperature. Move the meat to a baking sheet or dish and roast in a preheated 375F oven until 140F internal temperature. This usually takes around 15 minutes, but measure the temp with a meat thermometer rather than relying on a time measurement, since your searing time and tenderloin size may vary. Insert the thermometer lengthwise into the thickest end of the tenderloin, as shown.

6. Let rest. Remove loin(s) from the hot pan to a platter, cover loosely with foil, and let rest for 10 minutes.  Slice and serve.

When sliced, the pork should be blushing pink in the center, not gray. Don’t worry if you’ve been warned not to eat undercooked pork — pork is safe at 145F and your tenderloin will rise to that temp while it rests. The tenderloin naturally has a slight pink color when properly cooked.

Get creative when seasoning your pork! Fresh herbs are an obvious choice, with thyme, sage, and rosemary being solid choices that also work well with many sauces. Use generous amounts of chopped herbs on the surface of the meat to ensure that the interior is seasoned well enough.

Dried spice mixes are also great; try a mix of dried coriander, cumin, and smoked paprika to take the tenderloin in an entirely different direction. You can also mix dried spices and fresh herbs — one of my favorite combinations is fresh sage, fresh rosemary, and Chinese five-spice.

Up next: A quick fruit sauce for pork tenderloin. Subscribe to receive the recipe for a luscious (and easy) Balsamic Fig Compote when it’s posted.

If you’ve got any favorite spice or herb rubs for pork tenderloin, please comment and share

Cannellini Beans with Tomatoes and Swiss Chard

I’m originally a Louisiana girl and down there beans come in two varieties: red and white. Red are kidney beans and white are navy beans. We don’t go much farther than that. (Just forget lentils entirely. What are they?) Now that I’m a Texan, it’s pinto or black beans, almost exclusively.

So it makes sense that I still look at the wide world of bean recipes with an odd sense of wonder. Even simple recipes take my fancy like they’re the most innovative dishes I’ve ever seen. I don’t need molecular gastronomy just yet — I’m still finding great pleasure in the basics. Especially when the basics are easy, low-fuss, and nutritious, like these cannellini beans with tomatoes and chard.

Cannellini beans are white kidney beans, longer and a tad sturdier than smaller, rounder navy beans. They have a mellow, earthy flavor. You could start with dry beans and cook them until tender, but for me, good canned cannellini are just too easy and quick to bother with all that.

The tender beans are quickly simmered with garlic, sweet canned plum tomatoes, a bit of dried red chile flakes for heat, and silky wilted chard. The bones of this recipe come from Lidia Bastianich, but I’ve tweaked it for my taste by adding oregano and fresh basil for more oomph along with a grating of salty Parmesan over the top. The result is a steaming bowl of comfort food, good for a side dish or a meal on its own.

The La. girl in me required a wedge of hot, crispy cornbread with my beans, and a few slices of hot Italian sausage mixed in would have really sent me to the moon. It’s probably due to all those bowls of red beans with andouille I grew up with, but still, a bit of sausage would have made this dish even more fabulous.

Cannellini with Tomatoes and Swiss Chard
A quickly simmered dish of mellow beans, sweet tomatoes, and silky wilted chard, topped with salty Parmesan cheese. Great as a vegetarian main dish or as side dish for grilled meats.

Serves 4 as a main dish

Adapted from Lidia’s Italy on PBS.

1 Tbs. olive oil
4 cloves garlic, sliced
2 (19 oz.) cans cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
1 (28 oz.) can peeled plum tomatoes packed in puree
1 bunch chard, ends trimmed and leaves chopped into large chunks
2 Tbs. tomato paste
dried red pepper flakes
1 pinch sugar
1/4 tsp. dried oregano
2 Tbs. fresh basil, minced
salt and pepper
freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Put a large pot of salted water on to boil.

Pour canned tomatoes into a bowl and use your hand to gently crush the whole tomatoes into rough pieces.

In a large high-sided skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

Add the drained beans, tomatoes with juices, tomato paste, red pepper flakes, oregano, sugar, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil then lower the heat and simmer uncovered until thickened, about 10 minutes.

Drop the chard into boiling water, blanch for 30-45 seconds or until just tender. Drain well. Stir chard into beans. Add fresh basil and adjust seasonings. Remove from heat.

Serve hot with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

**UPDATE: I’ve now also made this without bothering to blanch the chard first.  Instead, just chop the chard into 1″ pieces and stir into the simmering beans.  Easier and just as good!

