Sunday, February 7, 2016

Weeknight Dinner: Roasted Pork Tenderloin

Pork Tenderloin served over Israeli Couscous
Pork tenderloin can be a fantastic weeknight meal.  Toss it into a zip-top bag with some oil and seasoning as little as a half-hour before you cook it and it comes out great.  Let it marinate overnight and it'll taste even better.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Before we get to the recipes, we need to address a couple of elephants in the room.

Loin vs. Tenderloin
First of all, let's not confuse pork tenderlin" with "pork loin."  Both are delicious cuts recipes for one can be adapted to the other, but they are quite different.  Pork loin is a long tubular cut of meat about 4 to 6 inches in diameter.  A whole loin is over two feet long, but most butchers cut it into shorter roasts that look like small logs.  It is often sold with a cap of fat left on top and tied with butcher's twine.

Tenderloin is a much smaller piece of meat.  It's usually no more than 2 inches in diameter and less than a foot long.  One end is fat and it tapers down to a point.  It's extremely lean and naturally tender because it sits under neat the loin up against the rib cage, so it does very little work when the animal walks.  On a cow, the tenderloin is sold as fillet, the most expensive cut.  On a pig, it's usually cheaper than bacon, making it a great bargain.  On a chicken, it's the cut that becomes chicken fingers.

Pink is Okay
Let's get this out of the way upfront.  If you want to make excellent, buttery, melt-in-your-mouth tenderloin, you need to get over your fear of eating slightly pink pork.  If you want to cook it until completely white, you can do it, but it won't be nearly as good and you're much more likely to end-up with dry meat.  There's a very fine line between well-done and dry with this cut and I don't think I've ever nailed it, myself.

Cooking pork to well-done was born in the 1960's and 70's from fear of the parasite "trichinosis."  However, even the CDC's own website says, "Successful trichinae control programs by the U.S. pork industry have nearly eliminated the disease in domestic swine raised in confinement..."  So, if you're going to buy your pork from a commercial source, it's pretty safe to eat your pork cooked to medium, which is just right for this cut, in my opinion.

How to Cook It
I'm going to give you a recipe, but here are a few of tips and tricks that you can use whenever cooking a pork tenderloin:
  • Don't buy it pre-marinated.  Why?  The ingredients list should be reason enough.  You can't pronounce half of the ingredients and it's incredibly easy to toss together your own simple marinade.  Also, this is not a cut of eat that needs a lot of flavor added to it.  It tastes pretty good on its own with salt and pepper. 
  • Marinate a minimum of 30 minutes up to overnight in a simple vinaigrette or just herbs and oil with salt and pepper.  That's it.  it's really that simple.
  • Treat this cut like you would a steak.  Sear it on all sides, either on a grill or in an oven-safe pan, and then finish it in the oven or on a cooler side of the grill.  If you need to, remove it from the heat after searing and allow the pan or grill to cool down before finishing.
  • Use a meat thermometer.  As I mentioned above, there's literally a difference of less than 5 minutes of cooking between done and overdone.  A meat thermometer will help you nail your target consistently every time.
  • Cook until 5 to 10 degrees less than your final temperature (135 degrees) and let rest with a loose piece of foil on top.  It will coast another 10 degrees on the counter for a final temp of about 145.  A simple instant read thermometer should be in every kitchen (like this one).  If you want absolute insurance, get a remote probe thermometer that you can keep in the meat and it'll beep when it's done.
  • Serve it with a simple starch and vegetable.  Mashed potatoes are great here, giving you the same "meat and potatoes" comfort feeling as roast beef or pot roast.
  • Tenderloins are usually sold as a two-pack in a cryo-vac package.  They're often swimming in a slippery pink juice that is basically dissolved meat proteins.  I like to open up the pack when I get it home, drain the juice, pat the loins dry, then wrap them separately in plastic wrap and put them in the freezer.  When I'm ready to make one, I pop it in the microwave for a few minutes on medium power to defrost it.  You can also defrost it in the fridge overnight or all day.
And now, the recipe:

Roasted Pork Tenderloin With Garlic, Herbs, and Sundried Tomatoes

Note: The herbs, garlic and tomatoes in this recipe are just made for swapping-out.  I've done garlic and rosemary.  You could use some citrus zest and juice.  You could even tip in some spicy-hot things from your pantry.  The sky is the limit.  Just keep the oil since it helps carry the flavor (many seasonings are oil-soluble) and the salt and pepper.

