I love the unmistakable smell of charcoal and charring meat that sunny, summer weekends send wafting through my open windows—even with the apartment-dweller grill envy these smoky aromas bring.
So when a friend suggested we grill out on her patio the other weekend, my menu-planning wheels had already been turning. I'd been craving simple fare that only needs a few grill marks to really shine. I also wanted to contribute something substantial, but outside the standard range of burgers and dogs. And since there were only four of us, I could go for quality of ingredients over quantity.
The pork chops at my local butcher looked thick and tantalizing, with a hefty rind of fat along the edge—just right for the idea forming in my mind. Seasonal produce that can stand up to the intensity and flavors of grilling was a must; I went with sturdy spears of purple-tipped asparagus and firm, plump Black Mission figs. A fresh thyme, chive, and Dijon compound butter would tie everything together. Here are a few notes on how I pulled off the menu, so you can too:
A Quick Brine for Juicier Meat
Since grilling presents the hazardous opportunity to over-cook leaner meats, brining pork is the way to go. This helps ensure that your meat stays moist, while also imbuing it with extra flavor. In addition to the salt and water that disperse moisture and seasoning throughout the chops, aromatics like honey or brown sugar, fresh herbs, and spices are also absorbed during the brining period. In this case, I opted for a simple mix of salt, honey, cloves, and thyme.
Normally, brines call for bringing the entire amount of water or brining liquid to a boil, adding the salt plus aromatics, and then allowing the brine to slowly cool down completely before adding the meat. But if you’re in a rush (like I was that afternoon), you can heat up just enough water to dissolve the salt and honey, then add some ice to cool it down quickly. That way you can get the chops brining in just a few minutes.
A Multi-Tasking Compound Butter
While the pork was brining, I made my compound butter. The idea: On the plate, it would melt, then meld with the smoky flavors and rich juices from the pork, asparagus, and figs. (Leftover butter is also great for frying eggs, smearing on bread, stirring into potatoes...)
I softened some salted butter and stirred in Dijon mustard for a touch of acidity, then added in some minced chives to boost the savory oomph. You can leave the butter in a ramekin or jar, but I opted to spoon it onto a piece of parchment, then rolled it up into a compact log before tossing it in the fridge to solidify and allow the flavors to blend. When I pulled it out later, it had a nice presentation along with a simple way of portioning (just slice tabs off, like a normal stick of butter).
Isla Melamine Dinnerware
Grilling It All Up
While my friend got the grill going, I pulled the chops out of the brine, patted them dry, and let them sit at room temperature until we were ready to grill, along with the compound butter. Since these were thick, bone-in chops, I didn’t want to throw them on a grill that was too hot, which would char them on the outside and leave the middle undercooked. Nice, medium-hot coals were the way to go to ensure beautiful grill marks and just a tinge of pink in the middle. I also used a digital thermometer to be on the safe side, and pulled them off the grill just before they reached 140°F, since the residual heat concentrated in the bone would continue to cook them slightly.
I brushed the asparagus and figs with olive oil, and salted and peppered both—salting fruit isn’t the norm, but here it adds a nice depth of flavor, and helps to draw out their juices. They each took just a few more minutes on the grill, and before I knew it, we were ready to eat.
A Perfect Pairing
Since we were fancifying this patio feast, I had brought along a bottle of rich, jammy California Pinot Noir to pop open for the occasion. With flavors of sweet cherries and raspberries, a hint of minerally spice, and just a touch of smoke and molasses, it was the perfect complement to the char on the pork and the sweet fig juices mixing with the Dijon butter. We toasted the summer, and to finally making our own grilling smells, before digging in.
- 2 cups hot water
- 3 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons honey, divided
- 3 tablespoons Kosher salt, plus more to taste
- 3 cups ice
- 4 center-cut, bone-in pork chops, 1-inch thick (about 3 pounds)
- 4 whole cloves
- 4 sprigs thyme
- 6 tablespoons salted butter, softened
- 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
- 1 tablespoon fresh chives, minced
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- Olive oil, for brushing
- 8 ounces firm-ripe figs, such as Black Mission (about 12), halved
- 1 pound asparagus, trimmed
This recipe was developed in partnership with Cakebread Cellars, a family owned and operated Napa winery, to pair with their Two Creeks Anderson Valley Pinot Noir. With mineral tones and notes of ripe cherries, plum, and spice, this rich, black cherry-hued wine is the perfect complement to the bold flavors and slight char of juicy grilled figs, asparagus, and pork. Cakebread Cellars' commitment to consistent quality with each vintage means that whatever year your local wine store stocks, you can expect to find a stellar, food-friendly wine.