Sky Full of Bacon

Photos mostly by Liam Gebert.

I’ve had it in my head to build my own woodburning pizza oven since I went on a camping trip with my son Liam’s class at Angelic Organics a few years ago. (He goes to that kind of school.) They had a home-built one, very rustic and hippie-looking, and referred me to the bible for people who want to do this, Kiko Denzler’s Build Your Own Earth Oven. Denzler convinced me I could make a cool stone oven for about $25… but the book didn’t come with the land to do it on. And I couldn’t see anywhere on my Chicago property that I, or the adjacent houses, could feel happy about an oven sitting there hot enough to bake bread in… 24 hours after the fire went out.

Then I heard about the Kettle Pizza, which is designed to fit onto a Weber kettle (either 18″ or 22″). It’s basically a metal ring with an opening, nothing more than that (okay, it has handles and a thermometer too), but it’s just enough that you can build a fire around 6-700 degrees (or even more), heat up a stone, slide pizzas in and out, and get something like a Neapolitan pizza off your Weber kettle for maybe $200 or so.

Here’s how the first dinner went:



I use a Weber chimney so I lit that, then poured out the hot coals in a C-shape at the back and tossed on some hickory chunks. Wood will burn hotter than charcoal, and I also wanted to see if I could use the more readily available hickory without a margherita pizza tasting like Texas brisket, or if I needed something like oak that doesn’t produce a smoke flavor. Then you put the ring on, set the stone in the middle, and cover it.


Then off to make pizza #1. The night before I had made the standard dough recipe from Mark Bello, of New York’s Pizza a Casa school. Later I’ll dabble in 00 flour and stuff like that, but for now I wanted to try this reliable recipe using regular all-purpose flour, which I already knew worked in my oven. I made a margherita with some fresh mozzarella I’d picked up at Eataly on Friday.


I went back out to check on the temperature and… it was only around 550 degrees. My fire was too small. Carefully I lifted and balanced the kettle on the edge while Liam poured in more charcoal and topped it with some more hickory. There were many possible disasters at this point, so I tell you this so you can avoid having to do it ever.


Back out in a few minutes and the temperature was now off the scale, which tops out at 700. So 750-800 degrees, as high as most woodburning restaurant ovens. In pizza numero uno went!


We waited 2-1/2 minutes, peeking through the slot. We could see the crust bubbling at this end, but I had been told it would cook faster nearer the fire (duh) and you needed to spin it halfway through.


Well, so 2-1/2 minutes at this temperature was quite a bit more than halfway through, it turned out; the pizza was already black bubbles at the far end. Still, after being put back in to cook the other end for a moment, it looked pretty good for a first try.



Pizza #2 was a recipe that I’d gotten from Bello himself when I went to a party he was cooking at here in Chicago. You put down olive oil mixed with honey (very quickly, since they separate again instantly), some sauteed onion, black pepper and hunks of taleggio cheese.


This time we timed the twirling better, barely a minute and a half for each side…


Then topped with some olive oil into which I’d shaved some Australian truffle.


We sat down to eat at this point, the first pizza still hot. How were they? They came out very well for first tries. I think I spread the crusts too thin, and a little more bread would have helped, but they were definitely in the ballpark for Neapolitan pizza. A few thousand more and who knows?



I had two more pizzas to make, another margherita and a Hawaiian which was meant to test how it cooked something covered with more ingredients than the margherita or other minimalist Neapolitan pizzas. Unfortunately, on this cold day by the time I got back out there the oven temperature had fallen down to barely above 500. But, of course, the stone retains its full heat for much longer. So I knew that this pizza would burn on the bottom before the top was done. I wound up holding it on the pizza peel up to the dome for a couple of minutes to get it done. I also realized that there was another tool I would need— a long brush to sweep the burnt semolina meal off the stone. The last two pizzas were less than ideal, but still were eaten happily, basically coming out like the pizzas I’d been making up to this point in my regular oven.



And so, conclusions:

1) The Kettle Pizza works and is money well spent.
2) They say you want their stone because the one you have is only designed for indoor oven temps, so you might as well. It’s thicker, which is good.
3) Build a big fire that will last as long as you cook.
4) Turn earlier than it looks like you need to.
5) Hickory is fine, it didn’t taste like barbecue.
6) I like my new Kettle Pizza!


Tags: , , ,

To judge by this site I’ve mainly been making videos lately (which is true and hey, check ’em out here) but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been growing and cooking and all those things I used to blog about. I have two basil plants in my Earthboxes, one Thai and one Genovese, which have provided me happily with fresh, incredibly aromatic basil all summer long. But sooner or later they’re going to freeze out there, so it’s time to preserve the fresh spring flavors of basil for the long Chicago winter.

The most common way people preserve basil is, of course, as pesto— the simple combination of ground basil, olive oil, salt, garlic, pine nuts and parmiggiano reggiano or other good hard Italian cheese. An old trick is to make pesto and freeze it in ice cube trays. Not a bad idea, but not a perfect one either, because you’re freezing things which don’t freeze well— garlic loses flavor, cheese’s consistency falls apart, and salt of course actively fights freezing. Here’s a method I arrived at that freezes only the part that really needs freezing— fresh basil— allowing you to preserve its aromatics. Then you can easily add the others, fresh, at the time you cook with them; the result is pesto in December that takes every bit as fresh and pungent as June.