1 pork tenderloin
1/4 cup olive oil or vegetable oil
1 teaspoon dried Italian Seasoning (herbs only, no salt)
2 cloves garlic, lightly crushed
10 sundried tomatoes (approximately)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper

1) Add everything but the tenderloin to a gallon zip-top bag.  Close the bag and mix the ingredients up.

2) Open the bag and add the tenderloin.  Re-close the bag, removing as much air as possible.  Squish the ingredients around in the bag to coat the meat.  Allow to marinate on the counter up to 45 minutes or place in a shallow pan in the refrigerator (to prevent leakage) and marinate up to 24 hours.

3) When ready to cook, heat the oven to 325 degrees.  Heat an oven-safe pan (cast iron works great) on the stove top on medium-high heat.  Using tongs, remove the meat from the bag, leaving most of the oil and seasonings behind.  Place in hot pan and brown evenly on all sides.

4) Once meat is browned, remove pan from the burner.  Allow sizzling to calm a bit and add the remaining contents of the bag to the pan.  Using tongs, place the tomatoes on top of the pork to keep them from burning in the bottom of the pan.

5) If using a probe thermometer, place the probe into the meat, trying to get the tip of the probe in the center of the meat towards the thicker end.  Place the pan in the pre-heated oven and roast until the center of the meat reaches 135 degrees.

6) Remove the meat from the oven, cover loosely with a piece of foil, and allow to rest for 5 to 10 minutes.  Slice thinly with a sharp knife and serve with a starch and vegetable of your choice.  Center of the thickest part should be just slightly pink and very juicy.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Make The New Year Simple, Host a Brunch!

For the last few Christmases, I've hosted a small brunch for my immediate family (about 8 to 9 people).  It was born out of necessity--an event tucked into the few hours between opening gifts with my daughter in the morning and when we have to leave in the late afternoon to travel to my wife's family's gathering.

The first couple of years, we kind of went all out, with me and my father trying to pull off two kinds of quiche, home fries, baked ham, his famous "French Toast Casserole" (basically, a bread pudding) and a beautiful table spread.  To be honest, it was hectic, and always ended-up with too much food.

This year, I think we got it just right, and it occurred to me that it was so low-stress and delicious that it might just be great for those of you who spend New Year's Eve out on the town and would like something delicious to tuck-into with your friends the next morning, late morning of course, after catching-up on some sleep.

Here are the basic pointers:
  • Choose dishes that can be prepped the night before and finished quickly in the morning.
  • Choose dishes that can be cooked unattended in the oven or a slow cooker.
  • Choose dishes that can be placed on a buffet so guests can help themselves.  This saves time setting the table and gets the food out faster while it's still hot.
  • Choose dishes that still taste great at room temperature.

Here are some dishes that have worked well for us:

English Muffin Toasting Bread - This bread is incredibly easy to cobble-together and it's a hit at whatever party I bring it to.  When it is sliced and toasted-up, it tastes exactly like English Muffins.  Since it's a batter-style yeast bread, there's no kneading and forming involved.  Just toss the ingredients into a stand mixer, let it do the hard work, then scrape it into a bowl, let it rise, and pop it into the oven.

I like to bake it days or weeks ahead of time and freeze a couple of loaves.  I then take them out the night before.  Serve toasted with Honey Butter (see below) and some quality fruit jams.  It also makes an interactive appetizer if you set out the loaves, cutting board, bread knife, and a toaster.  Guests can help themselves while you're getting the rest of the food out.

Honey Butter - If you want to make a dinner party or a brunch fancy without any work at all, serve this with the bread.  Take a stick of unsalted butter and beat it smooth with an electric mixer.  Add a couple of tablespoons of honey and a pinch of salt to taste (seriously...just taste it with a spoon).  Scoop it into a custard cup, top with plastic wrap, and refrigerate indefinitely.  Let it sit out at room temperature before serving for soft whipped butter.

Baked Egg Frittata/Casserole - This is the easiest and quickest way to get both the eggs and the meat onto the menu.  To save time, crack the eggs into a jar or plastic container in advance and chop all of the vegetables and meat and store in zip bags.

