It seems as though charcuterie has officially reached an apotheosis- the food world has been incessantly abuzz of late about all things cured, smoked, salted and brined (to the chagrin of some and the delight of others). Although several adventurous food bloggers like Matt Wright and Hank Shaw have been dabbling in meat curing for some time now, things recently reached a fever pitch in the blogging world and on Twitter with the advent of Charcutepalooza, a challenge in which a different type of curing technique is explored each month.
I missed the first challenge, duck prosciutto, but was told that I could “make it up” at a later date (as I write this, the duck is hanging in my basement pantry). The second challenge was something that my friend Kim has been making for a while now, home-cured bacon. I decided to go for it, so I hit up the Bucu family’s stand at Eastern Market and had this gentleman hack me off a 5-lb piece of pork belly.
The cure was simple- just salt, pepper, aromatics and pink (curing) salt, rubbed on the belly and left to work its magic for a week. The belly was then rinsed, patted dry and put in a 200° oven until it reached an internal temp of 150°. This stage was the only “problem” I had with the recipe- it stated to cook for 90 minutes or a temp of 150°, and it took me over 2 hours to reach that temperature, unless my thermometer is really off. But I figured it was better to err on the side of overcooking than undercooking.
As Charcuterie guru Michael Ruhlman suggested in his blog post on bacon, I went ahead and fried up a small piece as soon as it was done (well, after I removed the skin… I’m a pretty die-hard meat lover, but seeing nipples on my bacon was a little freaky). It was saltier than commercial bacon, but I figured that might have been due to it being an end piece.
In the past couple weeks, we have eaten the bacon on its own and incorporated it into several dishes such as Cuban-style black beans and this venison & porcini ragú. Since it’s not smoked, it’s a great stand-in for pancetta. I also made the French bistro classic frisée aux lardons, a salad composed of bitter frisée (a green in the endive family) tossed with vinaigrette, fried cubes of unsmoked bacon (lardons), and topped with a poached egg. There are versions that don’t use the egg, but to my mind it’s the best part, and really makes it a meal. The store Marvin went to didn’t have frisée so we had to use curly endive (possibly the same plant but more mature?), but it was a suitable stand-in. The salad with a glass of Beaujolais and a nibble of Roquefort was a pretty perfect Sunday afternoon lunch.
Frisée aux Lardons
serves two; recipe can be multiplied to serve more
2 small heads of frisée, washed, cored and torn into pieces
3 Tbs sherry vinegar or good quality red wine vinegar
about 3 oz. unsmoked slab bacon, cut into ½-inch batons
1 shallot, peeled and minced
1-2 Tbs olive oil as needed
sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
optional if you have on hand: 1 Tbs minced fresh herbs such as parsley, chervil or chives
Notes: This salad is great with homemade croutons if you’re so inclined. Add them when you toss the salad so they absorb a bit of the dressing. Also, oil & vinegar amounts are a starting point and will vary according to your volume of salad and how lightly or heavily dressed you like things. Please adjust as needed! Last but not least, although I encourage you all to cure your own bacon now that I know how easy it is, you can substitute cut-up strips of regular bacon and have a less traditional but still delicious salad.
Wash and spin-dry the frisée and place in a bowl large enough to toss. Bring a small pot of water to the boil and briefly blanch the lardons; drain. Heat a small skillet and fry the lardons over medium heat until they begin to brown and render some of their fat. Add the shallot and cook until softened. Stir in the vinegar and deglaze any brown bits from the skillet. Remove from heat. Whisk in olive oil to taste until the dressing tastes balanced (this will depend how much fat was rendered from the lardons). Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Fill a medium-sized pan halfway with water and bring to a bare simmer. While waiting for the water, toss the salad with the dressing. Taste and tweak as needed with additional oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. Distribute onto two plates or shallow bowls. (A note here for people like myself with ADD tendencies: poached eggs wait for no one, so make sure to have the table, drinks etc. ready when you put the eggs in.) Poach the eggs for four minutes, until the whites are set but the yolks remain runny. Retrieve the eggs with a slotted spoon, gently shaking off as much water as possible. Place an egg on each salad and garnish with the herbs, if using. Serve immediately.
I’m absolutely not fronting when I say that, in all that pertains to food and drink, I have the most amazing bunch of friends EVER. In a mere 6 months, we’ve gone from small, loosely organized gatherings, to cider and Bordeaux tastings, to full-on day-long bacon-and-bloody mary smorgasbords that get mentioned in the New York Times. Holla!