First, of course, pick a lot of basil— enough to fill your food processor bowl— wash it and then dry it thoroughly; you don’t want to freeze any more water than you have to.

Pour in some olive oil. Not as much as you would use to make pesto; the goal here is to have just kind of an oily paste once the leaves are ground. That way you can add fresh oil later; the point now is just enough oil to keep air out.

Process the leaves. Since again, you’ll be making the actual pesto later, you don’t need to grind them as fine as in the final dish; just roughly chopped and coated with oil.

Put in a quart freezer bag…

…and press the air out and flatten it until it’s an even 1/8″ or so with as little exposure to air as possible.

Then freeze it. (Be sure to set it on something flat to freeze, or it will take the shape of the ridges on the bottom of your freezer, or of a bag of chicken backs, or whatever.)

When winter comes along and you want pesto, all you have to do is snap off a few pieces of this Pesto Brittle™ and microwave them briefly to bring them to room temperature. Mix them in the food processor with a clove of fresh garlic, salt to taste and enough olive oil to make the paste more fluid. When that’s well ground, add the pine nuts (or any nut, really, given the scares about Chinese pine nuts lately; I often throw cashews or something in there) and grind that. Finally, grate your hard Italian cheese (I trust you have a good hunk of parmiggiano reggiano or something, not the green can kind) and mix that together. And you have essentially fresh pesto, which you can use to make a classic dish like:

Trenette al pesto genovese, or as my kids call it, Train Tracks

1 lb. trenette (which have scalloped edges, hence the term “train tracks”) or other flat noodles
A dozen or so small new potatoes, halved if large
A pint or so of green beans
Pesto made with some extra salt (it will be providing the salt for the whole dish, so the salt will be spread thin by the end)

Boil a big pot of salted water. Boil the potatoes, strain them out, keeping the water. Boil the green beans, straining them out as well. If necessary, add more water, then boil the pasta. Take a spoonful or two of the hot pasta water and add to the pesto to loosen it up. Drain the pasta and the pot and place the pasta back in the empty pot, then add the potatoes and the green beans, scatter the pesto as best you can around the pasta, and mix it all thoroughly until everything seems to have a coating of pesto. Serve in bowls.

Tags: , , , ,

I haven’t been anywhere worthy of a post on its own, but I have little fragments of semi-interesting things piling up, so… EVERYTHING MUST GO! We’re clearing out the inventory!

* * *

Would you like a free box of our organic produce? emailed a company called Door To Door Organics. Sure, said I:

The stuff was very pretty, almost too perfect for farmer’s market stuff. Maybe they just prettied my box up because they hoped I’d take pictures. (UPDATE: they say no, they’re all this gorgeous!) Anyway, nice looking and tasting stuff, and I think the quantity I got was a “Bitty Local Farm Box” which goes for $26.99. That strikes me as on the high side given what was in it (seen below, plus there was some parsley and kale), but I may be deluding myself about what the same quantity would cost at Whole Foods— that’s surely a $4 box of tomatoes, $4 worth of peppers, etc. at yuppieville retail prices. (The two small ears of corn were kind of silly, given that that’s probably the cheapest thing in the box at the moment.) I feel like you could beat this price with an individual farmer’s CSA by a good ways, but I have a feeling they’re doing more active management of what you get, so you’d get more consistently useful boxes than some of the ones I got from Genesis last year when I did their CSA. So for the right person, this seems to be the right service.

I’ve done a few things with several of the things I got, like poking garlic all over the eggplant and tossing it on the grill to make baba ghanoush as an appetizer for my wife’s birthday dinner:

So anyway, seems like a good addition to the organic food delivery scene, and if you’re interested, I have two offers. “Bacon2011” is a promo code that will get you $10 off an order; and I have the awesome power to award a freebie box to the first person to comment that they want it in the comments on this post. UPDATE: THE BOX IS SPOKEN FOR Go for it!

* * *

SKY FULL OF BACON EXCLUSIVE MUST CREDIT: I learned, this weekend, the followup to the infamous Paris Club stinky barn smell story. So far as I know this hasn’t been reported anywhere.

As you may recall, Paris Club, the hot new Sons of Melman place in the old Brasserie Jo space, was reported to smell like manure… sometimes; it was supposedly because the recycled wood in the place came from a barn. Mike Sula sensed a vast conspiracy on the part of people attending a VIP preview to cover up the stench, but others questioned whether it was there all the time, or only under certain circumstances (David Hammond and I walked through at 10pm and didn’t smell it), or existed at all.

Here’s what I was told. First off, the wood didn’t come from a barn at all, but from a factory, I was told. Nevertheless the recycled wood was a suspect at first and various things were tried, such as cranking the heat up as high as it would go to see if they could bake the smell out.

But then suspicion shifted to the venting from the toilets. (Which is no doubt why they didn’t send out a press release announcing the solution of the problem, even though I’m sure this kind of post-opening emergency fixer-upping is more common than we know.) They came to this conclusion for the very logical reason that the smell tended to appear only during a certain window of time— apparently after enough people were there to have used the toilets sufficiently, but not so many that the smell of people, perfume and dinner being served proved stronger. In the end, they expensively ripped open the walls and rebuilt some of the ventilation system, and the “barn” smell went away… leaving only the scent of Axe and desperation, I’m sure.

