Tag Archives: Food

Pining for pork

Have you ever had one of those days, where you have an idea that at the time seems absolutely brilliant, so you dive into it, trying to get reality to match what’s in your head, only to find that it isn’t as simple or obtainable as you imagined and in fact takes you veering along the edge of the cliff of sanity and you know you’re going to plunge off the side into spectacularly horrible defeat?

So have I. But this is not one of those times. Lucky you.

In my life BC (that’s before cancer, for those of you unfamiliar with the history here and who have not perused some of the more gruesome photos in my collection), I watched the Food Network quite a bit. By “quite a bit” I mean that if I was interested in having the television on and wasn’t watching a movie for the billionth time, generally speaking the screen had FN on it. Back in those days, the programming, while it could be uneven, was generally not full of the spastic, heavily caricatured “personalities” it features now, and that’s one of the primary reasons I hardly ever watch it currently. I know Emeril can be annoying as hell, but we have to give credit where it’s due: the man obviously loves to cook and he just as obviously loves food. Out of all his catchphrases, “pork fat rules” is probably the most apt right here, right now.

Because there’s something about pork, isn’t there? It’s versatile in ways that chicken is not. Consider this: there are thousands of different ways to prepare chicken. When you’re a broke college student also working full time, or a slave in ISP hell not making a ton of money, chicken can be stretched out to make eating more pleasant than the standard ramen/mac and cheese duo. And beef – grassfed, organic beef especially: well, there’s nothing like a medium rare ribye off the grill, or a braised roast, or even just a nice juicy hamburger to get you powered through your day.

Pork could be in an altogether separate class. In fact, I will go so far as to say that Homer was on to something. Don’t get me wrong. I love the beef and buffalo and chicken and fish and shrimp and turkey. When I put 40 pounds or so of ribs on the smoker, though, they are pork spare ribs. When I make barbeque, it’s pulled pork via a Boston butt. During the holidays, you can always find ham on the table or in the fridge here. Bone-in pork chops, fried and then topped with gravy, served alongside fried okra, mashed potatoes and biscuits with some sweet tea on the side? Southern heaven.

But the defining moment for pork, to me, is bacon. What else can you eat alone as part of a meal, or include as part of a trio singing in harmony in a BLT? What else can be wrapped around so many other things – steak, shrimp, asparagus – to take them to a higher level than they could ever reach on their own? What else can you render as a base for another dish and then turn right around and sprinkle over that same dish in a cloudburst of porcine goodness that adds just the right note?

That was the thinking I had when I decided to cure and smoke my own bacon. That, and the “wouldn’t it be cool to try this” line of thought. Both work equally well. As it turns out, the process is much less involved than people think.

Step one, as linked above, was the curing phase. Get the cure mixed, slather it on, stick the belly in the fridge for a week or so. Simple. Once that phase is over, pull it out, rinse it thoroughly, pat it dry, and back it goes in the fridge for a day.

Dried

The underside is dry and we’re ready to go on the smoker.

Underbelly

I smoked this batch over hickory for about three hours or so. When it had reached a temperature of 150F, I pulled it out. Next step: trimming the skin from the belly.

Skin-less

The skin could be saved, I suppose, to flavor soups and such, but when I looked at this belly, I knew there would be scraps and pieces and fat left for that purpose, so I tossed the skin. Without its skin, and from the side, it now looked like this.

It's bacon!

Everyone knows that there must be a tasting. The two outside pieces are the ends that were directly exposed to the smoke. They are naturally darker than the slices from the interior.

Taste test

It fried up nicely.

Frying

It tasted like: bacon. Pure, unadulterated porky goodness. I sliced up the remainder for packaging. I could have tossed the bellies in the freezer for a bit and then used the handy slicer the fam gave to me, but I had my sharp knife and the time, so I went ahead with that job.

Slicing

Ready for packaging and distribution.

Ready to go

Packed, labeled, and ready for the freezer – or, in the case of the pack on the left, ready to go to my aunt and uncle’s place for them to enjoy. The smaller bags on the right are scraps and fats for soups, flavoring, and rendering when needed.

Packed

Overall, from an eight pound belly with the skin on, I wound up with five pounds of bacon, which is about what I expected to get. On a price per pound basis, this batch ran $7.20. That is at or lower than bacon by the pound in the store, since most of the packages now come in 12 ounce packs rather than full pounds.

Was is worth it? Absolutely. I know where this belly came from. I know exactly what was in the cure and at what ratios, how it was handled, and how it was smoked. The active work time from an overall standpoint is minimal, and the cost is about the same as me climbing into my car and going to the store.

Would I change anything? Next time, I think I will change the cure a bit. The fam likes sweeter bacon, and it was difficult to taste the maple and brown sugar in the cure this time, so that needs to change. I also think an extra day in the cure would be a good idea.

If you’re considering doing this, but don’t know where to get pork belly with the skin on, head over to Niman Ranch and try them. I’ve ordered from them in the past and used them for this belly and the fat. They’re excellent.

Doing the funky chicken

Or maybe not.

