It was the roast suckling pig at a tiny tapas restaurant that did me in. Believing meat to be less healthful than other options, I had not tasted pork, beef, or lamb for over 30 years. There were no moral issues involved for me; I just tried to eat as healthily as I could. But something snapped inside me when one of my friends at the table ordered that fateful slab of piglet. The deeply burnished, mahogany-colored, crisp-skinned porker was brought to the table. I reached for the platter, after witnessing my friends smacking their glistening lips and dove in. The meat under the crackling skin was tender, moist and full-flavored. Best yet, I didn’t get ill from the small portion and forged ahead, slowly and with diligence, introducing meat back into my diet.
With time, I found that I enjoyed a steak, particularly slightly chewy cuts like skirt, hanger and flat-iron, just the way I had before I’d given red meat up—so rare that it is practically mooing. Lamb was eaten rare as well, but a little less so. Despite growing up with the caution not to eat pork anything but “thoroughly cooked through with no trace of color,” I discovered that I like the inside of a chop or tenderloin on the pink side. Pork, in general, became a favorite, partly because it is available in so many delicious guises: chops, sausages, ribs, loin and ground, as well as such delicacies as prosciutto, pancetta, bacon and pork belly. The only cut I didn’t sidle up to, and disliked as a child, was ham. My mother made it once or twice a year. My sister, Janet, and I made disdainful faces and pushed it around the plate. The following day, we were served my mother’s beloved version of macaroni and cheese, spoiled for us by small cubes of that ham we had barely touched the night before.
My pork repertoire has grown appreciatively as the years passed. I have grilled, broiled and baked pork tenderloin; most often, I enjoy it marinated in sherry, soy sauce, honey, shallots, ginger and rosemary in a cast-iron skillet stove-top. I’ve had good success with baby back ribs, both in the style of Chinese barbeque and with the flavors of Thailand. Not too long ago, I discovered pork belly at a Korean supermarket and grilled some up: a revelation. I never make a meatball without combining ground pork with an equal quantity of beef. We’ve had sweet and sour; spiced Moroccan; Asian style, with pickled cucumbers and wasabi mayonnaise; tiny specimens to be added to my grandmother’s recipe for chicken fricassee; and Italian style over spaghetti. Finally, let me introduce the pork chop into the picture. Another memory from childhood pops up, this one filled with delight. My mother’s thick-cut, bone-in pork chops were pan fried, the fat clinging to the sides rendered crispy, and served with her homemade applesauce. We adored the whole meal.
Try as I might, I can’t seem to get the lowly pork chop right. I have brined it, which, supposedly, makes for a more tender piece of meat. I have made both thick bone-in and slimmer boneless chops. I usually bread them, but sometimes not. The issue is in the timing, which eludes me. In my fear that the chops will be over-cooked, tough and dry, I generally undercook them. Unlike steak, you cannot press a finger into the flesh of a pork chop to test for doneness, as it has a firmer texture to begin with. Thus, when I cut a slit into the meat to peek inside, it is nearly always underdone. If you return a pork chop to the pan, it will invariably be inedible within a minute. I’m not saying I’m giving up on this cut. My last attempt was for pork Milanese. Miraculously, the timing was right and the chops were moist and flavorful, but I think I’ll hang back awhile. I don’t want to press my luck. Pork tenderloin for dinner tonight it is.
Baked pork tenderloin
with Asian marinade
Serves 3 to 4
1 pork tenderloin, about 1 ½ pounds, cut in half width-wise
¼ cup soy sauce
¼ cup dry sherry, mirin, or sake
2 to 3 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon hoisin sauce
1/8 cup rice wine vinegar
1/8 cup vegetable, olive, or grapeseed oil (plus 1 tablespoon, set aside for searing tenderloins)
3 to 4 sprigs Thai basil or cilantro
1 tablespoon minced shallots
2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
Place the tenderloins in a shallow baking dish. In a bowl, combine all the ingredients except the basil or cilantro. Combine well. Add the herbs and pour over the tenderloins. Cover with plastic wrap and let marinate at room temperature for about two hours or up to six hours in the refrigerator. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Remove the pork from the marinade, pour the marinade into a small saucepan and set aside. Pat tenderloins dry with paper towel. Heat the remaining tablespoon of oil in a large cast iron skillet or Dutch oven. Sear the tenderloins for a minute or two on each side, turning over just once. Then place the skillet in the oven and bake for 12 to 15 minutes, turning once, until cooked through but slightly pink inside. Meanwhile, bring the marinade to a boil, then turn down to a simmer and let cook until reduced a bit, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes. Keep warm. Remove tenderloins from the oven and place them on a cutting board, cover with foil and let rest for about five minutes. Slice the tenderloins into half-inch thick slices and place on a platter. Ladle the reduced sauce over the meat and serve with the grain of your choice.