The pairing of pork chops and applesauce is a culinary cliché that, if it weren’t so often botched, would deserve a place alongside chocolate and peanut butter, oil and vinegar, and fish and lime in the pantheon of classic gastronomic combos.
That pork chops and applesauce rarely measure up to expectations might owe to the fact that too many cooks think they can just pour applesauce on a pork chop, and violà. But I believe a successful marriage of pork chop and applesauce is more than a simple juxtaposition of opposites. It’s an integration of opposites.
On my first assignment as restaurant critic for Albuquerque’s Weekly Alibi, I was reminded the hard way of what happens when said integration is incomplete. I ordered a porterhouse pork chop with an “apple demi glace” that turned out to be a fancy euphemism for applesauce. When I took a bite, something felt wrong. I looked at my cut piece of meat and saw that it was completely raw inside. Not rare, but raw. It looked like a piece of seared ahi tuna. Of course, that dish is supposed to be made from sushi-grade ahi, and this was not, as far as I knew, sushi-grade pork. I spat and sent it back, feeling like quite the food critic. I was served a second porterhouse chop garnished with profuse apologies from the kitchen. (The new chop had a small incision, presumably to make sure it was cooked.)
While this was an extreme case of bad pork chops and applesauce, the cooked pork chop that followed revealed a different problem: It was brined so heavily it tasted like a mouthful of seawater.
Pork is sometimes brined because, while some readers might punch me for saying so, it’s rather bland. Unseasoned pork tastes as close to neutral as any meat I’ve tried—which is slightly chilling, given that pork also tastes more like human flesh than any other meat, according to cannibals with relevant experience. In any event, pig flesh often needs a little something extra to make it taste its best, which is why pork is mixed with spices in sausage, why bacon is cured, and why pork chops—if you’re going to pour some applesauce on top—are often brined for hours, which adds flavor deep into the meat.
While brining plays an important role in some delicious dishes, I usually prefer to brown instead. Browning and brining are not mutually exclusive, but brining takes more foresight than I usually have, and browning does the trick. Browning any meat will add flavor, but pork responds especially well thanks to the exceptional quality of its fat. As long as it doesn’t dry out, you can’t ruin pork by overcooking it. Pork is so tolerant, in fact, that you can take a couple of chops from the freezer, slap them on a hot pan with a shot of water and a lid, and start cooking. The fat will soon melt, oiling the pan, and the meat will begin losing water. Until that point, keep adding water, a little at a time, to keep the pan from drying out.
When your chops are browned on both sides, remove them from the pan to cool. If the chops weren’t greasy enough to sufficiently oil the pan, add some safflower oil, followed by chopped onions and garlic and sliced ginger and lemongrass, along with a shot of Madeira wine (sherry or white wine will suffice, but Madeira is the best). The ginger and lemongrass should be cut into 1/4-inch thick discs, large enough that they can be easily avoided by diners who may not appreciate an intensely aromatic surprise. Squeeze the juice of a few limes into the pan. Add crushed red pepper if you want some heat. Cook on medium. Anytime the pan starts to dry out, add more Madeira. The last time I made this dish I used almost an entire bottle.
Locavore fundamentalists may have noted that while pork chops and applesauce can be found locally in most places in the United States, the addition of ginger, lemongrass and lime disqualifies the dish as a truly local delicacy.
So be it. I still consider the dish local, albeit with a Southeast Asian flair. By weight, the majority of this dish is local. I’m using pork raised by my farmer friends, applesauce I canned last fall, garlic I grew and onions I traded for, and I don’t mind a little assistance from overseas to help take my local dish into the stratosphere. If anything should be imported, in my opinion, it should be the light stuff, with concentrated flavor.
When the browned pork chops have cooled to the point that you can handle them, cut them into 1-inch chunks and add the chunks back to the pan. Season with salt and pepper. Add a quart of applesauce—or a pint of apple butter, which is more concentrated. Add more Madeira, making it almost soupy, and then cook until everything condenses into a thick, rich sauce, stirring often.
The basic principle of this pairing can be applied to other types of meat and other fruits. Some of these combinations might sound familiar, like duck and plum sauce, and some less so, like rabbit and apricots. Just remember, the marriage of fruit and meat takes time. It’s much more of a commitment than dipping a fish stick in some tartar sauce and calling it a night.
Ask Ari: Trouble in the ranks
Q: Ari, my mentor,
I have learned and followed your mantra for years, wise Grand Master, when it comes to canning salsa, using wild meat or picking Montana wild edibles. But your latest scripture of Slow Boat Cooking is sinking down the slippery slope of Mount Jumbo! There’s a leak in the hull!
Don’t get me wrong—your faithful, locally grown edict makes you more deserving of a coconut than anyone in Montana, but even Buddhist high priests don’t reveal their own fleeting indiscretions. You have failed your readership by wrongfully justifying the limits of dogma, knowing full well that even if coconuts arrived by sailboat to Portland, they will never get here by carbon neutral horse drawn wagon. Furthermore, the masses are cooking your recipes using their stove fans, kitchen lights and refrigerators powered by far-off coal-fired power plants spewing mercury onto my—and your—organic garden or dams that don’t allow fish to spawn up stream in their native beds.
I will lower my eyes, bow my head, meditate in silence and wash down a local brew to eliminate your coconut tryst from my soul.
A: Thanks for the note, Grasshopper, and sorry to have killed your buzz. But my coconuts are not fleeting indiscretions. They’re a way of life.
The Slow Boat is a metaphor for efficient means of transport, and Slow Boat foods are simply foods that can be transported by the slowest means possible. I consider Portland, to use your example, simply the other end of the river from Missoula. And through a combination of barge and train—both of which are much more efficient than plane—my coconuts can roll into the Garden City.
As you point out, a pure life these days is next to impossible. The Slow Boat rule is simply a way to pick your poison responsibly.
And, FYI, a “Buddhist high priest” probably wouldn’t hunt, either.
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