To Make:  Crack a 12 eggs into a mixing bowl.  Add 3/4 cup of milk and beat thoroughly with a fork or whisk.  Chop 3/4 pound of kielbasa, baked ham, or breakfast sausage.  You can also use leftover turkey, beef, pork or even deli meat.  Chop 6 to 8 oz of frozen broccoli.  Finely mince 1 small onion.  Dice 8oz of cheese (American, Jack, Cheddar, or or similar). Quarter 1 pint of cherry tomatoes. 

In a frying pan, sweat the onion until they soften.  Add the meat to warm through (if using cooked meat) or brown (if using raw meat).  Add the broccoli to warm through.  Grease the bottom of a 13x9 glass baking dish.  Layer in the hot ingredients, followed by the cheese, then tomatoes.  Pour the egg mixture over the other ingredients and work-out any air pockets with a fork.  Bake at 375 degrees until the center barely jiggles when you shake the pan, about 30-40 minutes.

Dutch Baby Puffed Pancakes - This is a great way to get something like pancakes on the table fast and it has the added advantage of being unique and impressive when it comes out of the oven.  They're essentially large popovers that taste like a cross between a French crepe and an American pancake.  Serve slices with a sprinkling of powdered sugar and maple syrup.  Cinnamon sugar works well, also.

I recommend mixing the batter the night before and storing it in a sealed plastic container in the fridge.  It will actually rise and brown better than batter made fresh (see the science here).  Make one Dutch Baby for every 4 to 5 people, so you may need two pans.  The Alton Brown recipe above is baked for roughly the same time and temperature as the Fritatta, so they can be baked together.  Just have separate timers on-hand.

Beverages - Have coffee set-up and ready to brew the night before so you can just press the button.  Put the brewer right onto the buffet if you can with mugs, cream, and sweeteners.  Set-out a thermos pot with hot water and tea bags or an electric kettle if you have one.  Juice is nice for those who don't drink coffee or tea and packets of hot cocoa mix would be great for kids with fresh mini marshmallows or a can of whipped cream.

Granola & Yogurt - Homemade or good quality store-bought Granola (such as Cascadian Farms) with milk and a fancy bowl of quality yogurt make for a great offering if you want to do less cooking or you want lighter fare.  I recommend using Whole Milk plain organic yogurt (Such as Stonyfield or Brown Cow), as it tends to be creamer and less tart (and thus, more decadent and special).  Instead of buying Vanilla flavored yogurt, try sweetening plain yogurt with real Maple Syrup.

Fresh Fruit - A fruit salad or sliced fresh melon is nice.  You could also just set out a bowl with bananas and Clementine oranges.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Halloween Pork Stew

This year, Halloween happened to fall on a Saturday and both sets of Grandparents wanted to come over to go trick-or-treating with the little one.  I was trying to figure out what to serve for dinner that wouldn't interfere with our candy-acquiring activities and I happened across an interesting recipe a few weeks before that I had been wanting to try.  It fit the bill and turned out absolutely amazing.

The recipe is based on a "Pork and Pumpkin Stew" recipe from Williams-Sonoma.  It requires a well-stocked spice cabinet, but is totally worth it.  I've modified it slightly to use butternut squash, which is much easier to find year-round and easier to peel since it has no bumps in the skin.  I also substituted a few ingredients that were clearly there to encourage sales of obscure Williams-Sonoma products (like 2 tablespoons of chicken demi-glace).

I hope you enjoy it as much as we did.  I've made it twice, now.

Halloween Pork Stew

Note: This recipe would clearly work best with a fatty cut of pork such as boneless pork butt or shoulder, which gets soft without drying out.  However, I had lean pork loin on-hand and it worked just fine.

2 pounds boneless pork shoulder, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 pound peeled, diced butternut squash or pumpkin
1 yellow onion, diced
1 1/2 teaspoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 cups chicken stock
1 (9oz) can diced tomatoes
1 1/2 tablespoons cider vinegar  

1/2 teaspoon powdered ginger
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon corn starch 

3 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

1) Heat oven to 325 degrees F.

2) In a small bowl, mix the spices (ginger, cinnamon, coriander, nutmeg, cloves, pepper flakes) and corn starch.  Set aside.

3) In a large heavy oven-safe dutch oven, heat the oil and brown the chunks of pork.  Remove the pork to a plate to rest.

