Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from “Pure Pork Awesomeness: Totally Cookable Recipes from Around the World” ($30) by Kevin Gillespie with David Joachim.
In middle school, I went camping with two friends, Chris Brown and Joseph Crumbley. We were on spring break, and Chris’s dad drove us to North Carolina up some dirt road to a completely remote log cabin in the woods halfway up the side of a mountain.
The cabin was not the kind with an air hockey table. It was a dusty old one-room cabin made of rough-hewn lumber. It had four walls and a cast-iron wood stove, and the outhouse was 50 yards away. I remember thinking, “Where the hell are we? Is this where Abe Lincoln was born?”
We slept on the floor in our sleeping bags. We spent our days playing in the streams, catching fish, shooting bottles with a .22, shooting other stuff with a shotgun, and generally hanging out doing old-school camping stuff.
Now, when I went camping with my dad, we didn’t bring much food. We usually ate what we found, caught, or killed. But Chris’s dad brought all sorts of things to eat, and we had awesome breakfasts and lunches.
One morning, Chris’s dad digs this big hole in the ground. “What’s your dad doing, Chris?” I asked. “I have no idea,” he said. So we asked him. “I’m going to cook this pork loin in the ground,” he announced.
Meat cooked in the ground? This was big news to a middle-schooler. I remember he built a fire and once it burned down, he pushed all the coals into this hole. Then he wrapped the pork loin in foil with vegetables and seasonings and put the foil pack in the ground and buried it in the coals.
You can imagine the skepticism. Thirteen-year-olds are skeptical of everything. We’re going to eat this stuff out of the ground? Riiiiight. I guess I’ll be having toothpaste for dinner tonight.
We played all day long. When it got dark, Chris’s dad fished the blackened foil pack out of the ground. I thought it was all messed up because it was black. Then he opened it up. Inside was this perfectly cooked whole pork loin. This big chunk of meat was golden brown all the way around. The onions and potatoes were soft and soaked in the juices. It had something almost like a gravy.
He just ripped open the package, sliced up the meat, and plunked it down on a low table. We sat around and ate the pork right out of this big burnt foil package. The seasonings were pretty basic — salt and pepper mostly — but that pork loin was one of the best things I have ever eaten.
I have such a fond memory of that trip: It makes my mouth water just telling the story. The taste of that pork loin has stayed with me my whole life. I now hold every pork loin up to that standard. I figure if Chris’s dad, who is not a professional cook, could make this piece of meat taste moist and delicious in the middle of the woods with some coals and a hole in the ground while 13-year-old kids were bothering him all day, anybody with a kitchen should be able to make a decent-tasting pork loin.
Maybe it’s just because we were camping, but for some reason, everything seems to taste better outside. And I love camping; it’s one of my all-time favorite things. My dream job is park ranger.
If someone asked me, “If you could do anything you wanted?” I would say, “park ranger.” That basically means you’re a professional camper. And if I could eat that pork loin every day in the mountains, I’d be in heaven.
Good to know about pork loin
▪ Don’t freeze it: Always buy fresh cuts from the loin area. Pork loin doesn’t freeze well. Water expands as it freezes and tears apart the muscle fibers. When the meat defrosts, those tears in the muscles let the water and juices leak out. Before you even start cooking, you lose a lot of moisture from a cut of meat that’s already prone to dryness. That’s why thawed and cooked pork chops taste so dry. Buy fresh loin.
▪ Cook it to 145 degrees: More than any other cut on the animal, pork loin suffers the most from overcooking and dryness. Overcooked pork loin is pretty much unsalvageable. Treat this cut like you would a filet mignon. Doneness is critical. For perfect doneness, you should cook and rest pork loin to an internal temperature of 145 degrees.
At that temperature, the pork will be slightly pink in the center, juicy, and delicious. It’s a common misconception that pink pork is unsafe to eat. According to the National Pork Board and the USDA, pork cooked to 145 degrees and slightly pink in the center is perfectly safe to eat.
▪ Pork loin is lean and healthy: This is the leanest part of the animal. Lean pork has less fat than beef and even some cuts of chicken. Pork gets a bad rap for being unhealthy, but truth be told, if you’re watching your weight, pork loin cuts make a very healthy choice.
