Sometimes it’s a few bars of a Héctor Lavoe song or the sight of a bunch of big, shiny green avocados that reminds me of the island half of my family calls home. But, more often than not, it’s the smell that brings images out of the dusty corners of my brain.
The peppery and slightly bitter smell of red-orange achiote oil. The earthy green of fresh cilantro or its more daring cousin, culantro. The buttered syrup dripping from a ripe mango; the dizzying slap of strong vinegar; the musky sweetness of fried green plantains; the deep, rich and garlicky smell of roast pork.
I don’t eat as much meat these days as I did when I was a kid, but the smell of pernil, Puerto Rican roast pork, will always bring me back to my grandmother’s kitchen. Enriched with garlic and a blend of spices and herbs, pernil is a process, and while it’s totally worth it, I don’t always have the energy to do it. This is how it is The pork tenderloin à la Pernil with mojo potatoes and spinach with coconut cream is born.
One day, when I was craving these flavors, I picked up a pork tenderloin. After rubbing it with a simple adobo of garlic, lime juice and spices, I roasted it in a hot oven until just cooked through, but still juicy and tender. Later, flipping through Von Diaz’s 2018 cookbook, “Coconuts & Collards: Recipes and Stories from Puerto Rico to the Deep South,” I saw that she had had a similar idea. Great minds, right ?!
I added some chili powder to my adobo and a little more garlic and lime than what Diaz uses, but that’s the thing with the pernil: the cooks do it themselves. I have seen recipes that include cumin, paprika, onions, pineapple, coconut milk, achiote or cilantro; other Puerto Ricans might disagree, but I would say garlic is the only real constant. This recipe would be nicely sliced, in oily sandwiches, but here I suggest a side of boiled potatoes in mojo sauce and sautéed spinach in coconut. It’s the kind of meat + starch + vegetable dish that I ate growing up, but a little more streamlined, and a little less rich too.
Pork tenderloin is a particularly quick-cooking lean meat, but if you don’t eat pork, you can use lamb, beef, white fish fillets, or whole chicken instead, adjusting the time. cooking accordingly. If you don’t eat meat, rub the adobo over halved portobello or drained canned jackfruit, then roast them until they start to crisp. Mojo potatoes are inspired by yuca con mojo, a traditional Puerto Rican dish made from boiled cassava root or yuca; feel free to use yuca in place of potatoes, or even roasted squash, boiled yams, or steamed cauliflower. The other side here is the Coconut Cream Spinach, which is actually baby spinach sautéed quickly with garlic and coconut cream. Feel free to use chopped dark leafy greens in place of spinach, and if you don’t have or don’t want to use coconut cream, you can omit it.
This is not a flat recipe, as you can see, but it is written with efficiency in mind. You quickly marinate the pork – although you can let it marinate overnight if you wish – and roast it by boiling the potatoes and making the mojo sauce. Let the pork rest, to keep its juice, while you drain the potatoes and mix them with the sauce, then make the spinach – it only takes a few minutes! – before slicing the pork and serving.
- 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon chili powder
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
- 2 garlic cloves, minced or finely grated
- 1 teaspoon of olive oil
- Juice of 1/2 lemon or lime (about 1 tbsp)
- 1 pork tenderloin (1 pound)
- 2-3 medium brown potatoes (about 1 pound), peeled and quartered
- Kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons of olive oil
- 1/4 small onion (any kind), thinly sliced
- 1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons of lemon or fresh lime juice (from 1 lemon or lime)
- A pinch of finely ground black pepper
- Small handful of torn fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems, for garnish (optional)
For the spinach with coconut cream
- 1/2 tablespoon of coconut oil or olive oil
- 5 ounces (about 5 cups) baby spinach
- Pinch of kosher salt
- 1/4 cup coconut cream
- 1/4 teaspoon finely grated orange zest, plus more for garnish
- A pinch of finely ground black pepper
- A pinch of ground nutmeg, preferably freshly grated (optional)
Prepare the pork tenderloin: In a large bag or zipped bowl, prepare the adobo by mixing the salt, chili powder, oregano, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice.
Pat the pork tenderloin dry, then cut 5 or 6 small, shallow slits in it with the tip of a knife – this will help the meat to absorb the spices – and place it in the bag with the adobo. Massage the adobo into the meat until it is well coated on all sides. If you wish, you can marinate the meat in the refrigerator overnight or up to 1 day in advance.
When you’re ready to roast the pork, place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees. Line a large rimmed baking sheet with foil, place the fillet in the center of the baking sheet and roast for 15 minutes. Using tongs or a fork, flip the tenderloin and roast it for another 10 to 15 minutes, or until it reaches an internal temperature of 145 degrees; the exact roasting time will depend on the thickness of the meat. Let stand at room temperature for 5-10 minutes before slicing and serving.
Make the mojo potatoes: While the pork cooks, in a large pot over high heat, bring the potatoes and a big pinch of salt to a boil in enough water to cover. Cook until tender, about 20 minutes. Pour the pot into the sink and drain out most of the water, leaving a few tablespoons with the potatoes. Return the pot to the stove, off the heat, but cover and keep warm.
Make the mojo while the potatoes cook: In a small skillet over medium-high heat, heat the olive oil until it sparkles. Add the onion, garlic and a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onion and garlic become translucent, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the lemon juice and black pepper. Reserve until the potatoes are cooked.
Pour the mojo sauce over the hot potatoes. Cover and keep warm until ready to serve. Serve garnished with cilantro, if desired.
Make the coconut spinach cream: In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the coconut oil until it melts. Add the spinach and let it wilt. Add the salt and cook the spinach, releasing its liquid and drying most of the time, about 5 minutes. Stir in the coconut cream, orange zest, pepper and nutmeg, if using, and simmer until the coconut cream reduces slightly and thickens, 3 to 5 minutes. Serve hot, with a little more orange zest on top.
Calories: 484; Total fat: 23 g; Saturated fat: 11 g; Cholesterol: 98 mg; Sodium: 508 mg; Carbohydrates: 33 g; Dietary fiber: 5 g; Sugar: 2 g; Proteins: 37 g.
Pork tenderloin recipe adapted in part from “Coconuts & Collards” by Von Diaz (University Press of Florida, 2018).