Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pork Chops with a Hard Cider Reduction Over Cheesy Quinoa/Polenta with Power Greens

The time has come dabblers, for the ever illusive "pork chop post." This is a weeknight meal that I made on a whim a few weeks ago. I forced myself to take photos for the blog and put one photo out via social media so I would be accountable to post it :) A tad late, but here it is for your cooking pleasure.

Pork chops are not #1 on my fave-protein-items list, but they are a nice weeknight-switch up and we happen to have a bunch in the freezer right now after a sale. I think people get scared away from pork chops because it's easy to overcook them and dry pork chop is pretty nasty. But, have no fear: you have braising in your cooking arsenal!

Many of my friends have reported that they feel intimated by cooking-especially by something that looks on the "fancier" side. My response is that truly, you can do this! Plus, food failures are hilarious...so grab someone you like and have a cooking adventure together. You can't build skills or confidence unless you push yourself a bit.

Be brave. Be bold. Go buy some pork chops and prepare for a hopefully-helpful photo montage:

To get started, heat some extra virgin olive oil over medium hit in a skillet. This will be the pan you use for the whole process, so make sure your skillet is deep enough to accommodate a lid fitting over your pork chops.

Enter, our chop friends. While your olive oil is heating, season one side of your chops. I like to use sea salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper, and garlic powder. No need to measure...just sprinkle so that you get even coverage, adjusting the cayenne pepper for the amount of spice you like.

When your olive oil is hot, add your pork chops- seasoned side down. How can you tell when your olive oil is hot enough to add your pork chops? A few suggestions:
  • You will be able to smell it. The olive oil fragrance will build in poignancy as it warms up. 
  • If you move the pan, the olive oil ripples as it moves across the surface. 
  • Take a kernel of sea salt and drop it in the pan. Little bubbles should immediately form around it. 
If you don't hear that classic sizzle noise when your pork chop makes contact with the pan, the pan isn't hot enough and you won't get the great searing that you are looking for.

While the first side is searing, take the opportunity to season the other side.

How will you know when the first side is done and ready to be flipped? Awesome question. The pork chop should easily come away from the pan when you try to pick it up. If you experience any resistance, it isn't ready.

Here is a picture of the pork chops after they have been flipped. You can see that searing creates a caramelized crust of sorts on the top of the pork chop. The crust helps to seal in the moisture, develop depth of flavor, and improve the visual appeal and texture of the chops.

I like to sear all edges, so use your tongs to sit the chops up on their sides. The edges won't take as long, but appreciate a little color as well.

Here's a visual of a seared edge.

When you have seared your way around the chops, grab a plate and take them out of the pan for a brief rest. You should be left with a surface that looks something like this...a bit of olive oil and a whole bunch of brown bits. Those bits=massive flavor. We want to leverage all of that flavor in our sauce for these chops, so the next step is "deglazing" (ie. using liquid to get all the brown bits off the bottom of the pan). The liquid you deglaze with is up to you. I really like apple flavors with pork chops and we had some hard apple cider in the fridge the night I made these, so I went with that. Other ideas:  apple juice/cider, white wine, or chicken stock.

Add your chosen liquid to the pan. This will likely create a large steam moment (your pan is hot!), so don't be alarmed. I couldn't capture it on camera. If you are using something alcoholic and are cooking over a gas stove...fire safety first: pick your pan up off the stove, add your liquid, and then return the pan to the stove. As soon as you have added your liquid, use your tongs to scrape all those brown bits off your pan. (Important note: this is one of the many reasons I prefer to cook in traditional pans (versus non-stick). If you are using a non-stick pan, you are likely also scraping the coating and chemicals into your sauce).

After you have gotten all those bits off the bottom of the pan, add your chop friends back into the mix. They are going to cook in this environment and take on that delicious apple cider flavor. I love this method because braising keeps everything moist. It's hard to dry something out when it is surrounded by liquid, right?

At this point, I like to cover the chops to seal the heat and moisture in and wish them wonderful cooking thoughts.

Okay, now that your main dish is happily bubbling away: let's start the side! Cheesy polenta/quinoa with power greens. This particular component got a lot of love online and I was excited to show you how simple it is. Have you seen these Ancient Harvest products in your store? Our co-op carries this brand and it is the best thing to speed up a healthy side dish. It is organic and pre-cooked. All you need to do is heat it up and add in your extras. The other characters in this mix: chicken broth and power greens (baby kale and spinach).

Weird-looking start, right? Just unwrap the quinoa/polenta blend and cut it into large chunks in a medium-sauce pan over medium-low heat.

Add in your liquid and use a fork to begin to break up the pieces of quinoa/polenta. I pour in enough chicken stock to cover the quinoa/polenta. You can add more as you go. If you want this to be on the richer side, you could also add in milk or cream.

The consistency will get creamier as you go and you will start to see air bubbles popping up (the mixture is boiling). At this point, you can reduce the heat and add in your greens.

