Pork goes to a party

Tenderloins can get fixed up in a jiffy in their New Year's best: Fancy rubs, sauces, stuffings.

When I said "I do," I did not know that he would bring to the marriage an uncontrollable urge to always leave a supermarket with one or two plastic-wrapped logs of lean pork tenderloin.

Like so many consumers, my husband correctly perceives these packages - which contain 1 to 2 pounds of meat, often already marinated, usually in two long, thin pieces - as the culinary equivalent of a fashion-world "go-to."

This means they are weekday fallbacks that are versatile, convenient, comfy, reliable and neutral but presentable. (Think blue jeans.)

But, partly because of their omnipresence in my fridge, I have learned to expand their repertoire, and now I also view these Cryovac packages of nearly fat-free protein as the perfect party food - especially for New Year's, when pork anchors a good-luck meal in many cultures.

As plain-Jane as they are, pork tenderloins can double as the little black dress of celebrations. But the cardinal rule for LBDs applies: Accessorize, accessorize, accessorize.

This means forsaking the weekday practice of merely unwrapping, plopping the tenderloin into the oven, and slicing it.

Instead, employ embellishments in the form of rubs, sauces and stuffings to fancy up this familiar cut of meat.

Expertly cooked pork tenderloin, like chicken breast and tofu, is a neutral palette that absorbs and showcases strong flavors with which it is teamed. This means that sauces from mild to spicy, such as a smooth Mexican-style mole containing chocolate and peanut butter or the vanilla-perfumed brine and sauces developed by San Francisco chef Nancy Oakes, will make it company-fit.

It's also party-worthy because it can be roasted ahead and served at room temperature on a buffet with make-ahead sauces and chutneys.

Its small diameter means that, when sliced, pork tenderloin fits nicely on small sandwich rolls. Add a variety of strongly flavored sauces or flavored mayonnaises - a salsa verde, lemon-garlic, and/or the classic Catalan sauce romesco, a blend of red bell peppers, tomatoes, garlic and almonds.

A sauce made of dried cherries (see recipe) is easy to make and can be made ahead and reheated when the tenderloin comes out of the oven.

If you did not marry someone with the Cryovac-pork gene, you might be surprised to find that the packages most often contain two small pieces. (The singular "tenderloin" is printed on the plastic wrap, but many groceries add a label specifying "tenderloins.")

So, if your plans were to stuff the loins, you may be dismayed. However, meat authority Bruce Aidells suggests butterflying the pieces, stuffing them, and then tying the bundle before roasting it. Alternatively, use boneless pork loin (which also comes in a Cryovac - read "longer shelf-life" - package), which is a larger cut of meat weighing at least 4 pounds, for stuffing.

In addition, to present one roast at the table or guard against dryness, simply tie the two slender pieces of meat together before roasting.

And yet, this cut of meat does not need to remain in one piece. Cube it for an elegant, herby stew or the Pork and Vegetable Stir Fry With Cashew Rice (see recipe).

None of these preparations, of course, can make a poorly cooked piece of pork tenderloin palatable.

The beauty of pork tenderloin is that it is low in fat - but as a result, it lacks the flavor of other varieties such as pork shoulder. This is particularly striking when tenderloin is so overcooked that it resembles, feels and tastes like the section of tree branch that fell on your car during the last storm.

So above all else, forget your grandmother's harping about undercooked pork and trichinosis. (Trichina is killed at 137 degrees and is most often found in pigs that have eaten raw garbage, which is not the case in the United States' pork market.)

Whether cooking for your family or guests, don't roast these lean pork cuts into submission. Buy a digital instant-read thermometer and use it. Take them out of the oven when their internal temperature reaches 145 to 155 degrees, while the center is still a tiny bit pink. (The internal temperature will rise a bit as the meat rests out of the oven.) Many experts roast a 1½-pound pork tenderloin at 400 degrees for about 12 minutes.

Last, don't overdo the brining or marinating. Aidells notes that tenderloins should be patted dry and wrapped in plastic wrap after being brined for the specified time. Use within two days. If you leave pork tenderloin in the brine too long, more than eight hours, it will take up too much salt and become mushy.


