Hosting loved ones during the hubbub of the holidays can be a challenge, even for professional chefs. Taking a lighthearted approach and letting good ingredients shine is the answer, says Joe Truex, executive chef at Watershed on Peachtree in Atlanta. "When I'm cooking at home, I want to make it fun and enjoy myself. I've learned to keep my menus simple -- and definitely seasonal."
Truex started cooking at an early age. Growing up in Louisiana influenced him. "There's such a rich food culture there, and I was always exposed to people who were interested in food."
Truex's mother, "a teacher and a wonderful cook," was one of those people. "I also had a well-off, retired aunt who lived in a house on our property in rural Louisiana," Truex says. "I was her favorite. She'd give me money to make her things like French toast and eggs."
After training at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, and working in restaurants in Europe and across the U.S., Truex was ready to come home. "I saw the world," he says. "As a chef, I'm ready to embrace my roots and my heritage."
But he's a changed man (and chef), thanks to his experiences. "The first part of my life was traveling and being exposed to different cultures and points of view. As a chef, I like to reflect that experience in my cooking." As a result, his personal signature is giving familiar ingredients a creative twist. "And preparing them in a lighter way," he adds. "I don't eat the same way I used to, and cooking lighter is also important to me as a chef."
For the holidays, Truex offers a simple yet special menu, ideal for entertaining. "Pork is something that's familiar, and the brining process is easy but adds flavor. The mushroom fricassee is basically a stew that cooks along with the pork, and the pan drippings make the sauce," Truex says. Just pull it out of the oven and enjoy time with your guests, he says. That's what the holidays are all about.
"Roast pork is very classic and Southern. I love mushrooms with pork: The flavors complement each other so well," Truex says. "Brining the pork increases its flavor and moisture retention. I love that this dish has deep flavors but a light feel."
Roast Pork Loin With Wild Mushroom Fricassee
Makes 8 servings
1 cup kosher salt
1 gallon water
1 2 ½-pound boneless pork loin roast, well-trimmed
4 large garlic cloves, pressed
4 tsp chopped fresh rosemary or 2 tsp dried
½ tsp black pepper
1 cup shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and quartered
1 cup button mushrooms, quartered
1 cup oyster mushrooms, stemmed
1 cup cremini mushrooms, quartered
4 ounces (1/2 cup) extra-virgin olive oil
2 ounces (1/4 cup) good quality low-sodium soy sauce
2 Tbsp ground black pepper
1. Make salt brine by dissolving kosher salt in water. Place pork loin roast in saltwater brine until covered, and refrigerate 24 hours. Remove roast, discard brine, and pat roast until dry.
2. Preheat oven to 400ºF. Rub garlic and rosemary all over pork roast, and season with black pepper. Place pork, fat side down, in a large skillet, and sear over medium heat until golden. Turn over, and sear the other side until golden. Remove from pan.
3. Toss mushrooms with olive oil, and season with soy sauce and pepper. Place mushrooms in the bottom of a roasting pan, and put the pork roast on top of the mushrooms. Roast pork 30 to 40 minutes, until thermometer inserted into center of pork registers 155°F. Remove from oven, and set aside for 10 minutes.
4. Remove loin from pan, slice, and arrange in a serving dish. Spoon mushrooms and sauce over the top, and serve.
Green Bean Casserole
Makes 8 servings
"Green bean casserole -- it doesn't get any more Southern holiday than that," Truex says. "This recipe keeps all the creamy goodness the classic dish brings, but without the fat and calories."
1 pound fresh green beans
3½ ounces raw walnuts, soaked (preferably overnight but for at least 30 minutes)
1 Tbsp tahini paste
1 cup nondairy milk (such as rice milk; use dairy milk if preferred)
1 Tbsp organic canola oil
1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
½ pound cremini or button mushrooms, sliced
½ tsp tamari or soy sauce (use tamari for gluten-free version)
¼ tsp cayenne pepper
1 Tbsp plain unbleached flour (use sweet rice flour or gluten-free flour mix for gluten free version)
2 bay leaves
freshly cracked black pepper
sea salt to taste
For the onion topping
1 medium red onion, sliced into thin rounds
½ cup quinoa flakes
¼ cup flaked (sliced) almonds
2 tsp dried marjoram
2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1. Preheat oven to 350ºF.
2. Top and tail green beans, and steam about 3 minutes, until bright green. Remove from heat, and plunge into a bowl of ice water. Drain, and set aside.
3. Prepare topping: Separate sliced onion into rings and toss with quinoa flakes, almonds, marjoram, and olive oil.
4. Drain walnuts and blend in a food processor with tahini and half the milk until smooth and creamy.
5. Heat canola and olive oils over medium heat in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add garlic, and cook 1 minute. Add mushrooms, tamari or soy sauce, and cayenne pepper. Continue to toss, cooking mushrooms evenly until soft and golden. Add flour and cook, stirring, over low heat 1 more minute.
6. Add walnut mixture, remaining milk, and bay leaves. Bring sauce to a very gentle simmer, and allow to reduce and thicken over low heat for a few minutes, stirring. Once the sauce has thickened, season with black pepper and sea salt, and remove bay leaves.
