The Bacon Cure Pt. III: It’s Not Just for Breakfast by Mike Verano

IMG_3215

I’m not sure there is anything more satisfying than slicing off strips of homemade bacon and slowing watching them turn into crispy ribbons of tastiness.  On second thought, I am sure that there is nothing more satisfying.  However, like all good things, this leads to a problem.  In this case, the problem facing you, the one that’s going to keep you up at night and occupy many of your waking hours, is trying to figure out the next dish you’re going to prepare featuring the salty, sweet, and smoky flavor that is your bacon creation.

By all means, feel free to start simple and wow yourself with a breakfast platter.  Surround your bacon with the usual suspects; eggs, bagels, toast, grits, or hash browns.  If you want to get jiggy with it (I almost said get jiggy with your piggy) put the bacon inside an omelet, sprinkle bits over your doughnut and, for good measure, go ahead and dip it in your coffee.  Mornings are never going to be the same.

With breakfast complete you can now start planning the rest of your day.  How about a BLT for lunch?  Or perhaps you would prefer a BBB; bacon, bacon and bacon sandwich on whole wheat (just because we’re eating bacon it doesn’t mean we’re not health conscious).   If you’re feeling a little guilty from indulging your inner-carnivore, then, by all means, have a classic Cobb salad (see recipe below).

Now, as the lunch break ends, you can put the finishing touches on the night’s dinner plans.  While you can simply toss strips of bacon on top of whatever you’re already planning, to the cheers of your same-old-supper-weary clan, why not take it up a notch?  Go for the ultimate surf and turf and wrap bacon around your favorite seafood and hit the grill.  We found that bacon wrapped swordfish is about as good as it gets.  But don’t stop there.  Head down to your local seafood supplier, press your nose against the glass case, and let your imagination run wild.  Don’t be surprised if you are told to “Get your nose off the case” as not everyone will understand  your bacon-induced childlike nature.

I hope these last posts have stirred your interest in making your own bacon.  With reports suggesting that bacon prices are going to hit an all-time high this summer, you will be well-served to give it a try.  While others will find themselves wandering through their local grocery stores, bemoaning the fact that they can no longer afford to bring home the bacon, you will be at home thinking up creative uses for all that excess bacon grease.

Classic Cobb Salad

Dressing
3/4 cup canola oil
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
3/4 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1 clove garlic, minced
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Salad
1/2 head iceberg lettuce, cored and shredded (feel free to substitute your favorite green)
1/2 head romaine lettuce, chopped
1/2 bunch watercress, some of the stems trimmed, chopped
2 ounces blue cheese, crumbled
6 strips cooked bacon, roughly chopped
3 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 medium tomatoes, peeled*, seeded, and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 boneless skinless chicken breast, cooked and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 avocado, peeled, pitted, and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons chives, minced

Make the dressing: Combine the canola oil, olive oil, vinegar, lemon juice, mustard, Worcestershire, sugar, and garlic in a blender. Purée the ingredients to make a smooth dressing and season with salt and pepper. Set the dressing aside.

Make the salad: On a  large platter, combine the iceberg and romaine lettuces along with the watercress. Arrange the blue cheese, bacon, eggs, tomatoes, chicken, and avocado on top of the greens in neat rows. To serve, drizzle salad with dressing, season with salt and pepper, and top with chives. Alternatively, toss everything together in a bowl.

Advertisements

Where There’s Smoke: The Bacon Cure Pt. II by Mike Verano

IMG_3209

At long last, the wait is over and the brined pork belly has made its way out of refrigerator as step 2 of the bacon experiment begins. Crucial to this step, and almost missed by yours truly, is to rinse the pork to remove the brine. No need to go hog-wild here, but the recipe does suggest a thorough scrubbing under cold water. Next, it’s on to a paper towel and patted dry.

While this is going on, your smoker should be doing it smoking thing and heating up to a temperature of approximately 200 degrees. If you are one of, “Smoking food is not good for you” crowd, then I have two responses. The first is, “Why are you reading a blog about making bacon?” and the second is, “There is scientific evidence that the feel-good brain chemicals released in the brain while eating bacon, or anything smoked for that matter, negates any of the harmful elements created.”

If you’re one of those who loves smoked food but do not have a smoker at home, then I will remind you that father’s day is just around the corner. Throughout all of recorded history there has not been one case of a man receiving a smoker as a gift and saying anything other than, “This is the happiest day of my life.” If you already have a smoker, I salute you and extend to you the secret smoker’s handshake.

