Pork Tries for a Lean, Mean Comeback

Delicately sweet in flavor, the `other white meat' isn't married to applesauce

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

DOGS may get top billing as man's best friend, but maybe it's time we considered the pig. Porkers may be a little slow at fetching your newspaper and slippers, but when it comes to putting food on the table, they don't just bring home the bacon, they ``are'' the bacon!

Pork, promoted by the porcine-pushers as the ``other'' white meat, has been with us for millennia.

The Chinese are credited with domesticating the pig some 7,000 years ago and have left us the oldest know pork recipe - a suckling pig stuffed with dates, not unlike the way suckling pig is often served today. An early emperor of China even ordered his subjects to raise hogs. The Chinese were so devoted to their hogs that they were sometimes buried with their herd to ensure they would be with them in the afterlife. One need not go to such extremes today to enjoy pork.

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Easily fed and housed, and very prolific (a sow can have two litters of a dozen piglets each a year), pigs have been the staple diet of peasants as well as potentates around the globe. Even today, a family of pigs is commonly seen trotting along with the dogs and chickens throughout rural villages in temperate and tropical countries.

From China to the West Indies, to Africa to the South Pacific, where beef may be rare and expensive, pigs abound. Only where pork is not eaten for religious reasons does it vanish.

Almost every part of the pig makes it to the table; from the costly tenderloin to the intestines (as sausage casings and chitterlings) to their little pointy feet. Even the salted tails are added to flavor such West Indian treats as ``pigeon, peas, and rice.''

The delicate sweetness of the meat is a perfect foil for fruit as well. Americans are familiar with the traditional pork chops and applesauce, and a loin of pork stuffed with prunes is a Scandinavian favorite. I recently made this dish using those new prunes on the market that are infused with lemon and orange with delicious results.

Unfortunately pork, and especially pork chops, are often served dry, tough, and tasteless. This is due, I suspect, to two things: health concerns about undercooked pork and the mistake of buying chops that are too thin.

A proper chop should be at least 3/4-of- an-inch thick. Pork authorities suggest you err on the safe side and cook it to 155 degrees F. If you don't own a meat thermometer, the meat is fully cooked when the juices run clear, with no trace of pinkness, when skewered.

Robin Kline, director of the Pork Information Bureau for the National Pork Producers Council suggests, ``Let your culinary imagination run wild with pork chops; just don't overcook.''

Remember, lean pork cooks very quickly, so test chops for doneness early. Ms. Kline also suggest buying boneless pork chops for added economy. They cost more per pound, but are cheaper in the long run.

The following prize-winning recipe brings out the versatility of pork. Not only does it contain fruit (pears in this case), but a sprinkling of blue cheese and a snappy taste of green peppercorns. I recently tested it using red Bartlett pears for added color; served with Brussels sprouts and wild rice. PORK CHOPS WITH PEARS, BLUE CHEESE, AND GREEN PEPPERCORNS

4 boneless pork chops, 3/4-inch thick

Vegetable oil

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground pepper

2 firm, ripe pears

2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon crushed green peppercorns

1/4 cup blue cheese

Heat skillet over medium-high heat. Brush chops lightly with vegetable oil; season with salt and pepper. Cook chops, turning occasionally, until evenly browned and just done. Remove to warm platter.

Cut pears in half and core; do not peel. Slice pears in 1/4-inch slices. Melt butter in skillet and saute pear slices for 1 minute, stirring gently to coat with butter. Add peppercorns to pears and cook, stirring constantly but gently for an additional 2 minutes.

Spoon pear and peppercorn sauce over chops; sprinkle with blue cheese. Serves 4. WILD THYME PORK CHOPS

6 boneless pork chops, 3/4-inch thick

4 teaspoons olive oil

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper to taste

1/2 cup flour

4 ounces wild mushrooms (porcini or shiitake)

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 cups beef broth

2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme, or 2 teaspoons dried

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1/3 cup cold water

3 tablespoons cornstarch

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in skillet over medium-high heat. Season each chop with salt and pepper; coat chops with flour. Brown chops on each side; remove.

Heat remaining oil and add mushrooms and garlic.

Reduce heat to medium and cook until mushrooms are tender, stirring often. Stir in broth, thyme, and tomato paste.

Bring to boil, and return chops to skillet. Cover tightly and cook over low heat for 5 to 6 minutes.

Remove chops to warm platter. Combine water and cornstarch and add to mixture in skillet. Continue cooking over medium heat, stirring constantly, until sauce thickens. Pour sauce over chops. Serves 6. FEIJOADA

A simplified version of Brazil's national dish, feijoada, follows. This pork, with pork, with pork, with pork stew will feed 12 hungry campers, and is easier to prepare than to pronounce (roughly fej-WHA-dah.).

1 pound dried black beans

6 cups water

1 pound boneless ham steak, cut into 3/4-inch cubes

1 pound boneless pork loin, cut into 3/4-inch cubes

3/4 pound hot Italian sausage, cut into 1-inch pieces

3/4 pound smoked sausage, cut into 1-inch pieces

1 pint cherry tomatoes, stemmed

1 large onion, peeled and coarsely chopped

1 teaspoon red pepper flakes

6 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

Zest from 1/2 orange (about 1/2 teaspoon)

Rinse and pick over black beans to remove any stones. Cover black beans with boiling water and let stand for two hours. Drain.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. In a large Dutch oven or covered oven-proof casserole dish, combine beans, 6 cups water, and remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil, skimming foam as necessary.

Cover and transfer to oven. Bake 1-1/2 hours; remove cover and bake another 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Serve immediately, or allow to cool, cover and refrigerate for a day or two, remove any hardened fat and reheat feijoada slowly when ready to serve.

Serve with corn bread, if desired. For a Brazilian flavor, serve it with white rice and collard greens.

Serves about 12. PORK WITH CRANBERRY-ORANGE GLAZE

Here is another easy, delicious example of pork complemented by fruit.

1 16-ounce can whole-berry cranberry sauce

2 tablespoons brown sugar

2 tablespoons grated orange peel

1 2-pound boneless pork loin roast

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

In a small bowl, stir together cranberry sauce, brown sugar, and orange peel. Place loin roast on a roasting rack in a shallow baking pan. Top with about 1/4 cup cranberry mixture.

Roast uncovered for 1 to 1-1/2 hours or until internal temperature registers 155 degrees F. Baste every 30 minutes with cranberry mixture. Remove from oven and let stand 10 minutes before carving. Heat remaining cranberry mixture and serve with roast. Serve with rice or corn, green beans, and warm rolls. Serves about 8. Recipes from the National Pork Producers Council. (A booklet containing pork chop recipes may be ordered from the National Pork Producers Council, P.O. Box 10383, Des Moines, Iowa, 50306. Include self-addressed, stamped envelope and $3.95.)

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