Tender is the pork chop

Underrated and overcooked, the pork chop has had a tough history.

By , Correspondent

Give me a pair of thick, pan-fried pork chops, cooked to a perfect pinkness, with homemade applesauce and sauerkraut on the side, and I'm in hog heaven.

My fondness for these porcine poppers hasn't always been.

My mother was an excellent cook, but when it came to pork chops, she should have stuck to 7 Can Casserole. Her pork chops were thin as a CD, fried to a frazzle, and tough enough to shingle our garage roof.

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Then again, maybe you just couldn't get a thick chop back in the Middle Ages.

Today there's no excuse. You can get pork chops from your butcher just as thick as you like. Or buy a pork rib roast and cut them yourself – the thicker the better. For frying or grilling, they should be at least 3/4 to 1 inch thick. But there's still one problem when it comes to cooking pork chops: the fat factor. They are inherently lean. And fat, as we know, gives both flavor and tenderness to meat.

The other problem is overcooking.

When cooking pork, the USDA suggests it be cooked to a temperature of 160 degrees F. That means if you're doing a roast, it should be taken out of the oven when it reaches 155 degrees and left to rest for half an hour. This will ensure a slightly pink center and a tender roast.

FRENCH-CANADIAN PORK PIE

This recipe was given to me by my aunt Ebba who lived for many years in Maine. I've modernized it a bit, and bake it in a store-bought pie crust to save time.

1 pound lean ground pork

1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

1 teaspoon salt

Ground black pepper, to taste

1-1/2 teaspoons cornstarch

1 cup water

1/2 cup chopped onion

2 small cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Pastry for 2-crust, 8-inch pie

In a medium saucepan, combine pork, seasonings, cornstarch, and water.

Simmer covered for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Uncover and cook an additional 5 minutes, or until most of the moisture has evaporated.

Sauté onion and garlic in vegetable oil until soft; stir into pork mixture.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.

Line an 8-inch pie plate with pastry; add pork mixture and top with remaining pastry. Crimp edges and slash top crust.

Bake pie 10 minutes; reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake an additional 30 minutes.

Serve with a simple salad and warm applesauce (recipe below).

HOMEMADE APPLESAUCE

Serves 4

Pork and applesauce are a match like Kermit and Miss Piggy. The secret to making memorable applesauce is to use a mixture of sweet and tart apples. Pick a couple of several varieties for this recipe. The texture should not be smooth like store-bought varieties, but rather slightly lumpy. If pomegranates are in season, a few tablespoons of the berries added to the finished sauce will give it great color, interest, and texture. Dried fruits such as cranberries, cherries, or blueberries may also be added.

8 apples of various varieties, peeled and cored

Sugar (optional)

1 small cinnamon stick

6 whole cloves

1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg

2 tablespoons butter (optional)

Roughly chop apples and put them in a saucepan with a small amount of water – about half a cup.

Add sugar, for a sweeter version. Tie spices in a piece of cheesecloth and add to apples. Cook covered over low heat for about 20 minutes, stirring several times to prevent sticking and burning. Remove from heat; remove spices. Serve warm or at room temperature.

PORK CHOPS WITH PLUMS AND CHINESE SPICES

Serves 4

This recipe is loosely based on one by Diana Henry, food columnist for Britain's Sunday Telegraph. It is simple, and glistens with flavorful fruit and Chinese spices.

1 pound plums

4 thick pork chops

5 tablespoons honey

1 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 red chili, seeded and finely chopped

4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1/4 cup orange juice

2 teaspoons white wine vinegar

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Pit plums and roughly chop them into pieces.

Place chops in one layer in ovenproof dish; cover with plums.

Mix remaining ingredients and pour over chops, turning to coat both sides.

Bake 45 minutes or until chops are tender.

SPICY GRILLED BABY BACK PORK RIBS

Serves about 4

Either baby back ribs or spareribs may be used in this recipe. Baby back ribs have more meat, whereas spareribs are fattier and more flavorful.

1 6-pound strip of baby back pork ribs

Spicy dry rub (see below)

Sprinkle ribs liberally with spicy rub and massage into meat. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate several hours or overnight.

Grill ribs over medium-low heat for about 15 minutes on each side until fork-tender or temperature reads 160 degrees F. Cooking time will vary according to grill temperature.

SPICY DRY RUB

Serves 6

2 tablespoons chili powder

2 tablespoons paprika

2 tablespoons lemon-pepper seasoning

2 tablespoons dark brown sugar

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon garlic powder

2 teaspoons dry mustard

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Combine and mix all ingredients.

Store in an airtight jar.

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