This Pork Tenderloin Is Easy Enough for a Kid to Cook

This Pork Tenderloin Is Easy Enough for a Kid to Cook
Photo: Claire Lower

Hello everyone, and welcome back to Prix Fixed, Lifehacker’s menu-planning advice column.

This week’s email is a request for a Father’s Day dinner that can be prepared by three (3) 12-year-olds, and I am very excited about it:

Greetings, Claire!

I love your writing/recipes and have a menu request. I have 12-year-old triplets who hope to make a Father’s Day dinner for their dad.

They have basic cooking skills — can chop things, use an oven, cook in a skillet, follow a recipe, measure correctly, use the mixer, etc. They have cooked and baked before but would need specific instructions. For example, unlike the first person they would have no idea when fish is done without a temp to check for (we do have meat thermometers) or a time/temp for the oven. Essentially I think they could follow a plan suitable for a novice adult.

We have all the cooking equipment you would expect from a suburban family — oven, stand mixer, microwave, crockpot, Instant Pot, plenty of pots/pans/dishes, and of course a waffle iron! I am happy to help but they would love to do a meal on their own.

My daughter doesn’t like spicy food. My one son distrusts sauces and prefers his protein plain and separate from vegetables. (Although he is willing to try sauces if he makes them himself.) The rest of us have no dietary restrictions.

We are flexible on protein and budget. We would prefer something that seemed “restaurant quality” like your first column but no ingredients so fancy it would be a culinary crime for something to be ruined! It would be a bonus if the recipe had some modifications they could use in the future.

Thanks for your consideration. I know you are childfree but I think this could help some other tween/teens as well!

I love everything about this email. I started cooking for myself and my sisters right around that age, and I’m thrilled that you’re getting them involved in the Father’s Day meal preparation. I also love that there are three of them, which means you can assign each of them a dish and then supervise, cocktail in hand (if that is what you are into — that’s how I imagine myself as a parent).

Anyway. Grocery stores and whoever writes the press releases for the beef industry love to push steaks for Father’s Day, but cooking five individual steaks to everyone’s preferred state of doneness is not something I would wish on a tween, or a new cook of any age. Instead, I think the kids should cook three larger, fairly hands-off pieces of pork, specifically a miso-marinated pork tenderloin, the perfect pork for beginners. We’ll keep the sides classic with garlic mashed potatoes and garlicky spinach. (Twelve is a good age to learn that there is no such thing as too much garlic.)

I’m excited about this menu and the many lessons it has to teach. By preparing a few whole pork tenderloins, at least one of your triplets will learn about marinades, reverse searing, deglazing, and the importance of using a meat thermometer. They’re also going to learn how make the creamiest mashed potatoes (with a secret ingredient), and the best way to finish some sautéed spinach (spoiler: it’s honey). The son that hates sauces is going to learn that butter can be a sauce, and I love that for him. (There might also be a little brandy involved, but don’t worry — the ethanol will mostly burn off.)

The Shopping

But before we get to cooking, let’s do some shopping.

The List:

  • 3 pork tenderloins, about 450g each (I don’t know how much a 12-year-old eats, but I vaguely recall that it’s a lot. I would usually recommend two pork tenderloins for five people but that seems conservative for a house that’s over half tweens.)
  • 1 tub of red miso
  • 1kg of yellow potatoes, such as Yukon Golds
  • 500mL half & half (You will have extra but I’d hate for you to have too little because someone put it in their coffee.)
  • A box of salted butter (You won’t use all of it, but this menu calls for a good bit, and running out would be tragic).
  • Some sort of hard finishing cheese, such as parm or pecorino
  • Lawry’s garlic salt (or any garlic salt, but Lawry’s is my current favourite)
  • 2 big bunches of spinach
  • 2 bulbs of garlic

Pantry staples you probably have but might need to shop for:

  • Olive oil
  • Mayonnaise
  • Honey

The Plan

Assign each child a dish. I think the one who distrusts sauces should make the pork so he can learn to make a simple pan sauce, but I think all three should get involved with the marinating. It’s important for people who eat meat to touch and handle a lot of raw meat so they get comfortable with it. The best meat is usually the stuff you marinate, butcher, or otherwise prepare yourself — with your own hands — so let’s get those hands dirty.

You’re going to have the children marinate the pork in miso paste. The miso acts kind of like a dry cure, drawing out moisture, intensifying the meatiness of the pork, and infusing it with a salty fermented flavour. All the kids have to do is smear the paste all over the meat, until there is a 1/8th-inch thick coating on each tenderloin, then toss the tenderloins in plastic freezer bags and let them hang out in the fridge for 5-8 hours. Once that time has elapsed, it’s time to start cooking. To make this as easy as possible, I’m going to write out the instructions for each dish separately, so each triplet can focus on their task, without being distracted by extraneous information.