After placing the belly in the smoker, it’s time for more waiting. The recipe we followed called for 2 hours of cooking time to reach an internal temperature of 150 degrees. During this time one can engage in other household chores, outdoor gardening, pet grooming or simply linger in an aromatherapy induced meditative state as the hickory chips (choose your favorite wood) work their alchemical magic. Once the internal temperature is reached, remove the bacon slabs, marveling at the rich color, and let sit to cool down. Before slicing, it’s recommended that you place the bacon into plastic bags, remove as much air as possible, and let them sit overnight in the refrigerator to firm up. Go ahead and start the countdown clock to breakfast.

Stay tuned for Part III: Bacon, It’s Not Just for Breakfast. (more…)

Brine Time: The Bacon Cure Pt. I by Mike Verano

 

IMG_1571What is it about bacon? How can a country so torn apart by conflicting viewpoints almost unanimously agree that bacon is a miracle food? The comedian Jim Gaffigan (click here) sings bacon’s praises and calls it “the most beautiful thing on earth.” We are so in love with bacon that the phrase “As American as apple pie” is in danger of being replaced with “Everything tastes better with bacon on it.” In many households across this great land the traditional bacon and egg breakfast has given way to bacon and bacon with a side of, you guessed it, bacon.

Like many of the foods we consume on a regular basis, there has always been a shroud of mystery around bacon production. Honestly, how many of you have opened a pack of bacon and thought, “I can make this”? I would venture a guess that very few have entertained that thought and that part of bacon’s allure is the fact that its arrival at the store is a mystery, stuffed inside a riddle, and wrapped with, well . . . you know.

If you enjoy the idea that bacon is a natural wonder that no mere mortal can hope to reproduce, or, if you’re convinced that trying to make bacon is symptomatic of a delusional disorder, then this blog is not for you. If, however, you’re of the mindset that part of the locavore movement includes not just bringing home the pork from a local source but actually makin’ the bacon, then you’ve come to the right place.

We begin the process with what might be the biggest challenge you face when trying to become the Baconator; finding the right cut of meat. You might think that since we live in what could very well be considered the pork belt — Virginia’s own Smithfield Foods is the world’s largest producer of pork — that finding pork belly would be a simple matter. Shucks, ever since I learned to say “shucks,” I was certain that the local 7-11 would have a separate aisle just for pork products.

It’s turns out that pork belly, or as it’s better known, “bacon in waiting,” is not readily available and that even the most well-stocked stores in the area, that carry parts of pigs that, let’s be honest, are not identifiable as food sources, do not carry the precious cut required. If I were the conspiratorial type, I would be inclined to see this as an obvious attempt to keep us average citizens from realizing that we don’t need big industry to feed us our daily BLT. I’m sure somewhere in the back halls of the Oscar-Mayer corporation there are corporate fat-cats living high off the hog on our ignorance of the truth.

Fortunately, I’m not the conspiratorial type, and Off the Vine, once again, came to the rescue as Tess offers the primo cuts as part of the meat share and through the retail store from farmers such as Polyface.  So it was that when Tess handed me three packages of perfectly prepared pork (dig the alliteration) and instructed me to cure it, smoke it, blog it, I was happier than a pig in mud.

Making bacon, as it turns out, requires  a lot of patience; most likely another reason why many of us prefer to pick a package of perfect pork product from our local shops (whew!) rather than make it ourselves. Still, if the farm-to-table movement teaches us anything, it’s that fast food often shows up at the expense of quality. So it was with a leisurely pace that I combined the ingredients for the brine and without haste rubbed it into the pork, making sure to get total coverage. Placing the pork into a plastic bag, again with absolute unhurriedness, I placed it into the refrigerator where it will remain for the next seven days. During these seven, excruciatingly long, days the only work to be done is to occasionally open the refrigerator door, rotate the bag gently to redistribute the brine, place it back, and wait.

The Cure – adapted from the website Primal Plate (If you scroll down to the “Serves” menu you can change the amount you’re making and it will recalculate the ingredient amounts)
Ingredients
3 3/4 lb Pork Belly
3/16 cup Salt, Coarse, kosher
1 1/2 tsp Salt – Pink Curing
1/8 cup Black Pepper
1 1/2 Bay Leaf, crumbled
1/16 cup Maple Sugar or Brown Sugar
1/8 cup Maple Syrup
3 3/4 cloves Garlic, Crushed
Combine salt, maple sugar, maple syrup, and spices together in a medium mixing
bowl.
Rub mixture all over the pork belly, and place into ziploc bags, add in a clove of
garlic for each pound of belly.
Refrigerate the belly for 7 days. Flip the bags daily to ensure even dry rub contact.

