Sky Full of Bacon

In the ongoing adventures of my sausages and coppa, temperatures finally dropped enough to make the unheated parts of my basement a consistent 50 to 60 degrees and 70% humidity, so I removed the rack with everything tied to it from my wine fridge (which has never held a bottle of wine) and rigged a way to support it in my wine cellar/pantry (which has).  We’ll see how it does, but hopefully even if the coppa gives off a lot of moisture, now things can be at their optimum humidity.

I was searching for something I’d written at Time Out a while back (the C.J.’s piece) and searching my name turned up a nice mention I’d missed in their Student Guide issue last August (guess I didn’t read it, being well past back to school age, but it’s actually a pretty good roundup of local media):

But man and woman cannot live on art alone—they’d get hungry. Chicago Bites offers fun, casual reviews, and Hungry Mag dishes (har har) on local chefs. Michael Gebert’s Chicago-based Sky Full of Bacon is a video podcast about all things food, with some emphasis on pork products.

Thanks, whoever contributed that!

In a city with one trillion taco joints, it takes something special to get attention for a new one. I expect if Oprah opened one, if Roger Ebert was slicing the pastor off the cone, if Scott Turow was sprinking the cilantro on your tortilla, they could get attention denied to the opening of El Taco Muy Bien Caliente #2 on Cicero just south of Diversey, and likewise, when Paul Kahan, award-winning chef, and Donnie Madia, a restaurant entrepreneur so super-powered he rescues construction workers from certain death, open a taco joint, well, you may have read something about it.

As it happens, I came to Big Star last night after a few weeks of trying close to a dozen different utterly obscure, authentic taco joints around town. And so I have two very different reactions to it. The crowd there seemed ecstatic, and I think if your frame of reference is that here’s a space that used to be the utterly forgettable Pontiac Cafe, and it’s located in an area which has more than its fair share of stupid bad restaurants for young people with more capacity for alcohol than taste, then Big Star has a lot going for it. Taken as a bar, which could just as easily be serving chicken nugblets and potato skinks, you can’t argue with a plate of reasonably tasty tacos on fresh-made tortillas for a couple of bucks each. You can quibble— things were never quite warm, even though we were within arm’s reach of the kitchen; I don’t know why radish slices have to come on everything, their cool wet crunch damping down the savory warmth of a taco full of meat; there’s a reason why Mexican restaurants always put your meat on two tortillas, which will be quickly revealed— but you can’t really argue with the appeal, given that the prices could easily be double what a typical Mexican taqueria charges, and instead they’re at par (albeit everything’s smaller than it would be in a Mexican place). If I had to go to a bar like this with somebody, this is certainly one I’d consider, and feel that I’d shown off an interesting aspect of our culinary scene, and not gotten hosed pricewise.

Taken as a Mexican restaurant, though, in a city with a pretty high bar for gringos offering artisanal Mex (or their Mexican ex-employees doing the same), I had more trouble with Big Star. Basically my feeling was, anything that’s pretty unique to them, was good and interesting— the pork belly taco, with tender braised pork belly, is easily the best thing we tried, and some roasted lamb (replacing, alas, the goat which they opened with) was also tasty and impeccably done. Pastor, on the other hand, is just bizarre— big chunks of pork, with very little of the crispy outer edge you want pastor to have; if they’re going to do an inauthentic style, couldn’t they crisp them under a salamander to fake being more authentic? Great pastor is rare enough in Chicago, but at least it exists, and it was very much not in need of reinvention.

Likewise, I was underwhelmed by a fish taco, partly because proportions were off (too much mayo, a huge honkin’ slice of avocado) but also the fish tasted kind of strong (I was never sure if it was supposed to be fishy, or was simply a bit past its prime, though that’s hard to imagine given the turnover they must have) and is doused in an offputting seasoned salt. And finally, it doesn’t help that the tortillas, though handmade in the front window, are bland and oddly rubbery (somewhat like the interior, which is painted in Art Gum Eraser gray, and generally feels like you’re dining in the U-505).

So again, the worth of Big Star has everything to do with what you’re looking for— out of the ordinary Wicker Park bar, great.  Example of what Chicago has to offer in terms of Mexican food, you need to get out of Wicker Park and see what’s really out there, among the little family joints… that will never be big stars.

I’m deep in editing, Christmas shopping, and general confusion, so here are some quick notes about stuff that might interest somebody.