For the triplet with the tenderloin:

Hey kid, I hope you’re excited, because you’re about to make three beautiful pieces of pork, and you’re not going to overcook them. The first thing you need to do is make sure you have your meat thermometer, because you cannot detect temperature changes with your eyes, unless those eyes are reading the digital display of an instant-read meat thermometer. We’re cooking these things to a slightly pink 60C, and we’re going to use a method called “reverse searing,” which just means you’re going to slow roast them in a low-temp oven until they reach 55C, then finish them in a pan with lots of butter. OK, let’s do the thing. Other than the meat thermometer, you will need:

  • Those 3 tenderloins that have been marinating
  • A stick of salted butter
  • 1/2 cup of brandy (Please do not drink it. I don’t want your mum to be mad at me. I am trusting you with this.)

Pre-heat your oven to 120C. Take the tenderloins out of their bag(s) and, holding them by one end, wipe the excess miso off and into a bowl or the sink (if you have a garbage disposal). Put the tenderloins on a cutting board and give them one more wipe with paper towels. Toss the miso and paper towels. Lovingly place the tenderloins in a shallow roasting pan or on a baking sheet and, once the oven is heated to 120C, set the pan or sheet on the middle rack, and set a timer on your phone for 20 minutes. Once your phone starts making its alarm sounds, flip the tenderloins over and set another alarm for 15 minutes. When that alarm sounds, it’s time to check the temperature of each piece of meat. You want to pull the tenderloins out the oven when they reach 55C, so keep cooking if they’re not quite there yet. Once they hit that temp, pull them out of the oven (and turn it off), and grab a large stainless steel (or similar) skillet and a stick of butter.

Slice 5 tablespoons of butter off the stick and melt them over medium-high heat in the skillet. Once they are fully melted and vigorously foaming, get those tenderloins in there and sear them for a couple of minutes on all four sides, until a dark crust develops on each side. It’s ok if it starts to look a little burnt in spots. A lot of new cooks freak out about burning meat, but the truth is that browning is what gives meat its flavour, and — with the exception of poached chicken — pale meat is rarely what you want. Here is a tenderloin I cooked a while ago for reference, but honestly yours could come out even darker than this one and still be delicious.

Photo: Claire Lower Photo: Claire Lower

Once you’ve got a good bit of colour on your tenderloins, go ahead and do a temp check and see where everyone is hanging out. You want to end up around 60C Once you hit that — and don’t panic if you’re a few degrees over — remove the tenderloins from the pan, set them on a cutting board, and lightly tent them with foil.

Remove the pan from the burner (or turn it off if you’re using a gas stove), let the pan cool for a minute, then add the brandy to the pan. It will make a lot of hissing noises, which is what you want. Scrape all the little browned and burnt bits off the bottom of the skillet with a wooden spoon, then let the brandy reduce to about half of its volume — it should look cloudy and thicker than it was in the bottle. Turn the heat back on if it’s not reducing fast enough. If you reduce it too much, just add a little more brandy and let it reduce again. Brandy is very forgiving. (“Brandy” is also the name of a real groovy song by Looking Glass. Maybe put it on while you’re cooking.)

Once the brandy has reduced, add the remaining 3 tablespoons of butter and whisk to create a pan sauce. It shouldn’t need any salt — the pork is plenty salty on its own — but you can grind some fresh pepper in there if you like. (10 grinds should do it.) Once you’re ready to serve the meal, slice the pork and drizzle your pan sauce on the slices. You did it! I’m very proud of you! (If you want to level up next time, get to an Asian market and grab some shio koji. The procedure is the same, but the flavour is a little different.)

For the triplet with the mashed potatoes

Hello. I hope you are not offended that you have been assigned to the potatoes. I know they do not seem as exciting as pork tenderloin, but you can have a lot of fun with them. You also have a task to complete the day before the dinner, but don’t worry, it’s a very simple one (roasting garlic). I’m also going to share a family secret with you: The best, creamiest mashed potatoes have a little mayonnaise in them. I know, it does not sound appealing, but you do not taste the mayo. (If you don’t tell your sauce-hating brother, he will not be able to tell it’s in there, but I’ll leave that up to you.) You’ll just add a couple of tablespoons, enough for the mayo to act as an emulsifier — which just means it’s helping the water and fat in your mash play nice with each other, so your potatoes come out creamy, not greasy. To make these ‘tates, you will need:

  • 1 bulb of garlic
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 1 kg of yellow potatoes, such as Yukon golds
  • 1/2 teaspoon of salt
  • 1/2 cup half & half
  • 4 tablespoons salted butter
  • 2 tablespoons mayo
  • Garlic salt
  • Parmesan or pecorino cheese

The day before the dinner (so Saturday, I would guess), make the roasted garlic. Preheat your oven to 200C, then grab a head of garlic and remove the loose, outer papery bits . Slice about half an inch off of the top of the head to expose the cloves, then place the head in a centre of a piece of foil, and drizzle a few teaspoons of oil on the exposed cloves, tapping the head on the counter to get the oil down in the crevices. Wrap the garlic in the foil, pop it in the oven, and wait. Start checking on the garlic after about 40 minutes, and remove it from the oven once it looks dark and golden, and the middle cloves are soft (poke it with a knife to check). Remove your prize from the oven, let it cool a bit, then coax the cloves out with a tiny fork or pick of some kind. Transfer them to a bowl, loosely cover them with plastic, and set them in the fridge until the next day.

Now it is Sunday, and time to mash some potatoes. Wait for your brother to preheat the oven before you get started. Once he puts the pork in the oven, go ahead and rinse your potatoes and cut them into quarters. Don’t worry about peeling them; the skins on Yukons are incredibly thin, and I like the hint of bitterness they bring to the bowl.

Since you have a pressure cooker, let’s use that. The great thing about this particular appliance is that you can plug it in anywhere, which means you don’t have to crowd around the stove and oven with the other two. Add a cup of water to the pressure cooker insert, set a trivet down in there, and pour the quartered potatoes on top of the trivet. Cook them under high pressure for nine minutes, then manually release the pressure by flipping that little switch to “release.” Carefully drain the potatoes — they will be quite hot — and dump all of the water out of the insert. Return the insert to the appliance and press the “Sauté” button and adjust it to “Low.” Add the potatoes back in and mash them around with a potato masher to drive off excess moisture. If you have a potato ricer, just rice them directly into the pot. Once the potatoes are pretty broken up (or riced), add the butter, the cream, and the garlic from the day before, and mash like heck. Add the mayo, and mash and stir. (If you have riced the potatoes, you will not need to mash so much, just stir.) Once the potatoes are mashed and smooth (don’t fret over a couple of small lumps; it’s fine), give them a taste and add more butter, half & half, or garlic salt if you think it they need it. Give ‘em one more stir for good measure, grate a generous amount of cheese on top, then serve alongside the pork.

For the triplet with the spinach

Hello, it’s time to provide a green thing. I honestly used to hate spinach a whole lot, because I had only had mushy, bland spinach, but that’s not what you’re going to make, oh no. You’re going to cook this spinach quickly, and you’re going to finish it with crispy golden garlic and a little bit of honey. It’s going to be great. To make this healthful side, you will need:

  • 2 big bunches of spinach
  • 3 tablespoons of olive oil
  • A couple of tablespoons of butter, cut into small cubes
  • 1 head of garlic
  • Salt
  • Garlic salt
  • Honey

Once your brother gets the pork in the oven, go ahead and wash the spinach and dry it thoroughly. A salad spinner works best but you can also roll it up in a clean kitchen towel, then let it air dry the rest of the way. Now grab your garlic, and peel and slice it into slivers or smash and roughly chop it. You want discernible pieces, so don’t mince. (Need help peeling? Try microwaving the cloves for 15 seconds.) If you finish all those tasks quickly, ask your mum if she needs any help until your brother starts searing the pork. At that point you’ll want to grab a big pan, and heat the olive oil over medium heat for a few minutes. Add the garlic, season with a few big pinches of salt, and cook until it is fragrant, golden, and slightly crispy. Remove it from the oil and set aside.

Increase the heat to medium-high, and add the spinach in handfuls, along with a few shakes of garlic salt for each handful. Cook the spinach quickly in the garlicky oil until it just wilts, adding tiny cubes of butter if the pan starts to get dry. Depending on the size of the pan, it may be best to work in batches, so as not to overcook half of the spinach. Add as much as the pan can take, stir and sauté until it turns bright green and softens, then remove immediately and transfer to a serving dish. Taste as you go and season with more garlic salt if needed. Repeat until you are out of spinach, then drizzle the spinach with honey, top with the golden garlic, and serve.

If you’d like a little menu-planning advice, send your request to Claire at [email protected] Be sure to include as much information as possible, including any dietary restrictions, protein preferences, budget, and available kitchen equipment. Please keep in mind that the turnaround time will be at least a week, so get those requests in early.

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