4) Add onion to the pan and more oil if needed.  Sauté over medium heat until the onion begins to soften.  Add garlic, tomato paste, and spice mixture.  Sauté until the spices bloom and begin to smell but do not burn them.  Add the chicken stock and use a wooden spoon to scrape-up any bits on the bottom of the pan.

5) Add the tomatoes, squash, pork, and vinegar to the pan.  Stir well.  Taste and add salt and pepper as needed.

6) Cover, bring to a boil, and transfer to the oven.  Cook until the pork and squash is fork-tender, about 2 to 2 1/2 hours.

This is best served in a shallow bowl over white rice or with nice crusty bread or toast.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Leftover Turkey Chili

So your Dad and your Aunt Edna are the only ones who eat dark meat at Thanksgiving.  I think we can all sympathize with that (even if we don't all have an Aunt Edna...I don't).  That's why turkey breeders in the U.S. breed birds with massive breasts.  Most of us reach for the white meat (and then thoroughly cover it in a pool of gravy...amiright?).

So what are you supposed to do with all that leftover drumstick and thigh meat?  A 20-pound bird can sometimes yield as much as a 2 to 3 pounds of it and it's usually much darker than dark chicken meat.  For years, I tucked it into the freezer.  I might use a couple pieces here and there in a turkey stew, but my wife usually finds them and picks them out.  Eventually, I'd have a block of unrecognizable freezer-burned brown meat and into the garbage it would go.  What a waste.

Enter my recipe for Turkey or Chicken Chili.  It's a loose interpretation of a recipe from Cook's Illustrated magazine for beef chili made from ground beef.  One day, I discovered that you could swap out the ground meat for chunks of dark meat turkey and by the time it was done stewing-down in tomatoes, it'd taste like rich pulled pork or beef.  A real bonus is that it can be done in the slow cooker.

Leftover Dark Meat Turkey Chili

Notes: The amount and kind of meat is flexible here.  If all you have is a pound and 3/4, that's fine.  If it's over 2 pounds, that's fine, too.  Turkey works well, as does chicken, or even chunks of uncooked pork butt or pork shoulder (you can pull it out, shred it, then put it back in at the end).  You can also mix dark and white meat.

This recipe makes a mild, tomato-flavored chili.  If you like it spicier, double-up on the pepper flakes and cayenne.

2 Pounds Cooked Dark Turkey Meat
2 (15-oz) cans red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
2 (28-oz) cans crushed tomatoes
2 medium onions, chopped coarsely
1 red bell pepper
6 medium cloves garlic, minced

1/4 cup chili powder
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, to taste

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1) In a small bowl, mix the spices (chili powder, cumin, pepper flakes, oregano, cayenne, salt).  Set aside.

2) In a sauté pan, sweat the onions and pepper in oil over medium heat until they begin to soften.  Add the garlic and spices.  Stir well (it'll look like a brown mess), allowing the oil and heat to release the flavors in the spices.  Remove from heat before it burns.

3) Place the meat, beans, vegetable and spice mixture, and tomatoes into a 6-quart slow cooker.  Stir well.  Cook on low 6 to 8 hours until mixture is well cooked and darkens in color.  If it is not thickening and you like a thicker chili, remove the cover during the last hour or two.

4) Serve in bowls with classic chili toppings such as a dollup of sour cream, shredded cheese, or chopped scallions.

Stove-Top Method:

1) For step #2 above, use a heavy-bottom dutch oven instead of a saute pan.

2) For step #3 Pour remaining ingredients into the dutch oven.  Cover, bring to a boil, reduce to a slow simmer and simmer 4 hours.  Uncover, stir, and simmer 3-4 more hours until mixture darkens and thickens.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Cast Iron "Chicken Fryer"

Recently, my wife and I were perusing our favorite Antique and Primitive store when I happened upon a uniquely shaped cast iron pan hanging on the wall.  It was about 10 inches across but 3 inches deep, far deeper than your average frying pan but much too shallow to be considered a dutch oven or a soup pot.  It had a side handle like a frying pan and was in excellent, ready-to-cook condition.

