PORK is my default meat-the one I use when I can’t think of anything else to buy, the one that can marry with any number of sauces, and the one that can be cooked in the time it takes to wash the utensils used to prepare the rest of the meal.
This endorsement of pork might seem surprising on several counts. The first is the claim of versatility. The “Other White Meat” campaign, on which the National Pork Producers Council spent $10 million last year, is making a virtue of something many cooks resent: pork doesn’t taste the way it used to, largely because it has less than half the fat it had twenty years ago. Changes in pork breeding began after the Second World War, when fat was no longer needed for the manufacture of certain explosives and producers began to seek a higher ratio of meat to fat. (In the early fifties, foreshadowing its strenuous efforts at status-building, the pork council changed its name from the National Swine Growers Council.) The increasing awareness of the dangers of eating too much fat, and especially saturated fat, hastened the reduction in fat content. Pork today has proportionately less saturated fat than beef-one third of the fat in pork is saturated, compared with nearly half in beef.
Edna Lewis, whose new book, In Pursuit of Flavor, continues the account of the simple and tasty food of her Virginia childhood which she began in The Taste of Country Cooking, told me recently about the pigs her family raised. “We fed them fruits and vegetables we had grown too much of, such as cabbage, tomatoes, peaches, and acorns. Then we also pulled good weeds they liked and fed them. And there was tons of milk, sour and sweet, that was surplus. In the fall we would build a floor and raise it from the ground and put the pigs in there and fatten them. They were fed absolutely nothing but corn and water when they were butchered and cured; the meat was so flavorful and sweet.”
Coming into Commercial of Cooking Industry
Today pigs raised commercially are fed mostly corn from start to finish (with soybean meal added for protein) and their meat doesn’t taste the same. When I asked a number of chefs what they do with the new pork, most replied immediately, wish for the old pork. Putting pork on a menu, they say, is a gamble, because in America it is not regarded as highly as it is in Europe. And now that meat from the loin has lost so much flavor-carrying fat, they prefer fattier cuts from the shoulder and leg (the ham) and spareribs, which on a menu seem even lower rent. “What do I do when I want lean pork? I eat chicken, turkey, anything that’s lean,” says Michael Roberts, a non-fan of the new pork. Roberts is the chef of the Los Angeles restaurant Trumps and the author of Secret Ingredients, a provocative book about how unexpected flavors can bring out the true nature of something else-as vanilla does with lobster-and yet themselves remain undetectable. Roberts likes pork too much to ignore it, though. In his book he calls for cooking lean pork in milk, an old way to moisten and enrich pork; and he pairs it with honey and coriander and with clove and orange.
Better and Better Day by Day without any Complaints
Despite the complaints, the effort to make pork better for you has made for a meat with many virtues. Like veal or chicken, pork tenderloin, sliced thin, can be pounded and sautéed quickly. Pork has fewer calories and less cholesterol than might be supposed. A 100gram (three-and-a-half-ounce) portion of pork loin-“loin” includes pork chops, the cut I find quickest and most satisfying to cook-has 231 calories and 98 milligrams of cholesterol; the same amount of chicken breast without skin has 165 calories and 85 milligrams of cholesterol. (The same size portion with skin has 197 calories and about the same amount of cholesterol.) But I have no intention of thinking of pork loin as white meat. Its virtue is that it is lighter than red meat but as succulent and rich in flavor-if it is cooked right, which it almost never is. Home cooks can take advantage of leaner pork and still have tenderness, moistness, and flavor, if they will do something restaurant cooks can’t do (and most mothers never would) unless they seek to outrage their customers: cook it for a very short time. Pork is as sensitive to overcooking as beef and the price of juicy, flavorful pork is not a trip to the hospital.
