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.
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.
Grilled Pork Chops and Italian Plums
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 generous tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon (or 1 teaspoon dry)
1 large clove garlic, chopped
1/4 cup dry white wine (see Kitchen Notes for substitutions)
4 bone-in pork chops, about 3/4 to 1 inch thick (about 1/2 pound each)
freshly ground black pepper
12 Italian prune plums
Brine the chops. Combine salt, brown sugar, tarragon and garlic in a saucepan or heatproof bowl. Add one cup of boiling water. Stir until salt and sugar dissolve. Let sit for five minutes for flavors to steep. Stir in wine and one cup of iced water. Cool completely.
Place chops in a large zippered plastic bag. Add brine to bag and seal, forcing out as much air as possible. Work brine around the chops and refrigerate, occasionally turning the bag and working the brine around the chops, for at least five hours and up to 12 hours. The brine won’t keep the chops totally immersed in the bag; you can either increase the brine ingredients proportionally or turn the bag as I did.
Grill the chops and plums. Prepare your grill for direct grilling. About half an hour before you’re ready to grill, remove the chops from the fridge and let them come to room temperature. Meanwhile, prepare the plums. Rinse them and pat them dry with a clean dish towel. Halve the plums, removing the pits, and place them in a large bowl. Drizzle with a little olive oil and toss gently with a wooden spoon.
When the grill is almost ready, remove the chops from the brine and pat dry with paper towels. Multiple paper towels. They will have taken on a lot of moisture and are now ready to exude it. Season generously with ground black pepper. Oil the grill grate and place chops directly over the coals. Cook uncovered for a couple of minutes and then close the grill. After five or six minutes of total cooking time for the first side, turn the chops, cover the grill and cook for another five minutes or so. By now, they will probably cooked through (a quick read thermometer should register 145 degrees F). Mine were still a little blond looking, so I turned them and cooked them for another minute. Don’t overcook them, though – it’s not needed, and you’ll undo all the juiciness you brined into them.
Transfer to a large plate and tent with foil (kind of stack them – they lose less heat as they rest). Give the plums another gentle stir to coat with oil, then place them on the grill cut side down. Let them grill for 2 to 3 minutes, then start turning them, using tongs and a spatula. If they haven’t taken on grill marks yet, let them cook another minute or so. They won’t all take on those beautiful grill marks, despite your best efforts. Move on. After you turn them, they only need to cook for a minute more. Transfer to a plate. The skins will want to slip off them; try to keep most of the skins with their original owners.
Transfer the chops to a serving platter. Arrange the plums around them, gently pushing skins back into place as needed. Serve.
Experiment. Play with the aromatics, trying different herbs or adding onions. Substitute apple cider or a little vinegar for the wine. Just keep the salt and sugar in balance. You’ll find lots of helpful brining basics and some additional recipe ideas here at About.com.