Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Makin’ Bacon

I have always loved cooking with my children. When they were little, they would sit on the counter and help add ingredients to the mixing bowl, happily licking the beaters afterward. They would stand on stools and stir pots, picked veggies from the garden to help make salads, and gleefully made my nana’s shortbread recipe, which they would mix only with their hands, butter and sugar gushing between their little fingers. But I still enjoy that kitchen time with my kids today, even though they are adults.

Brilliant Daughter is my frequent companion in both savory and sweet endeavors, and was my collaborator on Eat Drink Merry. She is my canning assistant every spring, summer, and fall and often brings some really good recipes to light. I spend far less often in the kitchen with Butcher Son and, not surprisingly, the main ingredient involves meat of some kind. We’ve tried more than a few sausage recipes and he experiments with marinades on a regular basis. More recently we have had a yen to try our hand at smoking.

So we started out with pork belly. Butcher Son brought home two slabs for us to try our hand at smoking.

I had purchased a bacon cure when we were out visiting family in Colorado last January (and which caused me a bit of grief at the airport due to its nitrate/nitrite content.) I poured over several of the books I had (Smoking Food: A Beginners Guide and Jam It, Pickle It,, Cure It) and came up with a bit of a hybrid cure. I mixed it up, rubbed it on and sealed the two slabs in Ziplocs. (I should note here that there was one small hesitancy on my part when rubbing up the belly. There were actually nipples on the belly, which were so pale and small, you might have missed them, but which was a vivid reminder—to me—that I was looking at what had been an animal. Some might find this a bit uncomfortable, but it is the reality of what feeds us.)

Each day I checked the plastic packages in the fridge, turning them over and poking and prodding to see how they were coming along. They were probably ready after seven days, but there was one little problem: We didn’t have a smoker. No one we know has a smoker. So, Butcher Son, who has a knack for being creative, asked around and found someone willing to donate an old Weber barbecue for transformation. And boy did it need some transforming.

When the Weber landed in our driveway it was a rusty, dirty, falling apart hunk of metal. But on his lunch hour Butcher Son took it apart and started cleaning it. He washed, he scrubbed, he sanded. Then the thing literally fell apart in his hands. So on his day off, he redrilled holes, put the legs back on with reinforcement, scrubbed some more, and then headed out to buy some charcoal and wood chips.

Last Thursday he assembled the grill, and we began the process to cold smoke the pork belly, after a 10-day cure in the refrigerator. For four hours, I babysat the smoker, adding coals and wood chips as needed, making sure that smoke was still curling out of the upper vents. I watched as the pork belly went from pale white to faintly brown, to heavily tea-stained slabs. I worried that the coals weren’t hot enough, that they were too hot, that they would go out. But everything went well. And we had our first product.

Friday morning, we sliced it up and fried a few the bacon on the stove. I always find it more gratifying to eat the things I have taken the time to make. In fact, I always prefer to make things from scratch and if I had all the time in the world, I would probably make just about everything myself. But I am a realist and I cannot store all the ingredients or equipment needed and I will probably never have that much time. (Now I understand why large families were the norm back in the day, as it takes a lot of hands to make your daily bread and butter…literally.)

And despite my worrying, the bacon tasted great. Smoky, not too salty. And really not all that hard to do. Just takes time and patience, and a little creativity from my son.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Happy Accidents

Wednesdays are a full house for dinner. Brilliant Daughter stops by after her weekly afternoon volunteering at NCEFT, an equine therapy facility for children and veterans, plus Butcher Son and his girlfriend are here. So I try to make something special, with the occasional dessert thrown in. Not as full out as Sunday dinner, but close.

Today I wanted to make a big batch of chili and cornbread. But my pantry had other ideas. Despite turning over every can on the shelves, Mother Brady’s cupboard was apparently devoid of any beans other than cannellini and garbanzo, neither of which I wanted to use. But I did spy a large can of white hominy, kept on hand to make pork pozole. While I wasn’t feeling like making a variation of pozole, I liked the idea of creating something new. A Southwestern stew, perhaps?

I started by browning lean ground beef and tossing in a bit of garlic. Then finished off the cooking with a bit of beer from Butcher Son’s kegerator (which I guess makes us a full service restaurant and bar!). I added a teaspoon each of ancho chili powder and regular chili powder, plus a half teaspoon of chipotle chili powder. Then dumped in one can of fire-roasted tomatoes, plus two cups of the homemade tomato sauce we jarred last summer. This conconction simmered for a half hour before I added in the hominy. Back on the heat for another half hour.

I finished it off with a cup of my homemade chipotle cream sauce, an all-purpose sauce that has a bit of heat to it and which can be used in a variety of Mexican dishes—from tacos to burritos—as well as a dressing for taco salad, sauce for pasta or a dip for chips! (It’s featured in my Eat Drink Merry cookbook, but I’ll provide the recipe below as well.)

Talk about YUM! I kept going back and sneaking tastes all day long. In fact, I was afraid I would eat the whole pot before the family came home. But I tempered myself, and managed to save enough to share. And to top it off, I made cornmeal dumplings, which sat nestled together on top and concealed the fact that I had been depleting the main stew for the last four hours.