1) I tried the Piccalilli (see here and here) at Thanksgiving dinner (we went to a friend’s house and I made the country ham in crust that I made some months back).  Verdict: pretty close, but a little more red pepper taste than my grandmother would have put in it; I suspect she used especially flavorless 1960s/1970s green bell peppers.  And frankly, even though I felt like I dumped in enough sugar to float Shirley Temple, maybe it could use a little more sugar to match hers perfectly.  Still, it’s both good, and 87% close to my memories, and every ham sandwich I’ve made with it has satisfied me immensely.

2) The coppa, after absorbing its various salts and spices for three weeks, is now hanging at a weight of 1105 grams.  And speaking of home charcuterie…

3) Some of the home charcuterie makers I mentioned in this 7 Links of Terror are featured at greater length in Mike Sula’s Reader piece on illicit charcuterie, which you should definitely read. Note the comments— one from Chef John Bubala and another from Laurence Mate, one of the people I linked to (who also commented here).  Also note that we both saw it in terms of “Vive la resistance!”

4) So Helen Rosner of MenuGrubPagesStreet made macarons in the process of reviewing a macaron book. I said they looked like hamburgers and the folks at A Hamburger Today should make a macaronburger.  Helen got right on it… and it looks great! And will probably turn up at some bakery almost instantaneously!

We are thankful this year for people who put weird stuff on the Internet. Which pretty much sums up most of these. See ya after the T-day holiday, and new podcast coming soon.
1. I didn’t realize until the other day that Ho-Ka, nationally known as a source of pretty natural turkeys for T-day, is just in Waterman, not far west of Chicago, which in fact I had visited with the kids just a few weeks ago (in search of a BBQ place which turned out to be catering-only). The FAQ and this page on Ho-Ka’s site have some interesting things to say about why they raise their turkeys in a respectable way that nevertheless doesn’t qualify them to use any of the usual buzzwords (natural, organic, heritage, etc.)
2. Okay, speaking of BBQ, you’ve probably seen this, but just in case you haven’t:

3. Weird Thanksgiving Science: the problem with a giant pie is that as the pie scales up, you won’t have crust edges to most pieces. Well, what would scale up in area and increase the amount of crust at the same time? A 768-sided fractal pie, naturally.
4. Speaking of weird… Chicago pizza guy Daniel Zemans finds a cool-looking 60s pizza joint in Highwood (somewhere on the north shore, beats me)— but then he gets perverse and orders the hamburger pizza. Yes, it gets as bad as you might imagine.
5. Here’s an interesting video from Liza de Guia, whom I’ve featured before, about a women who tries to reconstruct and recreate historical recipes. Note that she does not use the joke about hoecakes from Hollywood Shuffle, as I would have, inevitably.

The Historic Gastronomist: Giving Recipes an Afterlife from SkeeterNYC on Vimeo.

6. There’s a lot of people making scary bad food on the internet for the alleged purpose of being allegedly humorous, like this site that tries to plate fast food elegantly, which is one joke and just never that funny, but once in a while a sort of sublime perfection is reached, so I dare you to follow this post from The Ridiculous Food Society of Upstate New York (where I also found #7), and make hot dog bao as T-day appetizers. (This gives the background on the mini hot dogs, and is pretty interesting in its own right, not just more goofiness.)
7. This speaks for itself. Be sure to turn your speakers up, especially if it’s late at night and others are sleeping, or you’re surfing the web at a public library.

Larbo’s comment on my last charcuterie report scared me a little, so I’ve been working really hard at controlling humidity related problems inside my wine fridge.  At this point, I really have to say, I can’t recommend the wine fridge route for something like this that needs to lose a lot of water over time— they’re designed to maintain whatever humidity’s inside them, and that’s going to keep the humidity too high.  Lardo or guanciale were fine because they’re mostly fat and don’t lose much liquid.  But sausage has left a puddle on the bottom every day.  And given Larbo’s comment about the possibility of nasty mold growing, I took everything out on Saturday and inspected it.  Sure enough, I was getting a little white activity on the outside of the casing, which is not unexpected, but on one sausage, I also had a turquoise green growth where I think it was pressed up against another sausage and not drying out.

I washed everything down with a vinegar solution and then I circled the area that had the turquoise green with a marker, just to see what it does in the future.  I also weighed everything, and after 12 days, all of the saucisson secs had lost between 25 and 38% of their weight to date.  The test sopressata, which came from drier leg meat, was behind all of them, at 22%.

