holy pan-seared pork chops: lip-smacking revelation

Oh, Pork Chop. I get it now.

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These are two smoked pork butt roasts. I know it’s not a chop, but this is the best illustration I have. On the left is a heritage breed, pastured roast, on the right the same cut from a conventional, CAFO raised pig. The difference in texture is visible to the eye – the roast on the left was much more succulent, rosy and the meat had a tender, open texture.  On the right, you can see the well defined muscle fibers and the stringy, strongly grained texture. You could cut the pastured roast with a fork, not even close with the roast on the right. Of course, the roast on the left was twice the price, but worth every penny. I knew the pastured pig had a good life and the farm pollutes no one which is worth a lot to me.

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I never understood the big deal about pork chops. How can a colorless, dry hunk of jaw-tiring chewiness with a gristly bone attached possibly be the centerpiece of one of America’s favorite Sunday suppers?

I suppose it’s tasty and tender if baked or braised long enough, sauced & seasoned to the gills – a chef’s art, surely not a farmer’s. A nice steaky chunk of veg, beans or even tofu would make me happier; why torture the pig for such mediocrity?

But now, I see. It’s not us; it’s them. The pigs. Nothing illustrates the wedge driven between our food knowledge and purchasing habits by commercial interests quite as plainly as the maneuvers of the pork industry post WW II.

We’ve forgotten, been lured off the path by all that “pork, the other white meat” business. But, glimmer of hope, slowly we’re remembering. Chops from the right pig, raised the right way are packed with succulent, juicy, rosy deliciousness and make the most beautiful pan drippings imaginable. And it’s so simple. Which is not to say easy.

This is a recipe with very few steps and components so it is important to use impeccable ingredients and be very intentional in the execution. No multi-tasking, chatting on the phone, watching TV or other distractions while you’re about this recipe –  it deserves your full attention.

We rarely think of farming as an art anymore, but trust me: the art of the farmer is just as important as the art of the chef. We’ve just forgotten because it’s so rare these days. An artful chef can make industrial food pleasurable, but pair that same talented chef with an equally artful farmer and your axis will be shifted.

One of my deepest wishes is to help in some small way to restore the reverence and specialness meat so richly deserves. And, I swear, pork chops like these are darn near spiritual. An awakening, a happening, or maybe even a tiny miracle.

Let’s say a prayer of gratitude for the pig.

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Before you start:

The single most important step: buy the right pork chops. Supermarket chops are almost always industrially raised, commercial breeds. Commercial breeds of pigs are bred to be extra-lean and to grow to slaughter weight super-fast which we have been taught is good and efficient. True for the producer – but not for the pigs or the eater. Pastured heritage breed pigs shine, allowed to take their time growing slower, happier, healthier and more delicious.

Buy thicker, bone-in chops. I like mine at least 1-inch thick, even better up to 1 1/2″ but you can go too far. Chops  2” or more begin to behave more like a roast. Do not be put off by the rich, rosy color of heritage breed pork – that’s due to the older age of the pig, the fact the pig actually got to use his muscles and variances in breed.

Two tools that will help tremendously in your journey to mastering well-raised meats are the instant thermometer and an old school cast iron skillet. And keep handy this reference chart from Shannon Hayes, the farmer who literally wrote the book on pastured meats.

Standard temperature recommendations for cooking meats are calculated by the USDA to temper the pathogen loads common in the industrial meat industry. If your meat is from a trusted source, ideal cooking temperatures are much lower.

In fact, there’s no reason to not enjoy your pork a bit pink (shock & horrified gasps!). Since Trichinae are destroyed at 137 degrees, as long as you cook above that temperature, you are well within the safety zone. Well raised pork can be safely cooked between 145 – 150° F maintaining those delicious pink juices, whereas the USDA recommends a dried out range of 160 – 180° F.

Cooking your chops:

Prepare your pork. If your chops are frozen, allow them to thaw gently, preferably in the refrigerator. PLEASE, PLEASE DO NOT THAW FROZEN MEAT IN THE MICROWAVE!!  Bring your meat to room temperature for at least 30 minutes before cooking and blot dry.

  1. Rub a bit of olive oil into the chops, seasoning modestly with salt, cracked black pepper and if you must, rosemary, oregano or other favorite herb. If using, insert your thermometer probe into the thickest part of a chop, away from any bone or gristle. 
  2. Bring a seasoned cast iron or stainless ( not non-stick) skillet to screaming hot (high heat) on your stove burner.
  3. Place your chops in the hot skillet – do not overcrowd. They will give a good, satisfying sputter and sizzle; if you don’t hear this, the heat is too low and your chops may sweat which will cause them to dry out. Very important: resist the urge to fuss & flip to check the browning progress for at least 2-3 minutes. Your impatience and lack of faith will cause the delicious crust to tear which would truly be sad.
  4. Using tongs – do not pierce the meat with a fork – flip your chops and do the other side, for 2 minutes.

Since these chops are so thick, a bit of a braise will cook them through without ruining the beautiful exterior crust. Add a cup of liquid: wine, vermouth, apple cider, beer or stock – I use what I’ve got here, usually stock,  it’s all good.  Also add any onion, shallots, herbs or garlic if using.

Lower the burner to medium-low, cover and simmer until chops are cooked through, about 145 – 150°F.  All ye thermometer resisters; guesstimate your chops will be done in about ten minutes.

Note: If your chops are the standard variety cut to a more common half-inch thickness, this step is not necessary, you can stop at the pan frying, but it won’t be the same…

Resting the meat:

I would not kid you about this; the resting is nearly as important as the cooking. Remove the chops from the pan to a plate. Tent with foil for 10 minutes to allow the juices to re-absorb into the meat.

Crowning glory – the pan sauce:

Raise the heat and bring the pan drippings to a boil, scraping up any browned bits. Stirring constantly, reduce the sauce to a thick, syrup-like consistency. Taste and adjust spices; a knob of good butter, a splash of cream or half & half is a lovely but not necessary addition, as is a whiff of grainy mustard. Keep the seasonings simple, and allow those gorgeous chops to shine.

Go for richness and quality with the sauce, not quantity. It’s better to have a thimbleful of amazingness than a cup of watery gravy.

And that, friends, is the way to properly thank your pig.

How do you honor your pork?