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?

building your real food pantry: plan for a tomato workhorse you can count on

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Fresh from my garden tomatoes, onion and garlic ready for oven-roasting

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For a girl forever bawking about eating what’s in season, you might think what I’m about to share with you is a little out of whack.  Originally, like everyone else, I thought this would be a good topic for later in summer when tomatoes are front and center.

But recently, while writing this for A Little Bit of Spain in Iowa, it struck me that now actually is the perfect time to talk about putting up tomatoes.

What?

I’m not kidding. Now is the time to start planning what you’re going to grow in your garden and/or how much preserving you need to do to fill your pantry with the basics you’ll need for the following 12 months.

If I wait to talk about it until you’re drowning in tomatoes,  I’ll be too late to be much help.

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A staple in my kitchen – tomato passata. like puree, only better

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Over the years, I’ve pared down my pantry needs to actual needs rather than whimsical wants.

I used to can cooked sauce, whole tomatoes and other more specific items like salsa or ketchup. Each pantry item involved a sweaty day in the kitchen and its own set of ingredients & procedures.

Now don’t get me wrong; I actually love that sweaty day spent in the kitchen. But today, I prefer one  multi-purpose workhorse item like this versatile recipe for tomato passata, rather than several specific items like different sauces & salsa.

What’s a workhorse recipe?

  • Seasoned as little as possible to let the flavor of the ingredient shine and for greatest kitchen versatility later.
  • Useful in a variety of ways and with little meal-time fussery. I still want to be able to cook super-fast from jars and cans – you know, the American way.  I just want my jars and cans to be ones I filled myself with ingredients I feel good about.
  • A flexible preserving process.  I often interrupt in the middle if necessary, break things up into 2 sessions and/or scale it up.  I need a recipe that’s not too persnickety.

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Home-made sauce in a jif, quickie childhood favorite cream of tomato soup with no processed ingredients and my very favorite ketchup

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Tomato passata is a recipe from my tattered and stained favorite River Cottage Handbook #2; Preserves.  The author, Pam Corbin, makes  passata to use as a base for all sorts of soups, stews and curries. Check it out here. 

I admit I had no clue what passata was, but now I wonder how I ever lived without it.  This one simple to make item is all I need to make a few of my often served favorites:

The beauty of making my ketchup from passata is that I can do it later in the season when the kitchen’s not so hot and I don’t have so many other pressing projects competing for my time. Plus, I’ve already done half the work, so it hardly takes any time at all.

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Holy-wow do I like this ketchup…

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Being the heirloom/heritage breed type, I grow my own, so it’s time to order your seeds to be sure to get the varieties you want and be sure to get the seeds started on time. How many plants will I need to make enough passata for the year?

I use about one quart of passata every two weeks, so I’ll need about 26 quarts. Each quart uses approximately 4 ½ pounds of fresh tomatoes, and a good heirloom variety tomato plant in Pennsylvania can yield approximately 9 pounds give or take. There will be some fudgery at first since everyone’s experience will vary, but this is a good place to start.

So, to keep me in passata for a year, here’s my tomato math:

26 (quarts of passata) x 4.5 (pounds of tomatoes needed for 1 quart) = 117 pounds of tomatoes.

117 (pounds of tomatoes) ÷ 9 (estimated pounds yielded per plant in my area) = 13 plants.

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Now, calculate the same way for your canned whole tomato needs then round-up to be sure to have plenty of fresh eating tomatoes and for sharing with your non-gardening friends.

I like to have at least 20 plants minimum for my two person household, though I’ve been known to attempt as many as 40.

Now, maybe the growing part is not for you, and I’m not here to tell you any different, although I admit I wish you’d consider it. Farmer’s markets are full of farmers growing all sorts of heirlooms and organics. If you belong to a CSA you probably get swamped with tomatoes in the summer, or maybe you have a great grocery selling locally grown produce.

No? Well, you can fix that by finding a local grower here.

Okay, you have no excuse for not at least trying this once, even if  just to say you did. I’m pretty confident once you get spoiled with a home-made pantry, you won’t want to go back to store-bought ever again.

What’s your  favorite tomato workhorse? 

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This post is part of Simple Lives Thursday. What’s that you ask? It’s an ambitious and enlightening collection of posts from bloggers all over about issues near and dear to my heart: real food and natural living. Check it out!