We went to an underground dinner last week hosted by Tuesday Night Dinner. The TND crew creates pop-up dining events throughout the year, each in a different location and each with a different theme. This one was held at No Sandbox Studios, just west of Chicago’s Loop, and the theme was ”Off the Boat, Into the Kitchen,” an interpretation of immigrant fare reimagined by the TND chefs.
The four courses were delicious and inventive, but the thing that caught my eye—or more accurately, my taste buds—was an accompaniment for one of the courses, a giardiniera aioli. Usually, aioli is a sauce made of fresh mayonnaise and garlic, but chef Jeremy Leven substituted spicy giardiniera for the garlic. The result was amazing.
Giardiniera is an Italian condiment, a mix of pickled vegetables and peppers usually packed in vinegar and oil. It can be hot or mild. Jeremy chose hot, an excellent decision. The giardiniera aioli made its first appearance at the dinner with grilled hen of the woods mushrooms. The briny, tangy, spicy sauce played beautifully with the smoky earthiness of the mushrooms. Later, it reappeared as a probably impromptu topping for Indian tacos. Again, it worked well. (To read more about this lovely dinner, check out the post on Marion’s blog, 9591 Iris.)
At its most basic, aioli is made with garlic (or in this case, giardiniera), egg yolk and oil. It is ridiculously easy to make. The most difficult (make that tedious) part is repeatedly scraping down the sides of the blender jar; it spatters spectacularly as you blend it. For me, the funnest old-school-cooking part is separating out the egg yolk. Yes, there are gadgets for doing this now, but cracking the shell in half and pouring the yolk back and forth between the halves, letting the whites separate off and fall away is wonderfully gratifying.
Jeremy made his aioli thick, almost chunky. It was closer to a spread or a dip than sauce, not unlike hummus. I opted for a thinner version, slightly more free flowing, but still not a drizzly sauce.
In looking for something to pair with the aioli, I quickly settled on pork chops. No reason other than I like pork chops. The Indian tacos made me think of cumin and coriander. You could go with simple salt and pepper, but this spice combo lets the chops bring something to the flavor party too.
Winter having finally gotten serious in Chicago, I pan seared them rather than firing up the snow-covered grill. These chops would be delicious grilled. And the aioli would be delicious on fish, grilled chicken breasts or sautéed tofu (especially seasoned with cumin and coriander, I think). For the chops, I used a technique I often use with lamb shoulder chops to tenderize them, coating them with a layer of kosher salt and letting them rest for 20 minutes, then rinsing the salt off.
Makes about 3/4 cup
5 tablespoons oil-packed giardiniera, drained (see Kitchen Notes)
1 large egg yolk
2-1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2-1/2 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil
Combine drained giardiniera and egg yolk in blender and purée until smooth, scraping down the sides of the jar with a spatula as necessary. Combine oils in a measuring cup. Drizzle oil slowly into running blender, a little at a time, again scraping down the sides as needed. Blend until oil is emulsified in giardiniera mixture and creamy. If you want it slightly thinner, add a little more oil.
Can be made ahead and refrigerated. If you do so, be sure to bring it out of the fridge before you need it, so it can come to room temperature and reach the right consistency.
Cumin Coriander Pork Chops
1 tablespoon cumin seeds (or 1 tablespoon cumin powder)
1 tablespoon coriander seeds (or 1 tablespoon coriander powder)
4 bone-in pork chops, 3/4-inch thick, about 8 ounces each
coarse kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
giardiniera aioli (see above)
If you’re working with whole cumin and coriander seeds, place them in a dry, cold nonstick skillet and toast them over a medium-low flame. Shaking the skillet frequently, toast seeds until they’re fragrant and beginning to pop, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a bowl to cool. When completely cool, grind in a spice grinder. Set aside. (If you’re working with ground spices, simply combine them in a bowl.)
Arrange chops on a plate. Season on both sides with half the cumin/coriander spice mix and a generous coating of kosher salt (use a heavy hand—you’ll wash it off later). Let the chops rest for 20 minutes at room temperature. Rinse under cold running water and pat dry with paper towels.
Season chops with the remaining cumin/coriander mix and freshly ground black pepper. Heat a skillet large enough to hold chops in a single layer over medium-high flame. Add enough oil to coat bottom of the pan. When oil is shimmering, add chops. Cook about 4 minutes per side, or until an instant read thermometer registers at least 145ºF. Plate chops and top with a dollop of aioli. Serve. Pass additional aioli at the table.
Spicy? Not spicy? We’re big fans of a little heat. As such, we heartily recommend using hot giardiniera. But if heat is a deal breaker, use mild giardiniera—you’ll get the wonderful flavor without the pain.
Oily? Not oily? Traditional giardiniera is packed in oil and vinegar. Often, though, we’ll seek out the variety packed in water and vinegar instead, to save some calories. This version needs the oil-packed version. Even when you drain it, there will be some residual oil; it adds to the smooth creaminess of the aioli. Residual water would fight the creamy texture.