* * *

Why, when I’m making appetizers for two different parties, do I add to my workload by insisting on canning some beets along the way? Because I had the beets, dammit. And besides, just think of the time I’d save using the hot water from the canning afterwards to loose the skins on some tomatoes for bruschetta. Yeah, right.

Anyway, I was making something for the LTHForum picnic out of David Thompson’s new Thai food cookbook, Thai Street Food. It’s a big gorgeous book but I have to say, as a practical cookbook, I’m having some trouble. Things have always worked out in the end, based on some winging it and the fact that even bastardized, winged Thai food is better than most things. But the things that seem easy for him to find and do, are not easy for the casual reader.

One thing that I’ve learned has tripped up better cooks than me is a common ingredient in the recipes— coriander root. In theory, this should exist, since coriander is cilantro and plenty of cilantro is sold around here, so how far away can the roots be? Ah, but it’s one thing to buy cilantro from a farmer and another to convince him to rip his plant out for you. Only one chef has managed that for authentic Thai recipes, Grant Achatz…

…except he’s not the only one, as Jason Vincent of Nightwood explained bemusedly; he’s been buying it from the same place, City Farm, for a while and is bemusedly irritated to keep reading that only Achatz can manage the trick. Anyway, we talked about this a bit at the Key Ingredient shoot and he offered to give me some but I forgot about it by the time we left. (We = my kids, who were tagging along, and amusing themselves during the shoot by filling up my phone with photos of Jason Vincent’s baby.)

So I just used the lower stems of coriander. Anyway, looking through Thai Street Food for a cool thing to make for the LTHForum picnic (needless to say, a high stakes event where I have a reputation to protect), I found a recipe for cured, deep-fried pork, using the cartilaginous end pieces of the rib…

…or as we call them in Chicago, the rib tips. Which have been on my mind a fair amount lately.

Suddenly I had an idea out of another cookbook entirely. Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck Cookbook is full of jokey dishes that look like one thing and taste like another. Here was my chance to make something called “rib tips and sauce”— which wouldn’t be barbecued, and would taste more like Chiang Mai than Chattanooga. You start by mixing sticky rice, salt and garlic in a mortar and pestle:

Well, here was problem number one. The idea is that you pound the salty-garlicky rice into a paste, and cover the pork with it so perfectly that it is sealed up inside it, no air, and you can set it out in the hot sun for a few days (!) to get nice and funky but not spoil. Yeah, okay. But don’t pound the rice so much that you make it glutinously tough! And that was where I ran into trouble— I couldn’t get it to make a paste, but it already seemed like it was toughening up. So I abandoned plan A and went for plan B— coat the pork in the stuff and leave it in the fridge for most of the week. It might not get the full funk, but it would at least cure.

Then I had to make my own version of the dipping sauce common with things like Thai fried chicken. I roasted chilis, garlic and shallots (for which I’d fortunately paid Argyle street prices):

Another snag: my supposed seedless tamarind paste from Argyle street turned out to be, at best, “partly deseeded.” After spending entirely too much time pushing seeds out of it, I went to Patel Bros. on Devon and bought a jar of liquid tamarind goo. Which was probably much more concentrated, because the stuff was puckeringly sour when I first mixed it up. But I added a bunch of honey, and some more chilis and garlic, and in time, I had a pretty good imitation of Spoon’s version of the same sauce. I fried up the rib tips, and then it was time to assemble my dish with the thing that truly made it Chicago rib tips…

a little piece of white bread underneath the rib, soaking up the sauce.

* * *

Something I learned at the LTH picnic, may be a hitherto unknown factoid for all I know: the reason Mario’s on Taylor Street, the legendary Italian lemonade joint, closes a week or two after Labor Day isn’t just that the season is over then. But Mario, the dad who started it, apparently keeled over while making the lemonade one day, a September 16th as a matter of fact. And so his widow decided, from then on, to honor his memory by closing down after the weekend closest to that day.

Mario’s has peach– for a very few days before closing in memoriam Mario for this year. I’ve been skeptical about it in the past— they tend to make peach when peaches get cheap, regardless of whether they’re much good or not— but this year peaches have been great, so I have hope. Go get you some!

And if you haven’t seen:

Tags: , , , , , ,

When Rob and Allie Levitt left Mado to start a butcher shop, I was concerned that we’d lost one of the best restaurants in town (and I mean that in a 2 or 3 at most sense, not an airily wide-ranging sense) and would gain a business that couldn’t make it on volume, was just too specialized. Which just shows that Rob sees more in a piece of meat than I do— literally; one of the first things you notice at The Butcher & Larder is just how many product offerings they can make out of the same carcass. But also, he saw more customers out there who would want that sort of thing and be willing to pay for it, and he was evidently right, to judge by his tweets around Valentine’s Day which were more about what he was out of than what he had.

What’s fascinating to me is how readily a decent-sized customer base has taken to their non-supermarket way of selling stuff— we have what we carved out of the animals we have, and if we don’t have what you came in for, we’ll sell you what we do have and tell you how to make it. I’m sure Mado wasn’t the highest volume local-farmer, nose-to-tail restaurant in town, but no other place impressed upon me so strongly what eating by the seasons and making use of everything you get in really amounted to, and not just because I made a video about them. You saw it in their vegetables, too (alas, something you can’t get at The Butcher & Larder), the simplest treatment of what came from the market this week opening your eyes to the flavors of something like sunchokes or beets in a way that nothing ever had before. Meat palace Mado was also the best vegetable restaurant in town, in my book, because of the respect with which they treated the natural, evanescent goodness in everything.

