Italian plums pair perfectly with grilled pork chops
Brine a few pork chops, season with tarragon and garlic, and grill them up with Italian plums for a smokey, seasonal taste of late summer.
In my working class family, meat was strictly the cheap cuts. When I was growing up, beef was chuck turned into burgers or meatloaf or spaghetti sauce – or the occasional pot roast, slow cooked so the fat melted into it and the toughness cooked out of it (as much as it does). Chicken was chicken, all of it relatively inexpensive back then, cooked and consumed with the skin on. And pork was most often chops, well marbled with fat before that was even a term used in households. Which probably explains why I like meat so much.Skip to next paragraph
Terry Boyd is the author of Blue Kitchen, a Chicago-based food blog for home cooks. His simple, eclectic cooking focuses on fresh ingredients, big flavors and a cheerful willingness to borrow ideas and techniques from all over the world. A frequent contributor to the Chicago Sun-Times, his recipes have also appeared on the Bon Appétit and Saveur websites.
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The cheap cuts are where the flavor is, in every juicy, chewy, sometimes stringy bite. Home cooks have known this pretty much forever and have developed techniques to bring out that flavor while taming the toughness that often accompanies these cuts – is indeed built into their muscle fiber.
Some of that big flavor and most of the juiciness comes from fat. And that’s a problem when it comes to pork chops. Pork producers have worked hard at slimming down their pigs in an effort to make pork “the other white meat,” closer to chicken in fat content than to beef. And they have succeeded. Some cuts are as low or even lower in fat than chicken. But the success comes at a cost, particularly when it comes to pork chops. With so much less fat marbled through the meat, chops often cook up dry and tough. Braising chops in liquid sometimes helps, but not always.
Brining chops – soaking them in a salt water solution for several hours before cooking – is a more reliable way to restore juiciness and tenderness. Brining is something of a balancing act, though. Besides the salt, sugar is required for the process. Too much of either or both can make chops taste like ham. So can brining meat for too long.
For this recipe, I took a conservative approach, both with ingredients and timing. The resulting chops were tender and juicy, with no hint of hamminess.
Which brings me to the plums. Pork loves fruit, more than any other meat. There’s an underlying sweetness to its savory flavor that makes pairing it with fruit a natural. We’ve made the most of this fact over the years, teaming various forms of pork with peaches, apples, cherries, mango and pears (twice). So it seemed like a good time to try plums.
Italian plums are one of those rare truly seasonal fruits that show up in markets for a short time late in the summer. They’re also called Italian prune plums, because that’s their primary use, being dried into prunes to be enjoyed year ’round. They’re smaller, firmer and less juicy than other plum varieties. This makes them less popular for eating out of hand, but perfect for baking. Marion’s always popular Plum Cake is a luscious example of that use.
And then there’s grilling. Halved and tossed with a little olive oil, they cook up quickly and take on a sweet, smokey taste. Since I was working with Italian plums, I took the chops in the same direction, adding tarragon and garlic to the brine. The result was subtle, letting the meat’s flavor shine through. As grilling season begins to wind down, the combination of the seasonal plums and flavorful chops tasted like the end of summer.