The inspiration for Bacon & Bloodies came when I received a package from the generous folks at Nueske’s which included, among other goodies, 3 different types of their bacon! I suggested to the gang that this might be a good excuse to throw a bacon-tasting, and because bacon is sort of a breakfasty morning item, why not throw some bloody marys in the mix? My friend and business partner Molly gamely agreed to host at her lovely Lafayette Park condo.
We sampled several varieties of bacon, including the aforementioned Nueske’s (regular, “uncured”*, and pepper bacon), Niman Ranch (2 kinds, I believe), Benton’s, Link 40, J&M (a local bacon), our friend Kim’s homemade bacon, and probably a couple more that I’m forgetting. Each had their own qualities to recommend them- some smokier, some meatier, some nutty and mild. We didn’t do anything as scientific as to take notes; the bacon was just passed around like hors d’oeuvres as it came off the grill (courtesy of Jarred the grill-meister, who had a couple cast-iron skillets going for a few solid hours).
*Megan, the lovely PR person from Nueske’s, explained to me that although the USDA requires them to label the naturally cured bacon as “uncured”, it actually is a cured product.
Because the party started at 1pm, it ended up being more of a grazing/potluck type thing rather than a brunch. I had little trouble deciding what to bring, based on a Twitter conversation with Todd in which he made fun of Molly and I for our nostalgic enjoyment of Win Schulers’ Bar-Scheeze. I remember loving the stuff as a kid, bright orange and fake as it was; while it certainly pales in comparison to real cheese, it tasted absolutely complex when Velveeta was your benchmark. I decided, naturally, to make a homemade cheese ball in homage to the Scheezeballs of my youth. The funniest thing was that although I used top notch, all natural ingredients, people at the party admitted that they had initially avoided it thinking it was fake cheese! Hehe, more for me.
How to sum up a gorgeous October day in a few words? I’ll let the photos do most of the talking, but some of the highlights were the homemade pickles several people brought for bloody mary garnish, Todd’s pan-fried Cajun chicken livers, a wonderful Georgian cheese tart made by our friend Megan, and the steaks Molly and Jarred busted out around hour 6 of the party, with a phenomenal chimichurri sauce Molly made (she lived in Argentina and I will definitely be getting that recipe to share with you all!). I also made a cinnamon-honey ice cream which I hope to post about soon. Meanwhile, scroll past the remaining photos for a cheese ball that will please even the scheeze-haters.
Win Schuler’s-inspired Scheeze Ball
1 lb good-quality sharp cheddar, shredded
8 oz. cream cheese at room temperature
2 Tbs prepared horseradish, or more to taste
few dashes hot sauce such as Cholula or Tabasco
few dashes Worcestershire sauce
1/2 cup chopped pecans (other nuts may be substituted as desired), or a bit more if needed
5 strips bacon, cooked until crispy and crumbled (optional)
milk, as needed
Notes: This recipe is very loosely based on a Paula Deen recipe, but I modified it to taste more like Win Schuler’s. Paula calls for 1/2 cup milk; I didn’t find it necessary to achieve the texture I wanted, but if you feel the mixture is too firm, you can add milk a tablespoon or two at a time as you mix the cheeses. If not using the bacon, you may need more nuts to completely cover the cheese ball. The recipe yields a fairly large cheese ball, but can be halved if necessary.
Directions: Place all ingredients except the nuts and bacon into the bowl of a stand mixer and mix until completely smooth. Place the mixture onto a large piece of plastic wrap and form it into a ball. Refrigerate until firm, about 2 hours.
About 15-20 minutes before you want to finish the cheese ball, prepare the coating: in a dry skillet, warm the nuts and bacon (if using) over low heat to gently toast the nuts and re-crisp the bacon. Transfer to a paper towel and let cool. Put the nuts and bacon in a bowl or pie plate and roll the cheese ball in the mixture, pressing it into the cheese until the ball is fully coated. If not serving immediately, wrap again in a clean piece of plastic wrap and chill up to 24 hours.
With the exception of the occasional kofta or vat of chili, it’s not often that you’ll see me using ground meat as a base for recipes- no Hamburger Helper-type menus in this household. But my dad gave me several pounds of ground venison a few months ago and I’ve been working my way through them, trying new things and expanding my ground meat repertoire. My first two installments of the Venison Diaries were more experimental, but this time I decided to go thoroughly retro and make a meatloaf.