Add as many greens as your pan can hold. I am always amazed by how much spinach and kale cook down- so be aggressive with your adding. If this picture stresses you out, use a bigger pan to begin with :)

I use my tongs to begin folding the quinoa/polenta up and over the greens pile. The heat from the quinoa/polenta will cook the greens and in a few quick moments, the pan appears much more manageable.

Next step: add your cheese! (the best part). We had some soft herb/chive cheese in the fridge this night, but use your favorite. I used about a cup of cheese, but I encourage you to break out of the measurement mold! The amount you add depends on your taste and the type of cheese you are using, so grab a spoon, taste your creation, and adjust from there :) When your cheese is melted in, remove the pan from heat and cover it to keep it warm.

Meanwhile, across the stove in pork chop land...your chops are likely near done. If you are a meat thermometer person, you are looking for 145 degrees. Random side-note, who knew that the internal temperature of pork was a controversy in 2011?

I'm not a meat-thermometer person unless it is the turkey on Thanksgiving, so I usually make a small cut into the pork chop to make sure the juices that emerge from the cut run clear and that the meat is predominantly "white". If you clicked on the controversy link, you will note that the article makes specific mention that some pink is okay.

At this point, remove your chops from the pan to let them rest. This allows the juices in the meat to redistribute so that they don't all run out when you make your first cut into your chop.

Left in your pan is that wonderful cider and all that delicious pork flavor. I let this sauce cook uncovered for about 3 minutes so that it reduces and the flavor intensifies.

While that is happening, you can begin plating. Take a spoon and make a little nest of your cheesy quinoa/polenta-power-greens mixture.

Place a chop on top and locate your plate near your cider sauce for easy transport.

Spoon a bite of your cider reduction over the chop and voila: you just made a fantastic meal.

Serve it up to your lucky dinner companion and be proud of yourself!

Happy cooking,

-The Delicious Dabbler

Friday, January 24, 2014

What Peanut Butter Can Tell Us About Real Life

Happy Friday Dabblers! Did you know that today is National Peanut Butter Day? 

In honor of that delicious fact, I thought I'd share my "real life" photo of how I am celebrating this glorious occasion. In the ideal food blogging world, I might be making this, this, or this, but instead I am writing to you over lunch whilst eating this delicious, yet sad? display. 

When I thought about taking this photo and posting it, I had to laugh because it's a pretty good visual of what the last two weeks have been like. Today is a, "my hair looks how I feel...and so does my lunch" type of day. So for those of you who saw my latest porkchop meal post on Instagram and went "How do people cook like that??"...have no fear: 1. It's not complicated and I have lofty goals to post the ease with which you can make that meal this weekend, and 2. This is what real life looks like.

The wonderful thing about food is that despite it's simplicity or not-so-glamorous appearance, it still has the power to nourish and ground you. In this case, it also gave me the excuse to close my office door for a brief moment...this got messy pretty fast.

Warning: non-appetizing photo coming at you...

This past weekend, we ripped up the carpet in our basement in preparation for new floors being installed on Wednesday (gross to the extreme).  Well, we are still floorless...so send your best home improvement project vibes our way. I anticipate the job being completed by tomorrow and to celebrate the end of "the floor saga," I'm thinking of making a second round of The Pioneer Woman's Cinnamon Rolls. I really enjoy cooking, but baking will always be my true love. I find measuring flour to be incredibly soothing (whatever works for you, right?). Plus, there is a lot of butter (comfort) in this recipe and it makes enough to feed several armies of cinnamon roll eaters so I can give the pans away as thank yous to all those who have helped us survive the flooring install (mom, you're the best).  

I found this quote on Pinterest recently: "Talking about our problems is our greatest addiction. Break the habit. Talk about your joys." -Rita Schiano. 

How powerful is that? I have found myself slipping into this trap recently and so, I want to share with all of you one of the greatest sources of joy in my life right now: T and I are going to be uncle and aunt to the most wonderful little girl pretty soon. 

Many weeks ago, we had a small family gathering to celebrate and my brother and sister-in-law announced the sex of the baby. I made my fan-favorite Carrot Cake and had so much fun constructing this cake topper.

It was so simple. Step 1. Attach a piece of string to two wooden skewers with Elmer's glue. Step 2. Knot various colors and lengths of ribbon around the string. Step 3. Attach two triangles of construction paper to a shorter wooden skewer using glue. Step 4. Write your festive message on the flag and voila! Cake topper. 

My favorite part of the pre-dinner prep was that T also was so excited. He got into his mind that there needed to be a "reveal scheme." He came home from work with these printed signs and attached them with duck tape to two of his baseball hats. Let's take a moment for a confession...I love that man. To his delight, these were employed at the party and my brother put the "GIRL" hat onto his wife as we all screamed with joy. 

The thing is...my brother is the best. My sister-in-law is the best. The fact that we are going to have a little one joining us all soon is the best.

What are your joys this week?

-The Delicious Dabbler