▪ Pork loin labels: A pork loin stretches across the entire length of the animal from the shoulder to the ham (leg). That means different loin cuts vary in toughness, tenderness, and density. That’s also why pork loin has the most confusing labels in the grocery store. The USDA recently launched new names for pork cuts to align the names with similar cuts of beef.
Quick label decoder
Pork chops just means that the loin was cut crosswise, across the backbone of the animal.
Boneless center-cut chops or top loin chops (aka New York chops) come from directly over the rib cage.
Rib chops come from the same place but include the bone. Bone-in rib chops or “rib eye” chops are the deluxe cut. They’re the Mercedes-Benz of pork chops and the most expensive.
Sirloin chops are narrower and come from directly above the hind leg, include a part of the hip bone, and have slightly tougher meat than rib chops.
Pork T-bone or porterhouse is equivalent to a T-bone of beef. It’s a bigger center cut from across the backbone of the animal, with the loin on one side and the tenderloin on the other side of a T-shaped bone (the backbone) in the middle.
Pork minute steaks come from any point on the loin; they’re usually 1/4-inch thick and sometimes labeled as breakfast chops.
Gillespie in KC
Atlanta-based chef Kevin Gillespie will be in Kansas City Tuesday, Aug. 18, hosting a dinner at Rye in Leawood for $100, which includes a signed copy of the cookbook, or $165 for two people. For more info, go to ryekc.com.
Grilled Pork Kabobs With Pineapple and Soy
I struggled with whether to include this dish because it’s so cliche. But it’s so good! It’s a pork tenderloin marinated in homemade teriyaki (soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar, ginger, and garlic), and then grilled on skewers with pineapple and mushrooms. It’s ultra-simple backyard barbecue food, but there are a couple keys to success. First, cut the meat into same-size pieces for even cooking. I like cubes about 3/4-inch square. Second, skewer the food in the order listed and push it tightly together. You want a solid strip of food on each skewer to prevent overcooking and so that the pineapple is near the meat. That way, the pineapple bastes the pork, helps it brown, and keeps it juicy.
Makes 8 kabobs
1 pork tenderloin, silverskin removed, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
1 teaspoon sesame oil
4 tablespoons soy sauce, divided
2 teaspoons sugar
1-inch piece fresh ginger
1/4 cup garlic cloves, peeled
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
8 ounces baby bella mushrooms, stems removed
1 pineapple, peeled, cored, and cut into 1-inch pieces, about 2 cups
Kosher salt, to taste
Place the pork in a ziptop bag and add the sesame oil, 2 tablespoons of the soy sauce and sugar. Peel and grate the ginger and mince 1 clove garlic and add to the bag. Squish to combine and coat the meat with the marinade. Squeeze the air out, zip the top closed, and place in the refrigerator overnight. If you don’t have time to marinate overnight, marinate at room temperature while the mushrooms are braising. The longer the marinade time, the more flavorful the pork will be.
With the wide side of a chef’s knife, crush the remaining garlic cloves, leaving them intact. You’re crushing just to release the flavorful oils. In a 1-quart saucepan, melt the butter with the garlic over medium heat until foamy. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons soy sauce and mushroom caps to the pan and toss to combine. Cover and braise over medium heat until tender, about 20 minutes.
Remove the mushrooms from the braising liquid and reserve the liquid in the saucepan. Remove the meat from the marinade and pat dry. Discard the marinade. Skewer a piece of meat followed by a braised mushroom and then a piece of pineapple. Be sure to start and end with the meat. Keep the braising liquid warm over low heat.
Heat the grill to medium or a grill pan over medium-high heat. Grill the skewers for 2 minutes, basting with the braising liquid. Turn, baste, and turn again until all sides are charred, a total of about 8 minutes. When poked, the pork should spring back instead of holding an indentation. Brush the skewers one last time and sprinkle with salt to taste.
Worth Knowing: In Hawaii, they serve kabobs like this over steamed white rice and always with a side of cold macaroni salad. Yep, the same cold macaroni salad you find at church socials.
Source: “Pure Pork Awesomeness: Totally Cookable Recipes from Around the World” by Kevin Gillespie with David Joachim