A typical “meatloaf mix” usually consists of 50% ground beef, 25% pork and 25% veal, giving a good balance of fat and flavor. For my meatloaf mix, I used 50% venison and 50% pork. I wanted to make sure the leanness of the venison was balanced out with the fattier pork so I didn’t end up with a dry loaf. However, I definitely think I could have used some veal and gone with a 50-25-25 mix as well. The recipe I used, from Cook’s Illustrated, uses a sweet and tangy (almost like BBQ sauce) glaze on the meatloaf, and also has you wrap it in bacon *drool*. To make this meatloaf extra-special, I bought some Nueske’s bacon to do the job. I first heard about Nueske’s via Matthew Amster-Burton in his book Hungry Monkey, and then my local grocery store started carrying it so I gave it a try. I wondered what could be so special about it to justify an almost $9 per pound price tag… until I tried it. Ladies and gentlemen, this is no ordinary bacon. I typically buy Niman Ranch bacon because of their sustainable practices*, and their bacon is certainly good quality, but Nueske’s is on another level- it has a different texture and “feel” than most supermarket bacon, and it doesn’t shrink up nearly as much as other brands. Finally, the flavor is nothing short of sublime. (And no, I didn’t receive any freebies from Nueske’s to write this blog post… but if someone at the company is reading this, I’ll be glad to take anything you send my way!! )
I figured as long as I was making meatloaf I may as well go totally traditional in my side dishes as well, so I made some mashed potatoes and peas. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve made mashed potatoes, but I do own a potato ricer, which I put to use on some white Michigan potatoes for an unbelievably light and creamy result. The potato ricer is, yes, an extra step and an extra item to wash, but the difference is well worth it. I wish I had made a bigger batch! Even though this wasn’t a typical type of menu for me, Marvin and I both really enjoyed it and I would definitely make it again if and when I get another venison windfall.
*I was disappointed not to find anything on the Nueske’s website about how their pigs are raised. The only info I could find online was that the pigs Nueske’s uses are “raised to their specifications” in Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota and Canada (not in Wisconsin, where the company is located) and fed a diet of a barley and corn mixture.
1 lb ground venison or beef
½ lb ground veal
½ lb ground pork
2 tsp vegetable oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 large eggs
½ tsp dried thyme leaves (or use fresh and increase to 1 tsp)
1 tsp salt
½ tsp ground black pepper
2 tsp Dijon mustard
2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
few dashes Tabasco or similar hot sauce
½ cup plain yogurt or whole milk
⅔ cup crushed saltines (about 16) or quick oatmeal, OR 1 ½ cups fresh bread crumbs
⅓ cup minced fresh parsley
6-8 oz thin-sliced bacon
½ cup ketchup, preferably organic/ without high fructose corn syrup
4 Tbs brown sugar
4 tsp cider vinegar or white vinegar
Make the glaze: Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan and stir over medium low heat until the sugar has dissolved. Set aside.
Heat the oven to 350°. Heat the oil in a medium skillet. Sauté the onion & garlic over medium heat until softened, about 5 minutes. Set aside to cool.
Mix the eggs, thyme, salt, pepper, mustard, Worcestershire, milk or yogurt, and hot sauce in a medium bowl. Put the meats in a large bowl and combine with your hands (if you didn’t buy a pre-mixed meatloaf mix). Add the egg mixture, onions, parsley, and crackers or breadcrumbs; mix until evenly blended and mixture is not sticking to the bowl. If mixture sticks, add more milk 1-2 Tbs at a time until it no longer sticks. (Note: I chose to go a different route and blend the meat in my stand mixer with the paddle attachment. This gave a totally different texture to the finished meatloaf, but one that I personally prefer.)
Place the meat mixture on a work surface. Wet your hands and pat the mixture into a loaf shape, approximately 9″ x 5″. Place the loaf on a foil-coated rimmed baking sheet. Brush the loaf with half the glaze (be sure not to double dip your brush since you’ll be serving the remainder of the glaze). Arrange the bacon slices crosswise over the top of the loaf, tucking the ends underneath.
Bake until the bacon is crisp and the internal temperature registers 160°, about 1 hour. Let rest 15-20 minutes before serving. Warm the remaining glaze and serve on the side.
Like many Americans, technically I’m what you might call a “mutt”- like a big pot of stew with lots of bits and bobs, my family tree is peppered with Scottish, English, Native American, French, German and probably a bunch of other genes I’m unaware of. But, coincidentally, I have Alsatian roots on both my mother’s and father’s side. My mom’s grandfather’s family, the Steffeses, and my dad’s father’s side, the Lothamers (originally Lotthammer) are both from Alsace and the Black Forest region (on the other side of the Rhine river, which divides Alsace from Germany). So, given the fact that I have been enamored with French language and culture from an early age, and that I have a French first name and German last name, I have adopted Alsace as my pays and taken to telling people with a wink that I’m alsacienne.
