Recipe: Pork Tenderloin with Roasted Pepper and Fennel Sauce
Pork tenderloin is a dieter’s delight. It’s got just about no fat—which is why I almost completely avoided it for years. Not only was I skeptical of fatless pork, but the few times I prepared the cut, it was dry and boring. In retrospect I think that was because I was still under the influence of the old-fashioned hammered-to-death pork cookery of my childhood. Now I’m enlightened. I’ve cooked up a few tenderloins lately, and I’ve discovered that they cook amazingly quickly. You should leave them pink at the center. That makes them a most delicious cut of pork, not as porky maybe as a big fatty, bone-in chop, but elegant, simple to slice, and open to all sorts of flavorings. So you can get really creative. I’ve chosen to emphasize fennel here. Pork with fennel is a classic Italian combination. I marinate the tenderloin for about an hour in fennel seed and a splash of pastis, among other things, and also include a touch of fennel in my roasted sweet pepper sauce.
One of the best ways to cook a whole pork tenderloin (a cut of meat that looks remarkably like a horse’s thingy, I must say), is by browning it well on the stove and then putting it in the oven to finish cooking (grilling is my second favorite method, and I’ll provide a recipe for that as we head into summer). You just want to get the meat’s temperature up to 140 degrees. That will make for a touch of pink and a lot of juiciness. Many books, even recently published ones, tell you to cook pork tenderloin to 150 to 155 degrees, and they claim that that will give you pink. Don’t do it. The result will be dry and gray. This small, tender cut, much like a chicken breast, keeps cooking after you take it out of the oven, more than does any larger, fattier cut, so if anything, you want to take it out a little sooner. The last one I made, I pulled at 138 degrees, and after I let it rest for about 5 minutes, it sliced into gentle pinky-beige perfection. It’s what I made for my mother on Mother’s Day. She loved it, and she’s not even on a diet.
I served it with asparagus dressed in lemon and olive oil, but a raw fennel salad would be great too.
Pork Tenderloin with Roasted Pepper and Fennel Sauce
1 pork tenderloin
A palmful of fennel seeds, ground
A palmful of black peppercorns, ground
¼ teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
4 large thyme sprigs, the leaves chopped
A tiny splash of pastis (such as Pernod or Ricard, or you might use Sambucca)
Extra-virgin olive oil
For the roasted pepper and fennel sauce:
2 red bell peppers
Extra-virgin olive oil
About 6 ground fennel seeds
1 shallot, thinly sliced
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
3 skinned plum tomatoes, chopped (canned are perfect for this)
A pinch of sugar
A tiny splash of pastis
½ cup chicken broth (low-salt canned is fine)
A squeeze of lemon juice
A few large tarragon sprigs, the leaves chopped
A few basil leaves, chopped, plus of few whole sprigs for garnish
If the tenderloin has a layer of silver skin (a thin filament on the surface), try and remove as much as you can, as it will tighten while cooking, making the meat a little tough.
In a small bowl, mix the ground fennel seeds, black pepper, sugar, Dijon, and thyme. Add the splash of pastis and about 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Season with a pinch of salt, and mix everything together. Smear this all over the pork tenderloin, and refrigerate for at least an hour (or overnight if you need to).
To make the sauce:
Roast the peppers on a grill or under the broiler, turning them often, until they’re blacked and charred all over. Peel and seed them, and cut them into thick strips.
In a medium skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. Add the fennel seed, shallot, and garlic, and sauté about a minute, just to release their fragrances. Add the roasted pepper and chopped tomatoes, season with a pinch of sugar and salt, and sauté about 3 minutes longer. Add the pastis, and let it boil away. Add the chicken broth, and let the sauce simmer for another 3 or 4 minutes. Pour everything into the bowl of a food processor, and purée. Pour the sauce into a small bowl, and add a squeeze of lemon juice (just a little, to bring up all the flavors), the tarragon, and the chopped basil. Taste for seasoning, adding a little more salt if needed. Let this come to room temperature while you cook the pork.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Get a large skillet hot over medium-high heat. Add the tenderloin, seasoning it with a little more salt, and brown it well on all sides. Place the skillet in the oven, and roast for about 10 minutes. You want a temperature of between 138 and 140, which will give you a slightly pink center (stick an instant-read thermometer into the thickest part and let it sit there for about a minute). Take the meat out of the skillet, and let it sit for about 5 minutes.
Slice the tenderloin thinly, and lay it out on a serving platter. Drizzle with a little fresh olive oil, and garnish with the basil sprigs. Serve with the pepper sauce.