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TODAY

Monday, September 23

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A co-worker approached me recently and said "You can help me. I need a recipe for pork chops. What do you have?"

"Sweet or savory?" I asked.

"Savory," she said. "I want something to go with applesauce."

Now I didn't stop to ask her how often she'd cooked pork, what her cooking skill level was, or how adventurous she would be flavor-wise because I was so excited about the idea of cooking pork chops. Living in a neighborhood where all of the nearby grocers serve zabiha halal meat, I don't have anyplace nearby to get pork since pigs are a huge no-no. So I haven't cooked pork, except for the occasional brat or sausage, for over a year.

The realization struck me as odd, but then I remembered that not only do I have several friends who don't eat pork for religious or moral reasons. I also have friends who swear that pork is just awful and tough and bland. And they're right, usually. But they don't have to be.

The pork chops I grew up with were thin cut, cooked with the bone-in, cooked until the meat almost curled into a tube, and covered in gravy to counteract the fact that the meat was drier and less succulent than a fabric softener sheet.

Then when I began cooking for myself, I came across a two-pound pork tenderloin (the pork version of filet mignon) wrapped tightly in the freezer case for less than $5. I looked at it and figured I could get so many meals out of it that it would be worth it. So I took it home, sliced it into half-inch rounds and then decided to look up recipes.

Since tenderloin is one of the leanest cuts of pork, the best option is to cook it at a high temperature for a very short amount of time. I pounded these rounds flat, dredged them in flour flavored with salt, flower and paprika, and pan-fried them in olive oil for about two minutes on each side. They were OK. They were tender, just like the recipe said, and they weren't bland, but they weren't highly flavored. Since I had more, I decided to marinade several of them overnight in a mixture of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper. I pounded them thin and pan-fried them without the breading. These were better, but they still lacked something and they were just a bit dry around the edges. So I poured the leftover marinade into the skillet, brought it up to a boil, added a bit of flour and stirred for several minutes until this thickened and became gravy-like before pouring it over the remaining pork. Delicious.

Once I felt that I had mastered thinly pounded bits of pork, I decided to move onto a real pork chop, with the bone and everything. This was more difficult. Since I couldn't cook it at a high temperature for a short period of time — the meat near the bone wouldn't cook through — and since I knew that prolonged baking would just make it curl up and die, I had to work around these limitations. Thankfully the Internet had been invented and The Other White Meat ad campaign by the National Pork Board had a Web presence. And this is where I first heard of brining.

I've discussed it before, but brining and marinating are similar but slightly different. Items swim in a brine, whereas a marinade can simply coat something. A marinade can be boiled and turned into a sauce, but a brine is far too salty to be reduced. But a brine truly does permit moisture to permeate meat fibers and therefore results in a more juicy and tender item after it is cooked. It also adds salt, which makes you salivate, and therefore makes meat seem juicier than it really is.

Most brine recipes tell you to make a gallon of brine. This is great if you're cooking several pounds of meat, but since you toss the brine after you remove the meat it seems like a waste to me. Considering most people are going to make one to four pork chops instead of an entire loin of pork, a quart of brine is usually plenty. You'll need a glass or plastic container that can hold one quart of liquid plus your chops (preferably one with a tight-fitting lid in case you're clumsy), 1 quart of water, 1/4 cup of salt, 1/4 cup of sugar and 1 teaspoon of pepper.

Bring 1 cup of the water to a boil in a pan on the stove. Stir in the sugar and salt until they're dissolved. Pour this and the pepper into the rest of the water, place it in the refrigerator and let it chill for about half an hour. Once the brine is lukewarm or cooler, add the meat and place in the refrigerator for 12-24 hours.

That's the super-basic formula of course. The water can be substituted with any liquid or combination of liquids you think sounds good. The salt has to stay, but it can be replaced with a quarter-cup of soy sauce. The sugar can be replaced with honey, molasses, syrup, brown sugar or even Splenda.

Unless you're on a very tight budget, I'd pass by those very thinly cut pork chops that come pre-wrapped in the meat case. They cook so quickly that you don't have a lot of wiggle room on the timing. Even an extra 30 seconds in the saute pan will take it from succulent to sucky. The ideal thickness would be 1" thick, but 3/4" to 1-1/2" will work. If you're cooking the thicker chops, you'll want to make sure they brine for longer than 12 hours. If you're using the thinner chops, 12 hours might be the longest you want to brine to make sure the meat doesn't get too salty.

I rarely cook anything the same way twice, and my choice of brine ingredients for pork chops aren't any different. To encourage you to experiment a bit, and to use what you have in your cabinets, below is a list mix-and-match list of brine ingredients. There are three categories for you to choose items from, and then an optional fourth category; combine any one (or more) from each to get something that suits your tastes. Think about what flavors you've eaten together and which ones sound interesting.

