My first job after college was as a pork salesman. It was a day job in the most literal sense; one day a week, Fridays, at Manhattan’s famed Union Square Greenmarket, hawking hocks and just about every other part of the pig. It was meant to be temp work, a way to get my foot in the door of the food world while I figured out something “better.” But those Fridays soon became indispensable. Fresh air, throngs of people, free-sample sausages sizzling away on our tabletop grill: better didn’t exist. I stayed for six years.
During that time, I came to know and love many regulars who made the weekly trip to our Flying Pigs Farmstand. There was Patricia, clad in black from head to toe, who came like clockwork first thing in the morning for her smoked ham steaks; Robert, who swung down at lunch from his job at Con-Edison for blade roasts; Uri, who wanted to recreate the “brownies” his family would make by freezing trays of pork blood outside their house in Siberia to survive the winter.
Then there was Peter: trim, glasses, totally unassuming looking save for the massive blue bike he wheeled around the market. Between its handlebars and its hyper-extended front wheel was a giant cargo basket that was reliably overflowing with whatever the season had to offer. If there was a de facto mayor of the Union Square Greenmarket, he was it.
Peter Hoffman was a big deal: an acclaimed New York chef at Savoy, a lynchpin of the local food community and economy, and a progenitor of the American farm-to-table movement. But before I knew him as any of those things, I knew him as the earnest, curious guy with the massive blue bike; the guy who would, unprompted, slide behind the stand during the mid-morning rush to make change and help customers when I got slammed; the guy who poured cold Back Forty cocktails for me and my colleagues at the end of the stickiest summer days.
I mention all of this now because Peter has just published a book that I think many of you might want to read. It’s called What’s Good? A Memoir in Fourteen Ingredients. It weaves together the story of Peter’s life in food with the stories and histories of the ingredients that make him tick. This book is beautiful not just because each of its strands is compelling and evocative, but because they’re symbiotic: Peter brings out the very best in local ingredients, and they reciprocate by bringing out the very best in him. You can’t tell one story without telling the other.
I know Peter, so please feel free to take my praise for his book with as many grains of salt as you like. Then do as Peter would: Take those grains of salt, mash them into a paste with garlic, rosemary, peppercorns, and olive oil, slather it on a whole fish, and cook it over a fire. While there are recipes — this one included — at the end of every chapter, this is not a cookbook. It is, however, a book that will make you want to cook right now. Not later tonight, not tomorrow, now!
Reading the book is a bit like foraging: There are little treasures — ingredient facts, kitchen wisdom, hard-earned lessons — strewn throughout, and you never quite know where they’re going to pop up. Some things that I know now that I didn’t know before reading it: Put the flour in the freezer before making pie crust. Pears ripen from the center out. You can cook beans in a glass jar in the fireplace. A restaurant owner’s most important relationship is with his refrigerator repair person. Scotch Bonnet peppers are named after the pleated hats with the pom-pom on top. If you save stone fruit pits, smash them, and infuse them into custard: You won’t be sorry.
Peter’s obsessive desire to learn and share information may have held up the line at a vegetable stand once or twice, but it’s one of his greatest assets as a writer. If you want to get into the weeds, grab a seat; he’s already there (and can probably tell you which ones to use for salad).
Ultimately, though, the reason that I think you might appreciate this book is that it’s guided and consumed by an interest that so many of us share: cooking and eating seasonally. This is Peter’s true north, something that he has practiced for decades, and that we as home cooks are so often seeking to weave increasingly into our lives. Buying with purpose, building community around what and how we eat, doing more with less, working with nature, not against it: these are goals well worth fighting for. Sometimes we just need a little inspiration or someone to show us the way.
In the world of What’s Good?, experiencing and celebrating the seasons through food is not just a thing to do, it’s a way to live. And a pretty beautiful one at that. Mark and I asked Peter all about it the audio clip above; have a listen, and if you want to hear more, it’s all in his book.
