These days, it seems, my best ideas for food comes from other peoples hands.
Have you ever watched the hands of someone who really knows how to cook? Ask him about how to prepare a recipe, and hell start pinching salt in the air. He scoops up sausages and flings them into hot fat, flicks his wrist to fill the bowl with two cups of sorghum flour, and pushes the skillet back and forth on the heat. All in memory, his hands curving shapes in the air.
Once, I thought that being a good cook meant finding the perfect recipe. I searched for great food through my head. Now, I know: its all in the hands.
Watch someone who loves food talk about it. Did you try that chocolate toffee? (Fist clenched, up against the mouth, trying to taste it.) That meringue was light as air. (Hand open, spinning around like a cotton candy machine going at full whirl.) That was the best meal of my entire life. (Palms against eyes, as though she cant look at the rest of the world for a moment, to better remember it.) Its all in the gestures.
Two days ago, the Chef and I stood at the farmers market, answering questions about food and signing books. Whenever there was a lapse in conversation, I watched the hands of everyone who went by. Gnarled hands gripped around a bunch of parsnips. Smooth hands with pink polished nails reaching for braising greens. Wrinkled hands with tufts of hair between brown liver splotches, pointing out the homemade pies at the next stand over. We cannot hide our hands.
It started to make more sense to me, that day, why it is I love farmers marketsso. Its not just because the price of the food is so much better than what I find in grocery stores, imported from 1500 miles away. Its not only for the camaraderie, and the chance to talk to farmers and butchers and bakers every week. Its just that food tastes better to me when the hands that planted the seeds, watered the plants, and pulled those vegetables up from the roots are also the hands that place the food in my hands.
People who respect the food know how to make it well.
As we stood there talking, the man who runs Taylor Shellfish came up to say hello. The recent rains had obliterated his chance of catching clams that week, so he was walking around the market as a shopper, for the first time in years. Naturally, he began talking about food. I have some baby back ribs marinating, he said, stirring with his right hand. I put tamarind paste, brown sugar, mangoes, and red chiles in there.
When is dinner? I joked.
Yeah, I know, he laughed, his hands relaxed at his sides. Ive also got this persimmon sauce Im going to try tonight. One of the girls who works at that stand over there told me about it.
A minute later, we were talking of something else, when he blurted out: Hey, thats her!
A young woman with a print skirt and bags full of produce stopped to talk with us.
Hey, I said, gesturing with my hands to grab her attention. I heard you made this amazing persimmon sauce. What did you put in it?
She grinned, and then stretched out her hand, squinched up her eyes, and tried to recite it. Well, it was mostly persimmons . At this she put her hand over her eyes, as though to block out the entire world. Her other hand started adding ingredients to a pot.
She looked up at us, hands open in a gesture of defeat. You know, I dont go by recipes. I just stand at the stove and make food.
We all laughed and agreed. Then we waved goodbye to each other, our hands open, not frozen.
Apple-cider-braised pork shoulder
While we were at the farmers market on Saturday, blowing into our fists to warm them, our friends Pete and Kristi came up to say hello. It only took us about two minutes to begin talking about food.
I made this braised pork shoulder the other day, Pete said, gesturing to the west. I got the meat from that stand down there.
What did you do with it? I asked him.
He mimicked cutting up onions, searing them in the skillet, and glugging out apple cider from a jar.
The Chef groaned beside me. I could tell he wanted to eat it.
So at the end of the morning, we mosied over to Sea Breeze Farms for a pork shoulder. These folks grow their pigs and slaughter them humanely on Vashon Island, approximately 15 miles away from that stand. The pork was pink and fleshy, ample portioned and gleaming fresh. We had to buy it.
On the other side of the market was Wade from Rockridge Orchards, who makes the rich, thick apple ciders that taste of autumn and twinging tastes of nutmeg and allspice. For a week, I have been drinking giant mugs of hot cider as I sit at the computer. Swaddled around a pork roast? We both sighed at the thought of it.
A stop at the stand run by the man with the most weather-worn hands for the seasons best shallots, and our favorite stand for herbs for a clutch of thyme, and we were ready to cook.
Frankly, you dont need this recipe. You could take all these ingredients, stand over the stove, and make beautiful food with your hands.
But if you want a starter recipe, heres one we think youll like.
¼ cup dijon mustard
¼ cup whole grain mustard
2 ½ pound pork shoulder roast
Kosher salt and cracked black pepper
3 tablespoons canola oil
6 small shallot bulbs, peeled and rough chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled and fine chopped
3 sprigs of thyme, leaves removed and chopped
½ gallon of best apple cider you can find
Preparing the pork shoulder. Mix the two mustards together, then add the salt and pepper. Stir. Slather the entire mixture over the pork shoulder. Set aside. Preheat the oven to 350°.
Searing the pork shoulder. Bring a Dutch oven (or cast-iron skillet) to medium-high heat. Add the canola oil and bring it to heat. Lay the pork shoulder down in the sizzling oil. Allow it to sizzle and pop for about five minutes, or until that side has browned. Carefully, turn the shoulder over and brown the other side. Take the pork shoulder out of the pan and set it aside.
Sautéing the shallots and garlic. Turn the heat down to medium. Put the shallots into the hot oil. Cook, stirring, until they are soft and translucent, about 2 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté for 1 minute. Add the thyme and cook until it releases its fragrance, about 1 minute. Add the pork shoulder back to the Dutch oven.
Braising the shoulder. Pour the apple cider into the Dutch oven. Put the lid on the pot and slip it in the oven. Cook until the warm pork and cider smell makes you lose your mind unless you take it out of the oven right now, about 3 hours, with the internal temperate between 150° and 155°.