February 3, 2012

Blog the Third: Pork Chop Breaded & Broiled

A Staple of the Workday Repetoire
Having a full-time job, I cannot cook as my mother did on weekdays.   I fear that for the rest of my life I will be haunted by Proustian reminiscences of the well-kept house and well-laden dinner table I so much took for granted in my childhood, and the face of someone in dismay at the idea of my going out in it, snatching a shirt from my hand to iron it for me.  A feminist friend in college once told me that everyone deserves a wife; I’d say, an Italian mother.

But this is why you, Gentle Reader, need me, because you don’t have my mother.  I have culled for you from her plethora of dishes a sub-repertoire of workday recipes for delicious food that take less time than she had, even if no less tender loving care.

A staple of this workday cookery is the broiled pork chop.  It cooks in 10 minutes and satisfies in the way that only pork can.  Being a crowd‑pleaser and kid-friendly, it also serves me well at dinner parties when I want to put my greatest effort into a pasta, risotto, or elaborate vegetable side-dish.  It offers all-purpose, serviceable, proletarian satisfaction, on workdays and playdays both. 

Okay, so there’s a little glitch.  The pork of our day has become so healthful as not to be delicious.  It’s just not fatty enough.  This is no accident.  It’s a conspiracy.  I once called my local Graul’s, which easily has the most genuinely competent and unpretentiously accommodating butchers I have ever known (their beef cutlets are the only ones I’ve ever found done right outside Brooklyn), and when I asked if they would make me a special order of Italian sausages with no spices except salt and black pepper, but with 30% fat, the lady said to me, “We make our Italian sausage with 20% fat.”  I reply, “Yes, of course, I understand; that’s why I want to put in a special order.  I will order as many pounds as necessary to justify such a special order – 10, 15, 20 lbs. – I just want sausage with 30% fat and no fennel.”  And she, “We make our Italian sausage with 20% fat.”  And I, “So you won’t take a special order for sausage made with 30% fat, under any circumstance, no matter how much I’ll order.”  And she, “We only ever make sausage with 20% fat.”  You could call that pig-headedness, but I hear a policy of systematic suppression.

Fear not, Gentle Reader, we shall overcome.  It turns out that if you brine your pork chops (and for that matter, your chicken cutlets or lamb chops), the white meat comes out wondrously moist and tender.  It’s miraculous (which of course is just Latin for “wondrous”, which I’ve already said, but I really wanted to drive the point home).  Many a guest—including my four Italian aunts who came for an all-aunts aunts-only weekend—have taken a first bite out of my broiled pork chops, lowered their utensils, raised their faces, and said in astonishment, “It’s like filet mignon.”  Well, I hate the texture of filet mignon, as you know, but I take the praise as a compliment, in the spirit in which it was intended, as a monotheist might accept an idolater’s confession that his idol was not as great a god as God. 

Brining is not a practice of my people.  I learned it from the people of the land of my exile: I heard a N.P.R. broadcast about brining one’s Thanksgiving turkey.  But I think of brining more like the discovery of fire or fermentation, too universal a grace of Deus sive natura to be credited to any one person or people.  And yet, the heart of man is an abyss, and from his youth his will is ever turned away from what is good.  I have tried teaching this great mystery of nature to many a friend who will not learn.  They hear, but do not heed.  Chief among these is my mother.  She has confessed with others that the moistness of my pork chops is to be wondered at, but she insists that she has tried brining hers as I said to, and “It doesn’t work.” 

Laws of nature don’t not work, so I feel sure facts remain undisclosed.  I can guess what.  When people hear how much salt is required in brining, they recoil.  Prudently anticipating this recoil, I say, “The brining water must be as salty as the sea,” appealing to the wisdom of Mother Nature herself for vindication of the proportion, but I espy in the blank stare returned to me, dumb doubt, silent skepticism, the resistant will.   When I hear a narration of an unsuccessful attempt begin with, “I just …,” that just  tells me I’m dealing with an equivocator, a dissembler, a chameleon.

Not you, Gentle Reader, not you!  You want your brine as salty as the briny sea, that mother of marine wonders beyond telling, and you want to give that brine hours and hours to work its wonder.  For such aqua vitae, you need ¼‑cup coarse kosher salt (or half as much fine table salt) per quart of water – a quarter to a quart.  You need to stir your salt into the cold water to dissolve it all before adding the meat to soak.  The meat likes to soak all day, or at least from lunchtime onward (and no less that 3 full hours, in a pinch, albeit for only minimal satisfaction).  I’ve been told by my physicist-friend that if you brine for too little time, it can actually have the opposite effect of drying out the meat.  I don’t remember why, because I don’t go in for all that cooking chemistry—as a cook, you need to know what makes food delicious, not why. I leave those mysteries to Deus sive natura and test-kitchen programs.  For me, qua cook, it suffices to know what’s delicious and how to make it so.

