Late last year, the New York Times published a charming lament for the death of the dinner party in New York that came as a bit of a surprise to those of us who regularly host and attend such gatherings around these parts. To be fair, the article focused entirely on the wealthy or well-connected, which is perhaps why the Times overlooked the peons who must still cook for themselves and each other. Reporter Guy Trebay did manage to be thorough about one thing, at least: The importance of the dinner party ritual lies not in the fanciness of the food, but in the quality of the company. Like many people in their 20s, I frequent crowded bars and noisy restaurants to “catch up” with friends, but when I really want to find out how a loved one is faring, I invite them over for dinner. We have quiet, we have space, we have time, we have inestimably more affordable libations—we have all the things you need to revive a friendship, with a surplus of leisure at a fraction of the cost.
Still, this kind of low-key entertaining is a source of anxiety for many, especially when it comes to the food. If you are not accustomed to preparing a meal for, say, four to six people, planning and executing a generous-but-sensible menu—for me, a no-fuss appetizer, a satisfying main course, perhaps a salad, and an easy dessert—can be daunting. But if you can tackle that entrée, the rest falls into place almost effortlessly. To that end, meet your new buddy, the roasted pork tenderloin.
The tenderloin is, as Julia Child would say, a “wonder” of a hunk of protein. Like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, the tenderloin can appear rough and plain at first glance: somewhat formless, suspended sadly in its watery plastic sack. But with a little encouragement and the right styling, it cleans up beautifully. It’s also compassionate toward your purse, as a pound can feed four for something like $10. The only thing left is the preparation, and I’ve got you (well, your tenderloin) covered—with brine.
Brine at its most basic is a mixture of salt and water that, during a long soak, imparts meat with a flavor and juiciness not dreamt of in your other culinary philosophies. And once I discovered David Tanis’ use of the stuff on pork tenderloin, I knew I would never again cook one without brining it. Our recipe here uses Tanis’ concoction as a starting point, but harmonizes his blend of salt, brown sugar, allspice, bay, and thyme with other flavors consonant with pork, little premonitions of dishes yet to be: hard apple cider, coriander, mustard, cinnamon, and some source for the wonderful anethole compound, such as star anise. There are a lot of spices involved here, but trust me: When you taste this pork, you will not mind installing a separate cabinet to store them so you can make it again next week.
Given that most friends who taste this meat—unadorned—respond with closed eyes, a dreamy smile and rapt silence, I’m going to call this a “master” recipe for tenderloin. You can use this brine/roast method with any number of accoutrements. Tanis’ porc aux pruneaux is great for a special occasion, as are sautéed apples and apple butter. For a more rustic ensemble, try caramelized onions and a pile of roasted potatoes. Though to be completely honest with you, this pork is so good that I often serve it sliced plain on top of a salad, a mushroom risotto, or my bare hand. Use whatever excuse you need—just get it into your mouth, and, hopefully, a friend’s as well.
Roasted Pork Tenderloin
Yield: 4 to 5 servings
Time: 45 minutes, plus 8 hours or more for brining
1 cup hard apple cider, such as Woodchuck Amber or Granny Smith
3 tablespoons kosher salt
3 tablespoons brown sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1 star anise pod, or ½ teaspoon anise seed or fennel seed
½ teaspoon allspice berries
½ teaspoon black peppercorns
½ teaspoon coriander seeds
½ teaspoon mustard seeds
1 large or 2 small bay leaves
3 sprigs of fresh thyme, briefly rolled between hands to release oils
1 pork tenderloin, about 1 pound
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1. Combine the cider, salt, and brown sugar in a medium glass or stainless steel bowl with 2 cups lukewarm water. Whisk until the salt and sugar are completely dissolved.
2. Gently crush the cinnamon stick, star anise, allspice berries, peppercorns, coriander seeds, and mustard seeds with a mortar and pestle until fragrant and crumbly. (You can also put them in a Ziploc bag and crush them with a rolling pin or the bottom of a heavy skillet, or you can pulse them 2 or 3 times in a spice grinder.) Add the spices to the brine, along with the bay leaves and thyme, and stir gently to distribute evenly.
3. Submerge the tenderloin in the brine, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 8 hours, preferably overnight.
4. Heat the oven to 400°F, and line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Remove the tenderloin from the brine, pick off and discard any spice shards, and pat completely dry with paper towels. Allow to return to room temperature, about 15 minutes.
5. Put the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When it’s hot, add the tenderloin and cook, turning every 3 to 5 minutes, until browned on all sides, about 15 minutes total.
6. Transfer the tenderloin to the baking sheet, and roast until its juices run clear and/or a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest point reads 140°F, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the tenderloin from the oven, cover it loosely with foil, and let it rest for 10 minutes. Cut into medallions on a bias, and serve. (Store leftover tenderloin wrapped in foil or plastic wrap in the refrigerator for up to a few days.)