Some Obstacles of the Path of Pork Meat
HE WORD pork connotes trichinosis, and the two words are virtually synonymous for many Jews, who consider it the ultimate tried, or kosher food. Although the dietary laws of both Jews and Moslems forbid the eating of pork, the reasons have nothing to do with trichinosis, which was unrecognized when the laws were made (it was identified only in the past century) and which was no more a threat than many other diseases that meat could transmit. Peter Farb and George Armelagos, in their 1980 book Consuming Passions, offer a theory of why Jews so revile pork. They explain that when the Mosaic laws were created, pigs, which had not yet been domesticated, were no more prominent on the list of forbidden foods than, say, camels or vultures. The ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes, however, in 167 B.C. abolished Mosaic Law and ordered Jews to sacrifice and probably eat the meat of pigs, which by then had been domesticated, as a symbol of the Hellenic secularization he advocated. After the Jewish zealot Judas Maccabeus re-established fundamentalist law at the Jerusalem Temple-the event Hanukkah celebrates-Jews prohibited with new vehemence pork products and any other variance from strict observance of their law. Moslems forbade eating pork in the seventh century, when the Koran was written, partly because, Farb and Armelagos postulate, they hoped to emphasize their difference from Christianity, which had no such ban, and also to attract Jews as new followers.
Trichinosis is today very rare and becoming more so. An average of fifty-seven cases a year have been reported to the Centers for Disease Control, in Atlanta, for the past five years, a decrease from the average of 150 cases reported in the previous five. Cases that can be traced to wild game, including wild boar, bear, and even cougar, account for 15 to 25 percent of the total. Peter Schantz, of the parasitic-diseases branch of the Center for Infectious Diseases at the CDC, says that the actual incidence of trichinosis is probably much higher, because many cases are as mild as a case of flu and are never diagnosed. (In extreme cases trichinosis, which results when a microscopic parasitic worm, Trichinella spiralis, bores into striated muscle, can be fatal.) ‘I’he U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved the use of irradiation, a controversial treatment, to kill trichinae in pork, but manufacturers, war), of consumer reaction, have so far declined to irradiate pork.
Suitable Cooking Technique for Safety Standards
It is much easier to avoid trichinosis than it is to get it. Trichinae are killed at 137 degrees F after long cooking and at 144 degrees after brief cooking. They are also killed by freezing for twenty days at O degrees home freezer temperatures are typically between O degrees and 10 degrees. The Food Safety and Inspection Service lowered its recommended cooking temperature for pork to 160 degrees from 170 degrees two years ago; it was 185 degrees in 1960. My opinion, and that of many cooks, is that pork that registers 150 degrees allows for a margin of thermometer error and unevenness of cooking. Yes, at that temperature pork is pink, not red. Not rosy. It is just a pale pink.
THE TRICK is to keep pork loin moist, and cooks have many recommendations. Perhaps the most frequent and certainly the worst is long, slow cooking-for example, a quick browning followed by the addition of a small amount of liquid and an hour or so of covered braising in a slow oven. This method produces the white, compact, dry meat most of us think of as pork chops, its juices and flavor long since pooled at the bottom of the pan, and has given rise to many awful, viscous sauces. Pork chops, a great convenience food, need no masking. Most pork chops in supermarkets come from the back of the loin (toward the ham) and are called “center cut”; the bone is vertebra, not rib. Rib chops, from the front of the loin, have not only a longer and thicker bone but also more fat around the meat, for which some cooks prefer them. The wider bone makes for a thicker chop, so rib chops are used for stuffing, a procedure that seems to me fussy and unnecessary. There is no difference between the meat in rib and loin chops-it comes from the same muscle, the longissimus Doris. Pork loin is not graded according to marbling, or intramuscular fat, as beef is; a piece of loin meat trimmed of its exterior, or subcutaneous, fat has an average of three percent intramuscular fat, as compared with 10 percent in a piece of prime beef. Fresh pork is light in color, with pure white fat.
One of Intramuscular Fat Meat
Pork is one of the few meats that can be cooked successfully in a microwave oven, because it has so little intramuscular fat. The oven keeps the pork’s white color without drying out the meat (the fat, however, becomes transparent and is far from appetizing-an advantage for dieters). Because an extra minute can make pork chops unacceptably tough, it is safest to cook them in a liquid, such as tomato sauce, or with a liquid fruit, such as apples (best unsweetened, to my mind, and flavored with fennel or caraway seeds). A one-inch-thick chop requires just three to four minutes in a 700-watt (large) oven, two chops five to six minutes; add two minutes if cooking with a half cup to a cup of liquid.