I’m often starting with frozen meat, bought on sale.  While waiting for my morning coffee to brew, I make the brine and put the frozen meat in, and it spends the day defrosting on the kitchen counter or, in warm weather, in the frig.  Frozen meat will defrost in a brine more quickly and more safely than at room temperature, the frozen meat acting like an ice cube that keeps the surrounding water at a more even temperature with the meat’s than the air beyond.  Brining also has a wondrously cleansing effect.  You will see all sorts of stuff leach out into the water that you will be happy to pour down the drain.  For similar reasons of cleanliness, you’ll want to rinse the chops after brining, but also dry them off with a paper towel.

If your faith has followed me thus far, it has one more leap to make.  You must believe that although the brining does indeed have a wonderful seasoning effect as well as a moisturizing and purifying one, the rinsed pork chop will still need a little salting before cooking.  Again, I don’t know why, I only know that it is so.  If it contradicts all reason, then call it faith, for faith is certain knowledge of what is so, even if not of how it is so.  On such faith hangs the fate of your pork chop.

If you follow me thus far, the rest of the way is easy.  You will need 4C Seasoned Bread Crumbs.  There is no substitute.  They are inimitably delicious.  My mother has one sister left in Sacco, and her husband spent years alone working in the U.S. to send money back to his family in Sacco.  In those hard times, any gift sent from the U.S. was joyously welcomed.  But once prosperity returned to Italy, so did uncle Giovanni, and then there was hardly anything one could bring from America that pleased them, EXCEPT for 4C Seasoned Bread Crumbs (and aluminum foil).  To this day, these are prized and joyously received in the hill country of Campania.  But you, Gentle Reader, can get them at your local market.

You could of course season your own bread crumbs at home, and this would be very “gourmet “ of you, but it’s not going to be as good, I’m telling you right now.  If you’re going to do it, and lie about it to yourself and others, then I recommend you go whole-hog, and insist that your home-made is much better than 4C, whatever I might have to say about it.  Traditional home seasoning calls for more grated cheese than you’d think – a ratio of 1 to 2 would not be too much – and you’ll want to use tangy, salty Pecorino Romano, not Reggiano Parmigiano.  I also recommend adding salt, black pepper, and big pinches of Italian dried spices that you or your meat might like.  Also mix in a goodly amount of finely chopped parsley.  (I’d be tempted to work some garlic in there somehow, but very finely chopped fresh garlic would be too moist to distribute in the right way, and I think that garlic powder is second only to gun powder as the vilest invention of man.)

I always keep containers of 4C Seasoned Bread Crumbs in the house, and I will take public credit for getting my local Graul’s to stock it, for the benefit of my friends and proteges.  My mother has come up with the very clever convenience of pouring a mound of it out onto a paper towel, instead of a plate or bowl, so that you can conveniently raise the edges of the paper towel to redistribute it at will during the breading; then at the end, you can throw the kit and caboodle into the trash.

To bread the pork chops—brined, dried, salted and peppered—I pour regular olive oil into a dish, pour out a mound of 4C on a paper towel, dip each chop in the oil, then in the bread crumbs, pressing each side with the fork into the crumbs below, and lay each out on the rack of a broiler pan.   

I turn the broiler on high to pre-heat the oven.  I have an electric oven that allows me to put the broiler pan on the lowest level of the oven.  I don’t want the pork chops close to the heat, as I usually do with broiling; because it’s pork, I want it to cook more slowly and thoroughly – although I’m not afraid of a little pinkness in my pork.  By putting my broiler on high and the pan at the bottom of the oven, the first side of the chops turn golden brown with gilded edges (and a bit of bowing) in 5-10 minutes; the second side will usually take even less time.  Letting the meat rest for a few minutes after being removed from the oven also lets it continue to cook a bit more and relaxes it.

Because of the brining, white meat works as well with this recipe as does dark meat, and boneless as well as meat on the bone.  I, for one, don’t like the super thick-cut pork chops for any use, let alone this recipe.  Smaller chops are light enough and tasty enough to follow pasta (which my people never have as a main dish, only a first dish, calling for lighter, tastier meats to follow).  But broiled pork chops also stand well as a main dish on their own, flanked by tasty vegetable sides (and followed, of course, by salad, fruit, and sweet coffee).

In choosing side-dishes, I always think first of color: red, white, and green.  The pork chops count for white, so tonight I make broccoli garlicy and carrots lemony—that is to say, two oily vegetables to set off the dry roasted meat, the one sauteed in garlic-scented oil, the other boiled and marinated in fresh extra virgin and lemon.  I also sauteed Baby Bella mushrooms, because nice ones were on sale at the Graul’s when I stopped in after work, but I did so aware that a third vegetable side on a workday was supererogatory.  I like white wine with pork, but I didn’t like the wine I had tonight, so I won’t mention it.  I wish I had had on hand my house-white, Ruffino OrvietoI’ll save descriptions of how I made the side-dishes for the next two blogs.  Meanwhile, for a great way to use leftover broiled pork chops, see my sidebar page, Metamorphoses of Leftovers, under "Meats Grilled, Broiled, or Boiled."