74F during the day and 35F at night - yep, it is early Spring in Virginia. This time of year is always bittersweet for me. On one hand the warm days mean ski season has come to an end. On the other, little tender buds of the first veggies and spring flowers are starting to poke their heads out of the ground. My personal sliver lining is that ski season ended for me rather forcefully this year - that means I can focus on the bounties of the season. One of my favorite dishes for this time of year combines the crunch gold brown goodness that warms the cool nights and a bright acidic lightness for those warm afternoons - crispy pork chops.
Pork is such an essential ingredient, and one that we are appreciating less and less. It is a real shame when you think about it. The pig is an amazingly versatile animal. For starters the meat runs the gamut of deep and rich to light and lean. It takes on flavors effortlessly but is sweet and savory on its own. Pigs are also endowed with a truly perfect fat-to-lean ratio. It is why pork is the basis of most of the great cured meats from saussion sec to the Spanish Iberian ham.
Chefs will tell you, given only one protein to work with that they will make a choice of the porcine persuasion every time. So why is it that for last twenty years we have relegated our pork consumption to gray flabby chops and tenderloins packaged in chemicals masquerading as a marinade? While I am fairly sure my goal of reintroducing lightly fried pork liver may be an uphill battle, I am confident that we can start giving pork chops the justice they deserve.
Like so many of the Food Simply posts in this series, the first step is finding great pork. And great pork usually comes from great pigs who are (you guessed it) probably closer to your home than on a factory farm ten states away. Locally grown pork may not be hard to find either. In a poetic mix, social media tools like FaceBook and Twitter are connecting local farmers with foodies in a very 2.0 kind of way. Try a search on search.twitter.com or ask some friends. Finding a real, bone-in chip will make a tremendous difference. In addition to a bone-in chop, there are few other key things to look for when selecting a chop. As you move from the front of the pig towards the hind legs, the chops will get larger and contain more of a secondary muscle group. If you can find those back-cut chops, the reward is a richer, darker meat that is full of flavor. You should also look for a nice "fat cap" running around the outside rim of the chop. In general, the chops should be a nice rosy pink, free of sinew and should never have a slimy feel.
Just like our simple roasted chicken, we want to start with a brine. You can pull the exact same brine method from that post. The basic idea is the same, add as much salt as the water will absorb - toss in any other flavors you like and give the chops a soak for at least 12 hours; you can take it to 72 in the fridge with no problem. Brown sugar will enhance the natural sweetness of pork.
*At least an hour before cooking, remove the chops from the brine and pat dry. *Let them dry on paper towels. *On a plate, combine 1/2 cup of panko bread crumbs (you'll find them on the ethnic aisle) and 3 table spoons of white flour *thinly slice 1 clove of garlic *Mince a hand full of fresh parsley *slice a lemon in half - we'll juice it into the sauce * grab 1/4 cup of chicken stock, if you don't have homemade use water (its much better than store bought stock)
*optional - some people cut 3 slits vertically in the fat cap, on skinnier chops this helps prevent 'cupping'
This is a technique I learned from a chef friend. They used it at my favorite restaurant to make their sweetbreads extra crispy and it works on anything from chicken to ...well.. pork chops. The goal is to really press the panko-flour mix into the meat. You want to almost force the breading into the pores. I like to lay the chops flat into the mix then press down with my palm. Flip them over and repeat. Then pick up some of the breading with your fingers and actually try and press more into the flesh. Pick up the chops and give them a gentle tap or shake to knock off excess.
Important - let the crust rest on the chops for 10 minutes before cooking. That will hydrate the flour and make a stronger bond so it does not come off in the pan.
This is another trick that I have borrowed from Brad, my chef friend. He likes to cook New York strip steaks in their own fat by starting them on the fat cap and rendering it out. The result is a really crispy crust where the fat was. It works equally well with pork chops.
*in a heavy pan over medium heat, place the chops in standing on their side with the fat down. You may have to hold skinnier chips with tongs. *Once the fat is golden brown - it may take up to 8 - 10 minutes, lay the chops down and crank the heat to high *After about 4 minutes, life the chops and check for a deep golden color, if they look G.B.D. give them a flip. *start checking the internal temperature after 2 minutes - we are shooting for 135F. Remember, this is quality pork and just like our chicken there is no reason to over cook it. Once it hits 135F, pull them from the heat and let them sit aside to keep warm. *Dial the heat back to medium and drain the excess fat, saving a scant film *add the garlic and toss for 30 seconds *squeeze the juice of the lemon into the pan *add the 1/4 cup of stock or water *Allow the liquid to reduce via a boil for 1 minute * add parsley
*pour your pan sauce over the crispy warm chops, garnish with slice of lemon and ENJOY!