Despite some scariness, I have to say that it’s smelling good and starting to gnarl up nicely into sausage.  If it gets cold enough, maybe I’ll hang it out of the wine fridge in my basement; otherwise I’ll just keep monitoring the humidity and soaking up what’s on the bottom.  Maybe now, the rate of loss will slow and it will start to become possible to keep the humidity range I really want.

As for the rest of the meat, coppa is getting another week in the fridge to soak up salt and flavor, bacon is smoking as I write (Sunday afternoon)…

…and the hambone has a rendezvous with a pot of beans later today.

(Meanwhile, I also taught myself how to make croissants on Sunday (first batch came out all right), and started soaking a country ham to take to a Thanksgiving dinner.  I was like a 60s housewife on amphetamines.  19th nervous breakdown undoubtedly impending.)

It may seem wrong to review books you haven’t read all of, but I suspect it’s often the case with food books, whose formats lend themselves to constant nibbling more than cover-to-cover devouring.  This is the first of two reviews of books I’ve been nibbling at, haven’t finished, but feel capable of judging now and enjoying for some time to come.  The second, Mark Kurlansky’s The Food of a Younger Land, will follow in a couple of days.

Milk at least has cheese as its bid for immortality, but chefs don’t even have that— meals are made to be made to disappear.  Our more conceptual chefs clearly find this frustrating, hence the arrival of the commemorative, menu-as-book-as-art-object volume carefully cataloguing the dishes and bites produced by such conceptual artists in the medium of food as Ferran Adria, Grant Achatz and Heston Blumenthal, arguably the most conceptual of them all.  Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck Cookbook originally came out as a slipcased $250 volume, more expensive than the iPod hidden in a seashell to play sounds of the sea in one of his more famous courses, and has now been reproduced as a $50 objet d’art that’s an absolute bargain by comparison, so lavish and complete that the meal itself must seem like a mere appendix next to it.  (Careful about using a word like “appendix” next to someone like Blumenthal, by the way, it could go anywhere from there.)

There are really five books here, and whether you will enjoy this or not depends on how many of them can truly interest you.  Two of them are really of technical interest only to chefs hoping to follow in Blumenthal’s footsteps: that’s the actual recipes for his dishes, and the extended glossary on his weird-science ingredients and methods.  Given that dishes such as “snail porridge” and “sardine on toast sorbet” sound like parodies of modern cuisine gone mad, the actual audience for home cooking of such things has to be minuscule.

In a tactical error, as far as I’m concerned, the book actually begins with a memoir by Blumenthal (who may have discovered many marvelous things, but the chapter break is not among them) about the opening, management and steady success of The Fat Duck.  It seems to be designed to convince us that a man who thinks “Hmm, what about snails with porridge” is just a regular restaurateur, which strikes me as the wrong tack to take, normalizing the strangeness of his cuisine rather than embracing it with gleeful, Peter Lorre-esque abandon.  The problem with this is, minus Surrealism Luis Buñuel’s story is no different from any other movie director’s, and minus the molecular gastronomical weirdness this becomes just the story of a guy running a small business, not that different from any other restaurateur— or plumber or video store owner.

That leaves the last two books, easily the most fascinating parts and the ones that justify the $50 price tag for the non-mad-science-chef.  One is what comes before each recipe, a description of the thought process by which Blumenthal thought up each of his coups de foudre, each of his happenings on the theatre of the plate.  The madness and brilliance that the memoir lost in a blizzard of kitchen renovations and mounting bills finally comes to life, as he recounts how childhood taste memories and some odd bit of food science came together again and again in a moment of inspiration and a long process of refining execution at the far edge of food science.  Here is his Duck pressed between the covers of a book; here is the master class spent trying to keep up with a brilliant, unpredictable teacher who the memoir tried to hide in the clothes of an earnest manager.

The other is the book that runs all the way through the others— the book of art inspired by his cooking, including dazzling foodpornogasmic centerfold displays of his exquisitely plated dishes, spread wide and glistening for all to lust over, and (liveliest of all) drawings and collages by Dave McKean, an English caricaturist definitely in the blotchety line of Ronald Searle, Gerald Scarfe, and Ralph Steadman.  These drawings sustain the memoir during its more pedestrian moments, and the photos convey a sensuality about his food that the focus on science and juvenile memory in the text has somewhat obscured.