I was thinking about this as I sat down to lunch at The Butcher & Larder:

This was beer-braised pork shoulder. And what’s funny about it is how little Rob evidently cares about the trappings of contemporary dining versus simply doing the right thing by meat. If you got a sandwich like this at another locavorish kind of place— City Provisions, say— you’d get some arty little crispy chips with it, or you’d order a side of beet salad, or something. Or there would at least be some fancy toppings on it, a little shaved fennel pickled in red wine vinegar. They’d make a nice-looking combo out of it. At The Butcher & Larder, you get a generic bag of supermarket potato chips and a pop, just like you’d get at some sub place on the south side. I can’t help but think there will be Yelp reviews shortly getting indignant about this, wondering why there aren’t truffle chips like at Grahamwich. But then you bite into the sandwich… and the cares of the world, the jostling and striving, melt away. It’s just pure porkerifficness, bathed in beer and a few spices, but most of all, in the time to do it right.

As at Mado, Rob Levitt believes you either get it or you don’t, and if you don’t, there’s somewhere else out there for you, and someone else out there waiting to buy from him.

* * *

I have a The Butcher & Larder problem, though. Which is that for years I have casually referred to Paulina Market as the Greatest Butcher Shop in the Universe. And I’ve lived here for 20+ years without ever once having to contemplate a rival for the title.

Of course, the world is a big place with many different things, and there’s no reason that I have to choose between two such different businesses, just because they sell roughly the same thing. Paulina was an old-school German meat market, back when that’s what my neighborhood was, that successfully escaped being pigeonholed as an ethnic market and made the jump to simply being a superior meat market for those who were savvy enough to know that when you wanted a steak to cook out, you didn’t go to the Jewels, you went to Paulina.

And I’ve gone to Paulina for decades, and taken my kids who they’ve watched grow up (and who eagerly look forward to free samples of bologna— I avoided bologna for 20 years, but if you want to know how good the most routine of lunchmeats can be, go to Paulina and try what they make in house). Now, along the way I’ve obviously become conscious like many people of the issues involved in how meat is raised, and I’m a big partisan of non-industrial pork and a somewhat more qualified one of artisanal beef. So to some extent I’ve followed my values to buying more meat from the farmer’s markets and the like.

But those aren’t my only values; I also have ones about supporting ethnic diversity in Chicago, and patronizing businesses that come to know their customers, and spending my money at places that do things the right way because they’ve always done things the right way. And so every week I go to Paulina for some of the things that they make in an old-school, non-industrialized, real ingredients kind of way: their bologna, their baked ham, their summer sausage, their hot dogs. What Rob Levitt had to rediscover and reintroduce to his customers on one side of the great mass industrialization of American food, they’ve been keeping alive from the other side, from before it happened.

I sent a friend a couple of recipes for things I’ve been making from what they offer at Paulina for literally two decades now. They barely qualify as recipes, they’re so simple, and Paulina does the hard work in both cases. But they’re both great winter meals that you’ll be glad you added to your repertoire.

Simplified Choucroute Garni For a Busy Night

6 Paulina Thuringer sausages (they’re precooked, fyi)
1 container Paulina sauerkraut
2 lbs. small red potatoes

Cut potatoes in half, cut sausages in thirds. Dump kraut in big stockpot, mix potatoes and sausages into kraut, pour enough water to 2/3 cover it all. Sprinkle with pepper (no salt, there’s plenty in the kraut). Heat with lid on until potatoes are soft, stirring it around carefully to mix what’s on top down into the bottom from time to time. Serve with a dab of brown mustard on the side.

Split Pea Soup With Paulina Ham Hock

1 Paulina ham hock aka pork shank
1 or 1-1/2 packages of split peas, or navy beans, or canned chickpeas
1 medium onion
1 carrot

Dice carrot and onion, doesn’t have to be too fine. Cover hamhock and vegetables with water in a stockpot or dutch oven. Simmer for an hour or two. Add split peas or beans and cook till soft (obviously, if you use dried beans, use the appropriate process to soften them up first; split peas will soften in about an hour or so).

Take hamhock out and let cool while you puree soup. Cut band of skin off hock and start hunting for the pieces of meat hidden inside, cutting or scraping away big hunks of fat; dice meat and toss it back in the soup. Give them another 20 minutes to melt out some gelatin and blend flavors. Salt to taste.

The Butcher & Larder
1026 N Milwaukee
Chicago, IL 60642
(773) 687-8280

Paulina Market
3501 North Lincoln Avenue
Chicago, IL 60657
(773) 248-6272

The things I’ve made most recently are all media: three videos and two articles for this week’s Reader, to be precise. (Kate Schmidt, the food editor, joked that this week would be the special Michael Gebert issue.) So as far as blogging here goes, I’m just going to cover it off with a few pics of things I made to eat at home around the holidays:

1. Pork Head & Parsley Pate, from Pork & Sons.
When I reviewed James Villas’ Pig a few weeks back, Mark S., who blogs about charcuterie here (and is Msmre on LTHForum), mentioned the book Pork & Sons as his favorite of the current crop of porky books, so I added it to my Amazon wish list just in time for my birthday. I have to admit that until then, I had overlooked it purely because of its pink gingham cover. A French import, it’s kind of the Amelie of French meat books, awfully pleased with how cute and quaint and Fffronsh it is. Still, it does indeed seem solid and evocative of a certain style of eating worth preserving.

