The last time we had a dinner party, things didn’t go so well. It was a week or so ago, and the stars just didn’t align: I roasted slabs of pink salmon with a lemon and grainy mustard breadcrumb crust (yes, I am so into whole grain mustard thing right now), but the salmon was thinner than I’d realized, so we ended up eating too much topping for the amount of fish in each bite, and the topping never really browned. Certainly edible, but sad. I roasted halved tomatoes and melted good stinky cheese on top (I think it was Blue Moon from Port Madison Farm), but they were done before the fish, and wound up cold and slimy on the serving plate. (Or am I the only one that gags at the thought of cooled cooked tomatoes?) I picked at my food, and lost my appetite. I went to bed happy about meeting new friends and seeing old ones, but feeling totally dejected about my cooking talent.
We all have bad nights in the kitchen.
Our friends Dave and Kelly are getting married this weekend on Orcas Island, and last weekend they skipped through town en route from Massachusetts. (Yes, it’s been a weddingful fall for us.) We’d planned to have a whole gang of people over for dinner on Sunday, but I was struck with a sort of cook’s block: I didn’t feel good about any of the things I’d thought of making, so I procrastinated as long as possible, lest we wind up with another blah dinner.
On Saturday morning, I got myself together and started planning a proper dinner party. And when I say “proper,” I don’t mean “real,” because surely there’s nothing better than an impromptu party with dishes cobbled together with whatever’s spilling out of the fridge. Perhaps “textbook” is a better term – I ransacked the neighborhood for chairs all the same height (because there’s something so civilized about everyone sitting at the same level), made the table look pretty, and spent the better part of Saturday procuring food and cooking and napping, so that we could energetically enjoy Sunday with everyone and invite them into a home that didn’t look (as it did on Saturday night) like it had been hit by a mild hurricane.
We left the house on Saturday morning with my half-written menu:
After gathering cheese and produce at the University District farmers’ market, Tito and I hit Whole Foods, with beef in mind. It took about 3.2 seconds to make the switch from $25/pound tenderloin to $7.50/pound pork loin. With what I thought was a sweet but knowledgeable tone, I asked one of the butchers to spiral cut two of them for me, so that I could lay each loin flat, spread it with stuffing, and roll it back up. (Think of those one-season roll-up sleeping bags, the kind that are square at the bottom.)
He wanted to know what I’d be stuffing it with, and “Asian pears and rosemary” leaped out of mouth before I could even taste it.
We left to find the pears, and when we returned, the butcher explained that he’d actually cut the pork differently. He’d “forgotten” to inform me that each pork loin, as sold in the case, is tied not for looks, but because for some reason they actually cut them in half horizontally before selling them. So what I had in the package was not two gorgeous spiraled pork loins, but four pork loin pieces, each spiraled into miniature rolls, which meant four little loaves of meat instead of two, and left me with a shorter window in which I could take the pork out of the oven with moist, tender results. He sort of apologized, handed them over, and dismissed me. I was furious and convinced I’d end up with little pork-pear rocks, and I had no intention of wasting $50.
Tito sensed my tension. “Be with what is,” he whispered into my ear. “This pork is.” Damn him.
But I was, with the pork that was, and two hours later, I unwrapped the pork at home, ready to face mangled meat.
The roasts were gorgeous – the butcher had transformed each loin half into a perfect 3/4″ thick strip of pork. I thought briefly of making a pork napoleon, but wussed out. Once I’d unrolled and rerolled the pork with what ended up being an apple-rosemary stuffing (cutting into the Asian pears had revealed nothing but rotten mush, and the apples were just there, on the counter . . .), the roasts ended up just the right size. Cutting the pork the way I’d wanted to would have yeilded gigantic pork spirals that took too long to cook for the outer layers of pork to remain moist.
Morals, which I should have learned long ago:
1) Make friends with a butcher (which, admittedly, I have not really done here yet).
2) Don’t be afraid to ask him/her to do stuff for you; they’re much better at it, and it’s part of their job.
3) Trust them. They probably know what they’re talking about.
