Wine With . . . Jerk-Rubbed Pork Tenderloin
by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas
Human taste buds respond to a variety of different sensations by inducing a feeling of pleasure in the brain. The most notable of these pleasure-triggers are fat, sugar, and salt. More mysterious is the pleasurable response we get when spicy food hits the taste receptors on our tongues. Curious about this phenomenon, we checked the definition of “spicy food” at an online dictionary, and read that spicy food provokes “a desired intra-oral sensation that crosses pain with pleasure” Or to put it another way, ouch is followed by a purring Mmmmm. The specific sort of pain is induced by capaicin, a major ingredient in hot peppers that releases a surge of endorphins which signal “pleasure” to the brain.
That’s the good news about spicy food. The bad news is that it is a notoriously difficult partner for wine, which is why beer is famously the fallback beverage with dishes such as hot curries or chili. We like beer too, but wine brings another kind of experience to the table—the dinner table, that is. We decided to try a variety of wines and see which—if any—would enhance a truly spicy meal. Our friends and neighbors, John and Jim, were willing to come over and help us challenge the notion that wine doesn’t go with ultra spicy food.
We’d recently come across a recipe for jerked pork from the Louis M. Martini Wine Company. Since it sounded like a good recipe, and seemed appropriately spicy for our experiment, we picked up some pork tenderloins and set about making a jerk marinade. Jerk, which descends from Jamaican culinary traditions, refers to the seasoning and the meat that’s been dry rubbed or marinated with a specific blend of spices. There’s no single recipe for jerk—it’s one of those things that can be made any number of different ways, with different ingredients, though chicken and pork are the usual meats.
Three ingredients make something “authentically” Jamaican Jerk: allspice (a native Jamaican spice), thyme, and Scotch bonnet peppers. Roundish red, yellow or orange Scotch bonnets are said to be the hottest peppers in the world—so hot that they risk tipping any jerk dish into a realm beyond which it may no longer be compatible with wine. For that reason habanero chilies, which are closely related but not quite as fiery as Scotch bonnets, are often recommended. Another possibility is jalapeño peppers, which we use when we can’t find fresh habaneros. (When working with peppers, by the way, it’s always advisable to wear rubber gloves to avoid skin contact and the danger of transferring capaicin to your eyes).
Jerk-Rubbed Pork Tenderloin
This recipe is adapted from one created by Michael Martini, Master Winemaker at the Louis M. Martini Winery.
2 pork tenderloins, trimmed of fat
6-8 habanero peppers (or more, to taste)
6-8 cloves garlic, chopped
1 small yellow onion, chopped
1 bunch cilantro, stems removed
2 bunches spring onions (or scallions), green tops removed
3 tablespoons chopped fresh ginger
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
2 teaspoons allspice
1 ½ teaspoons salt (or to taste)
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon paprika
¼ cup sherry vinegar
¼ cup white wine vinegar
1 ½ tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon olive oil
With the point of a knife, poke holes or slits in the pork to allow the marinade to penetrate. Wearing rubber gloves, cut the peppers open, destem them, and discard the seeds. Chop the peppers and transfer them to a food processor. Add the remaining ingredients and process until smooth. Place the meat in a glass (or other nonreactive) bowl and cover with the jerk rub. Use a spatula to force the marinade into the slits. Cover and refrigerate for at least 3 hours and up to 24 hours.
Grill the meat over low, indirect heat. (On a gas grill, light only half the burners, and with a charcoal grill, pile the charcoal on one side of the kettle; in either case, place the meat away from the fire.) Because the grilling is indirect, cooking time will be fairly long—anywhere from one to two hours. You’ll want the internal temperature of the pork to be 140 to 150 degrees.
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We were especially curious when trying wines with this dish to see what types would work well with its spicy, fairly hot (from all those peppers) rub. Mike Martini recommends a Cabernet. We tried two, but neither ranked among our favorites. That’s not because, as one might think, they were too big or tannic. (The dish paired well with a surprising range of wines.) Instead, it was because those wines, much like a Rioja Reserve we also tried, were almost too complex. Their charm came from nuance, which the heat in the dish seemed to overpower.
We tried fifteen different wines in all. The ones that worked best shared two attributes—forceful flavors and fruit sweetness. None were overtly sugary, but none also were bone dry. In fact, the drier wines we sampled (including those Cabernets) all seemed somewhat tart when matched with the fiery jerk rub. By contrast, a hint of sweetness in the wine proved cooling. Similarly, wines whose appeal came from delicacy or subtlety lost that charm when they had to deal with the spicy pork. And earthy, herbal flavors made the overall impression seem unpleasantly bitter. Though reds overall worked better than whites, we are recommending one white and one pink wine (a rosé sparkler). They both fit the winning profile—ripe, slightly sweet fruit in a dynamic style.