Wanting something for a Christmas dinner starter, I decided to make this pate— really, a headcheese. I contacted the Jake’s Country Meats folks, who sell at the Logan Square Farmer’s Market, and asked for whatever they had of the cuts the recipe listed: a head, two trotters, and some shoulder. Well, they were all out of head, but I got the trotters and the shoulder, diced up the appropriate amount of the latter, and set it to cooking with some aromatics and vegetables:

One thing to note about pig’s feet— there’s no meat on them. I don’t mean “hardly any,” I mean zero— all you get from them is the gelatin. The meat was all from the shoulder. When reduced to tender chunks, I diced it up and laid it in the terrine:

One thing I remember Rob Levitt said when he was demonstrating making testa was that you should salt and season it heavily, since it will be eaten cold. Meanwhile I reduced the gelatinous broth to a truly shimmery thickness, and poured it over the packed meats and vegetables:

A couple of days to set in the fridge, and:

I really liked this pate, it’s full of flavor (and not just meat, either), though I think I need to buy a smaller terrine for such exercises— I’m the only one who eats this stuff, generally, and it didn’t get completely finished, sad to say.

2. Pancetta, from Charcuterie.

At the same time I got three decent-sized strips of pork belly from Jake’s. Two were destined to be bacon, but I decided to experiment with pancetta with the other, having loved my pancetta from Bolzano Artisan Meats in Milwaukee. I mixed up the spices and curing salts, coated the belly and sealed it away for a week…

After a week I cleaned it off and cut it in half. I wrapped the pieces in cheesecloth and hung them in my wine fridge:

A week after that I took one piece out to try some and use it on a pizza. The meat had only lost about 10% of its weight, and what I realized was, although this soft, supple meat had the texture of most pancetta you buy, and tasted fine, I really preferred Bolzano’s, which I suspect is both more heavily salted and more aggressively dried. So I’m going to try drying at least one piece more, even at the risk of spoilage, and see if I get closer to what I liked about theirs. If it goes bad, well, I learned something.

3. Great Grandma’s Suet Pudding, Marjorie Zalewski, Toledo, Ohio (3rd Place, Ohio State Fair Family Heirloom Recipes Competition)

I was of a mind to make a traditional Christmas pudding this year. Cathy Lambrecht mentioned that she had posted one that had won a prize in a contest at the Ohio State Fair at the Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance site.

With such simple beginnings do many epic sagas start.

The recipe looked like just the thing— old-fashioned flavors like molasses, suet as the primary fat, and so on— so, being of a mind to get whatever I could out of the way before the big day, I mixed it up (making cranberry relish at the same time on the top of the stove), grated the suet myself from some beef fat I’d bought at Paulina Meat Market, and baked it in a bain-marie for three hours. At the end of which, opening the Jiffy Pop-like aluminum tent, I found that it was… flat. Very flat.

I studied the recipe for clues. It didn’t take long: carelessly I had used baking powder where more inflationary baking soda was called for. It was now about eight o’clock on Friday night. If I hurried and actually paid attention this time, I could just get a second one baked by midnight. This is how I spend Friday nights, folks.

The second one went in. Meanwhile, I tasted the first. It tasted… authentic. With nothing but molasses for sweetener, it was very 19th century, very hardscrabble life on the Plains. It tasted like Christmas… in a Willa Cather novel.

I decided I couldn’t end Christmas dinner with a dessert that no one liked. Notably, my children. So the next morning I started making an apple-lemon curd dessert with Sauternes— if the first dessert was Willa Cather, this one was Schnitzler, Toulouse-Lautrec, Debussy, Continental elegance with a touch of the dandy and of the decadent.

Christmas dinner came. I advised my guests that no one would take it amiss if they had one bite of the prairie dessert and then devoured the other. But, in fact, Grandma Zalewski had a trick up her sleeve— it may not have been the case in 1840, but by the 20th century when she was passing this one down, it came with a brandy hard sauce full of sugar, which lightened and leavened the dense, molasses-y darkness of the pudding. It was still substantive, but no longer ponderous. The clash of dessert worlds became a fair fight, and in fact, both were eaten with considerable pleasure (not to mention the rest of the Sauternes). In the end, Cather and Schnitzler together produced a last course out of Dickens, leaving us full and full of good fellowship. It’s important to know how to keep Christmas, after all. Ask a famous author.

The new edition of “Key Ingredient” is up here and features Curtis Duffy of Avenues, funky Chinese black beans and an absolutely gorgeous dessert. Watch it here:

The first one, with Grant Achatz, got over 1500 views the first week. We’re shooting two this week, and it’s funny what’s different each time (the chefs and their approaches, very different in personality even when, like Achatz and Duffy, they’re similar in approach) and what’s been the same— they each seem to take right around 45 minutes to shoot, and wind up at right around 4 minutes and 50 seconds when they’re done.

Lots of people are thanking me so it’s time I did some thanking about all this: thanks to outgoing Reader editor Kiki Yablon for thinking of me and calling me up for some info even when she couldn’t tell me why yet, to Julia Thiel my writing partner in crime, and to everybody else at the Reader who helped us in the mad scramble to get the first one done (Paul Kate Geoff Mrs. Paul Mike Whet) and going forward. Oh, and to Chicago’s great chefs who are so game for doing this on short notice and no matter how weird it sounds.

