FARGO, N.D. - Pork has had a bit of a reputation for being difficult to cook to perfection. But local food writer and recipe developer Sarah Nasello says pork can be an easy and versatile addition to a menu, with just a few easy techniques.
"There are so many good virtues about pork," she says.
Take everyone's favorite, bacon. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or aluminum foil, place strips of bacon on top, then cook for 20 to 25 minutes at 400 degrees. With no mess and an easy clean up, bacon can cook to perfection while the cook focuses on other things, Nasello says.
"Every piece is evenly cooked, perfect looking. It doesn't shrivel like sometimes you'll get it if your pan is too hot," she says. "And the cleanup is super easy."
Part of the reason pork used to have a reputation as difficult to cook is that U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines used to be to cook it to a minimum of 160 degrees. At temperatures above that, a cut like a pork chop can be tough, chewy and unsatisfying, Nasello says. But in 2011, the USDA changed guidelines because of more hygienic practices in modern pig farming - including moving pigs inside - eliminated trichinosis in domestic pigs.
"The practice of farming for pig farming is much cleaner than it used to be," Nasello says. "Domestic pork is completely safe to eat at 145 degrees."
Nasello lightly seasons chops with salt and pepper for a quick meal, but she prefers to use a marinade of extra virgin olive oil with garlic and fresh herbs like rosemary, basil or fennel seed. She heats up a pan and pours in canola oil. Once the canola oil sizzles, she puts in the chops, leaving them for three to four minutes on each side, until cooked to a golden brown. She uses a meat thermometer to determine when to remove the meat.
"Real pros always use a meat thermometer," she explains.
She takes the meat out a couple degrees below her target temperature; the meat will continue to cook during a resting period during which the juices can distribute evenly throughout.
Nasello demonstrates the differences between a pork chop cooked to 145F and one cooked to 160F. The 145F chop is juicy, with a thin layer of pink in the middle. The 160F chop has started to curl up, and fewer juices are there when Nasello cuts into it.
Another easy pork dish Nasello likes to prepare is a boneless top pork loin chop prepared using the scallopini method. The method involves slicing meat, pounding it thin and breading it.
Nasello slices the chop in half, then uses a meat mallet to pound it to ¼ to ⅛ inch thick. She coats the meat in flour, dips it in an egg wash and coats it in a breading of panko bread crumbs, Parmesan cheese and herbs and spices. Like the pork chop, she heats a pan on medium high, then adds canola oil. When the canola oil sizzles, she adds the breaded meat and cooks it until golden brown on each side. Since it's so thin, it can be cooked without using a meat thermometer.
"You just want it a nice, rich golden brown," she says. "This is ultimate North Dakota comfort food."
Nasello says she's thankful for the farmers who raise livestock and grow crops that feed everyone else.
"I'm so grateful and appreciative for all their hard efforts to put beautiful food on our families' tables," she says.