Make Shroom For This Dish by Mike Verano

I’m not going to lie, I’m a carnivore through and through. That being said, I have learned to both appreciate and enjoy many vegetarian dishes. Thanks to the fresh local produce from Off the Vine, I’ve gone from holding my nose while eating broccoli as a child (that’s a lie of course, I would never even touch broccoli as a child. Greens in my Italian family consisted of basil and parsley) to snubbing my nose at any dish that lacks color.

This brings me to another recently discovered culinary pleasure, the humble and diverse family of fungi. There was a time when I only made room for the mushrooms that sat adjacent to the pepperoni, sausage, Canadian bacon, and more pepperoni on a pizza. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to find a pizza in the Verano household devoid of meat and featuring, instead, the fungi du jour. This transformation, this mushrooming interest, has grown so strong that I can now state that I will seek out dishes that make the most of the mushroom’s earthy, and yes, even meaty, quality.

Perhaps you have looked at those gigantic portabellas* that Tess carries and thought, “How am I going to cook these bad boys? They’re so big they scare the children.” Stay calm, assure the children that they’re safe, and head to your local wine shop and pick up a bottle of red wine. We’re going to blow the caps off these bad boys.

The recipe for Mushroom Burgundy came to us from my brother-in-law who, along with his wife, is a devout Vegan. For him, meatless does not equate with tasteless and the reflexive response of “This dish is good but what it needs is bacon” has long since passed. Again, in the spirit of full disclosure, I was skeptical when I first caught wind of a recipe that was, in my mind at least, trying to undo the very fabric of what holds the culinary universe together. I could almost hear Julia Child’s cry from beyond, “What have they done to my precious Boeuf Bourguignon?” It was, after all, the dish she introduced on her first episode of the French Chef.

As it turned out, my fears were unwarranted and Julia, rest her soul, would be proud of the version of the classic dish. First and foremost, is the fact that any recipe that calls for almost a bottle of red wine already has a leg up on the competition. Secondly, the massive OTV portabellas, hold up perfectly and if you close your eyes you may even believe you’re eating Boeuf (if that sort of thing is allowed at your dinner table). Finally, this is a great dish to say goodbye to winter with and it’s so good you might just find yourself making up excuses to have it again i.e. “It’s winter in the southern hemisphere, isn’t it?”

Mushroom Bourguignon

1 large yellow onion, diced
6 cups of portabella mushrooms cut into 1 inch strips. Feel free to use the stems.
2 medium carrots, peeled and diced
4 cloves of garlic, minced
2 tsp minced fresh thyme
2 tsp minced fresh rosemary
1 fresh sage leaf, minced
2 cups dry red wine
2 cups vegetable stock
2 Tbsp tomato paste
1 cup fresh peas
2 Tbsp arrowroot dissolved in 1/4 cup cold water
salt and pepper to taste

In large saucepan sauté onion over medium heat for 7 – 8 minutes. Add water 1 tablespoon at a time as necessary to keep onions from sticking. Add mushroom and carrots and cook for 2 minutes. Add the spices, red wine and vegetable stock, and tomato paste. Cover and simmer until mushrooms are tender. About 20 minutes. Uncover and add peas and arrowroot mixture. Cook for 5 minutes until thick and peas are cooked. Remove from heat and add salt and pepper.

This dish is great if served over mashed potatoes, polenta, or, if you want to go Vegan, mashed parsnips. Serve with a quality red wine and toast to Julia. Bon appetit!

 *Believe it or not, there is an ongoing controversy in the mushroom world about the correct spelling for this mushroom.  Purists insist that it be spelled portobello, making it sound Italian and thus exotic.  Meanwhile, the spelling portabella is prefered by the Mushroom Council (I’m not making this up) so as to put an end to this meaningless war of words and restore peace to kitchens across the globe ( I did make that last part up).

Hail Caesar! by Mike Verano

Easy Caesar with Chicken

Easy Caesar with Chicken

Lettuce rejoice, spring is just around the corner and that means it’s time to go green again! As we get ready to welcome back the salad days of belonging to Off the Vine, it seems like a good time pay tribute to the gold standard of the eating healthy movement. You can have your Cobb, Chef, Greek, French, Mesclun, Tossed, Wedge, Niçoise, Mâche, etc. but as far as I’m concerned, the emperor of them all is the caesar salad.

According to Wikipedia, the salad’s creation is generally attributed to restaurateur Caesar Cardini, an Italian immigrant who operated restaurants in Mexico and the United States. Cardini was living in San Diego but also working in Tijuana where he avoided the restrictions of Prohibition. His daughter Rosa recounted that her father invented the dish when a Fourth of July 1924 rush depleted the kitchen’s supplies. Cardini made do with what he had, adding the dramatic flair of the table-side tossing by the chef.