Tonight’s dinner plan was to roast a chicken (salt, pepper, ginger, fresh orange, onion) for dinner. When I started peeling it out of its wrapper, it smelled like a three week old chicken left in hundred degree heat after a skunk had sprayed it. In other words: no chicken tonight. Fortunately, there was cheesy potato vegetable chowder to be had on this gloomy, rainy evening.

My seed packets are spread out on the table, with the exception of the packets of the sungold tomato seed, which I can’t lay my hands on this instant. I need to get some flats started in the garage under the heat and grow lights, in an area which will also house some special guests for several weeks: chicks. Yes, we will have a few chickens when all is said and done, and they’ll be here in mid February to take up residence with the rest of the zoo.

It’s going to be an interesting spring around the homestead…

Harvesting fungi

About a week after tucking my mushroom box away in the bottom of my closet, the little buggers starting coming up. Then they started growing so quickly it was a bit disturbing.

Mushrooms

I had to try one.

Harvest

It was quite mushroom-y, and not at all like the cartons from the store.

Snack

The next day – and you can see the spot where the snack vanished – they’d doubled in size again.

Giants

I read in the little guide that mushrooms, when they are young, will often double their size daily. I think we can safely say this is true.

Big

A little frightened that they would start to crawl out of the box and kill me while I slept, I decided to take the first harvest.

Cut

They’re very pretty, and spectacularly easy to grow. Like goldfish, without having to change the water.

Button mushroom

Did I mention they were quite large? The one in the middle is one from a carton we picked up at the store the other day, before I went on a rampage through my personal mushroom bed.

Comparison

Ah, and the taste: magnificent. Sauteed in some olive oil, with salt, pepper, and some sliced onions, served alongside some organic, grass-fed burgers.

Playoff dinner

This afternoon, we watched the Packers beat the Seahawks in a near blizzard. This evening, we watched the Jaguars put up a valiant fight against the Patriots. They played much better than I thought they would, and really, after watching the Patriots in a couple of close games this season, I think the Jags put up a bigger fight than the Colts and the Ravens did – the game was much closer than the 11 point difference in the score.

And what do you need in order to watch a couple of playoff games? Food!

Guacamole: this batch was perfect. Astonishingly perfect. I’ll have to remember the ratios next time. I even ate some myself. We had corn tortillas made from organic corn with this. I had a few chips, too, but I think I could just eat this with a fork and be as happy.

Green stuff

Shrimp! Boiled with Old Bay, and lots of that.

Old bay is the best

Beef! A big pile of it. Grilled, and seasoned only with salt, peper, and garlic.
Beef

That was because half of it was ordered from a place in Missouri offering grassfed beef. And I think this is even better than the last batch of beef we found from a local place – sweeter, more fragrant, if you can apply that sort of terminology to beef.

More beef

Shrimp! This batch in honey, lime, soy, pepper, cumin, red pepper, and ginger.

More shrimp

Broccoli! Because you have to have something green.

Broccoli

I also made another batch of rolls (there are a grand total of three left), we had corn on the cob, and we had a cheese sauce for the broccoli. I just realized as I was uploading these images that we completely neglected to make any baked potatoes. Not that anyone missed them, since we stuffed ourselves with everything else.

So we watched the Jags hang with the Patriots for awhile, enjoyed our food and good company, and overall had a grand evening. Now to start work on the menu for the conference championship games…

Keep ’em in the dark and feed ’em crap

That’s what you do with geeks who are low on the totem pole. Those of us who worked back in the day for a very, very large, and very, very well known  ISP but managed to escape know this well.

Know what else you keep in the dark and feed (pasteurized, inoculated) crap? That’s right.

Mushrooms!

One of my gifts for the holiday. The instructions there say not to open the kit prior to the date on the box. That was the 25th, as is happened, the very day it was given to me. Handy.

Opening the box

Not much to look at, is it? I’d always thought it would be cool to grow our own mushrooms. We probably go through more of them than the average family, and being able to harvest them when we want or as we need always seemed rather nifty.

Dirt

This is the base, which was moist and looked a bit like what you’d find in the bottom of a rabbit cage. But my friends, it smelled rich and loamy, the way I dream the soil outside for my gardening areas would smell were it something other than what mostly resembles beach sand.

Dry peat

On top of the base, in a separate package, was a bag of dry peat. The instructions said to pour a specific amount of water into this, mix it, and let it sit. So I did, for once, follow the instructions.

Mix

After allowing it to sit, then mixing it up well by hand, I had another batch of moist, rich material. Finally, the instructions said to spread this new  moist material on the base, and then give it a little raking with a fork.

Finally

The raking roughs up the surface so the mushrooms can take hold – akin to the way a patch of ground needs to be prepared for grass seed, really.

After doing all this, the box, as is, goes into a cool, dark place. After a week or so, the mushrooms are supposed to begin germinating, and after a few weeks, they should be large mature enough to harvest. Do we have any germinating mushrooms in my closet, ready to burst out and consume the populations of small towns?

