It's no coincidence that nearly everyone I know enjoys food from the grill. The smoky flavor, the golden browned bits, and the ease of cleanup make grilling the impetus for gathering friends to table.
We put steaks, seafood, vegetables, pizza and even watermelon and heads of lettuce on the grill. Sometimes, barbecue sauce gets involved. Occasionally, the heavy smoke from apple wood or maple penetrates a whole turkey or beef brisket. We love it all.
A gathering around a grill recently found us discussing which cut of pork to cook that evening. Rib lovers tend to be the most vocal cheerleaders, while dieters embrace lean pork tenderloin. Myself, I love a moist, grilled pork chop for its versatility, relative quick cooking and moderate price tag.
When grilling for company, I prefer the visual appeal of a bone-in pork chop. My favorite is the center-cut chop. It sports the beauty of a T-bone steak with the bone dividing the white loin meat and the darker tenderloin nugget on the other side.
Likewise, rib-cut pork chops, with their curved bone running along one side and the lean loin muscle meat attached to it, offer great flavor and visual appeal. These tend to have less meat per chop than their center-cut cousins, but are often easier to find. I ask the butcher to cut them a generous 1 inch to 1 ¼ inches thick; this proves ideal for portion size and ease of grilling. If you purchase prepackaged chops in the meat case, take the time to find the thickest chops.
Boneless pork chops are simply the rib-cut pork chop without the bone. They are super-lean and trickier to cook than bone-in chops, especially if they are thin. I always prefer to cook meat on the bone for extra insurance against dryness, but if you prefer boneless, be sure to select chops at least ¾ inch thick. Avoid overcooking them by setting a timer and moderating the grill's (or broiler's) heat.
When grilling pork for a casual family meal, I often turn to country-style pork ribs. Cut from the sirloin or rib end of the pork loin, these "ribs" are not as attractive as a bone-in chop, but quite tasty. Their moisture from generous fat marbling makes them nearly foolproof to grill. Slathered in barbecue sauce or topped with a salsa, this cut of pork makes a mighty fine, affordable entree.
Pork back ribs win hearts because they are delicious, moist and tender. You'll need more time on the grill than for pork chops or country-style ribs. I allow about 1 to 1¼ hours for a rack of ribs set on the cool side of a medium-hot grill for slow, indirect cooking. Never add barbecue sauce before the meat is golden and tender or burning will ensue.
For grilling, I steer away from pork shoulder chops, also known as blade chops or blade steaks. This section of pork needs moist heat to cook well and is better suited for the slow cooker or Dutch oven.
Whichever cut of pork you choose, be sure to factor in time to allow them to sit with seasoning before cooking. The simplest way to jump-start flavor is to salt and pepper the chops at least 30 minutes (or up to one day) before cooking. After purchasing, I wipe the pork dry and put it in a single layer in a glass baking dish, then sprinkle all sides generously with salt and fresh pepper. Put a loose cover on the dish and refrigerate for several hours.
When I'm ready to light the grill, I remove the meat from the refrigerator to take off some of the chill. The pork can sit on the counter in a cool kitchen for 30 minutes.
While the pork warms, soak wood chips in water to add to the grill for a slightly smoky addition. I particularly like the flavor imparted by fruit woods and pecan wood chips, especially with simple finishing sauces. Use hickory and mesquite chips when you have a taste for pork with a tomato- or red-chile-based barbecue sauce.
Seasoned chops can be grilled and served as is, perhaps topped with a pat of herbed butter or a drizzle of good olive oil. Or slather them with your favorite barbecue sauce during the last 2 or 3 minutes of cooking.
This late-summer pork menu includes a topping of salted lemons, garlic, olive oil and fresh thyme. Lighter and less salty than Moroccan-style preserved lemons, a jar of this relish stays handy in the refrigerator for a quick boost to nearly everything off the grill, plus steamed vegetables, cooked grains and hearty salads. Accompany the chops with buttered pasta and sliced ripe tomatoes.