Pan-frying is probably the most popular method of cooking pork chops, and can be the best. The right way to pan-fry is described by Paula Wolfert in two recipes in her new book, Paula Wolfert’s World of Food, a collection of recipes from around the Mediterranean. Both recipes call for imagination, which adds flavor but is not necessary to make the meat tender; one marinade uses juniper berries, an old trick to give meat a wild taste- in this case the taste of boar. The chops are browned quickly on both sides, removed to a plate, and left to sit, tightly covered, in a warm place, where they finish heating through while the cook sees to the sauce. If you cook the chops at high heat until they are done, however, they will be as dry as braised chops and much tougher.
Make Your Own Version for Each Dish
I liked the chops so much that I adapted the method to an Edna Lewis recipe. Lewis believes in dipping chops in seasoned flour and then browning them on both sides, a step that makes for a delicious crust. Flouring also helps flavor and thicken a splash of stock or wine (Lewis favors Madeira), into which you scrape the bits from the bottom of the pan, but it doesn’t keep in juices, so it isn’t essential. Lewis then calls for twenty more minutes of cooking. I shortened the additional time to five minutes off the heat after browning two half-inch chops for three minutes on each side. The simple Madeira sauce was lovely, but it was gravy-the chops were wonderful lain.
The great revelation came next, when tried an inch-thick chop in the same hot and heavy skillet, simply grinding pepper over each side and browning the chop in a film of nearly smoking oil for four minutes on each side. (It’s easier to fry two chops than one, since more fat is released sooner, keeping the chops from sticking, and promoting browning. The southern cook Nathalie Dupree uses this fact as a metaphor for the benefits of collaboration.) I removed the pan from the heat and covered it tightly with foil. After twelve minutes an instant-read thermometer registered 150 degrees. I cut ‘into the chop, which was well browned without and light pink within. I have rarely enjoyed a steak or a lamb chop as much or had a piece of meat as tender and juicy.
This method can be adapted to grilling, which browns the outside quickly, but not to broiling-by the time the sides are browned, the meat is dry. I’m not in favor of finishing the cooking at low heat either on the stovetop or ‘in the oven, because the heat produced by the chops under a tight cover seems ideal for retaining moistness. If your kitchen is cold, try letting them sit in a 200 degrees oven. The times for half-inch and inch chops that I have mentioned both resulted in meat that registered at least 145 degrees in the middle, but do test for ourselves using an instant-read thermometer More than two or three chops will take tonged, and if you transfer the chops to a plate and use the pan for a sauce you will need to add at least two or three minutes to the resting time. To cook inch-thick chops to a higher temperature, brown them for five or six minutes on each side before leaving them to rest for ten minutes.
Learn More Relating to This Pork Meat
There are two schools of thought on saucing pork: go with its natural sweetness, or cut it. Americans are used to pork with applesauce (as are Germans) and to pork with prunes or apricots, both of which I find too sweet and chewy to complement the meat. A sweet wine, such as Madeira, Marsala, or port, or balsamic vinegar is a better way to add sweetness. The other school of thought is to play off the sweetness with salty and strong ingredients, such as mustard and capers. The Chinese, who favor pork over all other meats, mix it into their whole palette of flavors, and many American books now routinely add ginger and soy. Wolfert gives French recipes for pork chops which take each a broach, one with pears that are cooked with honey, wine vinegar, and pepper, the other with cornichons and sherry vinegar. Lewis adds peanut butter to the sauce for a stovetop pork-join roast, a pertinent illustration of Roberts’s point that an unlikely auxiliary ingredient can disappear, intensifying the main one. The ideal is to try the many pork recipes available but to take the crucial extra step of altering cooking methods and especially times. Armed with a thermometer and an adventurous spirit-a death-defying one is not required-you’ll find yourself trying a delicious new kind of meat.