Nancy's Vanilla Brine

Makes 6-8 servings

9 cups hot water

21/2 teaspoons pure vanilla

   extract

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup kosher salt

2 tablespoons cracked black

   peppercorns

4 pork tenderloins or one

   4-to-6-pound piece of

   boneless pork loin or 6          11/4- to 11/2-inch-thick    

   center-cut loin pork chops

1. Stir the hot water, vanilla, sugar and salt until the sugar and salt are dissolved. Add the black pepper. Cool to below 45 degrees in the refrigerator.

2. Trim external fat from meat. Submerge the meat in the brine in a large bowl or small crock. Make sure it stays under the surface by using a heavy plate to weight it down. Refrigerate the tenderloin in the brine for 6 to 8 hours, the loin 1 to 2 days, and the pork chops 4 to 6 hours. Stir the brine each day and turn the pork occasionally.

3. Test the effect of the brine by cutting off a small piece from the meat, frying and tasting it to determine if it is salty and flavorful. If not, leave it in the brine longer.

4. Cook the meat as desired, either by roasting, grilling or broiling or according to a recipe. Goes very well with Maple-Vanilla Sauce (see accompanying recipe).

- Courtesy of Nancy Oakes, owner/chef of Boulevard in San Francisco and from The Complete Meat Cookbook by Bruce Aidells (Houghton Mifflin, 1998)


Maple-Vanilla Sauce for Pork

Makes about 1 cup or 6-8 servings

Browned bits in the bottom

   of a pork-roasting pan

2 teaspoons minced garlic

1 cup chicken stock

1/4 cup dry white wine

1 tablespoon maple syrup

1 teaspoon pure vanilla

   extract

Salt and freshly ground

   black pepper

2 tablespoons butter,

   softened

1. Pour off most of the fat from the pan in which pork has been roasted. Add the garlic and place the pan over medium heat. Cook for 1 minute, stirring. Pour in the stock and scrape up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan.

2. Pour the contents of the pan into a small saucepan. Add the wine, maple syrup and vanilla and cook over medium-high heat, stirring often, until the flavors are concentrated and the sauce starts to become syrupy. Taste for salt and pepper and stir in the butter. Also goes well with a side dish of roasted parsnips.

- From The Complete Meat Cookbook by Bruce Aidells (Houghton Mifflin, 1998)

Per serving (based on 8): 43 calories, trace protein, 2 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 3 grams fat, 8 milligrams cholesterol, 141 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.


Pork Tenderloin With Sage and Marsala Sauce

Makes 4 servings

1 large pork tenderloin (11/4-

   11/2 pounds), cut in half

   crosswise

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground

   black pepper

2 teaspoons pink pepper-         corns, crushed (optional)

2 tablespoons unsalted

   butter, divided

1 tablespoon extra-virgin

   olive oil

1/2 cup sweet marsala

1 tablespoon chopped fresh

   sage leaves

Fried sage leaves (see note,

   optional)

1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 375 degrees.    Season the tenderloin with the salt and pepper and rub it evenly with the pink peppercorns.

2. Heat 1 tablespoon of the butter and the oil in a 10-inch ovenproof skillet or straight-sided saute pan over medium-high heat. Put the pork in the skillet and sear it until golden brown on all sides, about 5 minutes total. Transfer the skillet to the oven and roast until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the center of the meat registers 140 degrees, 10 to 15 minutes. Move the loin to a cutting board and tent loosely with foil.

3. Pour off and discard most of the fat left in the skillet. Set the skillet over medium-high heat and add the marsala. Bring to a vigorous simmer, scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to loosen any browned bits. Simmer until reduced by half, about 2 minutes. Turn off the heat and add the remaining 1 tablespoon butter and the chopped sage. Swirl or stir the sauce until the butter melts.

4. Slice the pork into 12 pieces, arrange them on a platter, and pour the hot pan sauce over the meat. Garnish with the fried sage leaves, if using.

- From Fine Cooking Annual, Vol. 3 (Taunton Press, 2000)

Note: To make fried sage, start with clean, dry whole leaves, with stems left on. Pour enough olive oil in heavy skillet to cover the bottom by about 1/8-inch and heat over medium heat until oil shimmers. Add sage leaves in a single layer and fry until brittle but still a bright green color with no browning, 15 to 30 seconds. Transfer to a plate lined with paper towels and sprinkle with salt.