One of my uncles has done pretty extensive genealogical research on the Lotthammer family and has made contact with several families living in Alsace and Germany today that are related to us. When I was 16, he arranged a trip for me and my best friend to travel to Alsace and stay with some of the families he had made contact with through his research (yes, that’s me in the photo above on the right at age 16… the French got a kick out of my braces!). We were there for three weeks, and visited the region extensively- from the largest city, Strasbourg, to a tiny village called Guewenheim, and several towns in between (Colmar, Mulhouse, Thann, Belfort…). The experience was nothing short of transformative for a suburban teenager who until then had barely traveled in the U.S. let alone Europe.
That trip was a huge stepping stone on my path to adventurous eating and cooking. In Guewenheim, we stayed with a family whose refrigerator was unplugged and used as a pantry, because they ate fresh food every day and had no need to refrigerate anything! (Any leftover scraps were given to their lucky chien, Zora.) One of the funniest memories from that trip was going over to the home of an elderly woman in the village for a lesson in making kugelhopf, only to discover that the woman’s Alsatian dialect was totally incomprehensible to our limited third-year French ears. Let’s just say there was a lot of nodding and smiling going on that afternoon, and that I still don’t know how to make kugelhopf!
It took a while for my budding food curiosity to convert itself into a love for cooking, but some of the first recipes I ever made from a cookbook came from France: The Beautiful Cookbook. This was a gift from another uncle to our family, and since my parents weren’t the type to cook from a “fancy” French cookbook, the book defaulted into my possession. I still have a great nostalgia for the hours I spent as a teenager poring over the photos, reading about the different regions of France, and staring longingly at all the strange food depicted between its covers, trying to conjure what it would taste like. Luckily, not all the recipes were out of reach, and I taught myself to make tarte flambée (basically a “pizza” with crème fraîche, bacon and onions) so I could have a little taste of Alsace here in the States. With crème fraîche being readily available now, along with ready made pizza dough, this is now something that’s totally doable for a weeknight supper, and I’ve found myself making it fairly often of late. One of these days I’ll make a choucroute garnie, the most famous of Alsace’s regional dishes, but with spring around the corner, I don’t know how many more large heavy dinners will be in the works, so it may have to wait until next winter at this point. If I get really motivated maybe I’ll even make my own sauerkraut!
P.S. This is a GREAT recipe to adapt to the grill- see this post for instructions on grilling pizza.
Photo note: all of the non-food photos are scans of old photos from my trip. The top two are in Colmar; the third was taken atop Strasbourg’s cathedral, and the remainder I believe are from Guewenheim (possibly another nearby village).
Tarte Flambée (Alsatian Bacon & Onion Tart)
1 lb pizza dough, divided in half
1 small tub crème fraîche (you’ll probably use 1/2 to 2/3 cup total)
3 medium yellow onions
6 slices bacon
white or black pepper
optional: shredded Gruyere or Emmenthaler cheese
Notes: This will make two approximately 10″ tarts, depending on how thin you stretch your dough. Each tart serves two as a main course or more as an appetizer, so you can make the second tart right away or save the leftover dough and toppings for a quick and easy after-work meal. Cheese is not traditional per se, but I had some and wanted to use it up. If you do use cheese, do so sparingly, otherwise you’ll end up with a pretty greasy tart. The nutmeg may be non-traditional as well but I love nutmeg with cream, bacon and onions so I always include it. White pepper vs. black is more a visual thing, if you don’t want black specks on your white food, use the white pepper.
Place a pizza stone in the oven on the center rack and preheat to 475. OR, make this on the grill. Remove your dough from the refrigerator and allow to come to room temp while you prep the onions and bacon.
Heat a medium (10″ or 12″) cast iron or aluminum skillet over medium heat. Cut the bacon into 1/4-” strips (I like to use a kitchen scissors and just snip the bacon right over the pan) and fry to your preferred doneness. While the bacon is frying, cut your onions. I like to do thin rings but you can dice it if you prefer. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Pour off some of the bacon fat, leaving enough in the pan to fry the onions. Saute the onions over medium-high heat until soft and golden.
