Gian Piero Mazzi is always cooking at the last minute. At Elysium, his restaurant in the elegant Morrison House hotel in Old Town Alexandria, there is no menu. The chef comes to your table, tells you what ingredients he has in the kitchen that night, and asks you what type of food you like or dislike. Then he goes back to the kitchen and cooks for you. With experience like this, cooking for six unanticipated strangers at the last minute on Thanksgiving should be a breeze.
Mazzi, however, wanted to make it as close to a home cook's experience as possible. He chose to shop at a small Safeway in Old Town with few fancy ingredients. Since in his hypothetical situation he had already prepared food for his family, he decided simply to make two more meat entrees with vegetables to feed his six unexpected guests.
Arriving at the Safeway, he knew exactly what he wanted first. "A pork tenderloin," he said, striding to the meat department. Unfortunately, the only tenderloins available were marinated in teriyaki sauce. Mazzi made a face. "This won't work," he said. He asked the butcher, "Do you have pork tenderloin that isn't marinated--just plain?" The man disappeared for several minutes. He finally came back holding a 10-pound Smithfield boneless pork loin shrink-wrapped in plastic. Mazzi stroked it appreciatively. It was much bigger than a tenderloin, and much more than he needed for six people, but he didn't mind. "Half can be frozen for another time," he said.
His idea was to stuff the pork with a mixture of dried fruit, ginger, walnuts and creamy Italian mascarpone cheese. One problem: There was no mascarpone in the store. "Oh well," he said with a shrug. He picked up a wedge of brie instead, although, as an Italian, he grumbled, "I can't believe I'm using a French cheese."
Mazzi wanted sprigs of fresh rosemary for the pork and the Cornish hen entree he was planning, but he didn't like what he saw in the box of herbs. "Too many twigs," he said, putting it back. The fresh thyme looked better. He added Granny Smith apples, some collard greens, winter squash, a package of Brussels sprouts and some shallots. In the baking aisle, he chose dried cranberries, golden raisins and walnut halves. His last stop: a bottle of Taylor port to pour over the pork. The total came to $94.77, of which a substantial amount was the pork. He couldn't resist pointing out that if there had been a smaller piece of pork, "it would have been less."
In his kitchen, Mazzi said he would start the pork right away because it would take the longest to cook--about an hour and a half. He cut the 10-pound loin into two roasts, set one aside for a later meal, then butterflied the other so it had a center flat section and two flaps. "Obviously, you could ask your butcher to butterfly it for you," he said. Mazzi then sliced dried apricots and crystallized ginger into thin strips and mixed them with the cranberries, walnuts and raisins. He spooned the fruit mixture down the middle of the pork and placed slices of brie on top, then rolled it all up and tied it tightly with several pieces of twine. He seared it in a large, hot skillet, poured half a bottle of port over it, and put it in the oven to roast.
His strategy, Mazzi explained, was to rely on the oven for most of the meal. Slices of acorn squash and apple wedges could bake alongside the pork. Thyme-rubbed Cornish hens with Brussels sprouts could cook in the oven, too. If the whole meal took a little longer than two hours, well, it left the cook free to do other things--like spend time with the company.
"You want to try and make several things together at the same time in the oven," Mazzi said. "Then everything finishes on time, there's lots of food, and the holiday will be relaxing."