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A Make-Ahead Dinner Party

Think you don't have time to throw a dinner party? Think again.

Chris Kimball, editor-in-chief of Cook's Illustrated magazine and host of "America's Test Kitchen," shares a menu that can be made in the days leading up to your party, so you're not juggling everything in the hours before guests arrive.

Rustic Caramelized Onion Tarts with Blue Cheese and Walnuts
-Makes two 14 by 8-inch tarts
-Serves 14 to 16

These tarts are not made in a tart pan, but rather are free form and rustic in shape. Note that parchment paper is a must for this recipe. For pizza dough, you can either make your own, use store-bought, or buy some from your local favorite pizzeria.

2 Tbs olive oil, plus extra for greasing hands and brushing the dough
2 lbs onions (about 4 med), halved and sliced 1/4 inch thick
1 tsp brown sugar
½ tsp salt
1 Tbs of water
1 pound of pizza dough (see note), divided into 2 equal pieces
Ground black pepper
1 cup of walnuts, toasted and coarsely shopped
4 ounces blue cheese, crumbled (about 1 cup)
2 scallions, sliced thin

1. Adjust an oven rack to the lowest position, set a baking stone on the rack, and heat the oven to 500 degrees. Heat 2 tbs of the oil in a 12 inch non-stick skillet over medium-low heat until just shimmering. Stir in the onions, sugar, and salt. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are softened and have released their juices, about 10 to 15 minutes. Remove the lid, increase the heat to medium-high, and continue to cook, stirring often, until the onions are deeply browned, 10 to 15 minutes. Off the heat, stir in the water, then transfer to onions to a bowl and refrigerate.

2. Meanwhile, cut two 20-inch lengths of parchment paper and set aside. Coat your fingers and palms generously with olive oil. Working with 1 piece of dough at a time and following the illustrations below, hold the dough up and gently stretch it to a 12-inch length. Place the dough on the parchment sheet and gently dimple the surface of the dough with your fingertips. Using your oiled palms, push and flatten the dough into a 14 by 8-inch oval. Brush the dough with oil and season with pepper.

3. Slip the parchment paper with the dough onto a pizza peel (or inverted baking sheet), then slide it onto the hot baking stone. Bake until dough is cooked through with some spots of light browning on the bottom, about 3 minutes. (If large bubbles form during baking, pop them with the tip of a knife.) Remove the tart shell from the oven with the peel (or pull the parchment paper onto a baking sheet). Transfer the tart shell along with the parchment paper to a baking sheet, and set aside. Repeat this process with the second piece of dough.

4. Scatter the caramelized onions, walnuts, and blue cheese evenly over both the tarts, leaving a ½ inch border around the edge of each tart shell.

5. To Store: Wrap each baking sheet with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 3 days.

6. To Serve: At least 1 hour before baking the tarts, adjust an oven rack to the lowest position , set a baking stone on the rack, and heat the oven to 500 degrees. Working with 1 tart at a time, slip the parchment with the tart onto a pizza peel (or inverted baking sheet), then slide it onto the hot baking stone. Bake until the tart is a deep golden brown, about 9 minutes.

7. Remove the tart from the oven with the peel (or pull the parchment onto a baking sheet). Transfer the tart to a cutting board and slide the parchment out from under the tart; let cool for 5 minutes. While the first tart cools, bake the second tart. Sprinkle with the scallions and cut into 16 pieces before serving.

To Serve Right Away:
Bake and assemble tarts as described in step 6, reducing the baking time to about 7 minutes.

Variation:
Rustic Caramelized Onion Tarts with Provencal Flavors

Follow the recipe for Rustic Caramelized Tarts with Blue Cheese and Walnuts, omitting the walnuts, blue cheese, and scallions. Scatter ½ cup coarsely chopped pitted nicoise olives and 8 anchovy fillets, rinsed, patted dry, and chopped coarse, over the tarts with the onions, then sprinkle each tart with ½ tsp minced thyme leaves and ¼ fennel seeds. Store and bake as directed. Before serving, sprinkle the tarts with 1 tbs minced fresh parsley.

Slow Roasted Beef
-Serves 6 to 8
-Published Jan. 1, 2008 | From Cook's Illustrated

We don't recommend cooking this roast past medium. Open the oven door as little as possible and remove the roast from the oven while taking its temperature. If the roast has not reached the desired temperature in the time specified in step 3, heat the oven to 225 degrees for 5 minutes, shut it off, and continue to cook the roast to the desired temperature. For a smaller (2 ½ - to 3 ½ -pound) roast, reduce the amount of kosher salt to 3 teaspoons (1 ½ teaspoons table salt) and black pepper to 1 ½ teaspoons. For a 4 ½ - to 6-pound roast, cut in half crosswise before cooking to create 2 smaller roasts. Slice the roast as thinly as possible and serve with Horseradish Cream Sauce (see related recipe), if desired.

