A Top Chicago Chef Shares How to Grill the Perfect Pork Chop
Chris Thompson shows us how it's done
With longer days and brighter skies comes the siren call of the grill. But these days, we’re focusing our attention not on burgers and steaks, but on far-more sustainable pork. With an estimated one-seventh the climate impact of beef, pork isn’t just good for the environment, it’s also just plain good. Outgrowing its rep as “the other white meat,” heritage pork has become the protein of choice for a whole host of the nation’s top chefs, including Chris Thompson of New American gem Union in Logan Square.
“I’ve always appreciated humanely raised, local pork — it is as versatile as it is delicious,” Thompson says. “You’re hard pressed to find a single-source ingredient in a kitchen that can be used in the ways pork can.”
And he should know. The chef behind Michelin Bib Gourmand-winning salumeria Lardon has explored charcuterie from A to Z, from cured to potted to, yes, grilled. And at Union, his massive bone-in pork chop is a bountiful centerpiece. The dish begins with one-pound chop with the thick fat cap left on to ensure it remains moist and flavorful. Its juiciness is also achieved by a 145º F internal temp, obliterating any memories of dry pork hockey pucks of yore. But this sought-after pink interior is all the more reason to opt for pork from a small, ethical producer.
“Commodity pork, on the other hand, is quite environmentally negligent,” Thompson says. “I avoid it.”
Kissed by the char of the grill, a top-quality pork chop could stand alone. But Thompson adds Vadouvan spice for a warming fragrance, and a natural pork reduction adds even more richness to the finished dish. You’ll want to begin the recipe with that reduction, as it takes four (hands-off) hours to cook down to its full, porky essence. It’s made with pork bones, which Thompson says are “always available, albeit at a slightly higher premium than before the fountain of youth of bone broths came into the mainstream.”
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But trust us: the price of these tasty bones is well worth it. After they’ve exuded their essence, the resulting liquid is reduced to just a cup. The concentrated sauce is the perfect glaze for the rich pork and bright spring vegetables: a velvety carrot purée emulsified with olive oil, browned “California tender” Thumbelina carrots and fresh spring peas coated in luscious caraway butter.
“Caraway gets a bad rap more times than not,” Thompson says. Indeed, aside from Jewish rye, it’s far from a go-to for most American cooks. But Thompson encourages us to give it another try.
“It just plays well with fatty things,” he says. “Roasted leg of lamb, butterball potatoes, feta cheese — all things that are just flat out better with a little freshly toasted and crushed caraway. It lends a lovely pungency that is quite craveable.”
The spice is also present in the Vadouvan blend Thompson uses to season the pork itself, alongside coriander, fennel, cumin and yellow and brown mustard seeds. “Not sure who’s to blame for it catching fire,” Thompson says of the on-trend blend purported to hail from French colonial influence in Puducherry. “But I’ve been using Vadouvan for about 10 years now. I think the first time I discovered it, I was rifling through some of chef Eric Ripert’s old menus from Le Bernardin. It’s a dynamic spice blend that works just as well with grilled pork as it does with grilled vegetables.”
The result is the ideal way to welcome the first of spring’s produce and declare grilling season officially open.
Union Pork Chop
- 1 lb. bone-in pork chop, skin off, thick fat cap on
- 1 bunch Thumbelina carrots or baby carrots with tops, peeled and halved lengthwise
- ½ lb. whole English peas or 4 oz. shelled peas
- 1 lemon
- 1 Tbsp. butter
- Extra-virgin olive oil, as needed
- Salt and pepper, as needed
- 1 lb. pork bones
- 2 quarts water
- ½ Tbsp. coriander seed
- ½ tsp. fennel seed
- ⅛ tsp. caraway seed
- 1 Tbsp. yellow mustard seed
- 1 Tbsp. brown mustard seed
- ⅛ tsp. cumin seed
- 1 large carrot, peeled and sliced into ⅛” thick slices
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1 cup water
- ¼ cup olive oil
- ¼ lb. butter, room temperature
- 2 tsp. caraway seed, toasted and crushed
- 1 Tbsp. chives, finely minced
- 1½ tsp. parsley, finely minced
- 1 tsp. salt
For the pork reduction
In a small stock pot, cover the pork bones with water and allow to gently simmer for 4 hours. Strain the bones from the liquid and discard bones. In a new, clean pot, slowly reduce the broth to 1 cup of liquid, carefully skimming off any oil or impurities that come to the surface. Set aside until ready to use.
For the spice blend
Toast all of the spices in a dry pan, then grind finely in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle.
For the carrot purée
In a small saucepot, simmer the sliced carrots in the water until soft. Add the carrots to the blender with all of their cooking liquid, and blend until smooth. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil to emulsify, and season to taste with salt. (Pro tip: leave it a little sweet and not too salty.)
For the caraway butter
Whisk all of the ingredients together in a small mixing bowl. Set aside until ready to use.
Once you’ve completed the carrot puree, the Vadouvan spice, the caraway butter and the reduced pork stock, you may begin the next steps. (“Dinner is near, I promise!”)
For the pork chops
Heat 1 Tbsp. olive oil in a small sauté pan over medium heat. Place the Thumbelina carrots in the pan cut side down, and gently sear, browning them ever so lightly.
Flip the carrots and repeat, lightly browning them on the other side. Remove the carrots from the heat and add 2 Tbsp. of water. Return to the stove and reduce the water until nearly dry. Once the carrots are “California tender,” turn the heat off. Season lightly with salt and set aside.
Preheat the gas or charcoal grill or cast-iron skillet large enough to hold the pork chop. Get it nice and hot. Season the pork chop liberally with kosher salt and a good large pinch of Vadouvan spice. Repeat on both sides of the chop.
If using a cast iron, add 1 tsp. olive oil to the pan before adding the chop. If you’re grilling the chop, no additional fat or oil is necessary. Cook the chop for 4-6 minutes per side, aiming for an internal temperature of 145º F.
Remove the chop from the pan, and place on a rack with a drip pan beneath it. Save all the liquid that may continue to be expelled from the chop as it rests, and add to the natural reduction.
While the chop is resting, add the English peas to the glazed carrots and return to the stove, slowly warming the peas along with the carrots. Stir in 1 Tbsp. of the caraway butter. Turn off the heat.
On a 12-inch dinner plate, place ½ cup carrot puree just left of center. Place the chop on top of the carrot puree. Spoon the glazed carrots and English peas coated in caraway butter onto and around the chop.
Warm the pork reduction and squeeze the juice of half a lemon into it. Melt in 1 Tbsp. of butter, and then spoon the reduction over and around the chop.
Garnish with carrot tops and another small pinch of the Vadouvan spice to drive it home. Now embrace the rapture!
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