For the last ten years or so I have been a bit of a meat enthusiast. Not that I was ever opposed to meat, I have always enjoyed it but in these last few years I have looked at meat differently, I have spent a lot of time working with it and considering it and nowadays consider myself to be a bit of an amateur on the matter.
What began it all was a trip my father and I made to Tuscany. I had been lucky enough to find us fantastic lodgings directly on the Tignanello vineyard of the Antanori estate. It was a great space and cheap at the time. The only draw back was that it was somewhere in a remote part of the Chianti hills away from almost anywhere; like dropping an Italian off at a cabin near the Blue Ridge Parkway and saying good luck. No one was really even there to get us set up in our lodgings and when we arrived it was dinner time and we were hungry.
We did find a person who spoke a little English to match my total absence of Italian, he gave us our key and some rough directions to a restaurant down a few unkempt and rocky Chianti back roads. This was one of the few restaurants that have changed my life. We ate there almost every night for the week we stayed in Italy but it wasn’t until the last night that I reluctantly tried the Beefsteak Florentine.
I had never thought of the Italians for beef and had ordered literally everything else on the menu at that restaurant except the beef thinking that it was something that they put on there to satisfy the American tourists who had to have their steak. I was not going to be thought of as a tourist. But the waiter insisted and so I tried it and that steak has since become my Holy Grail. Surely these Italians had reached into Plato’s realm of Forms, grabbed that steak and put it on my plate. I have attempted to recreate it ever since.
The lessons of this steak were thus: 1, A well grilled steak can taste better than any gourmet, haute-cuisine preparation in existence. 2, I will never marinate a steak of any kind ever again. 3, Type of cow and method of meat handling are now the most important things in the world. 4, Grilling is Art.
Since that experience I have put in countless grill hours on almost every kind of meat. I have three different types of grills and have spent considerable time considering the science of their operation. I gained more weight and have raised my cholesterol quite badly in my research on cattle types and handling from grass fed to grain, tasting and revisiting so many steaks. I have rotted a feasts worth of meat in an attempt to get my head around aging. And I buy cow for my restaurant in primal parts to cut it down myself so that I can learn where the steaks are and how they are cut and what goes into the process. This is my meat resume in short and I will not quit until I can put that Beefsteak Florentine on my own plate with consistency, until I find my Grail.
The first aspect of any good steak is the quality of the animal it comes from. Oakhill Farm raises only acorn fed, Tamworth breed pigs. I purchased a rack of pork short loin and hung it in our cooler for some time for if I have derived any hypothesis from my studies in meat it is that aging may be the most important aspect of transcendent flavor in a steak, even when that steak is pork. Beyond that, the most important detail to these cuts was that the fat and skin had been left on presenting a intrigue and a challenge to the meat perfectionist and I began to ask myself as soon as I saw it, how to cook these babies so as to best utilize that hunk of fat and rind.
This style of leaving the fat on is becoming a trend so look out for it. Lisa and I saw some gourmet catalog over the holidays offering a pork roast from some heritage breed with a two inch chunk of fat and the rind left on for a considerable price. You can get it locally for much cheaper.
After cutting the loin into steaks I let them sit on my kitchen counter propped up so that they could get air to all sides for the entire day before grilling. My kitchen is quite cold in the winter, about 50 degrees, and presents a wonderful environment for counter aging a steak. With the weather lately I have been holding around 60-65 which is ok by me also. This method truly improves all meat by allowing it to dry, by letting the meat come to a better beginning temperature for grilling and it does fake a little of the process that aging brings to the flavor of meat. Personally I have counter aged for days before eating some meats but this is how I have found the exact line between flavor and rot. Some may worry about leaving pork out all day like this. I suppose legally I should not suggest the method just in case someone has a bad go of it yet I feel confidant that the food born bacteria we have all come to associate with pork and even chicken is more a product of mass handling meats than it is of the meats themselves. I would never recommend this technique for any cut of meat purchased from a conventional grocery store. I only work with local meats from the farmer themselves and recommend the philosophy of spending more money on better meat and eating less of it to balance the cost.
I did rub the chops down with a touch of good olive oil to preserve the color by preventing oxidation. I am still battling with the debate on when to season. Some say to season early, other say to season only just before cooking. The proponents of late seasoning think that if you add the salt too early it will leach precious juices from the meat. The early seasoning school think that by salting the meat hours before cooking you will allow the salt to penetrate deep into the meat causing better flavor. I have not made up my mind but I err on the side of late seasoning and did not put salt and pepper on my cuts until just before grilling.
