Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Two Easy Things to Cook

I decided that it was time to be helpful instead of vitriolic. I love to cook. I've been cooking for myself pretty regularly since I was 19 or so. I was pretty shitty at it for a while. But here's the thing: you get better. The more you're around food, read about food, and cook stuff, the better you get at it. It's not a switch you turn on or off, it's a skill set that gradually evolves.

Some basic rules:
1. Cookbooks are your friend. But they're your friend in the context of giving instruction on cooking and the basic framework of recipes, they aren't procedural dogma for working toward the Platonic ideal of "spotted dick," no more than reading the Joy of Sex will make you f like a pro.

2. Be cautious with recipes. It will behoove you much more to learn how to cook, say, a chicken, or a pork loin, or a tomato sauce in the general sense and experiment with accompanying flavors than to just grab a recipe card and make "Grandma's Crazy One-Pot Chili" or "Tex-Mex Party Drumettes" or "Creepy Uncle Joe's Boob-Shaped Meat Loaf." A notable exception to this is baking, where ratios and measurements are much more integral to the chemical process of cooking.

3. Pay attention. The price of good food, just as it is for democracy, is vigilance. Under-set kitchen timers by at least 20% and keep tabs on what's cooking. Don't just toss it in the oven and go watch "The Hills."

4. When in doubt, use more fat and use less heat for longer. This'll prevent burning, sticking, and drying out. You'll be less likely to overcook and you'll retain a lot more flavor. By no means a universal rule, but a good reference.

And now.... two easy things to cook.

Roast Pork Tenderloin
Perhaps the tastiest (and most suggestive) cut of meat you can find at a reasonable price. Roast pork tenderloin will turn heads and get you laid. The best part? Even if you're just cooking for one, cold leftover tenderloin thinly sliced on a sandwich is also freaking delicious.

The basics:
Preheat your oven to 325 degrees. Trim excess fat or any weird hang-y bits from the tenderloin (shouldn't be too much). Rub tenderloin with salt, pepper, and olive oil. Place in a roasting pan and put the pan in the oven. That's it. A basic one-pound tenderloin will take about 40 minutes to cook. Take it out of the oven when there's just a sliver of pink left in the center, or if you're using a thermometer, when it reaches about 160 degrees in the center.

The variations:
Pork tenderloin is pretty damn flavorful on its own, but it also takes well to bastes and marinades. A freakin' awesome one is to just put the tenderloin in a ziploc with a brine of water, salt, and fresh rosemary and/or lavender for several hours (do it in the morning or even the night before). Rub the tenderloin with olive oil and more fresh rosemary/lavender before roasting. Another good option is to make a rub out of mustard, olive oil, pepper, and French herbs (herbes de Provence or fines herbes). Mix everything together (use enough olive oil to dilute the mustard and go heavy on the herbs) and slather.

You'll see a lot of recipes online for tenderloin that involves orange juice, Coca-Cola, or other sweet marinades. Give it a go if you want but those sound pretty gimmicky to me. Pork tenderloin doesn't need to be all whored up like that. It's classy.

The ultimate variation:
Mix cherry or plum preserves with salt, pepper, vegetable oil (the one instance where I suggest a neutral oil like canola instead of olive), and enough vinegar to temper the sweetness of the preserves without being harsh. Just add a little bit at a time and taste as you go.

With a sharp knife, cut the pork tenderloin lengthwise, about 2/3 of the way through. Spoon the fruit mixture into this cavity and truss the tenderloin back up either with twine or toothpicks. Brush the outside with oil, salt, and pepper and roast as above. It might take a little bit less time.

Added bonus? Simmer the leftover fruit mixture for a few minutes and spoon hot over slices of tenderloin when you plate it.

The accompaniments:
Keep it simple. Cook some wild rice or rice pilaf (see below) and steam some broccoli (drizzle with olive oil or melt a little butter on the broccoli prior to serving). Easy, plug and play, healthy, and sexy.


Pilafs in various forms exist in the cuisines of dozens of cultures. There's a reason for that. It's a simple way to make rice (or quinoa or couscous or teff or whatever) extra tasty.

The basics:
Chop up some onion (about one whole small onion or 1/2 a large one) and a clove or two of garlic.

Add a few tablespoons of olive oil to a thick-bottomed saucepan. When the oil's hot, add onion, garlic, and a bit of crushed red pepper. Saute until translucent and aromatic. Add a cup of rice (or any grain) to the oil and saute until lightly browned, maybe about three minutes or so. There's no harm in cooking more than you need, as pilaf is great the next day either cold or reheated.

Add a splash of white wine and deglaze the pan (this means scraping the bottom of the pan with your spatula [make sure to use plastic/wood if it's a nonstick pan]) to get all the tasty bits off the bottom. Give the alcohol a minute to cook off and then add chicken or vegetable stock. Different grains use different amounts, so check the instructions. For white rice you'd add two cups liquid to every cup of rice. For couscous, add equal volume liquid to grain.

Cook according to the grain's instruction. For rice, bring the liquid to a boil and then let simmer, covered, until the liquid is absorbed (~20 minutes). For couscous, bring the liquid to a boil and then turn off the heat, leaving the pilaf covered for 10 minutes or so.

Fluff with a fork and serve.

The variations:
Pilaf takes to pretty much anything you want to add to it. In most cases I'd recommend cooking any vegetables separately and stirring them in at the end. Most will cook much quicker than the pilaf mixture requires.

For extra-fancy pilaf, chop some fresh parsley. Stir in about 2/3 of the parsley when you fluff the pilaf and top with the remaining parsley when serving.

For extra-delicious pilaf, stir in a couple tablespoons of butter right before serving.

The ultimate variation:
Instead of using olive oil, chop up some bacon, prosciutto, sausage, or other fatty pork product and cook in the saucepan until the fat is rendered. Remove the meat and set aside on some paper towels to drain. Cook everything else as instructed, but using the pork fat instead of the oil. Also, instead of using stock, use water and add salt and pepper to taste. When done cooking, stir back in the meat along with some fresh rosemary and sage.

The accompaniments:
Pilaf makes an excellent side dish for any protein. I also like to use it as a base on which to serve soups or stews. For something semi-homemade that actually is semi-homemade, serve a good canned soup, stew, or Tasty Bite Indian meal, on a bed of homemade pilaf.

Pilaf can also be a meal on its own. Just stir in more vegetables (broccoli, carrots, and squash are all good options) and top with a sliced chicken breast, salmon filet, or, hell, stir in some of that leftover pork tenderloin all diced up.



charlie w. said...

huzzah! does this mean you're making me dinner, this weekend?

Dances with Corgis said...


I found this blog via searching for "I hate yelp" (because I do) and wanted to say that your points on why yelp sucks are right on. Also, it's so annoying to read through everyone's editorializing on the site... it is annoying how every reviewer tries so hard to sound "hip"... just give me a review of the damn food, I don't care how your date was that night!!


thank you for being an outlet for this!