Today I am very excited to announce that one of the founding goals of Sky Full of Bacon has been met. No, this is not another setup for a gag like the Mexican April Fool’s prank video. It’s the real thing, which is: the first in a series of videos for the Chicago Reader (who are launching a redesigned food section this week) called Key Ingredient. In the videos and the attached articles (written by Julia Thiel), we will throw a weird ingredient at a Chicago chef, and he or she will invent a dish from it. The opening cheftestant is one Grant Achatz of Alinea, and his ingredient is the kluwak kupa:

You can read the article and get the recipe here. Though the device of challenging a chef with a mystery ingredient is not a new one, I think the way Key Ingredient does it is distinctly different from, oh, say, a TV show with a bombastic pseudo-samurai chef and cooks running around in a panic. The point here is to let the chefs reveal how they think, how they approach an ingredient (even one as out of left field as the kluwak kupa). It’s high on character study, low on screaming. At the same time, the video side is short and sweet, considerably faster-paced than my usual Sky Full of Bacon videos; it’s a quick sketch, not an in-depth portrait.

So that’s why you should watch and read Key Ingredient (and check out everything else happening in the revised Reader food section… which will be news to me too, I had nothing to do with it otherwise). But for me the deeper significance is that, although it’s not the first time I’ve done video for publications, it’s not even the first time I’ve done video for publications and gotten paid, it does represent the first time that I believe a publication has taken on my kind of video as a sustained strategic effort to serve readers in the new online media environment. My hope from the beginning with Sky Full of Bacon was that by demonstrating a capacity to do good journalism, not just slick video, in video form, full of my own passion and knowledge and inquisitiveness about food, somebody would see an opportunity in it to expand their media brand online as video becomes an inevitable part of every journalistic enterprise— not an add-on to print but simply part of how you tell the story. It’s happened a number of times in one-offs, but this is the first one that’s a regular branded feature. (Yes, this probably means regular Sky Full of Bacon videos will be at least as infrequent as they were in 2010, but I promise they won’t halt entirely, when there’s a genuinely great subject for a longer form piece.)

But hey, I’ve still got several days a week open, so feel free to email or call me. Yeah, the world is full of people who shoot food video, but if you want video that really has the taste of the world of food and speaks to your foodie readers/viewers/whatevers, the name is Bacon. Sky Full of Bacon. Enjoy The Reader’s Key Ingredient, and there will be a new one in the same place, next week.

P.S. Thanks to those who not only linked it all but mentioned my involvement (more prominent in the print version, by the way, which was kind of them), including Nick, Ari, and many Twitterers including Sula and Sudo. I really appreciate the support and admire that there are so many class acts on our side of the Chicago foodie world, too.

A book review of James Villas’ Pig: King of the Southern Table, continued from here.

Great Smoky Bacon, Country Ham and Sauerkraut Pie (p. 158)

I’d intended to stop with my two efforts at barbecue, but since I was making a country ham for Thanksgiving dinner at David Hammond’s (using this recipe from Charleston Receipts, which I first learned of from Villas), the next day I got curious about what Villas might suggest for baked country ham leftovers. He had me at “sauerkraut pie.”

This recipe comes from the Smoky Mountains region (the mountains are what’s Great and Smoky, not the bacon per se) where they raise not only pork but, apparently, a lot of cabbage, and make sauerkraut out of it. You start with a lard crust (I chickened out and made half lard, half butter; I also way overworked it, unfortunately), which you partly bake, then coat with dijon mustard:

Meanwhile you fry some bacon, soften some onions in it, and then add some rinsed sauerkraut and seasoning. (I was betting I could hide the sauerkraut sufficiently for my kids to eat it. I won the bet.) That all gets sauteed a bit, then you add it to the crust:

Top it with leftover country ham and some parsley, and bake it like a quiche, basically. This was very satisfying, though it certainly seemed more like German or French food than Southern. Not that I’m complaining on a cold fall day about a dish that made the house smell like bacon, onions and sauerkraut.

* * *

Country Ham and Turnip Hash (p. 172)

Less successful was breakfast the next morning. (Funny that it looks so much like the other dish, though it’s quite different.) Boil some turnips, chop some country ham, dice some green pepper and onion, season it and add cream… the first problem is, Villas says make this into a cake (which you will be flipping as a whole later). Not happening, this is wet goo.

No big deal, you just fry it and flip it like hash browns. But the challenge with any country ham dish is, does it concentrate the saltiness of the ham, or does it ameliorate it, the way the apple chutney spread on the ham biscuits I made did, or hiding the ham amid caramelized onions and sauerkraut did the night before. And frying what was quite a large quantity of ham made for a powerfully salty hash. I ate mine, my wife ate most of hers, the kids, irredeemable Yankees that they are, barely touched it.

Oh well. One flop, but hey, we’ll be down to the bone soon, and I’m already eyeing Villas’ recipes for soup, most of which, not surprisingly, seem to be built on the scraps or bone of a country ham. Creamy rutabaga and country ham… can’t wait.