I prefer the story, that I just made up, that it’s named after the Roman emperor Julius Caesar, who, upon conquering Egypt, was heard to exclaim, “I came, I saw, I conquered! Now does anyone have something green to eat, perhaps with a little parmesan, lemon and anchovies?” However, I’m willing to give Mr. Cardini his due, and do hereby decree that I have not come to bury his salad, but to praise and eat it.

Let’s be clear about this, when it comes to this salad, or just about any salad for that matter, what we’re really talking about is the dressing. Let’s face it, anyone can throw some greens down, toss in a few stray items, and serve it up. Without the right dressing, we’re not really talking about a salad, are we? Sure you can squeeze a lemon over a plate of fresh veggies and call it a salad, but you can also drop a slice of lemon into water and call it lemonade. We both know you’re just kidding yourself.

When it comes to caesar salad dressings, a quick Google search brings up 35 brands of dressing to choose from. It would not be an overestimation that, between my wife and I, we have tried at least 20 of those over the years. And this does not take into account the numerous caesar salads eaten at restaurants in search of the holy grail of dressings. More often than not, this quest led to a satisfied, but still unfulfilled, “That was pretty good, but I would have liked it more if . . .”

Then, like many true discoveries, we stumbled upon a recipe that has not only trumped those earlier efforts, it has us looking forward to the making it so much that I actually asked Kath if we could camp out in front of Off the Vine and wait for the first shipment of romaine. After checking my Komubucha tea to make sure it had not turned to alcohol, Kath assured me that would not be necessary and, in the meantime, I should go into the kitchen and whip up a batch of the dressing. (I’ve finally figured out that being sent to the kitchen is the adult equivalent of “Go to your room.”)

The recipe that follows is so simple as to warrant the tag Easy Caesar. Of course, you can always go Cardini with it and toss it in a wooden bowl at the table, while regaling your guests with tales of how long it took you to create this masterpiece. Regardless of how you serve it, my guess is that after trying it you will find yourself actually making excuses to have it again and again. My current favorite is, “What in the world are we going to do with all these anchovies?”

Easy Caesar
Ingredients
4 anchovy fillets
3 garlic cloves, chopped
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1/2 tsp hot pepper sauce
1 1/3 cups mayonnaise
2 tbsp plus 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 tbsp (or more) fresh lemon juice
3 hearts of romaine, coarsely torn (about 12 cups)
2 cups croutons

Directions
1. Blend anchovy fillets, garlic, olive oil, Worcestershire sauce, mustard and hot pepper sauce in processor until smooth. Transfer to small bowl. Whisk in mayonnaise, 2 tbsp cheese and 2 tbsp lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper and more lemon juice, if desired.
2. Place romaine in large bowl. Add 3/4 cup dressing; toss to coat. Sprinkle with croutons, remaining 1/4 cup cheese. (Some cracked black pepper is a nice touch if you want some added zip)
3. If you’re a purist, you will also add a few fresh anchovies at this point.

Foodies by Mike Verano

My wife and I are in a shrinking minority when it comes to living in the digital age. Despite invitations from friends, family members, strangers, strange family members, and even stranger friends, we have resisted creating a Facebook account. This is by no means an act of defiance, or resistance to the inevitable evolution of the e-world; it’s simply that we don’t think our lives are exciting enough to warrant a running visual commentary. We have, however, found one particular area of our lives that does meet the “We’ve got to share this right now” criteria. It should come as no surprise to anyone who reads these blogs that Kathy and I have taken more pictures of food than any other single subject.

This behavior is not new to us, and easily predates Al Gore’s creation of the internet. A look through dusty old photo albums in the Verano library is as much a gastronomical adventure of meals long since past, as it is a historical romp through people and places gone by. We are more likely to look at each with the knowing smile of, “I remember when we ate that” than we are able to recall, “Who’s that sitting next to you?”

With the digital camera shrinking in size and conveniently located on ones’ phone, the ability to capture, for all time, the meals of our lives has become so easy as to be almost obligatory. Succumbing to the times, and joining Instagram, Kathy and I are now able to instantly share our photo-culinary delights with the world. While the rest of the known universe seems captivated with taking selfies, Kathy and I are into foodies. Taking pictures of our mealtime avdentures has become such a standard practice that we’ve developed some rules to regulate its practice. They are as follows:

1. Foodies must be taken within one minute of the dish being placed in serving position in order to avoid the, “Well, it was hot when I took the picture” apology.

2. The food is primary and the person getting ready to eat it should only be included if needed for perspective, as in, “Here’s a picture of Mike holding up a plate of Rigatoni Bolognese that’s bigger than his head.”

