Cape of spice. Cape of fruit. At the Cape, we have an abundance of both, so when faced with neatly trimmed organic pork chops and an empty frying pan, it’s time to raid the spice rack. But don’t get carried away. Pork, despite coming from such a huge beast, has a delicate flavour, and does not benefit from spices being chucked at it with wild abandon. Keep it simple with pork. Choose one spice, one fruit, and marry the two for a cooking liquor that also becomes the sauce you serve with it. Throw in a tang of wholegrain mustard bought from your local farmers’ market or deli, and you have a bit of Cape magic on a plate.
And somehow the pale green leaf vegetables seem to go with pork. Cabbage, that sadly maligned vegetable which reminds most people of mom or grandma boiling it to death and then forcing you to eat it, is perfect for a pork roast, just as long as you don’t boil it to death first. Brussels sprouts are similarly ideal with pork, and can evoke the same kitchen nightmares. But fennel bulb, too, is a superb accompaniment for porcine meals.
There are some beautiful fennnel bulbs in the shops at the moment, fresh as spring and waiting for your ministrations. They are super-easy to cook, as long as you treat them gently. All they need is slow simmering in a stock of your making at a low heat until they are tender but still retain a hint of crispness. Al dente, really. Unlike many other vegetables, they don’t require blanching as you want its own flavours to penetrate the sauce in which you cook them, and you also want the fennel leaves to be permeated with the flavours of the cooking stock. Fennel is a two-way street, a meeting of minds, a perfect marriage.
As for pork chops, you want them tender but moist, never dry and tough, but the fatty strip needs to be golden and have a certain crunch.
The spice I chose was star anise, the cooking stock orange juice, and the vegetable accompaniments were both fennel bulb and brussels sprouts.
Pork chops with fennel, orange and star anise
4 fennel bulbs
Juice of 3 or 4 ripe, sweet oranges
Zest of 1 orange
3 star anise
4 pork loin chops, about 1.5cm thick
6 or 7 brussels sprouts per person
1T wholegrain mustard
Salt and pepper to taste
On a wooden board, cut away the bulbs from the fennel stems and fronds, but keep the fronds for use in something else – you might want to buy a side of fresh salmon and marinate that with the fennel, vodka and citrus juice to make gravadlax. (Find my recipes for that by doing a search at www.sliver.co.za). Slit the bulbs in two, down the mddle (see the accompanying picture). At the bottom is a little hard choke. Cut this out and discard. Squeeze the juice of the oranges into a saucepan big enough to hold the halved bulbs. Grate in the zest (but no pith) of one orange. Add the star anise and bring to a very gentle simmer. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Partly cover, and leave to simmer for about 15-20 minutes. Set aside. In vigorously boiling salted water, blanche brussels sprouts for 3 minutes, then quickly drain and plunge into iced water. Drain. Just before serving, toss them in olive oil in a hot pan and season with salt and pepper. That’s all they need. And by the way, blanching is NOT the same as killing them in boiling water until they disintegrate.
Panfry the chops in butter and olive oil on each side, until just done, which should only take three or so minutes on each side, and be sure to turn them on edge (perhaps at the beginning), holding the fatty sides down into the pan until the fat is well on its way to crispness. You can either quickly wrap them tightly in foil to retain their moisture and keep them warm while you finish your sauce, or immerse them in the sauce you have already made to simmer for a couple of minutes more. Season near the end of cooking. Naturally, with pork the meat must retain no blood or pinkness once cooked. If pink juices run out, simmer them a little more.
To serve, pour the juices in which you have cooked the fennel into the pan you’ve just fried the chops in, and scrape up the bits while reducing to a good sauce consistency — neither too runny nor too thick. Pour over the chops on the plate, and sprinkle finely chopped fennel fronds over. Gorgeous, and damn good eating.