I ate the most glorious pork chop the other day, hot and sizzling from the pan, its cooking juices bubbled down to a glossy goo with a little stock, lemon and some spanking fresh parsley. According to my food diary - a scribbled, chaotic account of everything I eat - it was the first piece of red meat I had eaten in weeks. And yet I think of myself as a dyed-in-the- wool omnivore.
We are all on the long, steady slide towards vegetarianism. The figures speak for themselves. We eat less than half the amount of meat we did in 1967. There is finally a realisation that meat in quantity is neither necessary nor desirable. Few people I know attach the dietary importance to red flesh that we once did. Sure, when I eat meat I relish it, its succulence, its sweet and savoury fat, the blood of a rare steak, the tempting tackiness of a sausage, the melting slitheriness of a sweetbread. But it is, according to that diary, a treat, something I do as rarely as once a fortnight, if that.
This column has always been a safe haven for those who don't wish to indulge in too much flesh, yet even I was surprised at the results of the following back-of-an-envelope calculation. Out of the 40 or so main courses that have appeared in this column this year, only six have been meat, and only one, Rowley Leigh's venison casserole, was red meat.
Of the others, nine were fish, 15 were vegetable-based, the rest were grain, rice or pasta. The reader who recently penned a cross (actually rather rude) letter admonishing me for my 'unhealthy recipes' might like to swallow the fact that only three of those main dishes contained any butter, cream or cheese. And, just for the record, Mrs C, not one of them was what you called my 'deep-fried nosh'. I don't 'do' deep-fried. Anyway, I am only here to offer a couple of recipes for you to think about during the week. It is hardly meant as a dietary lifeplan.
Those of us who still enjoy the pleasures of the flesh - and I include myself here - seem to be changing our eating habits beyond all recognition. What matters now is quality not quantity. Meat is a treat rather than a necessity. I come from a family for whom a meal wasn't worthy of the name unless it contained a hunk of dead animal, yet I find myself falling into line with the general pattern; the general move towards a diet where meat is an occasional indulgence rather than a must-have.
But boy, is that once-a-fortnight meat-treat good. That scrunchy skin, wobbly fat and melting flesh. Those juicy knobs, sticky bits, and tender morsels. Oh, and let's not forget those salty, herby juices in the pan. Oh, oh, oh!
Although meat consumption is generally coming down, there has been a big growth in the quality-meat sector, that small band of farmers who produce organically fed animals from old-fashioned breeds given freedom to roam outdoors. This is the only meat that ever finds its way into my kitchen, or ever will. Yes, it costs more, but many of my pasta or rice suppers are as cheap as chips, cheaper actually, so I can justify the expense. I see these producers as the future of the meat industry, the only way forward.
Towards the end of the summer (yes, it is, I saw the first Worcester apples the other day and the pumpkin in my garden is a big as a football), meat seems to appeal a little more than it did during those sun-drenched mozzarella and basil days a month or two ago. Still, surely no one wants braised lamb shanks and polenta yet? The lighter dishes, those sautés with a side order of zucchini or summer cabbage or a roast with a mound of throat-tickling rocket and some crunchy-skinned potatoes to its left are probably more the order of the day.
Lemons, fresh herbs, mushrooms and white wine will give us a suitably summery seasoning. Leave the heavy flavours and cuts till there is the smell of woodsmoke in the air and maybe a touch of frost. Toss tarragon, the still-soft garlic, marjoram and mint into the pan, too, so that the flavours are subtle, herbal and green. There is plenty of time for the stronger stuff. Here, then, is something for those of us who feel there is no harm in an occasional spot of meat, cream and even a bit of fat. Oh, and I did say 'occasional'.
Pork chops with lemon and parsley
If I am to eat meat unadulterated by sauce or salsa, then I invariably grill it. But so much seems to have been slung on the grill this summer and I rather fancy something cooked on the hob or in the oven. Not a casserole yet, but something approaching it. The parsley must be the freshest you can find - it has a small presence here, but an important one.
2 tbsp olive oil
2 pork chops, about 200g each
a little flour
150ml stock (I used chicken)
juice of a plump lemon (about 60ml)
a few bushy sprigs of parsley
25g cold butter, in little cubes
Put a heavy, shallow pan on the heat, and pour in the olive oil. Dust the pork chops with a little flour, salt and pepper. When the oil is sizzling politely, lay the chops in the pan and let them colour, first on one side then the other. Holding the chops in place with a spatula, tip the oil out - it's done its job.
Put the pan back on the hob and reduce the heat, then pour in the chicken stock and lemon juice. Bring the liquid to a gentle bubble, cover with a lid and simmer for 4-5 minutes, keeping watch so that it does not boil away.
When there is just a shallow layer of liquid left in the pan, remove the chops to warm plates, and drop the parsley and butter into the pan. Whisk as the butter melts so that it thickens the juices into a glossy sauce. There won't be much of it at all, just a suggestion. Lift the pan from the heat and drizzle the juices over the pork.
Roast chicken with pancetta, oregano and cream
I am including this recipe not to wind up the anti-fat brigade, but because I have done little or nothing recently for those who like the lusciousness of a cream sauce made from the meat juices. Here is a simple version. Some green beans would be good with this, and maybe a spoon or two of rice (brown, of course).
4 chicken pieces on the bone (breasts, thighs, etc)
100g pancetta in the piece
1-2 tbsp olive oil
2 cloves young, juicy garlic
a large handful chanterelles, or other wild mushrooms
2 glasses white wine
1 tbsp each oregano and flat-leaf parsley
1/2 tbsp thyme leaves
150ml double cream
Preheat the oven to 200 C/gas mark 6. Season the chicken pieces all over with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Cut the piece of pancetta into small cubes.
Heat the olive oil in a flameproof casserole and add the pancetta, letting it colour lightly and turning it now and again. Lift it out with a draining spoon. Squash the garlic flat, removing the skin, and add it to the pan along with the chicken pieces. Turn the pieces as they colour.
Rinse the mushrooms briefly to remove any grit, then add them, slicing if they are large, to the pan. Pour in the wine, bring briefly to the boil, then put the casserole in the oven. Roast for 40-50 minutes until the chicken is golden and moist.
Remove the chicken, pancetta and mushrooms and transfer to a warm serving plate, which you can then keep in the switched-off oven. Put the casserole over a moderate to high heat and let the liquid bubble away until there are just a few tablespoons left. Add the herbs and the cream and bring to a furious bubble. Taste for seasoning - it may need salt and pepper.
Once the sauce has achieved the consistency of double cream, pour it over the chicken and then serve.