Porkchops: Nathalie Dupree keeps it juicy
By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Olga Berman had something to confess: She is frequently guilty of involuntary porkicide. “I’m the girl who kills pork,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I always overcook pork chops, and they come out dry.”
Even after three years of a part-time culinary program at Sur La Table, Berman didn’t have the chops to cook chops.
Berman, 28, is Russian; she, her twin sister and her parents came to the States 15 years ago. Her father is the go-to source for a mean borscht, but in these parts, if you want to learn how to do pork right, you go to a Southerner. Or the Southerner comes to you ó in this case, from Charleston, S.C.
As luck would have it, chef Nathalie Dupree was in Washington for a seminar this month, and once we told her of Berman’s predicament, she was eager to help. Dupree showed up at Berman’s studio apartment in Arlington, Va., with two small bags of groceries, a personal supply of Diet Coke, abundant charm and knockout credentials.
What was missing? Any trace of pretense.
At 68, Dupree is the doyenne of Southern cooking. Her accomplishments span a 40-year career that almost didn’t happen. She resisted the calling in her 20s because, as her mother insisted, ladies didn’t cook for a living. But in the late 1960s, Dupree enrolled at the Cordon Bleu in London and didn’t look back. She has owned three restaurants, opened a cooking school and hosted three television shows, most notably “New Southern Cooking With Nathalie Dupree” on PBS; it debuted in 1985 and ran for 300 episodes. She has written 10 cookbooks and has another on the way, along with her memoirs.
Some memoirs they will be, but more on that later. First, the pork.
As she unloaded the groceries, Dupree guessed at some of the reasons Berman was having problems with chops.
“I have a feeling that the cheap ones you see in the market are not center cut. Or they are too thin and overcook before they’re browned. Or you’re using boneless. In my part of the country, a chop has a bone,” she said firmly.
Whatever the cause, Dupree tried to steer her pupil in a better direction, bringing two pork tenderloins along with the chops. “The tenderloins are so much nicer than the chops because they’re set in the backbone,” she said, and an animal’s “non-moving parts” will always be more tender than the muscles that get more use.
Dupree laid out the plan. They would sear the chops and tenderloins on the stovetop, then finish cooking half of them there and the other half in the oven, so Berman could get a feel for both methods. Then Dupree would demonstrate how to make simple pan sauces, easy flavored white sauces and some quick accompaniments.
Just then, the photographer began to shoot a picture. With the instinct of a media pro, Dupree stopped what she was doing, faced the camera and struck a pose.
“S-e-e-e-x!” she drawled, her lips not moving as she held a wide, coquettish smile long enough for the camera to click. “It gives the best smile,” Dupree professed innocently. (She learned the trick, she says, from Julia Child.)
It was perfectly in character for a woman who has always spoken her mind, which is why we can’t wait for those memoirs. Among other things, Dupree was a proponent of civil rights at a time and place where holding such opinions could be dangerous. On her TV show in 1985 she wore the AIDS ribbon, regardless of the ramifications it might have had on her career.
“By the time `New Southern Cooking’ was published in 1986, I had already lost friends” to AIDS, she said. “There was a recipe in it of the first person I knew who had it, and it went on from there. My favorite former husband, David, was diagnosed around the late 1980s, as was one of my assistants.”
Dupree’s frankness was always mixed with humor. She proudly declared that, for good reason, she hasn’t had a drink in 18 years. Then a mischievous grin lit her face and she added, “I had a great time when I was younger!”
She’s still having a great time. She married her third husband, writer Jack Bass, 14 years ago.
Amid the stories, Dupree quickly started Berman slicing onions and carrots, making sure the vegetable scraps went into the milk that was warming on the stove. Dupree always flavors the milk base for bechamel with whatever she has on hand ó fennel, garlic, peppercorns ó and had Berman forage through the refrigerator for whatever might be in there that would benefit the sauce.
“Oh, there’s some oregano,” Dupree said. “Put that in there.”
Berman, an economist at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, had learned a lot at Sur La Table. She deftly cut the carrots and onions per Dupree’s instructions, and soon they were set on the stove with some butter.
Then the two started the chops by heating butter and oil in a saute pan. Dupree laid two chops in the pan, explaining that you always cook the prettier side first because it will get more nicely browned than the second side. “When the pork starts talking, you start listening,” Dupree intoned. “It’s sizzling because it’s putting water out into the hot fat. When it stops sizzling so much, it’s time to turn it.” Dupree turned the chops with her hands, as the pros do.
“The main thing is to brown rapidly on the stove, and then either reduce heat and finish the cooking there or in a low oven” at 325 degrees, Dupree said. She baked one chop unseared to prove that it would be cooked through before browning.
“Should we check the temperatures?” asked Berman, who had made sure to have on hand a digital meat thermometer, the one tool Dupree considered a must.
“It has to be 140 degrees to be cooked. The food police come after you if you don’t say it should be 160, but to me at 160 it’s overcooked,” Dupree said. “So I go for 150. The temperature goes up 10 degrees in 10 minutes as the meat rests.” Then she swiveled to the camera.
“S-e-e-e-x!” Click. “OK, let’s get those tenderloins ready.”
Berman made fast work of stripping the loins of their tough outer membrane, called silver skin, and Dupree talked her through cutting one loin into thick medallions. Soon every burner had something working on it. Spinach was wilting in one pan, the scraps from the trimmed tenderloin were browning in another (to which water would be added and reduced to make a quick pan sauce), and a whole tenderloin was browning in another pan in readiness for the oven. As the milk stock came off, something took its place.
Then Dupree started cranking out dishes: two versions of pork chops; pork tenderloin medallions, some with cheese melted over them; the second tenderloin, roasted whole, then sliced and napped with mustard sauce. In restaurants, the meat goes on top of the sauce, but she advised spooning the sauce over the meat so the food stays warmer; she lowered her voice and added that men prefer it that way, too.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Berman said, nodding.
In a couple of hours, Dupree and Berman had made eight dishes, basically using what was around, just as home cooks do. Dupree even managed to sneak in an unplanned scaloppine that proved to be Berman’s favorite. “I knew they would be. That’s why I showed it to you.” Then she turned her head.
“S-e-e-e-x!” Click. “It’s a lot better than cheese, no matter what anyone else says.”
She ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie.