As with interpersonal relationships, smothering when it comes to food involves excess, more than what is needed. As such, I never really understood why one would take the time to fry a perfectly golden brown, delicious piece of meat—most often chicken or pork—only to douse it in liquid, stripping it of its fried essence that many so often crave.
Recently I've had a revived interest in the foods of my childhood, with smothered pork chops being among them. After graduating from culinary school, working in restaurants, and experiencing different cuisines and ingredients through travel, I find myself gravitating towards the tastes of home. For me, that means richly flavored soul food mixed with the stick-to-your-ribs ethos of my Midwest upbringing.
I hadn't eaten anything "smothered" in years (decades?) until developing this recipe. But as I think about it more, the technique of smothering pork chops isn't much different from the braising required with a boeuf bourguignon: get some good color on the meat, add some stock, and thicken the liquid with a bit of flour. In similar fashions, both techniques help build a depth of flavor that would be absent from skipping the latter steps.
When it came time to actually write down a recipe, I was at a loss. I saw a meme the other day that reads, "Black folk don't measure seasonings. We just sprinkle and shake 'til the spirit of our ancestors whisper 'stop'"—I couldn't agree more.
Part of the magic of soul food is that it comes from years spent at the apron strings of one's elders and the sixth sense that comes with knowing how much seasoning to add or when the fried chicken is cooked through. And with that comes numerous variations of any single recipe, based on anything from personal preference to the cook's mood on a particular day. Very few dishes turn out exactly the same as the time before, but an adept soul food cook can get it to a place that is equally as satisfying with just a sprinkle of this or a pinch of that.
With that said, I did my best in coming up with a recipe that is easily replicable and will still make my kin proud. I recommend bacon grease for frying the pork chops, as the precious renderings from Sunday breakfasts always made their way to a coffee mug kept in the refrigerator for later use in flavoring greens or frying meat. (Alternatively, any fat suitable for frying, such as peanut or vegetable oil, will also do.) The rest of the steps are pretty much summed up by the smothering/braising steps outlined above.
Admittedly, I did take some creative liberties with the addition of Dijon mustard to the gravy, but found it adds a welcome new dimension to the finished product and nicely complements the pork. The remaining parts of the recipe came from memories sitting at the kitchen table, attentively watching as my mother prepared meal after meal. The resulting dish transported me back to that kitchen table on the South Side of Chicago, flanked on both sides by my parents and brother while we recounted our days, so I'd consider it a job well done.
- 1/2 cup bacon grease, or other fat suitable for frying
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
- 1 teaspoon black pepper, plus more to taste
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 4 center-cut pork chops (about 1/2-inch thick, 2 to 2 1/4 pounds total)
- 1 onion, sliced
- 2 cups chicken stock
- 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard