Welcome all to “Food and Friends,” where six winning bloggers get to host America’s Test Kitchen dinner parties. Join us as we will travel across North America and into the homes of these bloggers who will be using our new Menu Cookbook as their guide to entertaining for a party of eight.
This week’s “Food and Friends” dinner party takes place in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Our host, Sarah Kieffer, from The Vanilla Bean Blog, invites us into her century-old home to celebrate with family and friends over a Autumn Harvest Pork Dinner. Using methods from the Test Kitchen and the wisdom of Julia Child, Sarah takes a butcher’s error and turns it into a kitchen lesson.
Meet Our Lovely Host
I’ve always been drawn to the idea of the dinner party – candlelight, witty conversation and never-ending glasses of wine come right to mind. And as much as this appeals to me, I must admit I don’t own a cocktail dress, I usually end up in awkward conversations and I’ve rarely cooked a big meal for a crowd. Lots of appetizers and desserts? Yes. I’m comfortable with that. A roasted pork loin that weighs four pounds? Trying to fit eight adults and two kids around my tiny kitchen table? Dressing nice on top of it all? This was going to be a new experience.
Cooking has been a growing pursuit for me. I’ve always loved to bake, and spent a few years as a baker for various coffeehouses around Minneapolis, but cooking has been an ever-evolving process. It wasn’t until about two years ago that I actually started feeling comfortable in my kitchen. The anxiety over following new recipes, dicing things just right and knowing when something was done lessened through my trial and error. Life for me has always been about learning through mistakes, and cooking has been no exception.
I’ve had a lot of help along the way; dear friends and co-workers who have inspired and taught me. I’ve also been incredibly grateful to America’s Test Kitchen, and can honestly say I’ve learned so much from watching episodes of America’s Test Kitchen and reading Cook’s Illustrated. I’m kind of a geek about them, actually, with my collection of cookbooks and DVDs. So, when I found out I would be hosting this dinner party from the new Menu Cookbook, I was incredibly honored. And ready for the challenge.
Who, What and Why
The first thing I wanted to do was figure out the guest list. I’ve had so much encouragement from so many people in my cooking adventures – as a baker working long hours to a blogger trying to find time to put up a post amidst the whirlwind of two young children; it was hard to pick just eight.
I decided on my parents, who have always been supportive. My sister and her husband were on the list, as good friends as well as family. I also invited Larry and Colleen Wolner, the couple who taught and inspired me to bake and cook when I worked with them at their lovely establishment, The Blue Heron Coffeehouse, in Winona, Minnesota. They’ve remained dear friends over the years, and since I had never cooked a whole meal for them before, I thought it was high time. Our two little ones would also be there, more excited than anyone about this celebration.
Our little house was also turning 100 this year, and while we’ve only lived in it six years, we’ve fallen in love and wanted to celebrate its long history. For me this dinner was about home and heart: how we’ve slowly and lovingly started to create a food history for our family.
Planning and Preparing the Meal
The menu I chose for the evening, The Autumn Harvest Pork Dinner, didn’t seem too complicated, except for the fact that I had never cooked a cut of meat so large. We usually stick to chicken and the occasional hamburger, and my one attempt at pork chops in the past was a complete disaster. I was a little nervous, but managed to talk myself through it.
The day before the party I took a trip to a ‘real’ butcher in our neighborhood, and was handed the biggest piece of meat I have ever held: four pounds of cold, thick pork. I took it home, a little terrified, and set in the fridge. Then I got to work, keeping myself busy with what I could prepare in advance. One thing I love about this cookbook is all the helpful hints it gives in planning the party, including what can be made ahead of time. Putting together the Ham and Cheese Palmiers and Cilantro sauce took less than an hour, and helped make the day of the dinner that much easier.
The next morning we all overslept, which is a rare event in our home. It was probably for the best, since I had spent the better part of the night obsessively timing everything I needed to do in my head. I started by making dessert, a Raspberry Streusel tart. I find baking a calming experience, and was pretty confident this would come together easily and ease my anxiety. It worked, and turned out lovely.
Next, I got the pork ready for the brine. I started feeling uneasy again, looking at the cut of meat I was holding. It was so thick – maybe too thick, and not lengthy like the photo in the cookbook. I decided not to worry about it. There was some cleaning and rearranging to do, and vegetables to chop and dice. Then the pork loin went into the oven, nestled snuggly over the sweet potatoes. I said some quick prayers. My sister came over early to help me move tables together and set things up, then I got myself ready, and our guests arrived.