Put a generous amount of flour on a pizza peel or other flat surface such as a cookie sheet with no lip (in a pinch, I have used an upside-down cookie sheet; you just need to be able to slide it off onto the pizza stone). Take one of your dough balls and flour it until it is dry to the touch. Gently stretch the dough, using your fists, flouring as you go to keep it from sticking to your hands or the pizza peel. I like to get mine as thin as possible, but if you prefer a chewier crust you can adjust accordingly. Don’t forget that your dough will shrink back a bit, so make it slightly thinner than you think you’ll want it. When you’re done, place the dough on the peel and shake it, making sure the dough moves freely and is not sticking anywhere.
Working as quickly as possible, spread a thin layer of crème fraîche over the dough, about 1/4 cup or a little more if needed. Top the tart with half the onions, half the bacon, a few grinds of pepper and nutmeg, and cheese if using. Slide the tart onto the pizza peel and cook until the crust is golden, 5-10 minutes depending on how thick you stretched the dough. Brush the flour off the peel and use it to serve the tart.
Sometimes it’s lovely to live alone. No one to bicker with over a stray sock left on the bedroom floor, or to question your kooky choice of paint color for the bathroom, or to be bothered when your basement band practice runs later than usual. A nice, quiet house when you’re in the mood to curl up with a book and a cup of tea. No one to fight with over the remote when you want to watch something ridiculous on TV. Although I do appreciate these and other perks, living alone doesn’t feel to me to be a “natural” state of affairs. I grew up in a large-ish family, and had lots of roommates throughout my college years. And while there are definitely things I don’t miss, like my sister reading my diary or “borrowing” clothes, or a roommate filching all the quarters from my change jar to buy cigarettes, sometimes I just want some company. This feeling seems to surface the most when I’m in a cooking mood, since it seems so strange to make something special or out-of-the-ordinary just for myself. (For more on the subject, see this post about eating alone/ cooking for one…)
So, with that in mind, when the mood struck last Saturday to make a luxurious breakfast, I texted my friend Kate: “Are u up yet? Want to come 4 breakfast in a bit?” She didn’t waste any time in replying that she would be over shortly. (So shortly, in fact, that I was still in my sweatpants and hoodie when she got here!) We sipped coffee and kvetched about our jobs and significant others while I fried up bacon and stirred the eggs. The idea for the egg dish had been rolling around my head for the last couple days- I knew I wanted to use up some scallops, and scrambling the eggs in a double boiler seemed like the perfect textural backdrop. Bacon is a natural partner of both scallops and eggs, so it was the logical third component. Nowadays I’m at the point where I usually trust my culinary instincts, but I did google the combination, partly to compare notes and partly to validate myself (lame, yes, I know!). Here’s a similar recipe I found online, although I didn’t follow it. It was enough just to know a “real” recipe writer had come up with something very similar.
Here’s my version, which will make a sumptuous breakfast for two ladies. Call a girlfriend and indulge. If you’re really being decadent, Prosecco or mimosas would be an excellent beverage choice.
slow-scrambled eggs with scallops and bacon
5 large eggs
1/4 cup half and half, or milk mixed with heavy cream
1 small shallot, minced
3 slices bacon, cut into 1-cm strips
about 1 cup (8 oz) scallops (I used some frozen scallops from Trader Joe’s and used about 6 per serving)
something green- I only had parsley on hand, but I think a little fresh thyme would work well here, or some minced chives
Heat a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Once it’s hot, add the bacon- I just take my kitchen scissors and snip it right over the pan. Give it a stir, and reduce the heat to medium, stirring occasionally. When the bacon is done to your liking, remove it with a slotted spoon and place on a paper towel to drain (I like it mostly crispy with just a little chew left). Pour most of the bacon fat off, leaving just enough to coat the pan. Return the pan to medium heat and cook the shallot in the bacon fat. When it begins to soften, turn the heat up a smidge and add the scallops to the pan. Cook undisturbed for 2-3 minutes (depending on the size of your scallops), and then turn and brown on all sides (another 2 minutes), taking care to remove from heat as soon as they are opaque in the center.
Meanwhile (assuming you can multi-task), put a large, shallow pot of water to simmer on the stove. Whisk the eggs and cream together. If you have a metal bowl, you can use the same bowl to mix and cook the eggs, or put the eggs in a smaller saucepan that you can fit inside the pan of water (if you have a double boiler, even better, but I don’t). Place the pan or bowl containing the eggs in the simmering water and cook gently, stirring with a wooden spoon, until eggs are still moist but cooked through. They will have an almost custardy texture. Stir in the bacon, scallops and shallot, leaving on the stove a moment more if necessary to re-warm the scallops. Divide between two plates and sprinkle with the fresh herb of your choice. (If using thyme, add it to the eggs as they are cooking so it can release its flavor.)