The pork chop dilemma
I love pork chops, but to be blunt about it, pork isn't what it used to be. Blame the Baby Boomers getting older and starting to worry that we weren't going to live forever after all, or blame industrial agriculture, or maybe blame both; but the lovable fat, succulent pork of yesteryear has been re-invented as something leaner and frankly less appetizing.
Today's fresh pork, according to one industry source, is 31 percent lower in fat, 29 percent lower in saturated fat, 14 percent lower in calories and 10 percent lower in cholesterol than it was several decades ago. Unfortunately, it is also dryer, tougher and less flavorful. And the pork industry's solution - "enhancing" the meat with a chemistry-set solution of water, sodium phosphate and additives and labeling it with appetizing names like "Moist and Tender" - does not impress me at all.
If I'm going to buy pork at all, I'll pay the price for naturally raised, hormone-free pork from local producers or groceries like Whole Foods, accepting that it's going to be a lean product and choosing cooking methods that address that.
"Brining" pork by soaking it in a strong solution of sugar and salt for hours is a good option, but it requires planning in advance, and that's not one of my strengths. Cooking thick chops only to rosy medium-rare may preserve tenderness, but despite all the testimony that modern agriculture has "virtually" eliminated trichinosis, that almost-but-not-quite adjective hangs out there and makes me just a little queasy about under-cooked pork. (That being said, though, you can certainly shave 10 degrees or so from the old-time requirement that pork be cooked all the way to 170F.)
No, the simplest, tastiest way I know of to impart flavor and tenderness to pork lies in technique: Braising and other low, slow moist-cooking methods can give you a pork-chop dinner just about as good as the old days. The Creole pork chop recipe I featured a couple of weeks ago offers one such approach. Here's another that I threw together on the fly the other day.
2 inch-thick pork loin chops, about 8 ounces (240g) each
1. Put the pork chops on a plate and sprinkle them with salt and freshly ground black pepper. I like to do this a half-hour or so before cooking, to give the flavors time to penetrate into the meat.
2. Peel and chop the onion, mince the garlic, and cut the red bell pepper into small dice.
3. Put the olive oil in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Put in the pork chops and leave them on one side without moving for two or three minutes until nicely browned, then flip and brown the other side. Remove them briefly to a plate and keep warm.
4. Pour off a little of the fat in the skillet if it looks like too much, and cook the chopped onion and garlic in the remaining fat until they're aromatic and turning brown. Put in the pork chops and the diced red bell peppers. Mix the tomato paste in to the beef broth and pour this liquid into the skillet. Bring to the boil, then reduce to a simmer, cover the chops tightly and cook over very low heat, turning occasionally, for a half-hour to 45 minutes or until the meat is tender.
5. Remove the chops to a serving plate and keep them warm. Turn heat back to high and boil the accumulated pan juices until they reduce and thicken a little; if you wish, dissolve the cornstarch in a little water and use it to thicken the sauce. Check for seasoning, pour over the chops and serve with mashed potatoes or white rice and a salad or green vegetable.
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Thursday, Nov. 10, 2005
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