1 boneless eye-round roast (3 1/2 to 4 1/2 pounds)
4 teaspoons kosher salt or 2 teaspoons table salt
2 teaspoons vegetable oil plus 1 tablespoon
2 teaspoons ground black pepper

1. Sprinkle all sides of roast evenly with salt. Wrap with plastic wrap and refrigerate 18 to 24 hours.

2. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 225 degrees. Pat roast dry with paper towels; rub with 2 teaspoons oil and sprinkle all sides evenly with pepper. Heat remaining tablespoon oil in 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until starting to smoke. Sear roast until browned on all sides, 3 to 4 minutes per side. Transfer roast to wire rack set in rimmed baking sheet. Roast until meat-probe thermometer or instant-read thermometer inserted into center of roast registers 115 degrees for medium-rare, 1 1/4 to 1 3/4 hours, or 125 degrees for medium, 1 3/4 to 2 1/4 hours.

3. Turn oven off; leave roast in oven, without opening door, until meat-probe thermometer or instant-read thermometer inserted into center of roast registers 130 degrees for medium-rare or 140 degrees for medium, 30 to 50 minutes longer. Transfer roast to carving board and let rest 15 minutes. Slice meat crosswise as thinly as possible and serve.

Horseradish Cream Sauce
-Makes about 1 cup
-Published Sept. 1, 2006

½ cup heavy cream
½ cup prepared horseradish
1 teaspoon table salt
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper

Whisk cream in medium bowl until thickened but not yet holding soft peaks, 1 to 2 minutes. Gently fold in horseradish, salt, and pepper. Transfer to serving bowl and refrigerate at least 30 minutes or up to 1 hour before serving.

Make-Ahead Mashed Potatoes
-Serves 8 to 10
-Published March 12, 2007

Be sure to bake the potatoes until they are completely tender; err on the side of over- rather than undercooking. You can use a hand-held mixer instead of a standing mixer, but the potatoes will be lumpier.

5 pounds russet potatoes (about 9 medium), scrubbed and poked several times with a fork
3 cups heavy cream, hot
8 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 stick), melted
Table salt and ground black pepper

1. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 450 degrees.

2. Microwave the potatoes on high power for 16 minutes, turning them over halfway through the cooking time. Transfer the potatoes to the oven and place them directly on the hot oven rack. Bake until a skewer glides easily through the flesh, about 30 minutes, flipping them over halfway through the baking time (do not undercook).

3. Remove the potatoes from the oven, and cut each potato in half lengthwise. Using an oven mitt or a folded kitchen towel to hold the hot potatoes, scoop out all of the flesh from each potato half into a medium bowl. Break the cooked potato flesh down into small pieces using a fork, potato masher, or rubber spatula.

4. Transfer half of the potatoes to the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat the potatoes on high speed until smooth, about 30 seconds, gradually adding the rest of the potatoes to incorporate, until completely smooth and no lumps remain, 1 to 2 minutes, stopping the mixer to scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl as needed.

5. Remove the bowl from the mixer and gently fold in 2 cups of the cream, followed by the butter and 2 teaspoons salt. Gently fold in up to 1/2 cup more of the cream as needed to reach your desired serving consistency. Once the desired serving consistency is reached, gently fold in an additional 1/2 cup cream.

6. To Store: Transfer the mashed potatoes to a large microwave-safe bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for up to 2 days.

7. To Reheat: Poke lots of holes in the plastic wrap with the tip of a knife, and microwave at medium-high (75 percent) power until the potatoes are hot, about 14 minutes, stirring gently halfway through the reheating time.

Poached Pears in Spiced Red Wine
-Serves 6
-Published Dec. 1, 2007 | From ATK Books

For the best texture, try to buy pears that are neither fully ripe nor rock hard; choose those that yield just slightly when pressed. Use a vegetable peeler to peel strips of zest, but take care to avoid the bitter pith beneath the skin. We skip the lemon water bath for the pears in this variation for two reasons: the flavor of lemon and red wine clash in our opinion, and (unlike white wine) the color of the red wine will mask any browning that occurs as the pears are being prepped in step 2. For the red wine, choose a dry medium-bodied red, such as a Côtes du Rhône, Pinot Noir or Merlot.

1 bottle red wine (750-ml, about 3 cups)
¾ cup sugar (5 1/4 ounces)
25 black peppercorns
3 whole cloves
5 sprigs fresh mint leaves
3 sprigs fresh thyme
1 vanilla bean , halved lengthwise, seed scraped out and reserved
½ cinnamon stick
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons juice from 1 lemon
6 ripe but firm pears (about 8 ounces each), preferably Bosc or Bartlett

1. Bring the wine, sugar, peppercorns, cloves, mint, thyme, vanilla seeds and pod, cinnamon, and salt to a simmer in a large saucepan over medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until sugar dissolves completely, about 5 minutes; cover and set aside until needed.

2. Peel, halve, and core the pears following the illustrations in the related quick tips. Add the pears to the wine mixture. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer until pears are tender and a toothpick or skewer can be inserted into pear with very little resistance, 10 to 20 minutes, gently turning the pears over every 5 or so minutes.

3. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the fruit to a shallow casserole dish. Return the syrup to medium heat and simmer until it is slightly thickened and measures 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cups, about 15 minutes. Strain the syrup through a fine mesh strainer, then pour over the pears, discarding the strained solids. Refrigerate the pears until well chilled, at least 2 hours or up to 3 days. To serve, spoon portions of fruit and syrup into individual bowls.

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