I used a small Weber grill, hard wood charcoal and lit it with a chimney style charcoal lighter so as to avoid fluid flavors. Hard wood charcoal burns hotter than briquettes and in the right hands can be better for steak grilling when you want to achieve the perfect crust or sear. In the wrong hands it can burn a steak without cooking it and it was a tough call with these babies because the fat content was so high. My theory for these pork chops was to crisp the rind fat and render the internal marbling so as to achieve a simultaneous crispy sear whilst tricking the fat marbling into melting slowly out and thereby braising the meat surrounding it.
Once the charcoal was all burning red I dumped them on to one side of the grill leaving the other side with almost no heat. I placed the grill top over them to get hot and went inside to season the meat. By season I only mean salt and pepper, if you have a steak that is worth a damn at all you will not want to confuse it with any other flavors. Salting meat is important and I will always get down really close to the meat and sprinkle on the salt with my fingers watching to be sure that every bit of the surface is covered evenly and that any big chunks of fat get extra salt. Extra salt on the fat is a theory of mine that as the fat melts and braises the surrounding meat it will taste even better if it is fully flavored itself, also I want the fat to render and salt is an aid in that. I then pepper, carefully and evenly.
The other problem with high fat content is that dripping fat can cause your charcoal to flame up which can not only cause burning but introduces rather nasty flavors. To achieve perfection with any fatty steak would be to slowly render the fat while crisping it like the fat on a duck breast, a crunchy and delicious part of the whole, not something to be discarded as is typically the plight of meat fat on plate.
The steaks hit the grill. I placed them on the cold side with the rinds closest to the fire, just over the edge of where the fire began. They sizzled perfectly. The beauty of a Weber grill is that its particular shape circulates the heat so that the cold side of my fire was still quite hot but with dry, indirect heat. The meat was cooking but the fat was sizzling and rendering. After a while it became apparent that my method had worked. The fat marbling began to sizzle from top to bottom and was dripping evenly out of the meat on the cold side braising it, in a manner, just as I had wanted. The half inch of fat and rind were sizzling nicely and evenly, not burning but browning and shrinking.
The next problem in a steak is the debate over flipping. Most people say flip once and I have often found this to be the absolute rule but many times I have had to flip a few times and every now and then it works to the favor of the perfectly grilled steak. Turning the steak once or twice on the same side is considered necessary both for beautiful grill mark cross hatches and for even cooking. These Pork chops were an inch and a half thick and they required every turn in the book to achieve their perfection. I left them on the first side for a good long time shifting twice to expose the entire length of the rind fat to the high heat and that is when it happened.
I had only let myself consider the possibility for a moment so as not to get too worked up only to let myself down with failure but it was actually happening. The rind began to bubble and puff and the fat behind it melted out and crisped. I was grilling the skin of this steak into an attached pork crackling, I knew then that this was going to be a perfect steak. Perhaps if you are not from the South you will not fully understand the glory of what was happening here. Those delicious crispy snacks that you can buy like potato chips at almost any store down here, pork rinds; this is what I was achieving on the grill, on my steak, right in front of me. I really don’t have the words now to convey how cool this is, but it is awesome.
This then became the challenge; to get the steak perfectly cooked (I like pork like this at about medium/rare to medium), with a perfectly seared crust on the meat, a nice rendering and crunch to the fat and a fully puffed pork rind on the edge. And I hit it! Once the rind was fully puffed, the meat had already acquired a beautiful crust and coloring on both sides, I had avoided fat flames though they were beginning to rise from the grills bottom where the fat had been collecting. I checked doneness again by pushing my finger into the meat, a technique that I am finally getting to be handy with. I could tell that I was on the shy side of medium and so I knew that I had cook time to spare. I used this time by flipping the steaks on to the direct heat and sealing the deal by gaining a crispier sear, a few moments on each side and than quickly onto a plate to let the steaks carry cook into a perfect doneness.
The flavor was incredible. Everything had come together perfectly. I cut off a piece of the puffed rind and tried it, perfect! Crisp and crunchy, a gourmet pork rind with just a little melted salty fat on it like a sauce, delicious. The meat itself had two textures as I believe this was a loin chop. The fatty meat towards the narrow part of the chop was the highlight for me. The fat had all but melted into the meat making it flavorful while giving it the texture of beef tenderloin. The fat itself was clean, not waxy and had a great flavor and mouth feel. The loin medallion in the center of the chop was more cooked than the other parts as it had almost no fat content whatever, I’d say on the far side of medium. It highlighted the true quality of this animal. Pork at this temperature can begin to get a grainy texture but this meat maintained a perfect moistness and firm meaty bite as though it were a medium rare NY strip. You could see the difference by looking at it, each cut revealing perfect strands of thick in tact meat fiber, not the sometimes stringy or often grainy appearance that conventional pork can get. It was a perfect Pork Chop Steak experience. Thank you Oakhill Farm.