Seared Pork Chops with Roasted Poblano, Tomatillo and Nopal Cactus

Chuletas de Puerco Asadas con Chile Poblano, Tomate Verde y Nopales Asados
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These are truly classic flavors from the heart of Mexico: pork, green chile, tomatillo, cactus. In most of Mexico’s kitchen, the pork is braised pork shoulder, giving the dish a rich stew-like satisfaction, especially when the shoulder is enhanced with little 2-inch pieces of pork ribs. Here, I’ve dressed things up a bit by featuring pork chops, giving the dish a company-worthy presentation. And the cactus? Of course it can be left out or replaced by potatoes or practically any other vegetable that can be reduced to 1-inch pieces and simmered in the sauce. But this is a great place to get to know them. Their flavor and texture blend perfectly with the sauce and may just spark some interesting conversation at the table. I really love this dish with rustic mashed potatoes (I add a handful of peeled-and-halved garlic cloves to cook with the potatoes), made from red- or white-skin boiling (not baking) potatoes. Rice is also welcome. If your nopales aren’t cleaned, one at a time pick up a paddle (I like to hold it with tongs) and trim off the edge that outlines the paddle, including the blunt end where it was cut from the plant. Slice or scrape off all the spiny nodes from both sides. A note about pork chops: It’s common to find classic-looking, bone-in rib chops in thicknesses from ¾ of an inch to 1 ½ inches. One of those thick ones will way close to a pound, while the thin one will be about half that. Both can be cooked well (since we’re brining them), though the thinner ones tend to overcook more easily.
Servings: 4servings
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Ingredients

  • 4bone-in pork chops (see note above) that are ¾ to 1 ½ inches
  • Salt
  • 1/4cup sugar
  • 1pound (6 to 8 medium) tomatillos, husked and rinsed
  • 1small (4-ounce) white onion, sliced ½-inch thick
  • 4 garlic cloves, unpeeled
  • 2fresh poblano chiles, cut in quarters lengthwise, seed pod and stem removed
  • 2large (5 to 6 ounces each) cleaned nopal cactus paddles
  • 2tablespoons fresh-rendered pork lard or vegetable or olive oil, plus a little more for brushing the nopales
  • About 1cup roughly chopped cilantro, plus extra for garnish OR 2 large epazote sprigs, plus extra for garnish
  • 2cups chicken or pork broth

Instructions

Brine the pork.  Fill a 4-cup measure with very hot tap water, add ½ cup salt and the sugar, and stir to dissolve. Pour into a 13 x 9-inch nonaluminum baking dish and add 4 cups cold water, bringing the mixture close to room temperature. (If you’re cooking thin chops, you can make half this quantity.) Submerge the chops in the brine, moving them around a little to ensure that the brine gets underneath.  Brine the thin chops for 30 minutes, the thick ones for 1 hour. 

Roast the vegetables.  Turn on the broiler and position one of the racks as high as it will go.  On a rimmed baking sheet, lay out the tomatillos, onion slices, garlic and cleaned nopales.  Lay on the poblanos, cut-side down, and press them to flatten as much as possible. Brush (or spray) both sides of just the nopales with oil or lard. Slide the baking sheet under the broiler and roast everything for 6 or 7 minutes, until the tomatillos are blistered, blackened and soft. Remove the baking sheet and check everything. The onion should be a little charred, the garlic soft, the poblanos’ skin blackened, and the nopales slightly charred, olive color and limp; if they’re not, give them another minute under the broiler.  

Make the sauce base.  Scrape the tomatillos and onion into a blender or food processor.  Peel the garlic and add it, too, along with the cilantro (keep epazote to add later).  Blend to a coarse puree.  

Chop poblanos and nopalesWhen the chiles and nopales have completely cooled off, rub the blackened skin from the chiles, rinse briefly, then cut into ¼-inch pieces.  Cut the nopales into ½-inch pieces.

Sear and simmer the pork.  When the pork chops have been in the brine for their required time, remove them and dry thoroughly with paper towels.  Heat a very large (12-inch) heavy skillet—cast iron is the best here—over medium-high until very hot.  Add the lard or oil, tilting to coat the pan evenly, then lay in the pork chops.  Cook until richly browned underneath, about 3 minutes, then flip and brown the other side.  Remove to a rack set over a plate.  Immediately add the tomatillo puree to the hot skillet.  Stir for a few minutes, as the mixture reduces and thickens, then stir in the broth. Taste and season with salt, usually about a teaspoon depending on the saltiness of the broth.  When the mixture comes to a bare simmer, reduce the heat to medium-low so that there is only the slightest movement on the surface of the sauce.  Stir in the poblano and nopales, then nestle in the pork chops. (If using epazote, nestle it in with the pork.) Cover (if your skillet doesn’t have a lid, use a baking sheet) and let the chops coast slowly toward doneness.  For the thin chops, that’ll be about 5 minutes; for the thick ones, I cook them about 5 minutes, then flip them over and cook for another 5 to 7 minutes longer.  That’s how long it will take for the chops to reach medium, which is how I like my pork—about 150 degrees on a thermometer, pink at the center, still offering a little give when pressed firmly with a finger. 

Serving.   Remove the pork to a warm deep platter or warm deep dinner plates.  Spoon the sauce over the pork and you’re ready to serve.   

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