Pork Loin and Spicy Candied Pecans

Sweet and savory have been a culinary couple since the invention of cooking. And it’s a well-known fact that a small amount of sweetness delays the burning sensation of spicy chilis long enough for one to experience the flavor of the chili first. We incorporate both those food hacks in one meal. Our sweetener de jour is pure maple syrup. Clearly, we really have only one choice of meat to go with the maple syrup and that’s pork. We’ll be using thick cut pork loin chops here. And for just a bit of teasing heat, ground cayenne pepper is what we reach for first.

The sweet, tender pecan is the perfect nut to pair with this meal. With its high fat content, the highest of any nut at over 70%, pecans can burn quickly when exposed to direct heat. But candied in maple sugar and orange juice, their softer texture could not work better. Add a bit of earthy cumin and spicy cayenne, and you have a topping that raises the modest pork loin to lofty gustatory heights.

Like the pecans, the pork shouldn’t be overcooked either. Back in the day, 30-40 years ago, and really until just a few years ago, it was recommended that pork be cooked until it reached an internal temperature of 165°F or well-done. That left us with dry, tasteless meat. These recommendations were actually a hold-over from the previous generations of pork production when pigs were fed/allowed to eat garbage which included larvae in animal meat infected with the parasitic round worm, Trichinella spiralis. People who ate undercooked meat could become parasitized themselves, so it was thought to be better safe than sorry. In the US, trichinosis was vanquished nearly 100 years ago and it’s high time that cooking recommendations fell in line with that reality. We’ll be cooking these chops somewhere between medium rare and medium. They should still be slightly pink and moist when cut into.

We’ll be cooking and removing various ingredients from the pan, to be held at the ready, so preparation is a must. If you are rooting around your kitchen looking for something to transfer the pecans to while they are cooking away, you’ll return to a blackened and bitter pile of inedible carbon. A pie plate is the perfect vessel for holding the cooked pecans. It’s heat-proof and large enough to be easily poured into from a large frying pan without making a mess. The pork will come out as well, so have a platter waiting for those too.

From start to finish, the pork will take about 30 minutes of cooking so adjust the start of cooking for the other components of your meal accordingly. The pork will have about a 10 minute rest while the pecans are being candied and any additional time spent sitting will cool the meat past a palatable temperature. We’re serving these chops over a large bed of sweet baby lettuce dressed with orange vinaigrette. The vinaigrette should be made at least 4 hours before serving to allow the fresh garlic a chance to mellow. Dress, toss and plate the lettuce while the maple sauce is reducing. Fresh sliced oranges perfectly garnish this meal.

Find the perfect balance of sweet and spicy for dinner tonight.

Pork Loin Chops and Spicy Candied Pecans

  • 1½-inch thick pork loin chops, one per person, trimmed of excess fat
  • kosher salt and coarse ground black pepper
  • ¼ cup pecan halves, rough chopped, per pork loin chop
  • ½ cup pure maple syrup
  • 1½ cups orange juice
  • ½ teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin 

Generously season both sides of the pork loin chops with salt and coarse ground black pepper. Coat each side with cooking spray. Heat a large non-stick skillet over medium high heat until it’s hot. Sear the pork chops for 3 minutes a side, turning once, to brown. The chops will be undercooked still. Remove the chops to a platter and set aside. Add about 2 tablespoons of mild vegetable oil to the pan and add the pecans, stirring frequently with a heat-resistant silicone scraper, about 3 minutes. Add the cumin and cayenne to the pecans and continue stirring and heating for an additional minute adjusting the temperature as necessary so as not to burn the pecans. Transfer the pecans to a heat-proof dish and set aside.

Return the pan to the heat without cleaning it. Add the maple syrup and orange juice to the pan on medium high heat and stir to combine. Allow the juice mixture to simmer. Return the chops and their juices to the liquid and simmer for 10-12 minutes, turning once until the chops are cooked but slightly pink inside. Remove the chops to a warm platter. Allow the maple-orange juice mixture to lightly boil, reducing to a thick syrupy consistency. This should take about 9-10 minutes. If you’re serving this with the pictured salad, now is the time to get it together and on the plate. The sugar mixture will be foamy when it’s done. Add the pecans and all their drippings back to the mixture and heat for an additional minute.

Arrange the pork chops on the plate with the salad, slicing a few thin slices. Spoon the pecan mixture over the pork and serve immediately.

Orange Vinaigrette

  • 2 large Cara Cara oranges or other flavorful naval orange,  1 zested and juiced, the other sliced into wedges
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 3-4 cloves garlic finely minced
  • salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
  • 1 cup canola oil or other mild vegetable oil
  • sweet baby lettuce or other young greens mix

Whisk the zest, juice, honey, vinegar, garlic, salt and pepper in a small bowl until it’s combined. Pour the oil slowly into the bowl while whisking continuously. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours before serving. Dress and toss the salad just before serving.