Sky Full of Bacon

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.

Eddie Lakin, a former fine dining chef turned burger guy, talks about how to make the perfect old school burger and fries a few weeks after the opening of his hotly anticipated Edzo’s Burger Shop in Evanston, in this 7-1/2 minute short produced for the Chicago Reader. Read more here.

Edzo’s Burger Shop from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

Like Super Dave Osborne, I throw myself into various culinary adventures heedless of the outcome, and so far I’ve usually succeeded well enough in the end— my first loaf of crusty bread was crusty in the same way a Sherman tank is, but within a few more tries, it was pretty delicious, and I’ve been making it ever since, happily.  Likewise, the first thing I tried out of Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie was bacon, and it went so well that, with a few refinements (such as buying better pork), I was soon renowned as a bacon maven.

This time, though, I may have been beaten.  Maybe I’m just tired after a long day, that’s what my partner in charcuterie Cathy2 suggested, but this one feels like it got away from me, I bit off more than I could chew, whatever.  Here’s my saga of an intense day of porkology, and hell if I know if it will prove successful in the end.

So it started with two large boxes of pork from my pork producer connection in Iowa.  In them were contained:

• Two full-length bellies (usually I just get the squarer rear half)
• One ham
• One shoulder
• Back fat
• Leaf lard

I would end up doing something with all of these except the last today.  First off, I cut the bellies in half and added the cure and maple syrup to three of the belly halves (the fourth went to Cathy).  That was old hat, and easy.

Next I cut out the coppa muscle.  You may recall my Coppablogging posts (here here and here), and how I said that it was fairly simple to find the round coppa muscle once someone like Rob Levitt at Mado had shown me where it was. Well, it was really simple to spot this time:

I sliced it out and trimmed it up, and Cathy got the pleasure this time of massaging the seasoning and cure into it.  That was easy too, and it went into the fridge for about two weeks of absorbing the cure.  Meanwhile, I set to dicing and cubing the meat and backfat for the next and most ambitious parts of today’s adventures in advanced porkitude.

My plan was to make two dry-cured sausages today.  The first was from Ruhlman’s book— a saucisson sec, a simple French country garlic and pork shoulder sausage.  The second, a bit more ambitious, was the sopressata from Paul Bertolli’s Cooking By Hand, a book widely used by professionals of my acquaintance (the Eckhouses taught themselves to make prosciutto out of it; Rob Levitt cited it as his main guide as he began making charcuterie at Mado).  That the latter is geared more toward professionals is evidenced by the fact that I had to cut the recipe by 2/3rds to equal the quantity produced by Ruhlman’s recipe, about 6 lbs.

Now, one thing I quickly learned is that sausagemaking is not a hobby you take up casually at no great expense.  I had the Kitchenaid with the grinder and sausage stuffer attachments, and some dextrose left over from the original coppadventure, but I still wound up having to buy 1) a smaller scale capable of measuring grams, 2) a better boning knife, 3) Instacure #2 and 4) Bactoferm starter culture (which promotes lactic acid formation, preventing nasty things like botulism) by mail from, and a container of salted pork intestines at Paulina Market— and that was only after I’d decided not to make big sopressata in 4″ wide cow intestines, because they only come in a $35 tub of 500 feet worth or some such.  You could spend a small fortune just getting ready for this, and as with the fortune of the late Mobuto Sese Seko promised you by a banker in Nigeria, it’s only the fact that you’ve already put so much money in that keeps you from stopping and saying the hell with it all at some point where doing so would be the only logical thing left to do, if you weren’t delusional by that point.

Anyway, I sliced and diced and cut into strips:

Into the freezer it all went.  First up to grind: pork shoulder and backfat for the saucisson sec.  And here we encountered one of the problems with the Kitchenaid as a sausagemaking tool: you can grind about half a pound before the silverskin and whatnot in the pork shoulder has wrapped itself around the blade and rendered it useless.  So I had to break the machine down and clean the blade and the thing with the holes it pushes the chopped meat through, every couple of minutes.  It made what should have been a few minutes of grinding into most of an hour; I was instantly envious of Eddie Lakin of Edzo’s, who told me when I interviewed him for a video that his grinder has a way of catching that stuff and wrapping it around the auger before it can choke off the blade.

