Sky Full of Bacon

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.