Friday, April 13, 2012

Eating our Pig - Seared Pork Chops

You may recall our excitement when we purchased a half hog from a local producer, Crooked Gap Farm, back in January. We talked all about what cuts we were getting, what a great deal it was, and how important it is to us to be able to support a small farmer. Then we haven't mentioned it in over three months. Well, don't worry, we've been eating from our half hog, just not necessarily writing about it. That can end today as we document what turned out to be a delicious and mostly local meal.

To start, we thawed out a package of bone-in Iowa Chops. These are a really nice cut, but it sometimes feels like we're stuck in a rut when it comes to pork chops. For some reason we always default to a bare-bones salt and pepper seasoned chop with a plain pan gravy. With nice pork, this can be tasty, but we figured we ought to know enough about cooking to be able to jazz it up a bit.

With that in mind, we headed out to the garden to see if anything was close to ripe yet. In our lettuce/spinach/radishes box, we were met with this kind of growth.

Those guys in the middle are the radishes we first planted on March 10th. Some of them are almost there, but they're just not quite to size to pick. But, did you know you can eat radish greens, too? That meant we got to have...

Our FIRST HARVEST of the year!!!

With a pair of scissors,we snipped off a leaf or two from each of the biggest and healthiest looking plants. As you can see, this didn't exactly amount to much - 1 ounce altogether. That's fine, since these were always intended to be a garnish or a side, and not a main part of the meal. But keep in mind if you do try radish or any other kind of green that they do cook down a lot, so this one ounce got pretty small by time we ate.

Also, if you have a batch of radishes with their tops, you might feel the leaves and wonder how on earth anyone could eat them. They're very prickly, which would probably be painful to eat raw. Rest assured, once they're cooked, those little spines are no longer discernible, and the greens feel just like spinach or kale.

So we had a vision of pork chops with a small batch of radish greens on top. From there, we just brainstormed with what was available, and what we've enjoyed in the past to make our "recipe." We ended up making pan-seared rosemary pork chops with sauteed radish greens and a sherry demi glace on a garlic cauliflower puree. If we ever open a restaurant, we'll certainly need to shorten that name! But though it sounds complicated, each piece is very simple and better yet, adaptable. Once you've got a few basic methods down, you won't even need a formal recipe. Let's get started!

First we chopped up about a half head of cauliflower. It's a little early yet for these to be in season in Iowa (except maybe with the aid of greenhouses?), so it's from California. We also smashed a few garlic cloves with the side of a knife, which is always fun. And since we don't have any homemade stock at the moment, we used some good boxed stuff. We threw the pieces into a pot, poured in just enough of a stock and water mix to cover them, and simmered.

Like so (but covered), for about 10 minutes or until the cauliflower pieces felt soft when poked with a fork.

Meanwhile, we got the pork out of the fridge, and sprinkled it with salt, pepper, and a lot of dry rosemary. Sadly, our rosemary plant from last year didn't survive a winter of neglect indoors, otherwise we might have had fresh rosemary available. We'll have to hope we're more responsible this year.

 It's actually good to let meat get to room temperature before you cook it, so we kept these guys on the counter for a bit while we got the cauliflower up to a boil. Aren't they beautiful chops?

Next it was time for the main action of the meal - the searing. The concept behind searing is to cook the outsides of the meat at a pretty darn high temperature to seal the juices in, then finish the cooking process either in the oven, or in this case, on the cooktop. You can brown cuts of meat okay in a regular nonstick pan, but for a real sear, we love our All-Clad. Basically, you get your pan plenty hot and throw in some sort of fat/oil - in this case a tablespoon-sized pat of butter per side. When you put the chops in, you should hear a nice sizzle.

The chops will probably stick where they are initially, which might freak you out a bit if you've never used a "non-nonstick" pan before. Don't worry, once each side sears properly, it should release and allow you to flip it. Sometimes it will need a little nudge, but it shouldn't end up being stuck too badly. If memory serves, this took about 3-4 minutes on a side.

By this time the cauliflower was nice and soft, so we pureed it in the blender. We didn't use all of the stock from the pot - just poured in enough to get the right consistency, little by little. It didn't take much blending to get the cauliflower very smooth.

Keep in mind that hot liquids like to expand/splatter when you blend them, so be sure to hold down the top of the blender as you run it. We like to throw a towel over the lid, and hold down on that, so any escaping liquid gets the towel and not your hands (ouch!).

So, a sprinkle of salt and the cauliflower puree was all set; the chops had now been seared on both sides, but the insides were probably still a touch rare. We pulled them out of the pan and deglazed it with a little bit of sherry wine (maybe a quarter cup - it was whatever we had left in the bottle). Here it's nice to grab a whisk and mix in any of the little tasty browned bits from the searing process to get them into the sauce. We had some red onion handy so we minced that and added it, plus enough stock to create a nice amount of sauce.

With that made and mixed up, we put the chops back in and simmered them a bit longer.

Again, with the lid on, when we werent't taking pictures. This took about another 5 minutes maybe.

Then it was time for our garden contribution - the radish greens! These are so easy. Heat some olive oil in a pan, throw in your greens (we tore them a bit to get better sized pieces), and stir them around. But keep an eye on them! It will literally take less than a minute or so to get them cooked down, and then you need to get them out of the pan to keep them from shrinking down to nothing.

These looked about ready. The last step was to add a little bit of a cornstarch slurry (corn starch plus a bit of cold water) to our pan sauce to thicken it up. You can use roux (flour and butter) if you have it, to feel more chef-y, but either method yields the same result. Our sauce was just a touch too thin, so a very small amount was needed to keep it from running everywhere.

Then it was time to plate! We put a good-sized dollop of the cauliflower puree in the center of the plate, placed a pork chop on top, and arranged the greens on the chop. We tried to be a little artsy, drizzling the sauce around the edge of the plate rather than on top, but it all gets mixed up when you eat anyway.

By the end of the process (forgiving the amateur photographer), it looked pretty fancy!

And it tasted amazing! It helps when you start with great ingredients, like woodland pastured pork, and home grown garden greens, but what a tasty dinner! We had just enough garlic to kick up the cauliflower puree, the rosemary flavor had seared into the perfectly cooked pork chop, and the radish greens added a touch of earthiness and bite. The demi glace was phenomenal; adding a little sherry to a plain pan gravy sure added a depth of flavor we don't always see in our sauces. Paired with a tasty Four Vines Naked Chardonnay, it made one delicious meal.

And that's part of the fun with cooking with fresh ingredients. We had no idea what we were going to do with our chops to liven them up, so we played with what we had. A puree under a cut of meat is a bit of a modern cooking cliche, but hey, it works. We've done it with sweet potatoes or turnips before, under anything from salmon to chicken. Once you know how to sear a piece of meat and either finish it in the sauce or in the oven, you can make pretty much anything. If it's in season, fresh, or looks great, why not give it a try and see if you like the result. It might not always work out, but when it does, it can be a hit right out of the park!

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