3. You are allowed only 2 retakes to get the lighting right. After that, the person waiting to eat has the right to call out, “You’re being obsessive!”

4. If one person feels that the dish does not meet the requirements for being immortalized, he or she can state his or her case, but must do so in less time than it would take to eat said dish.

5. When dining out, foodies are not allowed once the meal has begun. People who want to take pictures of half-eaten food are just weird.

6. When posting a foodie, naming the dish is optional. The short and concise, “Look what I’m about to eat” is sufficient.

7. When dining apart, foodies can be a two-way process only if one of the two is not eating at a fast food restaurant. I have personally broken this rule on a number of occasions while dining out at 5 Guys. To my credit, this is done, in part, so that Kathy can find me should I suddenly experience a heart attack.

8. Foodies of home cooked meals must run with the comment, “Look what we made.”

9. Foodies taken while eating at a fine dining establishment may never, ever, be sent with the above comment. The only exception to this rule is if the foodie is being sent to someone who has previously tried to pass off a crown roast of lamb, with tiny chefs caps on top of each bone, as their own.

10. Foodies must only be sent with loving intention and the unstated promise that, “If this looks good to you we will make it/take you out for it, in the future.

Unlike the selfie craze, foodies are guaranteed to survive well into the future. Let’s be honest, even the people who love us the most will eventually get tired of seeing us admiring ourselves. Looking at pictures of what we’re going to eat, timeless. We need only consult the historical record to verify the staying power of this art form. Those ancient cave paintings of a yak with a spear sticking in its side? You guessed it, the first foodie.

Give A Hoot, Eat a Root by Mike Verano

raw-whole-sunchokes

Let’s be honest, this has been one long, cold, winter. If you’re like me, you’re dreaming of spring, when color returns to the shelves of the Off the Vine Market. Maybe you have, as the Verano household has, run out of ideas about what to do with sweet potatoes, butternut squash and kale. Perhaps, as the winter of our discontent comes to a close, you, too, find yourself staring at your barren garden trying to will something green to burst forth. Just when all seemed lost, and the gray skies once again threatened another round of snow, a ray of hope arrived in the form of the Jerusalem Artichoke, aka, sunchoke.

In keeping with the “full disclosure” nature of this blog, I have to admit that neither I nor, my wife, Kathy has ever eaten the botanically-named Helianthus tuberosus. This would probably remain true to this day had Tess not handed me a bag full of gnarly looking roots and said, “Let me know what you think.”

Intrigued, I headed home and began to do what any other red-blooded locavore would do; I Googled said root to see what its story was. My quick search yielded some fascinating results, summarized by About.com this way:
Jerusalem artichoke, botanically-named Helianthus tuberosus, is the tuber of a variety of perennial flower in the aster family. The flowers look like small yellow sunflowers. Also marketed as sunchokes, these gnarly little tubers look a lot like ginger root. Perhaps the most important root cash crop to originate in North America, the tubers have a potato-like texture often recommended as a potato substitute for diabetics.

I also learned that the sunchoke has a direct link to Virginia in that Sir Walter Raleigh found Native Americans cultivating it in 1585. Lesser known is the fact that the tuber has a reputation, in certain circles, for creating a particular response in the gastrointestinal track once consumed. This has led to yet another name for them that, while not pleasant table-talk, makes for a great way to turn children on to them. Yes, Virginia, they are sometimes referred to as Fartichokes; giving rise to the phrase “Give a toot, eat a root.”

Despite the cautionary tales of gaseous eruptions, Kathy and I decided we would throw caution to the wind—much better than breaking wind—and add them as a side dish to a recent meal. I’m happy to report that, not only did we not experience the aforementioned tooting, we found them to be delicious, and are now ready to toot their horn (sorry, that was too hard to resist).

There were plenty of recommendations for preparing sunchokes, to include both cooked and raw recipes. Since the gas factor reportedly increases when eaten raw, we opted for a cooked version. We found that the simple method of cutting them in half, sprinkling with salt and pepper, coating with olive oil, and roasting until tender, to be sufficient. They were slightly sweet, nutty and without the bitterness of some root vegetables.

Given the ease of preparation and its versatility, it is easy to imagine adding this tuber to a variety of dishes. Cooked quickly in an Asian dish, they would add a crunchy alternative to the water chestnut. Cooked and then mashed, or pureed, they would make a good substitute for potatoes. Finally, if you’re adventurous, you can eat them raw on salads or as a light, healthy snack. However you decide to try them they’re a good way to banish the dark days of winter: let the sunchoke in!