Plus, the pork took about an hour to roast, which happens to be the perfect amount of time between the second your guests walk in the door and the moment when everyone’s lubed, happy, and ready for dinner.
Of course, there’s always room for error. As I loaded the dinner onto the counter so people could start serving themselves, one guest glanced from the pork to the bacon-studded kale and meekly informed me that she doesn’t eat pork. Thank goodness I hadn’t done anything with the tuna yet – I came up with something speedy, and she sat down with dinner when the rest of us did.
We talked and laughed, and Tito did all the dishes. It was wonderful.
In case you’re panicking about your own fall dinner party this weekend, here’s a menu idea for 12, complete with an extra recipe for emergencies:
Excellent breads and cheeses
Roasted Stuffed Pork Loin with Apples and Rosemary
Seared Albacore with Rosemary-Mustard Sauce for One (Thursday)
Bacon & Kale Gratin
Hedgehog Potatoes with Hot Grainy Mustard Vinaigrette (tomorrow!)
Green Salad with Walnut Oil Vinaigrette
Cinnamon-Orange Dark Chocolate Popover Cakes
And by the way, I’m feeling much better (obviously). I think my body’s finally adjusting to the lower steroid dose.
Roasted Stuffed Pork Loin with Apples and Rosemary (PDF)
Recipe 282 of 365
At the butcher, ask for two (2.5-pound) pork tenderloins. Have them cut first in half horizontally, so there’s a top and a bottom, and then have the butcher spiral cut each piece into a long, even (roughly 3/4” thick) strip (think of cutting each piece into a roll-up sleeping bag). You’ll spread the stuffing on each long piece, wrap them up and tie them, and roast them, fat-side up, until the apples inside turn into a chunky, rosemary-infused applesauce and the pork is golden and fragrant.
For a dinner party, it’s easiest to make the stuffing and marinate the pork the night before (that part takes about 40 minutes), and refrigerate both. A few hours before dinner, assemble the roasts and refrigerate. Let the roasts come up to room temperature for about 20 minutes before guests arrive. As they walk in the door, slip the roast in the oven, and you’ll have a crowd-pleaser in about an hour. For spiffy presentation, serve the pork sliced on a bed of fresh rosemary.
TIME: 1 hour active time
MAKES: 12 servings
For the stuffing:
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
2 pounds Gala apples, peeled and diced
1 cup white wine
1/2 cup Panko or regular breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
For the marinade:
1/4 cup olive oil
1/3 cup finely chopped fresh rosemary
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 (2.5-pound) pork loins, each cut in half horizontally to make 4 pieces total, each piece then spiral cut
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Note: You’ll need 12 roughly 15”-long pieces of kitchen string, for tying the pork, and an instant-read digital thermometer for this recipe.
First, make the stuffing: Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add the oil, then the onion, season with salt and pepper and the rosemary, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes, or until the onion is soft and just beginning to brown. Add the apples and wine, simmer for three minutes, and remove from heat. Stir in the breadcrumbs and mustard, and taste for seasoning. Set aside to cool, then refrigerate overnight.
While the onions cook, make the marinade: mix the oil, rosemary, and garlic in a small bowl. Unroll the pork loins onto a big cutting board, and season them on both sides with salt and pepper. Smear all sides with the rosemary mixture, roll them back up, and marinate them overnight in a covered container.
A few hours before dinner, assemble the roasts: Working with one at a time, unroll a piece of pork onto a working surface. Spread with a quarter of the apple mixture,
then roll the pork back up. Place three pieces of kitchen string on another clean surface, strings about 1” apart, and place the stuffed pork roll fat side down on the strings.
Tie the strings snugly around the pork with a square knot,
trim off excess string, and invert the pork onto a roasting pan fitted with a rack, fat side up. Repeat with the remaining pork and stuffing.
About an hour and a half before you’d like to serve the pork, take it out of the fridge, and preheat the oven to 400 degrees. After 20 minutes at room temperature, season the tops of the roasts with additional salt and pepper, and roast for about 1 hour, or until the centers reach 145 degrees. Let the pork rest for about 10 minutes, then slice and serve immediately.