Per serving: 309 calories, 31 grams protein, 1 gram carbohydrate, trace sugar, 17 grams fat, 94 milligrams cholesterol, 357 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.


Pork and Vegetable Stir-Fry With Cashew Rice

Makes 4 servings

3/4 cup uncooked long-grain

   rice

1/3 cup chopped green

   onions

1/4 cup dry-roasted cashews,

   salted and coarsely

   chopped

1/2 teaspoon salt

2/3 cup fat-free, reduced-          sodium chicken broth

2 tablespoons cornstarch,

   divided

3 tablespoons low-sodium

   soy sauce, divided

2 tablespoons honey

1 (about 1-pound) pork ten-         derloin, trimmed and cut

   into ½-inch cubes

1 tablespoon canola oil,

   divided

2 cups sliced mushrooms

1 cup chopped onion

1 tablespoon grated peeled

   fresh ginger

2 garlic cloves, minced

2 cups sugar snap peas,

   trimmed (about 6 ounces)

1 cup chopped red bell

   pepper

1. Cook rice according to package directions, omitting salt and fat. Stir in green onions, cashews and salt; set aside and keep warm.

2. Combine broth, 1 tablespoon cornstarch, 2 tablespoons soy sauce and honey in a small bowl. Set aside.

3. Combine pork, 1 tablespoon cornstarch and 1 tablespoon soy sauce in a bowl, tossing well to coat.

4. Heat 2 teaspoons oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add pork, saute 4 minutes or until browned. Remove from pan. Add 1 teaspoon oil to pan. Add mushrooms and 1 cup onion, saute 2 minutes. Stir in ginger and garlic, saute 30 seconds. Add peas and bell pepper, saute 1 minute. Stir in pork, saute 1 minute. Add broth mixture. Bring to a boil. Cook 1 minute or until thick, stirring constantly. Serve over cashew rice.

- From Cooking Light Annual Recipes 2008 (Oxmoor House, 2008)

Per serving: 491 calories, 34 grams protein, 58 grams carbohydrates, 17 grams sugar, 15 grams fat, 62 milligrams cholesterol, 901 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.


Sun-Dried Cherry Sauce

Makes about 2 cups

11/2 tablespoons olive oil

¼ cup chopped shallots

¾ cup minced shiitake

   mushrooms

8 cups chicken or vegetable

   stock

1 teaspoon grated orange

   zest

11/2 cups cabernet sauvignon

½ cup sun-dried cherries

½ cup fresh orange juice

1 tablespoon chopped fresh

   thyme

1/3 to 1/2 cup port

Salt and freshly ground

   black pepper

1. In a saucepan, heat the olive oil and saute the shallots and shiitakes until very lightly browned. Add the stock, orange zest and wine and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer until reduced by half. Add half the cherries, the orange juice, thyme and port, and continue simmering until reduced to a light sauce consistency.

2. Strain the sauce and add the remaining ¼ cup cherries. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Keep warm. Can be made several hours in advance or on the morning of your dinner.

- From From the Earth to the Table by John Ash (Dutton, 1995)

Per quarter-cup serving: 128 calories, 2 grams protein, 13 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams sugar, 3 grams fat, 3 milligrams cholesterol, 962 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.


Sweet Spiced Port Sauce

Makes 1/2 cup

1 orange

½ cup reduced chicken

   stock

½ cup ruby port

½ cup balsamic vinegar

1 cinnamon stick

1 star anise

2 pitted prunes, coarsely

   chopped

Fine sea salt and freshly

   ground black pepper

1 teaspoon unsalted butter

1. Remove the zest from half of the orange with a vegetable peeler. Place the zest in a small saucepan. Add the chicken stock, port, vinegar, cinnamon stick, star anise, and prunes to the pan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, peel and segment the orange. Set the segments aside for garnish.

3. Remove the star anise from the sauce and reserve for garnish. Strain the sauce into a clean saucepan; simmer for 10 to 15 minutes longer or until reduced to ½ cup. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Keep warm until ready to serve. Serve on, under or beside pork tenderloin (in a sauce boat). Use the orange segments and star anise to garnish the meat, if desired.

- From Happy in the Kitchen by Michel Richard (Artisan, 2006)

Per quarter-cup serving: 62 calories, trace protein, 10 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, 1 gram fat, 2 milligrams cholesterol, 81 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.