When spring finally begins to spring, a dinner party is an ideal way to celebrate the thaw. Here’s a dish that overlays fine-dining sensibilities onto easy home techniques. Elegant pork tenderloin is pan-seared, then roasted in the oven, and the pan is deglazed with a fistful of frisée that soaks up the flavorful browned bits. It’s all plated with goat cheese and seasonal accents: an herbaceous ramp pesto and tangy, sweet pickled strawberries, both of which can be made a little ahead of time, though they don’t have to be.
For some, this dish may present an opportunity to cook through a particularly persistent bugaboo: the nagging sense that pork was put onto this Earth to be either under- or overcooked.
“I think a lot of people still to this day fear undercooking pork,” says Chris Royster, executive chef and partner of the Wine Spectator Grand Award–winning Flagstaff House in Boulder, Colo., and the brain behind this recipe. But with pork tenderloin, you should probably be more concerned about the opposite. “Tenderloins don’t really have any fat to them,” Royster explains. So if you’re figuring you may as well cook it a few minutes longer than necessary, just to be safe, “It’s not going to be good. You’re going to get a chalky, dry, chewy piece of pork tenderloin as opposed to that really moist, soft texture.”
Here’s the good news: A kitchen thermometer can provide you with a readout of the exact temperature of your meat, removing almost all of the guesswork. Once it registers 140° F, your meat is done.
Even if you don’t have a thermometer—and Royster admits he is one of these people—sensory cues can help. He relies on the feel of the meat. “You want it to be firm, and you want it to push back,” he says. “Squeeze it just softly, and if it pushes back right away, that’s done.”
Cutting the tenderloin into pieces of roughly similar size before searing also helps the meat to cook evenly. And somewhat paradoxically, the hotter your pan, the longer the pork will need to cook in the oven after it’s been browned, because the heat will have seared the outside before it’s had time to penetrate into the meat’s interior. If your pan is less hot, the pork will be more cooked through by the time it’s browned on the outside, so you’ll want to shorten the oven time a bit. Err on the side of a hotter pan, rather than a cooler one, for best results.
Look for ramps in the market from April to early June. “They’re so short-lived, but they’re so amazing,” Royster says. While a ramp somewhat resembles a scallion in appearance, “It’s going to be sweeter and it’s going to have more complexity to it.” It’s worth seeking them out if you can.
The pesto is best made the day you plan to eat it, but a few hours ahead is fine. If necessary, Royster says, it can be made the day before—just cover the pesto in a layer of olive oil to keep it from oxidizing and turning a sad brownish-green.
The quick-pickled strawberries add a deliciously bright, tangy component that you can prepare up to 24 hours in advance. Use the freshest strawberries possible.
The berries’ juiciness ties right into Royster and Flagstaff wine director Elizabeth Booth’s suggested wine pairing, A Tribute to Grace Grenache Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard 2016, an unusually light red wine with bright fruit and a polished texture. If you can’t find it, similar light- to medium-bodied styles of fruity red wine could work well too.
Pairing Tip: Why a Light Grenache Works with This Dish
For more tips on how to approach pairing this dish with wine, recommended bottlings and notes on chef Chris Royster’s inspiration, read the companion article, "Pork Tenderloin With Grenache," in the April 30, 2019, issue, via our online archives or by ordering a digital edition (Zinio or Google Play) or a back issue of the print magazine. For even more wine pairing options, WineSpectator.com members can find other recently rated California Grenache in our Wine Ratings Search.
Pork Tenderloin with Pickled Strawberries, Goat Cheese & Ramp Pesto
For the pickled strawberries:
- 1 cup Champagne vinegar or white wine vinegar
- 1/2 cup honey
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon mustard seed or grainy mustard
- 1/2 teaspoon pink peppercorns
- 12 teaspoon coriander seeds
- 1 pint (3/4 pound, about 12 to 16) fresh strawberries
For the ramp pesto:
- 1/2 cup pine nuts
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled
- 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more
- 1 pound fresh ramps, trimmed of roots, rinsed and dried, and cut into halves or thirds
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the pork:
- Olive oil or canola oil
- Two 1-pound pork tenderloins, trimmed of all fat
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter
- 2 sprigs fresh rosemary
- 3 or 4 sprigs fresh thyme
- 2 heads frisée or curly endives, washed and trimmed
- One 8-ounce log fresh chèvre
1. In a small saucepan, combine the vinegar, honey, 1 teaspoon salt, mustard seed, peppercorns and coriander seeds over high heat. Stir to combine. As soon as mixture boils, turn off heat. Let steep for 10 minutes. Trim ends from strawberries, and place strawberries in a small bowl. When pickling liquid is room temperature, pour over strawberries. Cover and chill for at least 2 hours and up to 24 hours.
2. Preheat the oven to 375° F. Spread the pine nuts on a baking sheet and toast, shaking the pan occasionally, until golden-brown, about 10 minutes. Remove from oven and lower temperature to 350° F.
3. Place garlic, pine nuts and a bit of olive oil in a food processor. Blend until coarsely chopped. Add ramps. With the motor running, slowly stream in 1/2 cup olive oil, processing until the ramps are chopped but not pureed and the mixture is well-blended into a coarse pesto. Blend in Parmesan, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Pesto can be made a few hours ahead but is best made the same day you intend to eat it.
4. Heat a cast-iron pan over medium-high. Add a small amount of olive oil or canola oil. Cut pork into similar-size pieces as needed to fit into pan; this will help with even cooking. Season all sides with salt and pepper. When oil shimmers, place meat in pan. Sear the meat, rotating to brown all sides, about 3 minutes per side. When searing the final sides, add butter, rosemary and thyme to pan. This may get smoky, so be sure to have your vent fans on. Transfer pan to oven. Roast until an instant-read thermometer registers 140° F or until the meat springs back immediately when lightly squeezed, 5 to 10 minutes. Transfer to a cutting board, tent with foil and let rest 10 minutes.
5. Drain fat and herbs from pan and return pan to stovetop over medium-high heat. Add a very small amount of oil. Take care not to let the fond (the browned bits) in the pan burn; as soon as the oil is heated, add the frisée, which will deglaze the pan and absorb the fond’s flavors. Turn with tongs to sear. Season lightly with salt and pepper.
6. Slice pork. Drain strawberries and, if desired, slice them. Place some frisée and a few strawberries on each dinner plate. Top with a few slices of pork, and spoon pesto over. Break up goat cheese into pieces and scatter on top. Serves 6.