7. Arrange steamed green beans in a good-sized casserole dish, and top with mushroom sauce and then the onion topping. Bake around 20 minutes, until the green beans are bubbling hot and the top is nicely golden.
Hot Pepper Slaw
Makes 8 servings
"I love the Asian treatment with this coleslaw recipe," Truex says. "It's crunchy, light, and flavorful."
1 medium head green cabbage
1 medium head red cabbage
1 tsp sea salt
3 large carrots
¼ cup minced scallions
1 Tbsp toasted sesame seeds
For the dressing
1⁄3 cup unseasoned rice vinegar
1⁄3 cup hot pepper vinegar
¼ cup light brown sugar
1½ Tbsp dark-roasted sesame oil
1. Discard the outer leaves of cabbages. Cut heads in quarters, and remove and discard cores. Slice cabbage thinly or shred in a food processor. In a large bowl, layer cabbage with sea salt. Toss to distribute salt evenly, and let cabbage sit 1 hour to soften.
2. Meanwhile, peel carrots and grate into thin shreds.
3. Drain off any liquid produced by the cabbage, and rinse cabbage well in several changes of cold water to remove excess salt. Taste the cabbage; if it is still too salty, rinse again.
4. Add carrots to cabbage, and mix well.
5. For the dressing, whisk rice vinegar, hot pepper vinegar, brown sugar, and sesame oil together in a small bowl.
6. Pour dressing over cabbage and mix well. Chill. Garnish with minced scallions and toasted sesame seeds before serving.
Per serving: 120 calories, 3 g protein, 22 g carbohydrate, 3 g fat (1 g saturated fat), 6 g fiber, 13 g sugar, 360 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 25%
Makes 8 servings
"What would the holidays be without a bubbly baked casserole in an earthenware dish? I love turnips, but even people who think they don't will enjoy this gratin," Truex says.
olive oil for the baking dish
1 garlic clove, cut in half
2 pounds turnips, preferably small ones, peeled and sliced in thin rounds
salt and freshly ground pepper
4 ounces Gruyère cheese, grated (about 1 cup tightly packed)
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves, roughly chopped
2½ cups low-fat (1%) milk
1. Preheat oven to 400ºF. Oil a 2-quart baking dish or gratin dish, and rub the sides and bottom with the cut clove of garlic.
2. Place sliced turnips in a bowl, and season with salt and pepper. Add half the cheese and all the thyme and toss together, then transfer to the gratin dish and pour on milk. It should just cover the turnips.
3. Place in oven and bake 30 minutes. Remove from oven. Push the turnips down into the milk with the back of a large spoon. Sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top and return to oven. Bake another 40 to 50 minutes, until all the milk is absorbed, the turnips are soft, and the dish is browned on top.
Per serving: 115 calories, 7 g protein, 12 g carbohydrate, 5 g fat (3 g saturated fat), 16 mg cholesterol, 2 g fiber, 8 g sugar, 135 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 35%
Sweet Potato Pecan Parfait
Makes 8 servings
"Here's a healthy yet satisfying end to a meal. Sweet potatoes and pecans are a classic pairing, but unlike other desserts featuring the two, this one isn't cloyingly sweet," Truex says.
5½ pounds sweet potatoes (about 4 large)
1 cup low-fat plain Greek yogurt
3 Tbsp honey
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
¹⁄8 tsp ground nutmeg
½ cup unpacked light brown sugar
2 cups pecan halves, toasted and coarsely chopped
1. Preheat oven to 350º F. Roast sweet potatoes until soft and cooked, 30 to 40 minutes.
2. When potatoes are fully cooked, remove and cool. Scoop potatoes from their jackets into a mixing bowl, and add yogurt, honey, salt, spices, and brown sugar. Beat with a whisk or electric beaters until smooth.
3. Make alternate layers of sweet potato mixture and chopped pecans in a parfait cup or glass. Sprinkle top with chopped pecans. Serve.
Per serving: 489 calories, 8 g protein, 77 g carbohydrate, 18 g fat (2 g saturated fat), 2 mg cholesterol, 11 g fiber, 30 g sugar, 324 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 31%
The Simple Party Life
Here's how Chef Joe Truex entertains at home.
Keep it uncomplicated. This is not the time to attempt fussy recipes or make extra work for yourself. "I like to make pastas and braises and rustic things that I can cook easily and enjoy the process," he says.
It takes a village. "Even if you like to cook, it takes a lot of people to make a chef look good." He recommends establishing relationships with your local butcher, fishmonger, and other food purveyors. Talk to them about your menu plan -- they can steer you toward the freshest cuts of meat and fish, he says. They can also do some of the prep and trimming for you, and provide cooking tips as well.
Invest in solid cookware. "I'm a big fan of iron," Truex says. "I love cast-iron cookware, like Staub and Le Creuset." Using these heavy, sturdy pans redistributes heat and cooks food slowly, which is ideal for recipes like Truex's pork tenderloin.
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