Maybe.

The bacon chronicles

For a long time now, I’ve wanted to cure my own bacon. A lot of that desire came well before I lost the ability to consume bacon in amounts approaching a regular person’s consumption of it, but I can still gnaw on a small piece or two while everyone is chowing down like there is no tomorrow on a plate of fried porky goodness.

Finally, in the spirit of the new year and getting things done, here we go. The first thing we need is a decent sized piece of pork belly, skin on.

Check.

Pork bellies. I knew it. I knew it.

Next, the cure – and not the Robert Smith kind. Basic: salt, pink salt, brown sugar, and maple syrup.

The cure.

Is this not going to make some kickass bacon? Just look at it. You can tell its potential by a single glance, where this belly longs to be made into something even more glorious it is right now.

Potential

Rub your belly well with the cure.

Slathery

Bundle it up, and into the fridge it goes, turning every other day.

Ready to chill

In about a week, it should be ready to go on the smoker.

When I ordered the belly, I also ordered some back fat.

Back fat

Why, you ask, would anyone willingly order pork fat like this?

Destiny

One word: sausage.

Packed

Gears

I had big, big plans for the two acorn squash I had picked up at the store: Baked, stuffed with a wild rice mix, and served as a side to a couple of seared balsamic-glazed, bone-in pork chops.

Sometimes things just don’t work out that way. The menu I’m saving for another day. The squash, though, had to be dealt with before they melted into goo on the countertop. That would have taken awhile, but better to address that sooner (when the squash would still be tasty) rather than later (when there would be a rather icky cleanup duty involved).

First things first: gather the ingredients. I decided a honey-soy glaze would work.

Starting out

Cut into rings and remove the seeds. Since we are the composting types, the innards were saved for that.

Rings of gold

Off they go to a baking sheet, awaiting their fate. Since they look like gears, it was amusing to play with the rings on the sheet, interlocking them.

Lined up and ready to go

Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Light seasoning

Into the oven they go. Every so often, I brushed them with a mixture of honey, soy, ginger, salt, pepper, and lime juice. I also stepped outside to watch the approach of the first cold front that was to bring the deeper cold front a day or so later.

Storm approaching

What a good dog, staying in the doorway as he was told! He’s a handsome devil, too.

Handsome devil

The squash is tender and ready for anyone who wants it. I did. Delicious.

Delicious

Geek food

I am a huge fan of pizza, even though I rarely eat more than a bite or two these days. What true geek doesn’t like pizza and a nice caffeinated beverage to go with it? Pizzas are the staple of long support sessions, NOC cleanup/realignment nights, and gaming sessions. The fam loves pizza, and generally we do have homemade pizzas every ten days or so. We used to do that with pizza crusts bought from the store. Not now: homemade pizza dough, socked away in the freezer, stretched on a peel, and topped with all our favorite things is now the way.

Pizza!

But wait, there’s more

Our newly revised forecast for tonight and the next couple of days.

Brr

Eighteen. Eighteen? That’s a little extreme. Our little kumquat tree, which has valiantly put out a couple of handfuls of fruit, will definitely need to be bundled up against this. Luckily, it’s just under four feet and won’t pose a problem.

Working backwards a bit: mom loves peach ice cream. Her favorite. Unfortunately, it isn’t peach season (and last year’s peach season wasn’t all that terrific). The solution? Frozen peaches. Not the best, but an acceptable substitute.

Peachy

While we do a huge Thanksgiving meal, for Christmas it’s more of a buffet type of thing. People come and go, and eat if they want (or not, although that’s rare). This dinner was no different.

Merry Christmas

We have ham, roasted turkey, smoked turkey, potato salad, rice, fresh rolls, stuffing, cranberry compote, and gravy on the table. There was not a lot left at the end of the night, so yours truly did not get to nosh on leftovers for days on end.

Good luck for the coming year

It is a tradition here in the South to eat black eyed peas and greens on News Year’s Day, as a way of ensuring good luck and prosperity for the coming year. We hedge our bets and eat black eyed peas, rice (with some onion – also known as Hoppin’ John) and cornbread on the side on New Year’s Eve, with leftovers on the day itself, usually while watching one or more bowl games.

Cornbread – good cornbread – can’t be beat as a side. The best cornbread is made in a well seasoned cast iron skillet. Swirl some oil in the bottom of the skillet and toss it into the preheated oven for about five minutes or so. Remove it, pour off any excess oil, and in goes your batter. The trick is not to have too much oil in the skillet, or have the skillet be much too hot. This will lead to either a skin of oil on what will be the top of the cornbread (and a mushy top) or to burned cornbread. Neither of those is appetizing. Twenty minutes or so later, we have this.

Cornbread

When it comes out, we like to slather it with butter, top and bottom, before cutting into it.

Cornbread sliced

And yet more butter on the slice you’ve taken.

Mmm, butter

And then: the rest.

Good luck for the new year

My mom takes this a step further: she mixes up everything, chunks the cornbread into pieces on top of it, then eats it in one glorious mess o’ good luck.