And so my happy accident will now become a standard, owing to my own rave review and that of my family. Sometimes it pays to dig around the pantry and be creative….

Chipotle Cream Sauce

This is an all-purpose sauce that has some heat to it. I have used it in all varieties of Mexican dishes, from tacos to burritos and as a dressing for taco salads. It also works well as a pasta sauce and a dip for chips.

4-5 chipotles (dried or canned)

8-10 ripe tomatoes

1 large yellow onion, sliced

3 carrots, sliced

3 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons olive oil

3/4 cup sour cream

1 mashed avocado


white pepper


If using dry chipotles, remove stems and seeds and soak in hot water for 15-20 minutes until soft. If using canned chipotles (en adobo), take seeds out and pour 1/2 cup hot water over to soak for a few minutes. Drain and chop the chipotles, saving the liquid.

Roast tomatoes until blackened. This can be done on a barbecue grill, over a gas flame on the stove, or under the broiler. Roughly chop up the roasted tomatoes and put into a bowl.

Saute onion and carrot in oil on medium heat until soft, but not brown. Put garlic in at the end of the saute. Add tomatoes and any residual tomato juice. Bring to boil and simmer 10 minutes. Add chipotles and cilantro. Simmer another 10 minutes. Cool mixture.

Once cool, puree with immersion blender, standing blender or food processor. Use additional chile water if you need to thin the sauce. Stir in sour cream and mashed avocado, add salt and pepper to taste.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

First Attempt: French Bread

For Christmas in 2009 Butcher Son bought me Peter Reinhart’s Artisan Breads Every Day, a book I had been wanting. But with kitchen reconstruction, all my cookbooks were consigned to a cabinet in the garage for 5 months. Once the kitchen was complete, I had no display piece for my collection and they remain relegated to the far regions of our home, blocked by our treadmill and various other household items. Periodically I clear a path, open the cabinet doors and look longingly at them. I touch their spines, pull one or two out, and remember fondly recipes I have tested out of them. Once and a while I get a bug up my butt to use one of them, which was the case this week.

My brother, who shares my love of the kitchen, sent me a recipe for last week for La Daube de Boeuf with Press Wine. His missive, short and sweet, said, “From the Wine Spectator – sounds excellent (uses lardons!). Would go great with Bordeaux.” (He is also a oenophile.) So we both decided to make it for Sunday dinner. We chose a marbled stew meat over the hard-to-find beef cheeks and he traveled over to Bristol Farms to get pork belly, while I was fortunate to have three pounds of it curing in my fridge (courtesy of Butcher Son). We marinated our meat for 24 hours in red wine, chopped our veggies, and cooked away, 380 miles apart.

I got to thinking that some fresh French bread would go great with stew, and since my mother had generously offered to bring dessert, I had some extra time to make it. So I grabbed that aforementioned Artisan Breads Every Day, and went straight to the French bread recipes. To my disappointment, the dough needs to be started 24 hours prior, something that I should have done while marinating my meat in a whole bottle of wine. But hubby went out and got me the requisite flour and yeast, and I scoured around for an alternate recipe.

I found just such a recipe on a post on Steamy Kitchen blog. Titled, “Baking the Perfect Loaf of French Bread,” it was a recipe I could accomplish by dinnertime. I followed the directions and in a jiffy had a two-loaf batch mixed, kneaded and ready to rise. So easy, I decided to make another batch, thinking that four loaves would be better than two, right?!? I left them alone to bubble and rise and then shaped them into long loaves. I placed them in baguette pans that I have had sitting in my baking cabinet for a decade, a gift from my grandmother who used to bake bread. The second rise was only 30 minutes and then came the baking.

I used my handy dandy Thermoworks digital oven thermometer, a holiday gift from Brilliant Daughter, which allows me to place a thin metal probe into whatever is baking and set a temperature timer. (Takes a lot of the guessing out of baking and worked wonderfully in this instance.) Within 20 minutes, I had four browned baguettes. I resisted the temptation to tear into one right away and set them to cool.

Taking them out of the pan, I noticed that the underside was not browned nor crisped, probably a function of the pan. I, personally, like a crisp crust all the way around, but the rest of the family steadfastly maintained that the softer crust was better. And given that two loaves disappeared along with the stew, I can’t argue with their preference. It was light, tasty and a great sopping utensil for the winey broth of the stew.

This recipe was easy and quick to make (excepting the rising time). I would definitely recommend it to anyone who is hesitant to tackle breads. I was somewhat disappointed overall with the results, however. It was more like the type of French bread you would buy at Safeway rather than a good French bakery. The interior was closer to a standard white bread than the airier French version. It would be great for hoagies or deli sandwiches (or banh mi), but not what I would use served with cheese or to make crostini. Which means that I am going to make the time to try Peter Reinhart’s version.

And la Daube de Boeuf? Both my brother and I decided that it was just okay, nothing spectacular. And that our own versions of stew were superior in taste and ease of cooking.