CHARCUTEPALOOZA CHALLENGE #2: SIZZLIN’ BACON, A LATE WINTER DALLIANCE
If anybody ever tells you they love bacon, your answer should be something like this:
Everybody likes bacon. Saying how much you like bacon is sort of like going on and on about how much you like smelling things that smell good or how funny things make you laugh or how rat poison is just something that really turns you off. Certain things should just be accepted as universal constants: any dumb sonofabitch worth his salt likes his bacon.
All that said, I really love bacon. It just makes everything better. Ben Franklin said, “Beer is proof that God wants us to be happy.” I believe that bacon is proof that pigs want us to be happy… by devouring them. Why else would they make themselves so delicious from their well-fatted belly to their pickled edible snout? (In an unrelated note have I mentioned how rat poison just really turns me off?)
When I saw that bacon/pancetta/guanciale was the February Charcutepalooza challenge, I was happy. I’ve been curing meat off and on for a couple years, and despite some out and out failures in other areas, bacon has always been an easy success and a confidence booster.
To start, a quick primer: American bacon is cured, smoked pork belly. Pancetta is Italian cured pork belly, without smoking and more savory seasonings. Guanciale is similar to pancetta in seasoning but made from pork jowls. British bacon is made from the back of the pig. And bullshit is what you’re given on your “Hogsplotion Burger!” at the national chain drive through. In fact, a very good rule to live by is that fast food bacon is never as good as it sounds (add that to “Don’t be a dumb sonofabitch” and most everything else should come out in the wash).
The last time I made bacon I commissioned my 9 year old nephew, who also loves bacon, to help me out. I took him to the market to meet a pig farming friend of mine, had him get his own belly, rub it with cure, tend to it and then bring it back a week later to smoke it with me over some oak logs. The farmer was a former marine who made my nephew cry for not having a firm enough handshake and my cholesterol has been in a “heightened” state from all the cured pork fat my nephew and I consumed in the aftermath, but overall I’d call it a success.
So now, bacon and I meet again for a late winter dalliance.
For me the key to making fine bacon has been a few things: quality pork belly, adding brown sugar to the cure, extra black pepper and smoke. Again, that’s a little like saying the key to a delicious meal is making it from delicious things. But I guess that’s the beauty of bacon, it’s a few of the world’s best things brought into harmony: pork fat, sweetness, saltiness, crispiness and smokiness. After that you could rub just about anything on some slab pork belly and it would be tasty, or at the very least palatable.
I recently moved about 1000 miles away from my old pig farming former marine buddy, and I have yet to procure a reliably outstanding source where I am now, so it came down to Whole Foods once again. This Whole Foods pork belly is not the world’s most special belly but it’s reasonably thick, meaty and without a lot of the hormones/antibiotics/crap of true commodity meat. But it is skinless, which is disappointing. Bacon skin, smoked on the belly and then removed right after the fire, is one of the better things to keep in your freezer. Not only does it make a mean addition to braised greens, gumbos and stews, it lets you casually toss off phrases like, “Go into the freezer and grab me some bacon skin, would you?” A sentence that automatically makes your balls bigger: it’s science.
Skinless belly in hand, I cured it with salt, curing salt, peppercorns and a little brown sugar, as it marries really well with wood smoke. After a week, I rinsed the bacon, peppered it again and stoked a fire for smoking it. I smoked it at about 200 degrees for a few hours over pecan wood. I typically use oak logs. I like their mellowness and reliability. But I opted for pecan as the pecan trees in my yard have been dropping branches and I like their sweet/ nutty flavor when added to some oak lump charcoal. As an aside, can I tell you how much I love cooking food by burning free things I gather in my yard? It’s got a very caveman Zen feeling to it in the best possible way and is a practice I highly recommend, so long as you don’t live on a garbage pile like an abused goat or someone with hoarding issues… or have problems distinguishing logs from compost.
So the bacon is cured, seasoned, smoked and ready. And it looks good. I fried a piece to taste it. And it tastes good. And now it needs to go into a composed dish—as much as I’d like to just sit around gnawing on slab pork belly like a feral manbeast raised by wolves, the experience just didn’t seem like something appropriate to photograph and share on the internet.
I wanted to make this bacon sing. I wanted it to be the focal point of something not just tasty and interesting, but also seasonally appropriate. That rules out a BLT. Tomatoes suck right now. I’m not disrespecting my long dead pig who gave its belly for my enjoyment by paring it with some watery hot house crap that happens to look like a tomato.
This dish needed to be something wintery. And warming. And comforting. Like a roast. It needed to star the bacon. I didn’t want some tiny niddler of pig on the side of my plate, not after a week plus of cajoling my pork belly into something even more magical. That said, the bacon needed a compliment, something that doesn’t mind singing back-up. Brussels sprouts compliment bacon. I’ve always made Brussels sprouts with some bacon to accentuate them, why not make bacon with sprouts to accentuate it? So we’ve got bacon and sprouts together, along with some cauliflower and broccoli to round things out, and I want something to absorb some of the tasty-fatty-fatness or at least play off of it: Grits. Mmmm, tasty corn porridge.
So that’s what I did: Roasted Bacon with Cruciferous Vegetables and Grits.
I had seen Ruhlman do this really nice thing with thick cut bacon and I wanted my bacon to be in large pieces, so I borrowed a little technique. And, not to stop borrowing technique, I usurped a sprouts dish I had once at The Spotted Pig— cooking sprouts till they look basically like greenish brown prunes and forego any semblance of relation to cabbage (at first glance they appear overcooked but taste amazing). A little heirloom stone ground grits (yes there is such a thing and yes it is better and yes I can tell a difference) and we’re in business.
The finished plate was porky, fatty, roasty and comforting. In fact, I just about had to take a nap three quarters of the way through dinner. The bacon was great, almost ham-like in the larger pieces with really tasty melt in your mouth chunks of fat, all with nice crispy bits on the outside. The sprouts, cauliflower and broccoli all took turns making me feel better about consuming so much salted pork fat and the grits were creamy and pulled everything together in a really nice way. If I had to do it again, I’d add a little sauce to the whole thing to make it even more harmonious. But, that said, it was delicious as it was: smokey, crispy, salty, fatty and velvety, even porktastic in more ways than one. Just as bacon should be.
Roasted Bacon With Cruciferous Vegetables and Grits
Slab pork belly, cut into largish cubes
Stone Ground Grits
Salt & Pepper
Boiling, Heavily Salted Water
Boiling unsalted water
Wood grill burning logs, or at the very least charcoal
425 degree oven
Boil the sprouts in the salted water for 10 minutes and transfer to a roasting pan. Add in more butter than you should and throw in the oven to roast.
Put your bacon in a roasting pan covered in foil, add to oven.
Whisk your grits into boiling water and reduce heat to low, stirring occasionally.
Rub some butter on the broccoli and cauliflower grill on the wood grill for several minutes till they pick up a good amount of smokiness and grill marks. Add them to the roasting pan with the sprouts.
Stir your grits and check the bacon for tenderness. It should be getting steamy and soft. When it’s done, put the pan on a medium flame to crisp the edges of the bacon.
When the grits are soft and creamy (about an hour of cooking), add in butter and Parmigiano.
Check your veg, the sprouts should be super soft and the cauliflower and broccoli should have slightly more bite.
Put a big mound of grits on your plate, followed by the roasted veg and bacon. Dream thoughts of supreme porkiness.