Recipe: Pork Chops with Fennel, Rosemary, and Melted Onions
Trying to make weekday dinners less boring to cook and even a bit more dignified is a mission of mine. I’ve been achieving it, but not by coming up with bold new techniques as much as by mixing up my roster of Italian flavors—trying not always to reach for lemon with fish, rosemary with lamb. I know that sounds like such an obvious way to proceed, but during the week when I’m just trying to pull a dinner together, even I, grand dame of Southern Italian cooking, can fall into a rut.
The shrink-wrapped package of supermarket pork chops on my counter the other night wasn’t speaking to me. But I owned those damned pork chops, so I had to make the best of them, show them some respect. Pork chops and vinegar peppers? That was a favorite of my father’s, but how many times have I made the dish? Lots. Pork chops with sage, white wine, and garlic? I love that too, but I was searching for something different, yet still solidly Italian in spirit.
Fennel makes a beautiful perfume for pork, and of course rosemary and pork are a classic combo, too, but blend together fennel and rosemary and, I knew from experience, the palate can be pleasantly confused. Both ingredients have a gentle bitterness that I love, the rosemary with that evergreen bite and the fennel seed a certain musty, bitter aftertaste that lingers on your palate and grows sweet at the back of your throat. You’ll recognize fennel and rosemary together if you’ve ever eaten or cooked porchetta, the tender, fatty, Italian boned and rolled pork roast. That is its usual treatment. Sometimes it’s flavored only with rosemary and garlic, but the addition of fennel (usually ground seeds) makes it much more enticing.
What is this flavor melding exactly? The combination creates a totally new taste that takes time to sort out on the tongue. It’s warm, deep, and complex, almost as if more than two elements were at play. To my palate this complexity gets more interesting, even exotic, with every bite. My preferred way to create this flavor is to match fresh rosemary with fennel seeds, two powerful components. I’ve tried fresh bulb fennel with rosemary, but it lacks the impact. A touch of hot chili or garlic can become minor players, but I like to keep their presence down, so as not to overwhelm the point of the fennel-rosemary union.
In my skillet, I let the flavors loose in two ways, first as an easy rub on the chops themselves, and then by mingling them with sautéed spring onions from the Greenmarket, the half grown ones with little bulbs that still have plenty of delicious, green stem. I let this cook down to develop sweetness, adding a splash of pastis just to underline the liquorishness of the fennel seed. This concentrated bed of flavor I used to gently finish simmering the pork chops after giving them a quick sear.
Is this rosemary-fennel duo good with grilled lamb? I can attest to its being a success. With braised bulb fennel? Yes, I’ve done it. Lovely. Duck? Sounds promising, and I’ll try it soon. I’ve made whole sea bass flavored this way, and also oven-roasted potatoes. Chicken? Eh, maybe a bit jarring, but I’ll keep playing around and see if I can come up with a better balance.
Pork chops with Fennel, Rosemary, and Melted Onions
2 approximately 1½-inch-thick bone-in, center cut pork chops
A palmful of fennel seeds, half left whole, half ground to a powder
4 sprigs rosemary, the leaves chopped
¼ teaspoon sugar
Freshly ground black pepper
Aleppo pepper (a slightly sweet, medium hot chili from Syria, available at www.kalustyan.com)
Extra-virgin olive oil
3 spring onions, sliced, using much of the tender green stem (not scallions, but immature white bulb onions)
3 cloves fresh spring garlic, thinly sliced
A splash of Pernod or another pastis
¼ cup dry white wine
½ cup chicken broth
In a small bowl, mix the ground fennel seeds, half of the chopped rosemary, the sugar, salt, black pepper, and the Aleppo. Press this little dry rub onto both sides of the pork chops. Let them sit at room temperature while you continue with the recipe.
In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. Add the onion, and sauté until it’s just starting to turn golden, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic, and season it with a little salt and black pepper. Sauté a minute longer, just to release the garlic’s flavor. Add the Pernod, and let it bubble away. Add the white wine, and let that almost completely evaporate. Add the chicken broth, turn the heat down a touch, and let it simmer until the onions are meltingly soft, about 6 minutes. Cover the skillet if it starts to get too dry. Turn off the heat.
In another skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over a high flame. When hot, add the pork chops, and brown them well on one side. Give them a flip, and brown the other side. This should take only about 2 minutes.
Place the browned chops in the skillet with the onions, spooning some of the onion mix over the chops. Turn the flame to very low, cover the skillet, and simmer until the chops are just tender with a touch of pink left at the bone, about 3 minutes (really, that should do it). Turn off the heat, and remove the skillet from the burner, letting the chops and onions sit in the skillet for about a minute, to gently finish the cooking and allow the flavors to mingle further.
Serve right away, spooning the onions on top of the chops. These are really good with polenta.