Fact: admitting to anything less than total adoration of certain foods will result in your ostracism as a “commie.” I learned this lesson the hard way a couple of years ago after publicly declaring that bacon was overused and had become something of a cliché, not to mention a flavor crutch. And I’m probably about to learn it again by saying that, in my experience, pork chops are not always the best the pig has to offer. Next to bacon, perhaps no other part of the pork is as beloved as the chop. Indeed, pork chops and bacon are Homer Simpson’s “two favorite animals.” And in the classic Brady Bunch episode where Peter attempts to reinvent himself as a more exciting character, he Bogarts the name of that evening’s dinner: pork chops … and applesauce.
Before you refer me to the Committee on Un-American Affairs, let me just say that I’ve cooked and eaten some truly delicious pork chops, sure. Brined and smoked, wood-grilled with maple and lemon, or sliced off the bone, fried, and sandwiched within a bun with some slaw, pork chops can be terrific. The problem is that pork chops are unreliable kitchen companions. The blade and sirloin chops contain the most dark meat – usually a guarantee against drying out – but they’re hard to pan-fry because of the bones, never take a good brown crusty sear, and take better to braising. Even after braising, though, the weird bone pattern makes them a pain in the ass to eat. The rib and loin chops have the most manageable bone structure – a curved edge or T-bone, respectively – but the meat is usually very lean thanks to the “other white meat” fetish, and, if too thin, will dry out in the time it takes to get a decent sear.
Enter the ibérico pork chop. Since last fall, I’ve been working with various cuts of ibérico de bellota pork – the rich, sweet cuts of meat from black-footed pata negra pigs that forage acorns in western Spain. Wagshal’s Market provided me a pair of rib chops, which my husband regarded with enthusiasm. Out of one side of his mouth, he gritted the words “pork chops … and applesauce,” jaw firmly locked à la Peter Brady, the Personality Kid. He loves pork chops unconditionally. I knew what I had to do.
Unsurprisingly, the ibérico pork chop makes up for the shortcomings of the conventional pork chop. It’s got the single bone curving along one side, which leaves you with a nice big eye of meat, and instead of being lean to the point of dryness, it’s got plenty of interior fat to keep things moist and flavorful.
“Pork chops and applesauce”
If you don’t have the ibérico pork chops, don’t worry … you can use a regular pork chop, but try to use one about 1″ thick or so to keep the meat juicy. For these purposes, select a rib chop; the blade chops (cut from near the shoulder), the loin chops (cut to include both loin and tenderloin), and the sirloin chops (cut from near the hipbone) all contain an interior bone or bones that divide the meat. Although I usually do recommend cooking meat on the bone for flavor and moisture, when pan-frying, the meat shrinks slightly, leaving only the bone in contact with the pan. With multiple interior bones, the meat never gets a really good sear. Save those kinds of chops for the broiler.
Cooking the sliced apples sous vide preserves their intense apple flavor. It is not necessary to do so. I have provided instructions for cooking both ways.
2 granny smith apples, peeled and sliced thinly
2 c apple lambic or hard cider
1 c pork stock or white veal stock
3 cloves garlic confit
about 12 oz red cabbage, thinly sliced (about 3/16″)
2 tbsp rendered pork fat or an oil with a high smoke point, like grapeseed
several thyme branches
fresh bay leaf
1/4 dry white wine
2 rib chops, preferably ibérico de bellota
For the applesauce:
If cooking sous vide, seal the apples in a bag with two thyme branches and a pinch of salt. Cook in a circulating water bath set to 183F/84C for 20 minutes. If cooking conventionally, proceed to the next step.
Heat 1 1/2 c of the apple lambic in a small saucepan; bring to a simmer. Reduce by 2/3. Add the stock and garlic confit and reduce again by half. If not cooking sous vide, add the apple slices and two branches of thyme, cover, and simmer until tender.
Remove the herbs. Transfer the reduction and the cooked apples to a vitaprep/blender and process to the desired consistency (for a smooth puree, you may need to add more water or stock).
For the cabbage:
Place a large skillet over medium heat and, when hot, add about 1 tbsp of the pork fat or oil. Add the cabbage, bay leaf, and a couple of sprigs of thyme and sauté until just wilted. Add the white wine and toss; the cabbage should turn a bright magenta due to the wine’s acidity. Once the wine has evaporated, add 1/2 c apple lambic; reduce heat and continue to cook until completely tender. Season with salt.
For the pork chops:
Season well with salt on both sides. Place a skillet over high heat and, when hot, add 1 tbsp pork fat or oil. Add the pork chops, searing on the fat edge first to render, and then on one side. Add the thyme branches to the rendered fat and baste. Turn over when golden on the bottom; reduce heat to medium low and continue to cook, basting with the thyme oil, until about medium on the inside. Rest for five minutes before service.
Serve with the apple sauce and red cabbage; garnish with additional thyme and chives if you have them.
*Thanks again to Wagshal’s Market and Iberico USA for the pork chops featured in this dish.