By SHANNON WATKINS
After living in the New River Valley for several years after college, I rolled snake eyes on employment and had to move back home to Tidewater a couple years ago. My family took me in with open arms and I wound up at a newspaper in Smithfield.
While there, I dreamed of the Valley and toiled daily in a town six hours away from it, working at something I’d never done before. I loved spending the holidays that year with my family, and I loved cooking for them and helping out around the house, but have you ever seen a bluegrass show in eastern Virginia? Nobody dances. Ever. It’s enough to make you cry, and a couple times I think I did.
One of my greatest pleasures at the time was inventing errands to run around Main Street, where our offices were located. The thoroughfare in question had been nothing special for years, then got renovated not that long before I showed up. Now it’s alive with lots of little shops carrying antiques, clothes, Christmas decorations, artwork, jewelry, candles and about everything else you’d want to pick up when you’re buying gifts or touristing around. I didn’t spend much, but in the interests of creating good relations with the paper, I did browse a bit.
(Being close to the Pagan River, it was alive with other things, too: at certain points you could look out over the water and the muddy beaches and watch fiddler crabs doing an eternal sideways walk, negotiating their merry crustacean lives without a care in the world, or at least that’s how it felt. I can’t tell you why the sight of them reassured me, but it did. It’s hard to over-recommend watching aquatic life as a form of therapy.)
Main Street also had various eateries, one of which was a tea shop owned and run by a woman who was still vigorously girlish, highly energetic, and creative in the kitchen. Once, as an act of simple generosity, she gave me a pork sandwich just for being there at the time. I ate it gratefully and have been trying to figure out how to recreate it ever since. Sadly, the business closed last year, so popping in for another one when I visit home is out of the question.
Eventually, of course, I worked my way back over to the Valley and put thoughts of that sandwich, delicious as it was, aside. Until recently when, for no special reason, it came back to me, demanding to be made. I can’t tell you what prompted it, but I made a go of it and I’m glad I did.
The roast pork was tangy, I recalled, but didn’t taste like regular barbecue, either the kind with vinegar or the kind with sweet sauce. It tasted almost like what I’d think pernil would, a Puerto Rican pork roast that I’d heard of but never had. Served on a baguette bun, it came with lettuce and tomato and something called cilantro cream. All it could really use, I thought, was caramelized onions, which go well with pork, and taste so good on their own I have to practically restrain myself from putting them on my cereal in the morning.
So I looked up pernil, which is traditionally a whole pig roasted with sour citrus juices and herbs, and knocked off a quick-cooking version, tweaked an online dip for the the cream, and slapped it all in a whole-wheat bun, which is pleasantly chewy enough to replace a baguette. The final effort is a little jury-rigged, but it’s worth the effort.
Slice one large sweet onion, heat up a tablespoon of olive oil over medium-low in a skillet, and add the onion with a pinch of salt. As you work on the rest of the recipe, stop and stir it ever so often. After about half an hour, you’ll have browned, sweetened onions, which will smell so good you’ll have to stop yourself from eating them all by themselves.
2 pork tenderloins
1 c. orange juice
juice of 1 lemon
4 cloves of garlic, smashed and minced
1½ tsps. cumin
1 ½ tsps. oregano
salt and pepper
Remove tenderloin from packaging, cut off excess fat and silverskin, and salt and pepper generously all over. Combine all other ingredients in an airtight container (a gallon-sized freezer bag works great) and add tenderloin. Let marinate for at least 30 minutes or up to overnight, turning over occasionally.
Preheat oven to 400F. Place a large ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat; when hot, coat inside with nonstick spray, remove pork from marinade, and place in pan. Sear on all sides, which should take about 8 minutes or so. Place pan in oven and cook for about 15 minutes, flipping tenderloins over about halfway through. Remove and cover loosely with foil to rest for another 10 minutes. Slice pork tenderloins diagonally for sandwiches.
1-8 oz. block cream cheese, softened
1 Tsbp. sour cream
½ bunch cilantro
juice of one lime
½ tsp. cumin
2 tsps. garlic powder
¼ tsp. black pepper
pinch of salt
Toss all ingredients in a blender or food processor; pulse until blended and store in fridge in an airtight container.
A good sturdy bun of any shape, with two or three good slices of roast pork, topped with the onions, accompanied by lettuce and tomato and the cream in place of mayonnaise, makes a great lunch, especially when you surprise someone else with one of their own. I don’t know where you’ll find fiddler crabs around here – one of the few drawbacks to living in the mountains – but it’s a great accompaniment to watching them square dance along.