Archive for July, 2010
These days it’s practically cliché to rant about one’s love for bacon. What’s that t-shirt I’ve seen guys wearing? “I’m a vegetarian except for bacon” or “I put bacon on my bacon.” Yeah, yeah, we get it. Bacon is delicious. I love it, you love it, we all make fun of vegans for pretending there is anything even remotely equivalent in their root vegetables.
Of course I love bacon. It’s not like bacon is Hootie and the Blowfish and I’m in 5th grade, pretending to like “Hold My Hand” trying to get my first kiss. Liking bacon is kind of like asking someone if they like music or sex.. or breathing air.
So I decided to try my hand at making some porky heaven of my own. As usual, I grossly underestimated the amount of work that the process would require. It is a bit of a production so let me put the disclaimer out there that one needs about a month of empty fridge space, a smoking device of some sort, and of course, several pounds of fresh pork belly. And good luck finding a 5 lb slab at Whole Foods, I’ve tried more than once.
Luckily, I was able to talk one of my bosses into ordering me a whole slab of pork belly as well as the freedom help myself to the pantry. The production is a bit of a pain, but the process is pretty simple: Rub meat with a cure mixture and store it in the fridge. Once the liquid has been leached out and the meat nice and firm, soak in warm water to mellow out the saltiness. Finally, and if possible (this I highly recommend to give it that extra flavor and help break down the protein), smoke the cured belly for several hours.
I went about trying to put together one of the more basic recipes out of Micheal Ruhlman’s Charcuterie, using only salt and sugar. The pink salt he recommends is helpful in helping to keep the fat from becoming rancid, but his timeline of 5-7 days in the cure I found to be way off the mark and I gave up on the pink salt after the first week. Granted, this was my first attempt, but I ended up having to cure 11 lbs for a solid 4 weeks , and I could have let it go for longer.
You see, I started off following his method to the letter, weighing all of my ingredients, adding a bit of garlic and crushed peppercorns, but all the liquid that came out just melted my cure right off. After five days I checked the slab and found it swimming in its own liquids. So I re-cured using only salt and sugar, and this time elevating the slab on a wire rack to keep it relatively dry. Again, tons of liquid leached out, the cure mix was soaked. Essentially, I found that every 5-6 days I needed to pull the bacon out of the pan, change out the cure for a fresh rub and regularly check the slab for firmness.
My advice is to keep the slab elevated on a rack of some sort for the first couple weeks until most of the liquid has been removed and then bury it in the cure mix to finish it off and get that nice firmness you want. I also plan to try to work in 5 lbs batches instead of a whole 10 lb slab to help cure more evenly and hopefully more quickly.
Next the slab needs a bath in warm water for about an hour or two. This is a step that I didn’t take and ended up wishing I had. I rinsed the cure off, but the water bath would have gone a long way to mellowing out the overwhelming salty, sweet flavor. The pre-smoked bacon tasted ok, but once you served it with say, eggs, you realized how ridiculously salty the pork was. At this point you can freeze the bacon and it will keep for months or a couple weeks in the fridge, or…
Smoke that sucker. To me bacon isn’t really bacon without that smoky flavor and I found that a hot smoke helped breakdown the meat so that once sliced and in a pan, the bacon just melts in your mouth. I sliced mine to fit in my bullet (about 7 lbs) and smoked it for about 3 hours at around 160 degrees Fahrenheit tossing in soaked wood chips every 30-45 minutes. Keep in mind that in order for the smoke to stick to the meat, the belly needs to be dry, so taking the slab from the bath to the smoker is NOT a good idea. Dry the meat the best you can and let the meat cook under low heat for 30 minutes or so before adding the smoke chips. Ideally letting the slab air-dry for a couple days in the fridge would get you the best results.
Finally, and I know this is extremely tempting after all this effort, don’t slice into the belly right after it’s been smoked! Don’t get me wrong, those bites you slice off will be euphoric orgasims of smoky, salty, fatty porkiness, but then the belly is going to leak out all the juices and fat you’ve been working so hard to create. I sliced small bite off of mine, and almost wept when I saw the fat continue to ooze out 15 minutes later.
In the end, my bacon didn’t really taste like any bacon I’ve ever had before. Still not sure if that’s good or bad. It was however, unquestionably bacon. The salt hits you over the head and then an unexpected sweetness rounds out the flavor. I did get as much smokiness as I wanted, but the post-smoked bacon dissolves on your tongue much better than the pre-smoked slab. Like cotton candy bacon.. now there’s an idea. Overall, I’m pretty happy with the experiment. A new belly has already been ordered. Now it’s time to start all over again.
Harold McGee poops on any romantic sentiment you may have ever associated with cooking. All your warm nostalgia about grandma’s mashed potatoes and green bean casserole is silly and juvenile. Grow up. That beautiful pork chop your searing in your backyard, it’s a hot bed of chemical reactions; enzymes breaking down, protein strains reconfiguring. Do you really want to know exactly what has to happen in the production of most dairy ingredients? How about hot dogs? Mmmm, this biology tastes delicious.
McGee’s book, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, (recently republished after a 20 year update) is the definitive examination of the physical, chemical and biological mechanisms that occur in every aspect of the food we grow, prepare and eat today. And it is fantastic. Complete with molecule charts and drawings of cell structures, McGee is not a casual read or source for weeknight dinner ideas. But for anyone interested in becoming a better cook, and that includes those that can barely toast bread, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
I have a confession to make. I really don’t like tomatoes. Raw tomatoes anyway. I know, I know, it’s sacrilege to not want a soggy, crappy tomato slice inserted into an already delicious and well-rounded sandwich. Nothing is so good as a cherry tomato salad with the raw, blandness that not even the basil and cheese can cover up. There must be something wrong with me right?
Drew Long over at DC Foodies recently pointed out that most tomatoes we know and eat today are bastardized, genetically selected versions of their heirloom brethren. In fact, most fruits like the tomato and peppers looked like deformed abnormalities, twisted with rigor before the days of mass production agriculture we know today. Not surprisingly, most stock bread for mass production is distinctive only for their lack of taste and flavor. So maybe I had just never had a good tomato in my life. It’s possible I suppose, but I wasn’t convinced my mind would be changed.
You know who loves tomatoes? My good friend Doug. When Doug heard of my lack of enthusiasm for his favorite fruit, he and his wife insisted on having me over for dinner (Even though his wife Joan, admits she really doesn’t like tomatoes that much either). Did I mention Doug annually plants a gigantic patch of heirloom tomatoes usually ranging from 10-15 different breeds? No joke. These wonderful people have herbs and veggies growing all over the place. Oh right, also, Doug is an avid wine collector. You see where this is going? Maybe better just to show you..
I don’t drink very much anymore.
A year ago, I would come home from work with a six pack of Tecate or a bottle of red or pour myself a nip of Maker’s and sit and type for this blog and play around in my kitchen. It was productive and it was habit. Blend cooking and drinking with a bit of writing seemed sensible, even mature. I didn’t feel so bad about waking up Wednesday morning with a hangover and a messy kitchen if I had a blogpost to show for it the next day. And a post required a considerable amount of work. I liked being able to see the fruits of my labor take shape. So in many ways this blog, AMF, became an outlet, a way for me to try to fulfill a few regrets that had been eating away at me these past few years. But alas, there was no great creative awakening, no grand sense of satisfaction, no salvation from my bourbon soaked day-to-day. The venture went south. I was bored. I was very anxious. I was unhappy.