I picked it up, turned it over, and was surprised to see that it was a Wagner piece and that it was marked only $25.  Wagner's are not exactly rare, but they are sought-after because they're quite old and not manufactured anymore, usually very smooth (as opposed to the bumpy finish found on most newer cast iron), and a bit on the thinner side, making them a little bit lighter.  This particular one was a unique shape that I hadn't seen before and I wasn't sure what it was called.

As much as I wanted to buy it, I really have no room to store additional pans, so I put it down and walked away.  About a month later, we were back at the same store and it was still there.  That time, I couldn't resist any longer and I snatched it up.  I brought it home, gave it a good scrubbing, oiled it up, and sauteed some veggies in it.


Come to find out, it's not a particularly unique piece.  It's called a "Chicken Fryer" and I imagine they're more plentiful in the south where they fry-up a lot more chicken than we New Englanders do.  It is rather old, possibly cast in the 1940's.  The markings on the bottom are from post-1920.

Old cast iron pieces are a really good find and a great addition to your cooking arsenal.  They're often well-seasoned (even if they usually need a good scrubbing and a light re-seasoning), as smooth as some non-stick cookware, and cheap (often, cheaper than new pieces).  You can also find unique shapes and sizes that aren't manufactured today.

But most of all, cast iron isn't nearly as fussy as people make it out to be.  In fact, cast iron is almost easier to take care of than Teflon.  Once it's well-seasoned, there's really very little you can do to destroy it (short of dropping it on concrete and splitting it).  Here's a great post about the myths and maintenance of cast iron pans.  Ignore all the stuff about salt rubs, no-dish-soap, and so on.

Here are a few tips I've learned over the years by actually working with my cast iron:

  • Buy old, if you can find it.  New pans from Lodge (one of the only manufacturers left in the US) aren't polished as well after casting and they have a textured surface that takes a lot of time and use to get reasonably smooth.  They also have a "pre-seasoning" treatment that, in my opinion, only makes them harder to season properly.  Older pans tend to already have this work done for you.
  • Look for pans that don't have big crusty build-up.  This is a mark of a not well-cared-for pan.  While it is possible to remove it, you'll be making a lot of extra work for yourself and you'll basically have to get it down to bare metal and start seasoning from scratch.  I've been known to do this for only really unique pieces (one of which, I'll show you in a future post).  A little rust is okay, as long as it's not pitted.
  • When you get an old pan home, scrub it good with soapy water and a scouring pad.  If there's significant rust, don't hesitate to use a steel wool pad (like Brillo) to get the rust off.  Once the pan is clean, dry it well with paper towels or an old cotton cloth.  Lightly rub a very thin layer of oil on the inside of the pan and heat it on medium-high heat.  As the pan heats-up, burnish/polish the oil into the pan with a wad of paper towels.  Once it looks shiny like a polished pair of shoes, turn the heat off, let it cool, give it one last wipe with a fresh paper towel to remove excess oil, and you can store it.
  • If the bottom of your pan needs a little extra seasoning as well or you have a brand-new pan, coat it with a thin layer of oil as described above.  Instead of putting it on the stove, put it upside-down on the middle rack in a 350 degree oven with a sheet pan below it to catch any drips.  Open windows, turn on fans, and unplug the smoke detectors.  Heat until it begins to smoke and turn the oven off.  Let it cool enough to remove it with heavy pot holders.  Rub with a clean paper towel.  Repeat as needed until well-seasoned.
  • Once you have a good seasoning, don't hesitate to use a blue Scotch Brite scrubbing sponge and regular dish soap to loosen food.  The blue pads are the non-abrasive ones made for Teflon, so they'll be gentle on your seasoning.  You can also use a nylon pan scraper or the edge of a nylon spatula for stubborn spots.
  • Never leave your pan wet and try not to let starchy food dry on it (it leaves a film that's difficult to get off).  Wash right after dinner as described above, oil gently, heat the pan, and burnish in the oil.  It's now ready to store.  If you don't have time to heat it, you can oil it and store as-is, but I've found that the oil just sits on top and if you don't use your pan often enough, it goes rancid and you just have to scrub it off and re-oil.
  • Avoid cooking sprays.  They have extra ingredients that do not make a good seasoning coating.  Try to use regular oils and butter in your cooking.
  • Let your cooking do the hard work of seasoning your pan for you.  I've never found anything that seasons a pan better than cooking roast chicken, bacon, or oiled oven-roasted potatoes.