Apologies for the lack of photos. I was in such a rush to serve the food that there are no good photos to show. But don’t let that fool you into thinking that the food wasn’t delicious and visually pleasing, because it totally was.
Moving back to Tufts:
Dinner Party #1:
Chilled Cucumber Avocado Soup,
Herb Encrusted Pork Tenderloin,
Strawberry Rhubarb Crisp w/Crème Anglaise
Getting adjusted to college living can be daunting. Leaving behind your friends and family is difficult, as is sharing a room and bathroom with relative strangers. That stuff is a cakewalk compared to leaving the family kitchen and battery of cooking equipment. Two Saturdays ago, my mother and I fought over what cooking gear would take the trek to Tufts for the semester. I was ready to pack up every item she had managed to accrue in her culinary career; however, she felt that certain things weren’t all that integral to my success in cooking. After much debate, she decided that I would get the second-rate set of saucepans, knives, and bowls along with some of the appliances, namely the ice cream maker and food processor. I didn’t get the blender, but the processor does a decent job. I also scored a couple of gadgets (microplane and a baster). While I would’ve loved some of the sharper knives and bigger bowls and saucepans, beggars can’t be choosers.
Viewing the kitchen proved to be a very sobering experience. I slowly let it all sink in, the lack of a sink, the absence of a dishwasher, the minuscule table for foodprep. The stove here is electric, which might be a bit of an adjustment, since I’ve only used gas. I can understand why the university might shy away from a gas oven. All it takes is a couple of drunk students to stupidly burn the building down. The stovetop is missing a burner, and another one is oddly crooked. Well, at least the microwave seemed to be in tip-top shape…
My first week was quite tough, as virtually no cooking took place. I found myself viewing food blogs and old copies of Bon Appetit and Gourmet more than normal. The cafeteria food here at Tufts is perfectly serviceable, but I feel so dependent. All I do is walk up to the counter and cherry-pick from a smorgasbord of overcooked and under seasoned meats and veggies. After less than a week, I decided that I was ready to give the kitchen a test drive! My suitemates agreed to a home cooked meal our first Friday back, and I got busy planning the meal.
We would begin with a chilled cucumber avocado soup, follow it up with an herb encrusted pork tenderloin served with lemon dill rice pilaf, and end the meal with strawberry rhubarb crisp along with vanilla bean ice cream.
I should let you know that I’ve never officially hosted a dinner party before. I’ve made parts of meals for dinners, but never have I made a full meal for guests. I knew this would be tough, but I was ready for a challenge.
The action began Friday, early afternoon when I biked to the grocery store to pick up groceries. Armed with my backpack and grocery list, I began to scour the store for all my ingredients. In Julia Child’s memoir, My Life in France, she describes marketing as one of the most exciting and adventurous parts to any cooking experience. My, how the times have changed! As I searched the labyrinthine Shaw’s for my ingredients, I was amazed by how mundane it all is. I already miss the Vineyard’s farmer’s market!
Since I was serving 11 people, I figured three 1.5-pound pork tenderloins would be good. An hour and $100 later, and I had the basics for our meal! One problem—the amount of groceries I had would never fit in my pack. I played Tetris with my groceries for about 20 minutes. It must’ve been a funny sight as I biked back to campus with a bulging backpack and two bags of groceries dangling from the two handlebars.
I felt like a hyperactive child on after a long night of trick or treating as I unloaded the spoils from the many zippered compartments of my L.L. Bean “Turbo Transit Pack.” This space issue came up again as I filled our room’s mini-refrigerator.
It was around 3:00pm (T-minus 3 hours to dinner) when I began the cooking/food prep. You already know the process to making the strawberry rhubarb, so that came up first.
After around an hour of that, I began making the herb crust for the pork tenderloin. In retrospect, the food processor would’ve been quite useful, but I ignorantly believed that myself capable of quickly chopping my herbs. HA! My knife skills are nowhere near good enough to make short work of those damn little leaves. The fact that I was dealing with fairly dull knives didn’t help much either. Anyways, the herb crust and tenderloin was ready to go around 5:20.
The avocado cucumber soup was the last to be made and the first to be served. It also happened to be the one dish I hadn’t made before. Note to self: only make for guests that which has already been home-tested. This recipe jumped out at me from the Quick Kitchen section of Gourmet. After all, chilled soup seemed like a great way to end the summer. This soup was way too watery for my liking. Had I the chance to do it over, I would’ve used another avocado and cut the water with more butter cream. The texture didn’t work for me either, but this complaint probably has to do with the fact that the recipe also called for a blender, and I used the food processor. Anyways, I served the soup at 6:10, ten minutes after the supposed start to the dinner.
I was ready to start the pilaf when it hit me that the chicken broth I had purchased needed a can-opener. My mom had always purchased the Swanson variety that has the tab on top, but this had slipped my mind until that moment. Oopsy-Poopsy! I was in such a rush, that I decided to cut my losses and save the ingredients until a later date.
The pork had gone into the oven at 5:45 at 400ºF, which according to my estimates would take 35 minutes at most. This would’ve allowed everyone a chance to enjoy—well, more like politely pick at—the soup. Alas, the oven here in Wren isn’t correctly calibrated. Because after 40 minutes, the tenderloin was still quite pink. Now, don’t go thinking I’m one of those “I-need-my-meat-totally-burnt-beyond-all-comprehension-to-make-sure-I-don’t-die” people. No, I’m very much a medium rare kind of guy. I’m the kind of person that judges my fellow diners by their steak preference. If you so much as utter the word “well,” you might as well leave the table. After all, this animal died for you, so why go ruin it by cooking off all its juicy flavor?
Anyways, I kept worriedly checking on the tenderloins, but to no avail. The pork, unmoved by my supplications, remained uncooked. I went up once or twice to check on my “dinner guests,” but the looks on their faces reminded me of those Sally Struthers commercials featuring emaciated children in third world countries. They were hungry, and growing quite antsy. Much like the tenderloins, these dinner guests weren’t easy to placate. After about an hour and a half, the meat was a light pink, which was good enough for me. I ran up the two flights of stairs with the pork, quickly served it, then ran downstairs to get the strawberry rhubarb started.
As the crisp was cooking, I prepared a nice vanilla bean crème anglaise accompaniment. With my guests happy with the pork, I was suddenly able to breath a sight of relief. Whew! And now I was doing what I do best—dessert! The rest of the evening went on without a hitch, and I relished each passerby’s look of amazement and longing as they registered the smells emanating from the oven—thyme, basil, and olive oil emanating from the oven. When the strawberry rhubarb went in, the air was pierced with that familiar smell, and I was transported from the dingy kitchen at Tufts to the one back home.
Herb Encrusted Pork Loin (serves 4 college guys, which might mean 5 regular human beings)
This recipe is adapted from the Junior League of Denver’s Colorado Collage Cookbook
½ cup fine, dried breadcrumbs (panko)
1/3 cup chopped fresh basil
3TBS olive oil
3/4 TBS of fresh ground pepper
3T Chopped Fresh thyme
2T chopped fresh parsley
1.5lbs pork tenderloin
Stir together all the ingredients (except the pork) until you get a paste. Moisten the meat by padding the tenderloin with wet hands. Press the crumb mixture over the tenderloin. Place in the oven (set to 375ºF, hopefully) on broiler pan and cook until center is 165ºF or until the meat is a pale pink in color, about 35 minutes.