There were a few big things I had to get used to when I moved to North Carolina from my childhood home in upstate New York. The weather, of course, was wildly different—we have at least eight months of warmth and sunshine each year, compared to seven months of snow and slush and gray that were my normal. People in the South tend to be friendlier (there are exceptions, naturally) and there is a sense of hospitality that I had not experienced before I moved here. It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with the place.
Folks ‘round here invite you to drop by anytime, “sit a spell” and enjoy some tea. The first time someone welcomed me this way, I thought it odd that they would serve tea on a hot August afternoon. But that’s because, where I grew up, tea was a beverage served hot, with the paper tab of a teabag draped over the edge of a dainty cup, and a lemon wedge or tiny cup of milk served on the side.
Not so in the South, where “tea” is sweetened with sugar (white or brown, depending on the whims of the hostess), freshly brewed and poured over ice in a tall glass, best enjoyed on the front porch while listening to the hum of cicadas (which we have every summer in North Carolina). Lemon is optional, gossip is welcomed. Sweet tea is, as Dolly Parton’s character declared in Steel Magnolias, “the house wine of the South.”
Though my Yankee-born taste buds do not appreciate the level of sweetness in southern sweet tea, I respect its place in the culture and I enjoy giving it a starring role in my kitchen. The polyphenols in tea are said to provide a wide range of health benefits, and beyond that, I knew that black pekoe tea would be acidic enough to help tenderize the beautiful pork chops I picked up at our local butcher shop. The flavor of these chops after brining and grilling was, how shall I say? Freaking awesome, that’s what. They were tender and juicy, flavorful with a subtle sweetness.
Any recipe involving a brine requires some advance prep, so if you decide to make these, start in the morning. One of the critical rules of brining is to never pour a warm brine over raw meat. I brewed the tea late that morning, following a typical “southern” ratio of tea-to-water and sugar, then I flavored it up with kosher salt (necessary for any brine), white peppercorns and a very generous squeeze of fresh lemon juice. After a three-hour cooldown, I poured the brine over my chops and refrigerated them for several hours before grilling.
Chops this flavorful needed a strong accompaniment, and I paired them with a sweet-meets-savory chutney, giving two more southern specialties—peaches and Vidalia onions—supporting roles on our plates. As with any chutney, I sauteed the onions first with a handful of sweet red bell pepper, then I added peaches (frozen was my best option this time of year), a bit of brown sugar and fresh lemon juice, a tiny bit of zippy horseradish and a few leaves of fresh mint at the end to brighten it all up.
My husband is the grill master at our house, and he did his usual outdoor magic with these sweet tea-brined pork chops. After searing both sides on high heat, he let them hang out at a lower temperature for about 8 minutes on each side, until the meat was beautifully browned, and the chops were done to medium (150° internally). A quick rest on the counter while I plated up some sauteed spinach and the peach-mint chutney, and this was one tasty dinner.
Sweet Tea-brined Pork Chops
- 2 cups filtered water
- 1 family size black pekoe tea bag, or 3 regular tea bags
- 1/3 cup packed brown sugar
- 3 Tbsp. kosher salt
- 1 Tbsp. cracked white peppercorns
- Juice of 1/2 large lemon
- 2 thick, bone-in pork loin chops, weighing almost a pound total
- Boil water and pour it over the tea bag to brew the tea. Add brown sugar and kosher salt, stirring until both have fully dissolved. Add white peppercorns and lemon juice. Allow the brine to cool at room temperature for several minutes, then transfer the brine to the refrigerator for about three hours to chill.
- Pat the pork chops with paper towels to remove any residue from the butcher wrap. Place chops in a dish large enough to hold the full amount of brine. Pour chilled brine over the chops and refrigerate for 3 hours before grilling. If needed, weigh the chops down with a plate to keep them fully immersed in the brine.
- Remove chops from the refrigerator 30 minutes before grilling. Preheat grill to 500 F for searing the chops.
- Place chops on grill over high heat, just long enough to sear each side. This should only take about one minute, but trust your instincts on your own grill. Once seared, reduce the heat to medium (about 350 F) and cook on each side for about 8 minutes, depending on the thickness of your chops. Optimal internal temperature is 145-150 F, and the chops will continue to cook a bit after you remove them from the heat.
- Rest the chops on a plate for about 3 minutes, then plate and serve with peach-mint chutney.
- 1 Tbsp. canola oil
- 1/4 cup diced red bell pepper
- 1/4 cup diced Vidalia onion
- 1 cup fresh or frozen peaches, cut into cubes
- 2 Tbsp. brown sugar
- 1/2 tsp. prepared horseradish
- Juice of 1/2 large lemon
- Kosher salt and ground white pepper
- 1 tsp. fresh mint leaves, cut into chiffonade or chopped
- Heat canola oil in a small saucepan over medium heat. When it shimmers, add onions and peppers and a pinch of salt. Saute until slightly softened, about five minutes.
- Add peaches, brown sugar and horseradish, tossing to combine. Season with a slight pinch of salt and white pepper. When the mixture is hot throughout, squeeze in lemon juice and simmer until it reduces and thickens slightly.
- Remove from heat and fold in chopped mint leaves.