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Back to basics.

Sadly, the joy is gone from pork chops. Since the inception of the "other white meat" campaign, both the flavor and texture of American pork chops have deteriorated to somewhere between shoe leather and caulk. Through no fault of their own, pork chops have gotten a bad "rep" as being dry, bland, and, frankly, boring. Primarily to meet the demands of health conscious consumers, the preparation and quality of pork have changed, leading to sometimes less-than-desirable results. A trichinosis scare led to widespread overcooking, and a fat-conscious public spurred farmers to breed much leaner--and therefore less succulent--pigs than ever before. However, with a little makeover--courtesy of today's top chefs--pork chops can finally return to their culinary throne.

What's Shakin' There, Bacon?

History has unfortunately branded the pig as a glutton and an indiscriminate consumer. Long used as living garbage disposals, pigs were often fed garbage for a dual purpose; they not only removed the trash from people's yards, but they also processed it into edible meat. This practice plays a large role in people's misconceptions about the pigs' uncleanliness. In fact, because of the pig's eating habits, many religions ban pork. Comprising roughly twenty-three percent of the world's population, both the Judaic and Islamic religions specifically forbid their followers from consuming pork products. Despite these widespread negative views about the pig, some cultures embrace the creature not only as a source of food, but also as a status symbol. In Chinese and Vietnamese cultures, the pig represents prosperity and abundance. Possessing a pig with a large girth brings its owner prestige and admiration; anyone who is wealthy enough to sustain such a fat pig proves he has truly arrived. In addition, the Chinese reg ard the pig as a companion, keeping smaller pot-bellied pigs as house pets, proving conclusively that pigs are indeed charming (at least to some of us!).

Regardless of cultural preferences, good pork chops are worth their weight in culinary gold. When a quality pork chop is perfectly cooked, the buttery texture and unique flavor are simply dream-worthy.

High on the Hog

Traditionally, the reputation of pork chops has often suffered due to lack of creativity on the part of the people who prepare them. They have, unfortunately, become victims of the Johnny-one-note cooking method of food. All too often, menus feature a basic grilled pork chop. Whether stuffed, glazed, marinated, or generally spruced up" in any other fashion, a grilled pork chop is still a grilled pork chop. Although there is nothing inherently wrong with simplicity, there is, nonetheless, a wide range of possibilities that have been overlooked. Chefs today possess an endless array of techniques to transform this old standard. Braising, caramelizing, spit roasting, barding, and smoking are just a sampling of cooking methods that can spice up the unassuming pork chop.

Pairing pork chops with other ingredients requires a little ingenuity, as well. While old school ingredients such as apples, sage, and cabbage each has its place, they often evoke a "been there, done that" response. As a matter of fact, pork's buttery quality and mild sweetness combines well with a multitude of flavors. A plethora of pork-pairing possibilities awaits us, and only by stepping out of the ordinary and trying new things can we find them.

When it comes to cooking pork chops, think "pink." Contrary to popular belief, pork chops do not need to be incinerated in order to be safe to eat. Overcooking is the largest contributor to pork's reputation of being overly dry. Trichinosis, a parasite found in pork, is the villain responsible for this accepted practice of burning of our precious pork chops. Thanks to more sanitary farming methods, however, the threat of trichinosis has plummeted in recent years. Nevertheless, much of the overcooking craze was unwarranted to begin with. The trichinosis parasite actually dies at 137 degrees Fahrenheit. Despite this fact, the National Pork Board recommends that pork be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees (a.k.a. overdone). It wasn't until recently that the HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) protocol officially lowered the required internal temperature for pork to 145 degrees Fahrenheit, and the debate amongst cooks whether to lower it even further to 140 degrees rages on. What does this lower acceptable temperature mean for us? Simply put, it means juicier, more flavorful pork that is perfectly pink in the center.

Where's the Pork?

There are four main portions cut from the pig carcass that qualify as pork chops: center cut chops, rib chops, blade chops, and pork sirloin chops. All are from the loin primal. A pork loin is cut extra long in contrast to other meats such as beef or lamb in order to maximize the number of pork chops yielded from each loin.

When most people think about a pork chop, they have center cut in mind. These are the most prized of pork chops because they, as the name suggests, are cut from the center of the loin and, thus, are very tender. Center cut pork chops can be identified by a T-shaped bone off to one side of the loin muscle. Even if this distinguishing bone has been removed, center cut pork chops will always be indicated by their higher price, since they are more expensive than other cuts. Chops cut from the rib portion of the loin are appropriately called rib chops. These have a rib bone running down the side of the loin muscle, thus resembling their equivalent cut in beef: the rib eye steak. The third major type of pork chop, taken from the portion of the loin closest to the shoulder, is called the blade chop. This cut is not the same as a pork blade steak, which is cut from a totally different part of the pig and is technically not a pork chop at all. Finally, the pork sirloin chop is also notable; it is cut from the pork sir loin roast, close to the leg.

While all of these various types of pork chops are tender, some are more so than others. The rib and center cut chops are generally the most tender, followed by the sirloin chop and, lastly, the blade chop. A bit of advice: if you want your pork chops to remain tender, it is usually better to leave them on the bone. Although boneless chops are leaner the bone helps to keep the meat moist and flavorful. Another word of advice for the health conscious who are worried about not adequately cooking their pork chops: either cook boneless pork chops to pink in the center or buy a pair of ice skates; if you do overcook the chops, you will end up with hockey pucks rather than edible pieces of meat.

The Other Dry Meat

"Today's pork has thirty-one percent less fat than twenty years ago," according to the National Pork Board. This drastic reduction in the percentage of fat has many in the culinary world up in arms. Unfortunately, in addition to being leaner, many argue that pork is also drier and less flavorful than ever before. Even disregarding this appreciable loss of quality, the question begs to be asked: is this lower fat content really desirable? From a sales perspective, pigs are now being raised to compete with chickens. Until now chicken has had a lock on the health-conscious protein market, and pork's only hope to compete was to be so drastically altered that it developed characteristics comparable to chicken. Obviously, however, pork is not chicken, nor should it be. According to the National Pork Board's Web site, "Today's pork producer combines genetics with improved production techniques and technology to deliver the leaner pork consumers demand." Now we are not sure what the National Pork Board means by genet ics and technology, and we're certainly not about to dive into the GMO (genetically modified organisms) debate, so all we will say is this - - pork is pork, and it's supposed to be fatty.

All is not lost for pork chops. True, they may have been mistreated, but - - hopefully - - that's all in the past. With a little creativity and a newfound esteem for succulent pork, this little piggy can find his way back into the culinary spotlight. Pork chops don't have to be boring, as our celebrated chefs will gladly show you. So please remember the wisdom imparted by a new slant on an old adage: every hog has it's day.
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Title Annotation:recipes for pork
Publication:Art Culinaire
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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