The Meal is Served
We chatted over the palmiers and good wine – Larry and Colleen had come in with a crate full of bottles and started pairing wines for us. I tried to enjoy our small talk, but I was just thinking about the pork. It was cooking longer than it should have, and I was internally freaking out. I decided to start with the spinach and blood orange salad while we waited, which had become just a spinach orange salad since I had scoured three grocery stores the previous day and could not find blood oranges. It was delicious – the citrus flavors and beautiful colors brought warmth to the table.
Everyone finished up, and the pork still wasn’t reading 135. I decided to pull it, as the outside was clearly becoming overdone. I let it rest, and waited for the sweet potatoes to caramelize. They looked a bit overdone, too, but after sneaking a quick bite I was relieved to find them delicious. I sliced into the pork loin, and was disappointed to find the outside and ends were indeed overdone, but the inside was underdone in spots. I tried to hold on to my favorite Julia Child quote, from her book in My Life In France. “I don’t believe in twisting yourself into knots of excuses and explanations over the food you make…[u]sually one’s cooking is better than one thinks it is. And if the food is vile…then the cook must simply grit her teeth and bear it with a smile- and learn from her mistakes.” I love this quote, but even as I chanted her words in my head, I still found myself apologizing.
Everyone was kind, and cleared their plates – the sweet potatoes were so tasty with their subtle kick of cayenne and the cilantro sauce was incredible. We chatted for awhile, and my disappointment faded as another glass of wine was poured. We moved on to dessert, that pretty little berry tart. The raspberries were so tart while the sweet streusel balanced them perfectly, and the crust was completely crisp, holding up the juicy fruit. It was fabulous. Then my dear friend Lisa showed up and washed all my dishes, another reason to let go and enjoy. Our evening ended in much laughter and good cheer, and while things hadn’t been perfect, I fell asleep feeling satisfied and full.
Time To Play Test Kitchen
But here’s my confession. I was still annoyed about the pork loin. I’ve seen Ms. Lancaster cook up crazy amounts of meat on the show, and I knew the directions couldn’t be the problem. What had I done wrong? I decided to recreate the meal. So I set out for the regular old grocery store, and asked the butcher for the same cut of pork. The piece he handed me, however, was completely different than the one I had been given for the dinner party. This one was longer and not so thick, and I had a gut feeling things were going to go my way. I got home and put the pork in the salt and sugar mixture. It was done brining right as naptime was beginning, so while my littles were sleeping I prepared and roasted the meat. Things were looking much better, and with much relief the pork came up to temperature at the correct time. I pulled it out, letting it rest while the sweet potatoes roasted in higher heat. Now the potatoes were cooked perfectly – not overdone as before.
When it was all ready, I cut myself a thin slice, dipped the pork in the vibrant green sauce, and felt the world stop for one moment. It was perfect. The spice rub boasted its cumin and coriander proudly, and the cilantro sauce was a superb compliment. I sat at my kitchen table alone, and as the flavors burst through my mouth like tiny stars, I heard Julia whisper to me again. It was something else she had said, something I had jotted down in agreement. “Dining with one’s friends and beloved family is certainly one of life’s primal and most innocent delights, one that is both soul-satisfying and eternal.” In that moment, my mouth and soul still buzzing from all the beauty of the food before me, I realized the best meal had still been Saturday night. Here, alone, I enjoyed a perfect meal, but there was no laughter, no connection with those beloved, no insightful conversation and warm glow. My first attempt at pork loin hadn’t been exactly what I wanted, but everyone there, every word shared, the bread broken together, was.
The Long and Winding Cooking Road
One of the reasons I love Cook’s Illustrated so much is the way they embrace and equip the home cook. In a culture that has lost the art of cooking and eating together, they have been champions of the home kitchen, teaching and guiding and doing all the hard work. They have stood proud along side their readers, with our old family recipes and wonky kitchen tips.
As I sat there in my kitchen, alone with my perfect meal, I glanced at my shelf overflowing with America’s Test Kitchen cookbooks. I knew somewhere there was a man with a bow tie, who, after all these years of writing about the importance of good food and family and history and connections, might have smiled at me, happy that I finally grasped the heart of all of this. I put my meal away, wrapping it thoughtfully. I would bring it out at our family dinner that night; a feast to eat in our little home, with the ones who give meaning to my days and my reason for cooking.
Thank you so much, Sarah. Your photos are gorgeous, your party looked inviting, and you get a hat tip from us for going back and figuring out what went wrong with the pork. Thank you for bringing America’s Test Kitchen into your home.