Which raises a point about these avant-garde chefs.  For all his free-range braininess, Blumenthal, with his emphasis on turning childhood experiences into lightning flashes of taste memory, is still working with a careful and unthreatening conceptual palette, rooted in childlike pleasures and delights— the ocean, the forest, primary colors, a magician’s switcheroo of expectations.  Our conceptual chefs will not rank with the other artists until they can find a way to bring the whole of human experience into their work— where are the dishes that evoke the alienation of modernity or the existential terror of existence?  Where is the take on Spanish food as powerful as Picasso’s Guernica, where is the play on banh mi that smells like napalm in the morning?  You can question whether diners would be willing to pay for that— but this has been a whole book devoted to dishes no sane businessperson would think diners would want to pay for, and now the restaurant they come from is booked months in advance.  If there is to be a Fat Duck Vol. 2 that doesn’t merely repeat Disneylike tricks of wonder, these are the dark places Blumenthal, and all our conceptual chefs, must go next.

Updates on the progress of my sausagemaking adventures (chronicled here, then here):

I took the remaining piece of shoulder and smoked it the next day.  Great pork, you could taste the quality, but not quite so great as deeply smoke-infused pulled pork— I wonder if the meat was a bit denser than the usual supermarket meat and thus smoke did not penetrate as easily.  The other possibility of course is that I simply used less wood than normal, and didn’t realize it.  Anyway, if not quite so smoky as I liked, certainly a satisfying end for the last 6-7 pounds or so.

Meanwhile, my ham was curing per the recipe in Cooking By Hand:

I finished it with a glaze vaguely inspired by this one from Emeril.  At first I really liked the fresh flavor of this ham, but after a certain point I decided it had too much of the floral spices, clove and allspice or whatever, you got fatigued by them and they gave it sort of an eating-an-air-freshener-cake vibe.  So if I ever do this again, I will reduce the sweet spices, up the savory (a little garlic or just more onion might have been good), and maybe increase the salt, it was not all that salty for a cured product.  But I’m definitely intrigued by the idea of doing one’s own baked ham, after doing it it seems like, hey, why wouldn’t you?

Meanwhile, the sausages continue in the wine fridge.  The really hard part is keeping the humidity in the right range– if you do anything, it seems like the tiny space promptly shoots to one extreme or the other.  I’m hoping that a lot of time at 100% humidity and a little time at 0% averages to the 70% I’m supposed to be aiming for.

Well, it’s one of those nice days when a blogger gets the next best thing to a fat check— attention from the blogosphere. So if you’re new here, this will tell you about a few things.

First off, thanks to New City for naming me Best Local Food Blog:

Mike Gebert’s incisive critiques cut like a sizzling hot samurai-style Benihana-grill-chef’s knife through mystery-grade filet mignon. Including his well-produced video casts, the dude puts out more thoughtful, interesting food content than the folks at the big dailies who get paid to do so.

Be sure to check out audience fave Lottie+Doof, too, which is a really nice blog (I’ve recommended it before).

And thanks to the ever-lovely and witty Helen of Grub Street Chicago fame, whose Tweets constitute everything I know about modern fashion, and whose attention in turn led to New York Magazine featuring the Edzo’s Burger Shop short video today. Be sure to check out the blog post at the Chicago Reader where it originated.

So if you’re new here, the main purpose of Sky Full of Bacon is the videos, which can easily be found by clicking on Video Podcasts under Categories at right, or by going here. Otherwise, there’s quite an array of posts on everything from making charcuterie to discovering unknown ethnic restaurant areas to hopefully amusing commentary on the world of food media. Welcome and check it out!

Well, thanks to some kind words of encouragement in the comments and the fact that they smell pretty good now and look like something that should turn into something good someday…

I’m feeling more positive about my sausages.  The one issue I’m having is that humidity seems to be all over the place, but I’m mainly trying to keep them from getting dried out (this can be a problem, if the outside dries out too quickly, sealing the wet interior so it can’t dry).  I adjust this constantly, hoping it will average out.  You’ll also note that I made a couple of them too long, hence them being tied into a J-shape at the other end, to keep from touching the bottom of the tiny wine fridge.

Meanwhile, the sopressata used chunks of pork leg which came from a large fresh ham.  This is actually it after I whittled it down by half, trying to keep a more or less ham shape.  Cooking By Hand has a recipe for house-cured ham, so I made a brine including vegetables and various spices, injected this piece all over, and will brine it for about six days:

So I’ll get some taste of my efforts, if not sausage, soon.  That makes me feel better about it all.