Anyway, much later than I’d hoped, we finally had the meat for the first sausage all ground, and could add the seasonings in the mixer— Cathy having been hard at work getting them together and crushing them in the mortar where needed.  Then it was time to extrude the seasoned pork mix into the casings— and this too went much too slowly, with endless problems caused by the fairly gooey sausage mixture blocking air or creating air bubbles in the casings as we tried to stuff them.  I swear this was much easier the other time I did it, I’m not sure what the deal was today; but I have to think that part of it is simply that, while sausagemaking with a Kitchenaid mixer may be possible, it’s less than ideal and this is another case where having the right tools is the difference between a difficult and frustrating job and a relatively smooth one.  Another much longer-than-expected span of time went into this, with lots of frustration and some careful rereading of the books to see if we were missing something, but finally, we had about six good saucisson secs:

I tied them off and attached tags indicating which sausage they were and their weight in grams at the time of making.  At this point I realized something: my little wine fridge wasn’t big enough to hold these sausages, an equal quantity of another kind, and a coppa.  But the pork leg and backfat for the sopressata were already cut, so Cathy suggested that I make one or two sopressata as a test and freeze the rest of the meat for future use.  So we ground it all and I packed up most of it, measuring out one pound of the meat and then dividing Bertolli’s recipe by 15 to get the proper amounts.  Thankfully, at least the pork leg ground easily without the connective tissue problems the shoulder had had.

On the other hand, the thing that’s really a crapshoot is whether we did the Bactoferm starter culture right; by now we were working with such small quantities relative to Bertolli’s recipe that we could only guess how accurate we were.  At least two things I think should prevent any possible nastiness such as botulism: one, that it’s much smaller than the customary sopressata, so it should dry out more readily than a bigger sopressata and cure  more quickly, and two, when we fried up a little of each sausage and tasted them, they were both already quite salty.  So I would think that the salt should help prevent some of these problems, though I’m not sure if it will be too salty by the time it’s shrunk a bit and become more concentrated.

So anyway, here are the saucissons sec in the wine fridge, while the lone test sopressata sits out at room temperature for a day to activate the Bactoferm culture:

Even if the sausages are a total loss— and I don’t think they will be, but they may not be all that great, either— at least the coppa should work and I have, left over, a somewhat whittled-down but still decent size shoulder and about a half a ham, each of which should make for a nice, non-cured main dish at some point.  But I just don’t know about the sausages; stay tuned to see if it proved too much for me, or if I’m just selling the day’s effort short because it’s worn me down.  Maybe, with luck, the day will come that the pain and difficulties are forgotten but the taste makes it all worthwhile.

1. The most interesting, and comical, thing in this episode of Good Food is the story of a public radio journalist who went to Bhutan to help start a radio station… and discovered that the national dish of Bhutan is ema datshi, hot chili peppers with yak cheese. For breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s at about 26 minutes in.

2. I’ve already linked to PR maven/chicken-raiser Ellen Malloy’s RIA Unplugged blog, but this is a really good piece about how the media environment has changed for the restaurant industry.  (Or you can just read about her chickens… one of whom turned out to be a rooster, necessitating a moment of chicken truth.)
3. Saucisson MAC is a Chicagoan who posts about twice a month, but when he does, it’s epic.  Beautiful piece on bacon, great one about Thai sausage with some awesome pictures of trepanning a coconut, truly he is a comrade in arms to Sky Full of Bacon.
4. And on his site I found this one about a guy who not only makes cool charcuterie I never heard of like Nduja, but… don’t get overexcited now… he has a club for charcuterie lovers.  A charcuterie underground.  Vive la resistance! UPDATE: Reader/Twitter follower Jason Brechin points me to a couple of pieces he did on Laurence Mate, author and charcuterie-clubmaster of the above blog. Check ’em out, they’re good too!
5. I’ve wondered this too.  Orange chicken is not enough.
6. Thought-provoking piece on a guy who can identify the conditions under which beef was raised and slaughtered by eating it.  Evidently this would be less uncommon if we all just thought about the beef we were eating a little harder. (H/t to LTHForum poster Dansch)
7. Or we could just… grow our own food! Specifically… meat.

Okay, I don’t really think this is anything more than a concept piece for a competition…