Sunday, August 24, 2014

Longtime Culinaire, First Time Briner

Lately anytime there's a cooking program, or a cooking spot on a talk show, dealing in pork chops, they brine them. Even in culinary school they didn't mentioned brine and pork chops. Brine for pickling fish, sure (we've actually used brine for pickling fish, so maybe "first time briner" is a bit misleading...). But brine for pork? It's weird, not having heard much about meat brine (outside of making bacon or ham) until recently, weird since brine seems like the answer to doctoring so much bland-tasting meat of which there is plenty of here in the US of A. (Meat from corn-fed animals have far less taste than grass-fed - it's why meat tastes so much better in other countries where they are primarily fed on other grains and grasses)
But what about the ins and outs of brine: what exactly goes in a brine, how much flexibility is in a brine, how long do you really have to soak the meat? Thankfully, there's the internet for that.

Brine is basically an oil-free, vinegar-free, marinade. Mostly it's a solution of salt and water, with (optional) aromatic herbs and spices thrown in to boost the flavor and moisture of some unsuspecting chunk of meat. Really it can be whatever things you think might taste good together. Avoid vinegars, as the acid in it will "cook" the meat (unless you're making a pickled fish of some sort - in which case vinegar is essential in most cases) causing discoloration and structural integrity issues of said meat.

After weeks of eyeing thick slabs of pork chops in the grocery store, inspired by local tart apples picked from a neighborhood tree on nightly walks, and fresh onions from the (mother's) garden - the onions in our own garden have not had a good year - it became time.
Time to brine.

Like with any recipe, you look at the bones of it, the ingredients that make it what it is. Most recipes have them, the essential ingredients - in this case salt and water - which all brine recipes reviewed had. At that point go to your cupboard, your fridge, your garden (herb or vegetable) and mix and match what you think might taste good "infused" into your hunk of protein (hey, you can brine tofu too!)

The brine invented today was great. The hint of ginger and garlic was excellent, and the meat was amazingly juicy. Combined with fresh local ingredients, Sunday dinner was one to be proud of:
Brined and grilled pork chop with garden fresh (white, orange and purple) carrots & potatoes sautéed with fresh oregano, red and white onions pan fried with tart local apples, and beet tops steamed with minced garlic. Garnished with fresh green onions.
Brine Ingredients:
4 c water
4 tsp salt
1 Tbsp agave syrup*
1 Tbsp country Dijon (grainy) mustard
1 Tbsp fresh sage, chopped (or about 1 tsp dried)
1 Tbsp fresh rosemary, chopped (or about 1 tsp dried)
1/2" thick slice of fresh ginger, rough chopped (or 1 tsp dried)
3 medium cloves garlic, crushed (or 1.5 tsp dried)
4 pork chops, thick cut (or 6 thin)
- Place pork chops in large glass pan for about 6 hours-24 hours (the longer the better, of course). If the pan is too shallow and one side of the pork is not submersed make sure to turn each pork chop halfway through your planned brine time.
- Remove from brine, remove any large bits of ginger or other ingredients to prevent burning, and trim any fat you might want to trim off (if there is excess, like real excess, otherwise why would you do that?! The fat is magical.) and season, as desired, with salt and pepper.
IMPORTANT: Make sure to dispose of the brine. Do not reuse the brine. Never reuse liquids you have soaked meat in, as they may cause foodborne illness)
- Cook as desired: bake, pan fry or grill.

For grilling preheat the grill to high, place the pork chop on and close the lid. Turn pork chop and close the lid for another minute.Turn the grill down to medium heat and cook for 3-4 minutes on each side (depending on thickness) until the the center, after a three minute rest, reaches 145-160° Fahrenheit, depending on desired done-ness.
No matter how you cook your pork make sure the internal temperature reaches at least 145°F.

Handy Meat Doneness Graphic:
Image Source: Men's Health
*Agave syrup can be substituted with 3/4 Tbsp honey.
Note: Not all agave syrup is created equal. If you already use it and have never reached information about it you might want to fire up the old Google. If you plan to start using agave, for its several potential marketed "health benefits", make sure that you research the best types to use/buy, and logically think about the pros and cons people are throwing around about the product. Further, sugar is sugar is sugar if you eat too much of it. Not having real reliable sources about this "new" "hot" "trendy", dare we say "hipster", product called agave syrup, use at your own risk, like with any other manufactured sugar product. As always, use common sense.

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