In the meantime, here are two recipes from What’s Good?. One is Peter’s famous Romesco sauce, which he told me in an email is “of the moment.” (Translation: ‘Tis the season; cook it now!) The other is for that custard I mentioned above, made by infusing crushed stone fruit pits into a classic crème anglaise. Peak stone fruit season is still a little ways away for most of us, but consider this something to get excited about when summer rolls around.
Makes: 1 1/2 to 2 cups
Time: About 45 minutes
Here is my version of the classic Spanish sauce. Consider it a condiment to use in myriad ways starting with as the sauce to accompany grilled calçots (leeks), but you can also use it to top grilled meats, as a spread on toast to complement a hearty soup, or as a sauce for grilled or baked fish (use some stock or broth to loosening the romesco to create sauce consistency). This is a simple recipe — it’s mostly about gathering the ingredients and combining them in a food processor.
1 cup (140 g) whole raw almonds, skins on (1/2 cup/70 g almonds plus 1/2 cup/70 g shelled hazelnuts is also a classic and delicious combination)
2 red medium bell peppers
3 slices sourdough bread, cut into 1-inch-thick (2.5 cm) pieces
5 ancho chile peppers
5 cloves garlic, peeled
3 cups (540 g) chopped plum tomatoes
2 tablespoons pimentón (smoked paprika)
1/2 cup (120 ml) red wine vinegar
Juice of 1 lemon
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).
2. Toast the almonds for 10 to 12 minutes, until the nuts are tan and have a toasty but not acrid flavor.
3. Char the bell peppers over a gas stovetop or a fire until the skin is blackened and the flesh is tender. Peel the charred skin, then seed and stem the peppers.
4. Liberally coat the bottom of a 10-inch (25 cm) pan with olive oil. Add the bread and fry it over medium-high heat until golden and toasty on all sides.
5. In a cast-iron pan, lightly toast and soften the ancho chiles. Remove from the pan and immerse the chiles in a small bowl of water; let soak for 20 minutes until they are moist and rehydrated. Open up the chiles and discard the seeds and stems.
6. In a food processor, grind the almonds, bread, and garlic until fine. Add the wet ingredients—red peppers, anchos, and tomatoes. Add the pimentos. Puree until all the ingredients are incorporated but still have texture. Drizzle in 1⁄2 cup (120 ml) olive oil, vinegar, and lemon juice and blend to combine. Season with salt.
7. Keeps in a sealed container in the refrigerator for 1 week.
— Recipe from What’s Good? A Memoir in Fourteen Ingredients
Pete’s “This Sauce Is The Pits”
Makes enough sauce for 1 tart
Time: About 45 minutes
This is a simple crème anglaise that is infused with the crushed stones from any stone fruit. I collect cherry pits as well as apricot and plum stones in a bag in the freezer until I am ready to make this sauce. (Peach pits are tough to smash with a hammer so I usually avoid them.) I infuse the milk with the crushed stones and then strain it all out before moving on to make the anglaise in the traditional method. Serve with stone fruit pie or tart.
15 apricot or plum stones
1 cup (240 ml) milk
1/4 cup (50 g) sugar
4 egg yolks
1. Lay the pits out on a cutting board. Cover them with a towel and smash the pits with a hammer. The towel keeps the bits from flying around the kitchen. Once they are all broken open, put the shells and pits in a small saucepan with the milk. Gently steep for 30 minutes to infuse the flavors into the milk. Taste to determine if the infused milk tastes like almonds. If so, strain and discard the pits.
2. Return the milk to the pot. Add the sugar, salt, and egg yolks and whisk them together well. Switching to a wooden spoon, warm the sauce over low heat while stirring. As the yolks begin to cook, the custard will thicken. Remove from the heat when a candy thermometer registers 165 degrees F (74 degrees C), or test the thickness of the sauce by drawing a line across the sauce-covered wooden spoon with a finger. If the sauce on the wooden spoon holds the line, then it can be taken off the heat. Cool while still stirring, until you can put a finger in the sauce without it feeling unpleasantly hot. Refrigerate until ready to use. Keeps in a sealed container in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.
— Recipe from What’s Good? A Memoir in Fourteen Ingredients