* * *

And the persimmon pie, you ask? That wasn’t from Villas, that was just what I felt like trying to make this year, given how ubiquitous persimmons are becoming at retail during this season. I bought some the week before and waited for them to ripen, and waited, and waited… only one was really ripe, to the point of being like a mushy tomato, by the time it was time to make pie. But pureed and baked much like a pumpkin pie, they made an interesting and novel dessert, pumpkin pie-like but with an orangey note and lightness of their own. I’m eager to try again, but this time, giving the persimmons all the time they need to ripen perfectly before I bake.

I request review copies sparingly, because I feel it’s important for the overall honor of bloggerdom to make it clear that you weren’t just trying to cadge a free copy and to actually write something (and I’m not going to go to the trouble for something I don’t care that much about, I’d rather just pay the $24.95). And especially because if I plan to review a cookbook, there’s only one way to really do that… which is to cook from it.

That presented a problem for James Villas’ new cookbook Pig: King of the Southern Table. Which was, if I was even going to make half a dozen things from it in a short time, that would be a lot of Southern-style pork for my family to consume.

Villas ranks with Lewis & Peacock, John T. Edge and only a few others among chroniclers and preservers of Southern food culture. His book The Glory of Southern Cooking was the very first thing I posted about here, and I also like that he actually knew and wrote about the legendary bon vivant and character Lucius Beebe. Whose book The Big Spenders I count alongside Mad Magazine and Monty Python as one of the things that shaped my view of the splendid absurdity of life, through its chronicling of such Gilded Age excesses as the party given on horseback, a waiter at each place holding reins in one hand and champagne bucket in the other, or the story of James Gordon Bennett Jr. being forced to flee to the Continent after committing the ultimate high society faux pas of drunkenly pissing in the piano at someone’s soiree…

…but we were talking about Villas’ book. And who could not be charmed by a book full of such dishes as Tennessee Pigs’ Feet and Field Pea Snert, Open-Face Pig and Pimento Burgers, Roasted Pork Shoulder With Applejack Gravy, Texarcana Pork and Bean Pie With Cornpone Topping, Birmingham Porcupine Balls or Palmetto Scrapple. As the geography covered in that list suggests, the book roams the South widely and learnedly, and knowing that the story is half the fun of many Southern dishes, Villas provides context with both a researcher’s rigor and an eye for the color that makes these recipes beguiling beyond their humble ingredients and make you immediately want to jump in the car:

Natchitoches (pronounced NACK-i-tosh) would be only a dot on the map of central Louisiana were it not for the distinctive half-moon meat pies that a place called Lasyone’s has been producing since 1966…

In Cajun Louisiana, it is custom in the fall at hog-killing time for home cooks (especially women) to make two styles of rice sausages with the pork trimmings: sturdy boudin noir with liver (and often pig’s blood), and the more delicate boudin blanc with chopped chicken and heavy cream added to the pork.

For generations, hogs’ brains and scrambled eggs have been considered a great delicacy in the South, and my own mother still remembers a certain Mr. Norwood including a container of brains in his biweekly house delivery of farm-fresh eggs, butter, milk, sausage and chickens.

They are made of different stuff, these Southern housewives who can open a box first thing in the morning and see brains in it, and not let out a bloodcurdling scream.

So this book will offer fun leafing through for years to come, nestled on my shelf next to other definitively one-word titles such as Fat and Bones. My only complaint about it is that I find the typography distressingly clumsy, both the fat display font (chosen to evoke the porcine?) and a too-coyly-moderne text font seem ill-chosen for easy reading and unattractive on the page. Beebe would have sniffed at them as striving too hard for effect.

* * *

North Carolina Lexington-Style Chopped ‘Cue (p. 276) and South Carolina Mustard Barbecue (p. 280)

But I wanted to put the book to some practical use, and then the opportunity presented itself when my wife’s best law school friend and her family were announced to be coming over for dinner… two days before Thanksgiving. The last thing I wanted to do was cook a Thanksgiving-level fancy meal, so it seemed a perfect time, especially with kids involved (who would likely turn their noses up at many of the alternatives I could have considered), for Villas’ take on barbecue.

Even though it’s not a barbecue book per se, the section on barbecue gives a solid overview of regional styles in about 40 pages.  I decided to make two wet rubs in two different styles.  The first was North Carolina Lexington-Style Chopped ‘Cue, very similar to what I had at A&M Grill in Mebane, North Carolina this summer, a powerfully vinegary, almost clear dousing sauce or mop with just a hint of ketchup in it:

Though I should point out, again, that I didn’t find the allegedly time-honored and hard-fought distinction between Lexington (ketchupy) and eastern (non-ketchupy) sauce to have much validity, since I had vinegary without ketchup at the place in Lexington named Lexington Market, which would seem to be pretty definitive as to what the Lexington style is. But Villas’ recipe was dead-on for the ketchupy style.

The second was a mustardy South Carolina sauce, which was much more of a glaze:

The next question was pork. One of the things I find paradoxical about barbecue fanatics is that as wound up as they get about this or that, they rarely seem to pay all that much attention to the meat itself as an ingredient. We had an outbreak of controversy in Chicago over cooking styles recently when an old school tavern serving baked ribs, Twin Anchors, won a Bib Gourmand from the Michelin Guides, and the usual barbecue suspects decried this honor being paid to a practitioner of “meat jello.” In the barbecue-fanatic lexicon, meat jello refers to ribs where shortcuts such as parboiling are used to speed up cooking, producing a soft, fall-off-the-bone texture; for barbecue heads, proper barbecuing— and I’ll agree with this so far as it goes— over woodsmoke produces a chewier texture which still takes some effort to gnaw off the bone.

