Monday, January 17, 2011

Recipe: Pan-Fried Pork Chops and Pork Chops with Apricots

Pork chop with apricots.  The plate looks grotty because I paused for the picture while eating  the chop.
I'm 55 years old, and in my lifetime, pork has changed.  Responding, I guess, to the notion that pork was just too durn fatty, breeders have gone for a leaner product.  The trouble is, less fat means that it's likely (indeed, it's nearly inevitable) that pork will turn tough when you cook it.  It's probably healthier for you, but honestly, it just doesn't taste as good, and it's murder to cook properly.

As any good cook knows, pork fat is a wondrous thing:  a little bacon fat can make sauteed things divine.  What's split pea soup without a ham hock or better, the bone from a good-sized ham?  Lard is by far the best shortening for pie crust and biscuits.  And so on.  So honestly, I mourn the loss of good, greasy pork.  (Let's pause and remember all my Jewish forebears, who are now turning over in their graves.)

Last night, we wanted to have Bucatini all'Amatriciana, a really delicious pasta dish (look it up in Marcella Hazan's first book, The Classic Italian Cook Book).  But making a meal of pasta, as we did in our youth, is no longer a healthy ticket for us, so we decided we needed some protein to accompany it.  The market had some really gorgeous, thick, center-cut pork chops. We bought four:  two for last night and two for tonight with the rest of the pasta.  Both times, I managed to avoid the curse of shoeleather and turn out some toothsome chops.  Here's how.


Heat a cast-iron skillet over high heat until it is quite hot--nearly smoking.  Meanwhile, season chops on both sides to your taste (I used Jane's Crazy Salt on mine).  When the pan is hot, film the bottom with oil and carefully set the chops into the pan.  Be careful not to crowd them, and watch for flying grease.  Turn the heat down a bit--say medium-high.  Let the chops sear for 2 - 3 minutes, until they are mostly brown with just a little gray on the first side.  Resist the urge to move them around in the pan or to peek.  When the bottom is seared, flip the chops over.  Cover the pan.  If you have thick chops (mine were), turn the heat to low for about 2 or 3 minutes.  Then turn off the heat and let the chops stand in the hot pan.  The residual heat in the pan will finish the cooking.  If the chops are thin, just turn off the heat when you cover the pan.  They should stand for at least five minutes after you turn off the heat, but as the pan will gradually cool, it's no problem to leave them in there longer; they're not likely to overcook.  I guess mine were in the pan, covered, for about 15 - 20 minutes.

When I took the chops out of the pan, there was all this lovely liquid, and I couldn't let that go to waste.  So I stirred in about a tablespoon of Dijon mustard and let it reduce a little.  Then I swirled in about a tablespoon of butter to thicken the sauce.  Over the chops it went--just delicious!

Tonight, I wanted something different.  We have had some dried apricots in the cabinet forever, and it was time to do something with them.  Putting them with pork seemed natural.  (I also tried to bake some apricot-pecan bread today.  While it tasted delicious, the recipe still needs work:  the bread overflowed the pan, made a mess in the oven, and then collapsed!  When I perfect it, I'll share it with you.  I think I just need a bigger loaf pan and less leavening...)

OK, so here's the other pork chop method.


2 thick-cut pork chops
1/4 onion, chopped
1/2 cup dried apricots, chopped
1/2 cup vermouth
boiling water
olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon of Dijon mustard
soy sauce

Salt and pepper the chops on both sides and set them aside.  Put the chopped apricots in a 2-cup measure and add the vermouth.  Microwave on high for 2 minutes.  Remove the measure from the oven and pour hot water over the apricots to cover.  (Mine had soaked up nearly all of the vermouth, but it turned out fine, so don't worry.)

Heat a cast iron skillet over high heat until it's very hot.  Add enough oil to cover the bottom of the pan.  Carefully add the chops, turn the heat down to medium-high, and sear them for 3 minutes on one side.  Turn them over, turn the heat down to medium, and add the onions.  They will saute quickly.  When they're nearly clear, add the apricots and all the liquid in the measure.  Let this bubble for 3 or 4 minutes.  Stir in the mustard and add a dash of soy sauce.  Cover the pan and turn the heat to low.  After another 2 or 3 minutes, turn the heat off and let it stand for as long as necessary (see above).

Remove the chops from the pan and turn the heat under it to high.  Stir the sauce while it reduces and thickens.  When it's quite thick, taste and add more soy sauce if necessary, then top the chops with it.  Enjoy!

Both times, the chops came out tender and juicy.  I think it's the combination of searing with relatively slow cooking afterwards that does the trick. 

I seem to have reached a new phase in my cooking:  until now, I was pretty much a follow-the-recipe kind of guy.  Now I'm more likely to try to invent something.  I hunt around on the internet for something similar to what I have in mind, get ideas of how to do it, and then go from there.  Sometimes, as with my dense and sodden apricot loaf, it will be a partial failure ("partial" because, I'm tellin' ya, it tastes good! just don't look at it...).  More often than not, it will work.

Delicious but dense and collapsed apricot bread.

So try something new.  Take a chance.  What's the worst that'll happen?  You'll have to go out for pizza.  (Which reminds me of the time I tried to thicken gravy with powdered sugar--it sure looked like corn starch--but that story will have to wait.  We did go out for pizza that night.)

And hey, there are worse things than pizza.

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