With Mardi Gras fast approaching -- Tuesday, Feb. 28, to be exact -- I thought it might be fun to salute New Orleans cuisine by finding a new use for the city's unique and far-famed Creole spice mix.
Creole is the term used to describe something -- or someone -- of mixed European and African descent, like New Orleans itself. Creole spice mix typically includes several different types of ground pepper, as well as garlic, onion powder and dried herbs. In New Orleans they sprinkle it on meat, fish, poultry and vegetables, and add it to soups, gumbos and sauces. Since 1889, the pre-eminent commercial brand has been Zatarain's, which describes its spice mix as "the delicious alternative to salt and pepper."
Given that one of the mix's main ingredients is indeed salt, I've always wondered why cooks didn't add it to recipes earlier in the process. Why not use it at the very beginning as a dry rub, giving the salt time to work its typical magic? Doing so would not only deeply flavor the food in question, but -- in the case of drier proteins like chicken, turkey and lean cuts of pork -- it would help them to retain moisture, too.
Here, several hours before cooking, I rubbed my own Creole seasoning mix onto some pork chops. When the moment of truth arrived, I seared the chops and topped them off with the holy trinity of Cajun cooking -- onions, bell peppers and celery -- along with some tomatoes for good luck.
You'll find commercial brands of the Creole spice mix at most supermarkets, but I invite you to use my recipe to whip up a batch at home. You'll end up with more than you need for this dish, but the extra will keep nicely in the cupboard for at least six months ... allowing any day to taste like Mardi Gras.
Spicy Pork Chops in Creole Mustard Sauce
Start to finish: 50 minutes (20 active)
4 tsps. Creole Spice Mix (recipe below) or store-bought Creole spice mix, divided
4 1 1/4- to 1 1/2-inch thick bone-in pork chops (about 10 to 12 ounces each)
1/4 c. vegetable oil, divided
1 c. thinly sliced onion
3/4 c. thinly sliced red bell pepper
3/4 c. thinly sliced green bell pepper
1/3 c. thinly sliced celery
1 c. medium chopped cherry or plum tomatoes
2 tsps. minced garlic
1 tbsp. flour
1 c. chicken broth
2 tbsps. Creole (whole grain) mustard
Kosher salt and black pepper
1. Sprinkle 1 tsp. of the spice mix all over each chop, coating it well. Marinate the chops, covered, for at least 1 hour and preferably, 6 hours.
2. Preheat oven to 350 F. Pat the chops dry. In a large skillet, heat half the oil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium, add 2 chops, cook them until nicely seared, about 1 1/2 minutes a side, and transfer them to a rimmed sheet pan. (Reduce the heat if the spice mix starts to color too much in the pan.) Add the remaining chops and sear them, transferring them to the sheet pan. Bake the chops on the middle shelf of the oven until they reach an internal temperature of 140 F, about 5 minutes. Transfer them to a plate and cover loosely with foil.
3. Add remaining oil and onions to the skillet and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is golden, about 5 minutes. Add peppers and celery and cook, covered, stirring occasionally until they are tender, about 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally until the tomato is softened, about 4 minutes. Add the flour and cook, stirring 1 minute.
4. Add the chicken broth, bring it to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer it for 2 minutes. Stir in the mustard and salt and pepper to taste.
5. Add the chops and any juices from the plate to the skillet and cook gently, turning the chops until they are warmed, about 1 minute. Transfer the chops to each of four plates and top each one with a mound of the pepper mixture.
Creole Spice Mix
Ingredients (Makes 3 tbsps.)
2 teaspoons hot paprika
1 1/2 tsps. garlic powder
1 tsp. kosher salt
3/4 tsp. onion powder
3/4 tsp. cayenne
3/4 tsp. oregano
3/4 tsp. thyme
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1. In a small bowl combine all the ingredients and stir well.