So here is a recipe that I cannot believe I have never posted. Many years ago, my sister bought me Judy Rodgers’ Zuni Cafe Cookbook. I find that really great cookbooks affect you in both the short and long term. In a great cookbook, you’ll often find a tiny handful of recipes—maybe one or two—that are immediately enlightening and useful at the same time. These are the recipes that change your life right away. They change the way you approach weeknight meals, or dinner parties, or a certain ingredient. You turn on a dime, and things are never the same in your kitchen again. Then, as you live with a great cookbook, you are influenced by it in more subtle ways. A variety of recipes from a great cookbook infiltrate your cooking over time; you work with them, change them, play with them. Eventually, a great cookbook—through immediate sea changes and long-term evolution—changes your approach to food. The Zuni Cafe Cookbook is certainly one such cookbook for me. And this brine for pork is certainly an approach that took me by storm, with no going back.
Boneless pork chops can be tasteless. And if you cook them quickly, the exterior is overdone (dry) before the interior reaches a safe temperature. If you cook them too slowly, they can be tough and flavorless; virtually boiled. This brine changes all that. It distributes flavor and moisture throughout the chops. But even when you pat them dry and put them in the pan to cook, the brine caramelizes on the outside (it has sugar in it) and creates a lovely fond in your pan. You can eat the chops all on their own, but it is worth a few extra minutes to deglaze that pan and turn the fond into something truly spectacular. Either way, I don’t serve pork chops much anymore without brining them.
About that brine: if you don’t have allspice berries, or juniper berries, use whole cloves, or skip it. If you don’t have chilies, don’t sweat it. The key ingredients are water, salt, and sugar. Everything else is window dressing. Delicious window dressing, but easily skipped nonetheless. Another detail about this recipe—you can leave out the fried sage part for weeknight suppers. Just go ahead and cook the chops (having brined them the night or morning before) and make the pan sauce. But if you’re having a special meal, or a dinner party—and if you’re lucky enough to have a glut of sage leaves—I’m going to go out on a limb and say that having crispy sage croutons on your pork chop really will make your day.
Brined pork chops w garlic pan sauce + crispy sage
Method adapted from Judy Rodgers, Zuni Cafe Cookbook
- 5 or 6 center-cut boneless pork chops
- 5 cups room-temperature water
- 3 tablespoons kosher salt
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar
- 3 dried chili peppers
- 4 dried bay leaves
- 8 to 12 allspice berries
- 2 cloves garlic, smashed
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 20 or 30 fresh sage leaves
- 3 large cloves fresh garlic, sliced thinly
- 1 cup dry white wine
1. At least 8 hours (and up to 48 hours) before you plan to cook the pork, whisk together the water, salt, sugar, chilies, bay leaves, allspice berries, and crushed garlic. Whisk vigorously until sugar and salt dissolve completely. Add pork chops and cover well. Place in refrigerator for 8 to 48 hours.
2. When ready to cook pork, pour olive oil into a nonstick skillet. Warm it over medium-high heat until quite hot but not smoking. Add sage leaves (leaving room between leaves) and fry until very crisp and just turning brown, turning leaves once. (If oil is very hot, this takes about 5 minutes.) Remove sage leaves to a paper-towel-lined plate and sprinkle with fleur de sel. Turn burner to low. Add thinly sliced garlic and stir until just beginning to turn golden in color. Pour olive oil and garlic into a heatproof bowl or measuring cup. Leave thin sheen of oil in pan, and place over medium heat.
3. Remove chops from brine and pat dry. Place into hot pan. If needed, weight chops down with another heavy pan. After 10 minutes, flip chops and weight down again if needed. Continue to cook until chops are nicely caramelized and internal temperature reaches 155 F. Remove chops to a plate and let them rest.
4. Turn heat under pan to medium-high. Add white wine and boil, scraping all browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Reduce by at least half, until wine forms a somewhat thick reduction. Remove from heat and add cooked garlic and olive oil mixture, stirring well.
5. Slice pork chops and place one on each plate. Spoon garlic and wine sauce over and top with crispy sage leaves.