Lemon-Thyme-Marinated Pork Tenderloin with Maple-Roasted Butternut Squash

pork loin

What cooking method can be more primal than roasting? When humans discovered fire, it was by roasting over an open pit. Today we simulate this method of indirect cooking in the oven, achieving the best taste by concentrating flavors, retaining interior moisture, and creating a beautiful brown exterior. In gastronomy-speak, this caramelization is known as the Maillard reaction, which is the basic chemical reaction all food undergoes when cooked. But the cavepeople didn't care how sugars reacted with amino acids, all they knew was that fire made things taste good. I often roast almost anything during the autumn months. Once October comes, roasting is my favorite activity. Meats are of course among the favorite items to roast. Just think of a luscious roast chicken or roast beef. But many seem to forget that pork and vegetables also make wonderful roasts.

One of my favorite memories as a child was eating my aunt Kathy's crown roast, where the entire bone-in pork resembles a crown after the bones are trimmed and the loin is pinned or tied to create a circle. Since then I've never forgotten how elegant a pork dinner can be. Now the tenderloin is my favorite cut of pork for many reasons. It's not only lean and flavorful but it's also inexpensive and easy to work with. Either roasted whole in the oven or cut into medallions and seared in a pan, the tenderloin is as its name implies, tender. And the best part is that there's no bone to deal with and therefore cooks very quickly, making it a great choice for fast weeknight family dinners.

In this recipe the tenderloin is marinated in a wonderful combination of thyme, lemon zest and juice, garlic, and mustard. Thyme, a preferred herb for roasting, brings out the best flavors in the meat. Nothing makes a better accompaniment to roast meat than roast vegetables. Root vegetables such as carrots, beets, potatoes, pumpkins, and squashes all taste better after roasting at high heat. Simply toss cubed vegetables in salt, pepper, and oil, and all the earthy flavors will be there in the finished product. But sometimes with pumpkins and squashes, I really adore a bit of sweet. Butternut squash, one of the most popular vegetables for roasting, is enhanced by a bit of brown sugar and maple syrup. I add a palm full of sage halfway through the roasting process to add another layer of earthiness and pungency. It's really amazing what roasting does for food. It's a method that does not let down the cavemen in all of us.

Special instruction: The pork can be roasted on the same pan as the squash. Just make room for the tenderloin on the same pan as the squash. Add the pork after the squash has roasted for its first 20 minutes. Then as the squash finishes its last 20 minutes, the pork will also finish at the same time.

Lemon-Thyme-Marinated Pork Tenderloin

1 pork tenderloin (about 1 pound)
1 lemon, zested and juiced
3 tablespoons olive oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
coarse sea salt
freshly ground black pepper

In a large resealable plastic bag, combine, the pork, lemon zest and juice, olive oil, garlic, thyme, and mustard. Season with salt and pepper. Seal the bag while pressing to remove the air. Let the pork marinate in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours or overnight.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Remove the pork from the marinade, scraping of any bits of garlic and thyme. Season with salt and pepper. Warm olive oil in an ovenproof sauté pan over medium heat. Sear the pork on all sides until lightly browned. Pour the marinade over the pork and place in the oven. Roast for 20 minutes or until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the meat reads 140 degrees F. Allow the pork to rest for 10 minutes covered with aluminum foil before carving and serving. Yield: 4 servings.

Maple-Roasted Butternut Squash

1 medium butternut squash (about 2 pounds), peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 tablespoons light-brown sugar
3 tablespoons maple syrup
3 tablespoons olive oil
coarse sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup fresh sage leaves

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Combine the squash, sugar, maple syrup, and oil on a rimmed baking sheet. Season with salt and pepper. Toss to coat. Roast squash for 20 minutes. Scatter sage leaves on top and continue to roast for 20 minutes or until tender. Yield: 4 servings.