Our CSA subscription kept me so busy finding new ways to eat greens and green beans this summer that I haven’t done anything new with meat in a long time. But I recently found myself with a package of pork chops, more apple cider than I wanted to drink, and one last bunch of chard. Turns out pork chops are pretty easy—if you just season them with salt and pepper, sear them on both sides over high heat and then cook them until they’re pink inside over lower heat (~155F), they turn out pretty tasty. So this was the meal I came up with: I reduced the apple cider to a glaze along with some whole-grain mustard, cooked the pork chops as described, and then served them both over a bed of sautéed shallots and chard. Quick, easy, elegant, delicious, and perfect for Fall.
I got the idea from a recent conversation I had about why bacon is so often smoked with applewood. The answer, as far as I can tell, is because pork loves apples. Applesauce or cooked spiced apples are a classic accompaniment for pork chops. You can buy apple-flavored pre-made sausages. Whole roasted pigs are traditionally presented with apples in their mouths. The pairing is at least as old as Apicus (a 1st Century Roman) whose writings include a recipe for minutal matianum, which was a sort of stew or ragout of pork and apples. In England, serving pork with applesauce was common by the Early Modern period, and may have started much earlier (according to The Food Timeline).
There seem to be three possible explanations:
1) They Are What They Eat: Wherever there are both orchards and pigs, the pigs have traditionally been allowed to graze on the windfall apples that cover the orchard floor during harvest season, which also happens to be pig-slaughtering season. Pigs like apples—especially ones that may be fermenting a bit—but that’s not the main reason they get to eat them. Instead, it’s because windfall produce is an ample source of omnivore-feed that’s generally not quite fit for human consumption. There’s a nod to both pigs’ affinity for apples and using windfall apples to keep pigs “in good health” in Orwell’s Animal Farm:
Now if there was one thing that the animals were completely certain of, it was that they did not want Jones back. When it was put to them in this light, they had no more to say. The importance of keeping the pigs in good health was all too obvious. So it was agreed without further argument that the milk and the windfall apples (and also the main crop of apples when they ripened) should be reserved for the pigs alone. (right at the end of Chapter 3)
Most livestock animals are ruminants and thus don’t compete with humans for food (at least traditionally—the shift from grass to grain as the mainstay of cattle feed is a recent development in the history of animal agriculture). Pigs are extraordinarily efficient at converting feed into flesh, but since they can’t survive on grass and alfalfa, if there aren’t enough “slops,” pigs sometimes eat at the expense of hungry people. Anthropologist Marvin Harris suggests that that’s likely part of the reason they’re the object of religious/cultural prohibitions originating in certain regions of the world.
It’s possible—likely, even—that apple-fed pigs taste a little bit like apples, especially if that’s what they’re gorging on right before they’re killed. Fancypants Iberico ham is supposed to taste like the acorns that pampered Spanish pigs are fed. Some artisan pork producers claim their pigs are fed exclusively with apricots, which supposedly imparts a uniquely sweet and floral taste. Cooking apple-fed pigs with apples or smoking their meat with applewood might have initially become popular at least in part because they would enhance and complement the apple flavor.
2) It’s the Time of the Season for Apples & Pork: The second and probably more important reason is that both pork and apples are Fall foods. The apple harvest coincides with pig slaughtering season—Fall was traditionally the time to put up enough cured pork products to last through the long winter, especially before over-wintering the animals was common. And although much of the pig could be preserved—the legs and the belly would be salted and/or smoked for ham and bacon and much of the meat could be ground up and preserved in some kind of sausage—some of the cuts were eaten right away. Apples would have been a natural component of those meals because they were plentiful at the same time. Further evidence: duck and goose, Fall game birds, are also often paired with apples.
3) Cutting the Fat: Pork is fatty and umami. Apples are sweet, acidic, and light. Applesauce is a condiment that makes the same kind of sense with pork as mint jelly with lamb or malt vinegar with fish & chips (I’m in Ireland this week, can you tell?)—it’s just something sharp and bright to cut something rich and meaty. However, the gustatory rationale probably explains why the tradition lasted more than why it started. Ultimately, bright and acidic condiments are sort of interchangeable. If not for pig affinity/seasonal considerations, people might have as easily paired pork with mint jelly.
I suspect it’s a combination of all three. And tradition aside, the cider-mustard glaze would also be excellent on baked winter squash, chicken (I can imagine it as a great dipping sauce for wings), or anywhere you might use a sweet, mild barbeque sauce.
Recipe: Pork Chops with Cider Reduction and Greens
- 1 pork chop per person
- 1 T. cooking oil
- 1 bunch of cooking greens (about 4 cups raw) per person
- 1-2 shallots per person
- 2-3 T. whole grain Dijon mustard
- 2-3 cups apple cider
- 2 T. butter, divided
- salt and pepper to taste
- rubbed sage (optional)
1. Combine the mustard and cider in a saucepan over high heat and let cook until reduced by at least half (20-30 minutes).
2. Meanwhile, melt one tablespoon of the butter in a pot large enough to hold the greens. Dice the shallot and add to the butter and let cook until golden (5-10 minutes).
3. Pull the greens from their stems, rinse them, and tear them into 2-3” pieces. Add them to the pan with the shallots with the water still clinging to them. Stir, cover, and reduce heat to low. Cook until tender (5 minutes for chard, more for kale or mustard greens). Season with salt and pepper to taste.
4. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat and season the pork chops with salt and pepper and sage (if desired). Cook the pork chops for 2-3 minutes on each side to develop a golden-brown crust and then reduce the heat to low and cook for an additional 4-5 minutes on each side, or until done but still just slightly pink in the middle.
5. Whisk the remaining tablespoon of butter into the cider-mustard reduction.
6. To serve, place the pork chop on a bed of the greens and top with 2-3 tablespoons of the cider reduction.