A sign of the times

In an effort to save what little money I have and get back in the kitchen, I’ve been cooking at home a lot lately.  Sometimes my relationship with cooking goes through weird phases; make no mistake, I always love to eat, but there will be times — days, or even weeks — where I just can’t muster up the energy to get in the kitchen and make something spectacular.  This is when we end up eating a lot of salads, pasta, crudites and sandwiches from the deli down the street.  Eventually, there is a house revolt and I’m forced to make margaritas and Mexican food for a certain someone.

But earlier this week, even before the enchiladas and our new president (!), I made a meal completely evocative of fall, and of my childhood: grilled pork chops with mustard sauce and roasted acorn squash.  My mother used to make that exact dinner when I was a kid, except her approach was a bit more minimalist.  She liked thinner cut shoulder chops, and would broil them with nothing more than a bit of salt and pepper.  The squash was cooked in the microwave.cooking-012

I told her about this dinner a few nights ago, during one of our bi-weekly chats.  “Hmm,” she said greedily, thinking over the components of the meal in her mind, “I sure wish I could’ve been there.”

Me too, mama.

For the chops:

  • 1 1/2 quarts water
  • 1 cup kosher salt
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 bay leaf
  • toasted mustard seeds
  • small bunch of thyme
  • several grinds of black pepper
  • 2 bone-in center cut pork chops, from a reputable farmer, cut about 1.5-inches thick (double cut chops will also work fine)

In a medium sauce pan, combine the water, salt, sugar, herbs and spices.  Bring to a simmer then remove from heat, stirring to dissolve the salt and sugar.  Allow to sit for 10 to 15 minutes so that the herbs and spices can steep in the liquid.  Pour into a heat proof dish (large enough to hold the chops later on), and cool completely in the refrigerator.  This can be done well in advance of your dinner.

Once the brine is completely cooled, nestle the chops into the liquid so that they are submerged.  Allow to soak for at least 5 hours, preferably longer (overnight is great).

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees.  Remove the chops from the brine, and pat dry with a paper towel.  Heat a grill pan over medium to medium high heat for 5 to 8 minutes, until it is screaming hot.  Brush the pan lightly with canola oil, if it is not well seasoned.  Grill the chops, 5 minutes on each side and transfer to a clean baking dish — this well help from the oil splattering all over your oven and causing smoke.  Finish roasting the chops in the oven for another 10 to 15 minutes, or a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the meat registers 140 degrees.  Remove from the oven and tent with foil until you are ready to serve.  Serve with mustard sauce and roasted acorn squash.

For the mustard sauce:

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, finely minced
  • 4 sprigs of thyme, leaves removed and minced
  • 2 tbsp AP flour
  • 2 tbsp good dijon mustard, more to taste
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • 1 1/2 cups vegetable stock
  • — kosher salt and pepper

In a small sauce pan, heat the olive oil until shimmering.  Saute the garlic and the thyme in the oil until both are fragrant and the garlic is just starting to turn golden.  Add in the flour, and whisk until the roux thickens and stops bubbling.  Add the mustard, and whisk to incorporate.  Pour in the wine, continuing to whisk so that all the ingredients come together.  It should look like a thick paste.  Add in the vegetable stock, whisk again, and bring to a simmer to thicken.  Season to taste with kosher salt and pepper, adding more vegetable stock if you’d like a thinner sauce.

For the acorn squash:

  • 1 medium sized acorn squash
  • 2 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar, lightly packed
  • water
  • –kosher salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.  Using a heavy-duty very sharp chef’s knife, halve the squash from stem end to tip end.  Use a spoon to scoop out all the seeds and fibrous material from the core of the squash.  Arrange the squash halves in a baking dish large enough to fit them.  Put 1 tbsp of butter and 1/4 cup of brown sugar into each core.  Fill the baking dish itself with 1/4-inch of water.  This will help prevent the squash from burning to the bottom of the pan or drying out.  Season the squash with salt and pepper to taste, and roast until tender, about an hour.

The brine ingredients get ready for a steep.
The brine ingredients get ready for a steep.
Into the cooled brine they go!
Into the cooled brine they go!
Squash prep.
Squash prep.

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