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Russ Parsons' Caramelized Winter Squash

Jill Santopietro's Pork Loin with Grapes

Loin

Cooking for two is so limiting - one chicken, a few chops, or a couple filets is all I ever get to make. So when the opportunity arises to cook for others, it gives me the chance to stretch my cooking muscles and go for the big cuts. There is something so satisfying about cooking something large: a pork roast, a leg of lamb, even a whole fish. More thought goes into the preparation, but you also have more wiggle room, more chances to avoid catastrophe.

And, if you are reformed leftover-hater like myself, there's more chance of a good lunch the next day.

We had dear friends over for dinner last weekend - possibly my first weekend in the city since June, or at least that's what it felt like - and to herald in autumn, nothing sounded better than a mustard-and-herb-rubbed pork loin roasted on a bed of shallots, potatoes and red grapes, thanks to Jill Santopietro's loose adaptation of Suzanne Goin's pork roast from Sunday Supper at Lucques. With a tangle of bitter broccoli rape dressed with lemon oil to balance out the flavors, I figured we had our meat-and-two-veg bases covered.

The day began with my purchase of the pork loin - at Balducci's, because I seem to be of a particular breed of obstinate woman who repeatedly finds herself back in this store despite fevered promises to herself never to tread over the threshold there again. What is my gripe this time? As I already noted here, I paid twenty-three dollars for my three-pound pork loin. (Lest my guests think I have stepped over to the dark side of tackiness by telling them what their dinner cost me, I would like to point out, in my defense, that other New Yorkers seem to be buying their pork roasts for - um, math skills please - less than a third of that price and that horrifying disparity must be written about, it must, because I hardly thought twice about the price of the pork until Key Food reared its cheap old head, and now, Gemma and Seb, please forget everything you've just read.)

I took my precious loin home with me, marinated it in a Zip-loc bag for hours (while my head exploded and a chocolate hunt ensued), and then seared it to a picture-perfect state. I then covered that gorgeous loin with the marinade that had been scraped off and reserved, some herbs and a few pats of butter, and set it in the middle of my roasting pan for its inaugural spin in the oven. (This was actually a birthday gift from last year and I truly don't know why it's taken me this long to use it. Probably because it's so shiny and pretty.) I slid the pan into a 325 degree oven for 15 minutes before piling potatoes, shallots and snipped grapes all around the loin.

Now I feel like I should have been wary of that 325 degree number, but you know how it is when you have people coming for dinner and your brain is still wiggly from a migraine and you aren't quite sure if your appetizers will be enough and you realize most of your plates are chipped and your pathetic excuse of a "dining room" has you all up in arms - the last thing you think about is whether or not the recipe is written correctly. Or at least it was the last thing I thought about.

An hour after I put the pork with its accoutrements in the oven, we were all gathered around the kitchen table, snacking on Humboldt Fog and Mt. Tam (I may not live in Northern California, but I can at least eat its cheeses) and each time I snuck a peek at the roast and its moat of vegetables, the whole lot seemed disturbingly unchanged. That's when I looked at the recipe again. And the temperature. Then I very quickly moved the dial up to 375. Ten minutes later I took the roast out and tented it, but the potatoes and shallots had barely even colored. How could they, at that low temperature? I raised the dial even higher, to 400 degrees. But at that point, we'd been waiting to eat for 45 extra minutes already.

So, I threw caution to the wind and pulled out the pan. The potatoes were cooked through, though not blistered in that lovely oven-roasted way they should have been. The shallots were still crunchy, instead of being slippery-sweet and unctuous. And the grapes had hardly wilted. The pork was perfect, luckily, moist and tender and barely pink. So that helped. It more than helped (especially with the port gravy that I mucked up because I accidentally washed out the saute pan before realizing my mistake. Oops.) But I sort of wanted to shake my fist at Jill (and Suzanne!).

As for the grapes, which were really the highlight of the article, the raison d'etre for the recipe? I don't know, I found them too harshly sweet, too acidic. The others thought they were great, though, so it's a matter of taste, I suppose. If I were you, I'd adopt the mustard-herb rub for the pork and commit it to memory - it was completely delicious (though make sure you keep an eye on your oven). Sliced thinly and eaten cold for lunch the next day, a Sunday preferably, when the sun is shining but it's cold outside and you're sitting cozily indoors, reading and eating your Nigel Slater-ish leftovers (I'm reading The Kitchen Diaries and I'm obsessed), it's just fantastic, and so worth the effort.

Pork Loin with Grapes
Serves 6

1 3-pound boneless center-cut pork loin
1 tablespoon finely chopped thyme, plus 6 whole sprigs thyme
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley
1 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped rosemary, plus 3 whole sprigs rosemary
1 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped sage, plus 3 whole sprigs sage
1/2 cup dijon mustard
6 tablespoons olive oil
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 pound fingerling potatoes, halved lengthwise
6 shallots, peeled and halved through the root
1 pound red seedless grapes, snipped into small bunches
1/2 cup port
1/2 cup chicken stock

1. Tie the pork loin with kitchen twine at 1-inch intervals. In a shallow dish large enough to hold the pork, whisk together the chopped herbs, mustard, 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, teaspoon salt and
teaspoon pepper. Add the pork and coat with the marinade. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours.

2. One hour before cooking, bring the pork to room temperature. Scrape off and reserve the marinade, then season the meat with salt and pepper.

3. Place a roasting pan in the oven and heat the oven to 325 degrees. Place a large saute pan over high heat. Add 2 more tablespoons of the oil and heat until smoking. Add the pork and sear about 4 minutes on each side, until well browned. Transfer fat side down to the roasting pan. Set the saute pan aside. Rub the reserved marinade over the pork and top with half the butter and the herb sprigs. Place the pan in the oven and cook the meat for 75 minutes, or until the center reaches 125
degrees.

4. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, toss the potatoes, shallots and grapes with the remaining 2 tablespoons oil and season with salt and pepper. After the pork has cooked for 15 minutes, place the potatoes cut side down around the pork. Lay the grapes and shallots over the potatoes.

5. Drain the saute pan of fat and return to medium-high heat. When hot, add the port and bring to a boil, scraping the bottom of the pan. When nearly evaporated, add the chicken stock and return to a boil. Whisk in the remaining butter and season with salt and pepper. Strain through a fine-meshed sieve set over a serving bowl. Cover and keep warm.

6. When the pork is done, transfer to a cutting board. Cover lightly with foil and let rest at least 10 minutes before slicing. Serve on a platter over the grapes, potatoes and shallots, accompanied by the sauce.

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