While window-shopping in the West Village the other day, I had a sudden hankering for some fine, fat pork chops. I saw them — fetchingly displayed by the Italian sausage in the refrigerated case of a neighborhood butcher shop (the kind that are sadly disappearing) — and I craved them. If there was a moment’s hesitation, let us say the chops won out.
I wasn’t yet sure how I would prepare them, but I knew that fennel would play a large role. And I knew that they would be taking at least a brief bath in a salty brine.
Pork and fennel are often companions, and the flavor combination is exceedingly delicious. As some wise cook long ago discovered, fennel’s sweet flavor and perfume pair perfectly with pork.
Think of Italian sausage, sweet or hot, which nearly always contains fennel seeds. Think of porchetta, the famous Italian pork roast, which is usually seasoned generously with fennel seeds and wild fennel fronds, along with herbs, garlic and black pepper.
As for the brine, immersing pork chops in it always improves their flavor and texture. More than just salt water, most brines contain a bit of sugar, as well as aromatics like allspice and bay leaves. (I added a teaspoon of crushed fennel seeds to mine.) For best results, let the chops soak for at least a few hours, preferably overnight
Making a wet brine is easy, but if you haven’t the time, you can get a similar result with a dry brine, a seasoned salt mixture. Stir some crushed fennel seeds and coarsely ground black pepper into a couple of tablespoons of salt. Sprinkle both sides of the chops with the seasoned salt and leave them for at least an hour before cooking. (Alternatively, wrap and refrigerate the seasoned chops to cook the next day.)
Since I craved pork, but also vegetables, I found some lovely medium-size fennel bulbs at the market. Sometimes called Florence fennel, it is often thinly sliced and eaten raw in salads, but it is delicious cooked, too. I cut it on the thick side and combined it with sliced onion, sautéed it in olive oil, and then goosed up the flavor with fennel seed and garlic.
I placed the pan-seared chops on top and popped the whole affair into the oven for about 20 minutes. So, you see, aside from the brining, it’s really a simple dish to put together. The pork emerges tender, moist and flavorful, and the fennel-onion compote delightfully unctuous.
Recipe: Brined Pork Chops With Fennel
More columns and recipes from David Tanis