Yet the same people who go on and on about the crappiness of meat jello will routinely buy the cheapest cuts of industrial pork they can find, and seem to have no interest in improving their barbecue by improving the quality of what goes into it. They would never assume that you could buy the cheapest steak you could find and get satisfactory results, yet the lesson doesn’t seem to transfer to pork. For me, I’m happy eating a cheap steak in a South American restaurant, say, I’ve never been one who was obsessed with dining upon dry-aged this or wagyu that, but I sense a vast difference between lean, mushy, pale tannish-pink industrial pork tasting of the wastes the pigs are raised on top of, and a beautiful pinkish-red slab of thick, marbled pork raised by someone who cares about raising something beyond the most basic commodity hogs. What do you really get if you cast your pearls of technique before flavorless industrial swine?

Instead I contacted Jake’s Country Meats, who sell at the Logan Square Farmer’s Market, and they set aside two pork shoulders for me, one bone-in (my preference), one boneless. The cost was $80, which was probably about three times what I’d pay at a Peoria Packing (though they were substantially larger than the industrial ones typically are), but the result was a massive amount of beautiful marbled shoulder. Here’s what one looked like after a few hours of smoking (they were too big to both fit on one level of the Weber Smokey Mountain until they’d shrunk a bit with cooking):

After about 4 hours or so, I painted the boneless one with the mustard sauce:

Another couple of hours after that, I scored the bone-in one and dabbed it with the vinegary sauce, making sure it ran inside the slits:

The boneless one was done first, and that’s mostly what we ate that night. The sweet-hot mustard sauce made a terrific lacquer, almost a little Chinese, on the boneless shoulder. Partly pulled and partly chopped (the meat could have taken another hour, but the kids couldn’t) it was a hit. The other came in after about another hour or so, and tasted by all the adults, it was liked well enough, but it was clear that the mustard glaze was the star. I didn’t find this surprising, as the vinegary North Carolina style is very much a minority taste. But everyone loved the smoky, good-tasting meat. And I had leftovers for the rest of the week and enough to make two large freezer packages as well.

to be continued…

I have a bunch of projects happening— announcement of at least one will happen very soon, I promise— and I haven’t been anywhere or done anything except those projects, or meeting about those projects, so going into the holiday seems like a good time to put up something I never got around to posting when it happened, which was August. I made jam, for the first time.

My friend Cathy Lambrecht has been giving canning seminars of late, but as with my piccalilli canning session last year, I succeeded in luring her over to my house to help me can something (and teach me how to do so without creating deadly toxins) by posing a challenge that would pique her curiosity. In this case, it was… peach fennel jam.

There’s this woman on the west coast named June Taylor who makes jams. No, not this June Taylor:

This one:

She does very high quality, very expensive little jars of preserves, you can find them at places like Fox & Obel or order online. Their secret is no secret: really great in season fruit, and as little sugar as you can get away with, so the fruit flavor really comes through. They may be runny compared to Smuckers, but they’re excellent. She also does some interesting combination flavors, and one that sounded intriguing to me was peach fennel. So that was my challenge: add fennel to peach jam, and see if it would be any good.

I had a half bushel of peaches I bought at a farmstand in Libertyville, and some great in-season raspberries (which were so good this summer!) in the freezer, and one head of fennel. Cathy brought some likewise in-season blueberries, and she also brought this:

Nduja, the spreadable cured Calabrian sausage which everybody suddenly was talking about and making. This was from Boccalone in San Francisco (brought to Cathy by Charlotte Tan, aka LTHer Crazy C). The flavor was good but the Underwood Deviled Ham texture is kind of offputting; I like my cured meats to have some chew, frankly. Still, I meant to go try Mado’s for comparison, but… guess now I’ll be trying The Butcher and Larder’s for comparison!

So while I diced fennel and skinned peaches, Cathy prepared two pots, one for peach and fennel, one for peach and raspberry, which is a classic enough combination that it has its own name: peach blush.

Five jars of peach fennel were done first. (I put a bit of the fronds in each jar for an arty touch.) And what we learned was… far from being overpoweringly vegetal (I had feared something like peach-celery or peach-garlic), the fennel apparently volatilized so much during cooking that it was barely detectable at all, just the slightest hint of licorice in the peach. So basically it’s peach jam, nothing wrong with that, but if you want peach-fennel, you need more fennel, at least another head for this ratio.

Peach blush was up next, lots of it. It is a great combination, at first you think you’re just tasting the brassy raspberries but then the cello notes of peach develop underneath. It’s my favorite of the bunch, again, because raspberries were just so good this year.

Getting those two done felt like a day’s work, but there were peaches left and we had the blueberries and… well, we knew we’d be glad we did. So we cleaned the pot and tossed in the blueberries (at least they didn’t have to be peeled):

This came out really well, too, though I’d still say the peach blush was my favorite. And it was the one that really drove home the point, the miracle of canning: here’s something that was so evanescent, 6 or 8 weeks of amazing raspberries, I set them down in my kitchen after one farmer’s market trip and by the time I was back from walking the dog, the whole kitchen smelled like raspberry. And Cathy and I took that fleeting moment… and gave it immortality. Or at least another year. That’s a pretty wonderful thing, and if I haven’t put the photos up till now, believe me, as winter has come I’ve enjoyed our efforts from that day on plenty of mornings.