1. Liquid (You need 1 quart)

  • Chicken, beef, pork or vegetable broth
  • Wine (Red will make your pork pink clear through, so if you plan on checking doneness by when it stops being pink, choose a white wine instead.)
  • Beer
  • Cider
  • Vinegar (I'd use no more than 1/4 cup.)
  • Milk or buttermilk (It's not kosher anyway, so why not?)
  • Juice (Grape, pomegranate, cranberry or tomato juice, while great choices for flavor, will stain the meat pink, making it harder to see when the chop is cooked. If you choose a juice with added corn syrup or fructose, reduce the sugar added by about half.)
  • Soda (This is a great way to get your sugar and your liquid in one ingredient. I suggest using a cola and combining it with water or stock to make up 1 quart. This will be enough sugar so you can skip the next category. Seriously, there are 10-13 teaspoons of sugar in each can of almost every non-diet soda.)

2. Sugar (1/4 cup total)

  • Brown sugar
  • Molasses
  • Honey
  • Maple syrup
  • Syrup used for making Italian sodas
  • Guava paste (Melt this in the pan after the salt is dissolved.)
  • 1/4-1/2 cup of jelly or jam (Also melt this in the pan after the salt is dissolved.)

3. Salt

  • 1/4 cup total (This is the measurement for table salt. If you're using kosher salt, you'll have to use about 1/3-1/2 cup since the crystals are larger and there is more air between them.)
  • 1/4 cup of soy sauce

4. Additional flavorings (just a small sample)

  • Garlic
  • Worchestershire sauce
  • Tamarind
  • Allspice
  • Cloves
  • Rosemary
  • Cinnamon stick
  • Bay leaves
  • Onion
  • Celery
  • Juniper berries
  • Nutmeg
  • Ginger
  • Teriyaki sauce
  • Dried chiles
  • Fruit

The brine that I use as one of my standard brines, for chicken as well as pork, consists of:
2 cups of apple juice
1/4 cup of vinegar, usually part balsamic and part white wine
1 can of beer
3 tablespoons of brown sugar
3 tablespoons of molasses (This doesn't quite equal 1/4 cup, but the sugar in the apple juice also brings sweetness.)
1/3 cup of kosher salt
3 or so tablespoons of soy sauce
4 allspice berries (Contrary to what you might think, allspice is a dried berry, like peppercorns, and not a mixture of other spices)
2 or 3 cloves of garlic, cut into quarters
1 small yellow onion cut into thick slices and crumbled into the brine

I'll soak four 1" thick pork chops in this mixture for about 16 hours. If I put it into the brine the night before I cook, it will be perfectly flavored and it will be one less thing I have to think about as I'm cooking. All you have to do is pull them out of the brine, gently rinse them off, pat them dry with a paper towel, and place them in your skillet or on your broiling pan. If you aren't ready to cook them when you take them out of the brine, rinse them off lightly and then store them in a tightly sealed container or bag until ready to cook.

Since you'll want to use direct heat, I recommend broiling these in your oven about four inches from the flames instead of baking them. The direct heat will cause them to cook faster and reduce your chances of having them dry out, as long as you keep an eye on them. Your other option is to sauté them in a medium-high skillet, with a small amount of oil in the pan. Check the links above for handy charts to tell you how long to cook the chops. A meat thermometer is the most foolproof way to tell if your pork is done. If you're worried about trichinosis, you'll want to make sure it is at least 160° F in the center. If you're more worried about a tender and flavorful dinner, pulling the chops off the heat at around 145-150° and letting them sit covered for five minutes will raise the internal temperature another five or so degrees, bringing them closer to the "safe" zone while still keeping them tender and juicy.

Since 1" chops will take 10-12 minutes to broil (5-6 minutes per side), you've got just enough time to create a quick mixture of caramelized apples and onions or shallots to go over the chop. In a skillet over medium-high heat, melt one tablespoon of butter and 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Now add two apples that have been cleaned, cored and thinly sliced and three shallots (or one small yellow onion) that have been thinly sliced. Since you don't want to ignore the pork chops while they're broiling anyway, you won't mind standing at the stove and lightly stirring the apples and onion mixture constantly. If you let it sit for too long it will burn, so make sure the table is set before you get to this stage. After the onion has become translucent, sprinkle about 1/2 teaspoon of salt and a generous dose of fresh cracked pepper over the skillet. This will encourage more of the sugars and liquid to come out of the onion and apples so the mixture caramelizes faster. Once it starts to turn a rich, maple brown, you know you've achieved caramelization and you can pull it off the heat, cover it, and let it sit until the pork chops are ready. Spoon it on top of each chop. While not exactly a sauce, it makes a sauce unnecessary and it's much more interesting and flavorful than applesauce.

Serve this with some baked red potatoes that have been cubed and tossed in olive oil, salt, pepper and thyme and then baked one layer thick for about 15-20 minutes. Some toasted pumpernickel or hearty rye bread is a great addition, and the Brussels sprouts recipes from a few weeks ago will let you bring in something cabbage-like and green.

So while this wasn't a strict recipe, hopefully this will act as a guide for you to begin experimenting with brines. When combining flavors, it is best to start off simply and then add things slowly. This way you can tell how the flavors affect each other and combine to balance each other out. Brining permits you to use what you have, doesn't require the purchase of crazy ingredients you'll likely never use again, and may even make you enjoy the much-maligned pork chop more than you ever expected.

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