Halibut with Coconut Milk, Lemongrass, and Chilies

Even professional cooks freak out when guests are coming for dinner. Maybe even more so, because the pressure is on. How do you cook for friends who know you do this for a living but have never tasted your cooking? It’s hard, at least for me. I’ve cooked for hundreds of happy customers and yet there’s always a sense of “Will they find out I’m a total fraud?”

Couple that with my inability to do two things at once, especially if any of it is social, so when guests are coming I fall back on a few standby recipes, mostly things that can be made ahead of time and finished off at the last minute. Grandma calls that “pulling a Darla.” I call it managing to serve dinner on time while also buzzing on a second martini.

(My refrigerator has two recipe cards stuck to a magnet. One is for “Darla’s coffee”; the other is for “Darla’s martini”. Oh, how pregnancy has changed my rituals!)

This Halibut with Coconut Milk is a dish I love to cook on such occasions or on any busy day. You can completely prep the ingredients ahead of time, wrap them in individual envelopes of foil (“hot pockets” in my house, en papillote to the French, but referring to parchment), and just slide them into a very hot oven 10 minutes before dinner.

Using foil seems like the kind of cooking you would do on a weeknight but never for guests, yet it’s really perfectly respectable, even for a fancy dinner party. This method of cooking steams the fish in the oven and results in succulent, moist flesh scented with the aromatics. In turn, the liquid absorbs all the juices from the fish, making your sauce tastier as well, without having to make fish stock. It’s a win-win situation.

Here, halibut fillets are baked in coconut milk infused with the brightness of fresh lemongrass, lime, and cilantro. Slices of ginger, chilies, and garlic bring heat while a touch of sesame oil adds a deeper background note. The coconut milk gives richness without a leaving a heavy feeling on the tongue, allowing the flavor of the fish to shine through.

To serve, lift the fish from the foil envelopes and pour the juices over as a sauce. Pair it with a bed of jasmine rice or bok choy sautéed in sesame oil with garlic, red bell peppers, and shiitake mushrooms.

You can use either regular coconut milk or light coconut milk, it doesn’t matter. Let your calorie needs decide.

Halibut with Coconut Milk, Lemongrass, and Chilies
Succulent halibut fillets bake in coconut milk infused with lemongrass, ginger, garlic, chilies, and sesame oil. This method of baking in foil is perfect for make-ahead dinners.

Serves 4

Adapted from Jamie Oliver’s The Naked Chef Takes Off.
(He uses monkfish, wrapped in banana leaves.)

4 (6-oz) pieces of halibut or other white fish, skin removed
1 fresh red or green chili, thinly sliced
2 stalks lemongrass, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 thumb-sized pieces of ginger, peeled and thinly sliced into rounds
1/4 cup cilantro, minced
2 limes, zested and juiced
2 Tbs. sesame oil
1 cup light or regular coconut milk
salt and pepper, to taste
heavy-duty foil

Lay out four pieces of heavy duty foil, about 15×10″, large enough to enclose your fish.

To mince lemongrass: Cut off the root end. Cut away the woody, darker green section near the top. (You can use this for broth.) Remove the outer tough leaves from the tender lower section. Mince the inner leaves.  (See picture above for guidance.)

Combine lemongrass, chilies, garlic, ginger, cilantro, lime juice, lime zest, sesame oil, and coconut milk in a medium bowl.  Season with salt and pepper.

Use a slotted spoon to lift the solids from the coconut milk. Divide these solids between your pieces of foil, making a bed for each piece of fish.

Place the fish on top of the solid aromatics. Season with salt and pepper. Fold the foil over the top and fold tightly along the sides to make a rectangle.  Leave one end open for adding the liquid.

Pour or spoon the remaining coconut milk mixture into each foil packet, dividing equally. Seal the foil pouches completely.

Place foil pouches on a baking sheet. Refrigerate or bake immediately.

Bake at 450F for 8-10 minutes or until you hear the liquid sizzle when you jiggle the pan. Open a pouch and check for doneness. The fish will continue to cook a little after you take it out of the oven; if your fish is almost done, go ahead and take it out.  Thinner fish fillets will take less time.  Open foil immediately and serve.

To serve, lift the fish fillets out of the foil with a spatula. Spoon the juices over the fish.  Discard the large pieces of ginger.

Garnish with fresh cilantro.