Birdy and I are reading the Little House series, and, save the mind-blowing racism--which prompts many appalled conversations about the early-American murderous imagination--it is just as delicious as ever. So captivating, in fact, that Ben creeps in to squat by the bed, toothbrush in hand, or leans in the doorway, half-clad in pajamas, to listen. Birdy, who loves coziness, loves the coziness: Laura and Mary in their feather beds, Ma knitting someone a pair of wool underpants, Pa fiddling by the fire while the thwarted bears and panthers peer hungrily through their frosted windows. She loves that Laura's most treasured possession is a corncob named Susan (What's the word for the feeling this invokes--Birdy's eyes wet with a mix of pity and laughter?). She loves that their lives are so rich with work and meaning and so devoid of Silly Bandz and Zhu Zhu Pets, despite her own ambivalent craving of Silly Bandz and Zhu Zhu Pets. And, of course, she loves to hear about the food--especially in Farmer Boy, where not a minute seems to go by that they aren't sitting down to feast on a hundred pies. There are many lumps of butter and lard melting over everything, many deep, brown tastes, many pots of fragrantly simmered whatever with bacon. Lucky for Almanzo, he can't speak unless he's spoken to, and nobody ever seems to speak to him, so his mouth stays nice and free for eating.
When I was Birdy's age, my mother and I fried apples and onions, so obsessed was I with Farmer Boy, and as I was making the pork, I suddenly remembered that. Because, honestly, apples and onions are as perfect an accompaniment to the meat as you can imagine: savory and tartly sweet, simple and rich, complicated and utterly, comfortably familiar. Really, it all has such a pioneer Sunday-supper feel to it: the roast so brown and good with its good, brown sauce. I did feel a little like Ma.
But if you take one thing from this recipe, I hope it's the method of curing the meat with salt and sugar. Yes, it involves planning ahead, but the work and mystery proceed unattended in your refrigerator, the meat achieving the fantastic savor and juiciness that you'd get from brining, but without all the messy dilutedness. Even without the apples and onions, without the rich and silky pan sauce (which, yes, you should make), the pork itself is almost surreally delicious. I carved a couple slices to photograph before we sat down to eat. And then I ate them while the chard was cooking. And then I carved another slice and ate it, all while my ignorantly patient company chatted in the living room. And everybody was so blown away when they finally tasted it that Anni, our vegetarian Anni, had to eat just a little but of the gravy on her sweet potatoes (Luckily, we had an engineer at the table who assured her from some place of professional ontological mysticism that "drippings don't count as meat.") We ate and ate, cozy and full, while the fall evening turned a deep blue beyond the windows, the theater of the world darkening for the main feature. Which will be winter.
Pork Roast with Apples and Cider-Cream Gravy
Serves 8, or 4 with lots of leftovers for awesome sandwiches
Active time: 10 minutes; Curing time: overnight; Baking time: 1 hour
The overnight cure changes everything: the pork, which might otherwise risk dryness or blandness, becomes perfectly succulent and seasoned, with the faintest taste of sage beautifully complimenting the apple-and-onion pan sauce. If you don't want to add the cream, then don't: the sauce is still delicious without it.
1 tablespoon kosher salt (or half as much table salt)
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon dried sage
1 2- or 3-pound boneless pork loin roast (mine was tied up; yours may or may not be)
Olive oil spray
1 red onion, halved and sliced
2 apples, cored and sliced
1 cup apple cider
2/3 cup heavy cream
The day before you plan to make the pork, combine the salt, sugar, and sage in a small bowl, and rub it well all over the pork. Wrap the pork in plastic wrap, or otherwise seal it up airtight, and refrigerate it overnight. Remove it from the fridge about an hour before you plan to cook it, if you think to, so it starts off at room temperature. (If you forget, it doesn't really matter).
Heat the oven to 400 and spray either an oven-proof skillet or a stove-proof roasting pan with olive oil. Place the pork in the pan, surround it with the apples and onions, give everything a final misting of olive oil, and pop it in the oven.
After half an hour, flip the roast over and stir up the apples and onions, then roast for another half an hour. Now remove the pork from the pan to a cutting board, tent it with foil so it stays warm, and make the sauce. Over medium heat, add the cider to the pan full of dripping, apples, and onions, and boil, scraping the pan, until the cider is reduced by half and the pan is full of something that seems kind of like a thinnish, darkish applesauce. Add the cream and simmer very gently, whisking to combine everything, then taste for salt (you will likely need to add some) and pour it into a bowl with a spoon for serving. Carve the pork into think slices and serve.