Making (Canadian) Bacon

I've got an informal list of life goals, upon which are many food-related items. One of the highest ranked and longest lived is my goal to make bacon. Today I made significant progress toward that goal.

Scroll back a few weeks. I finally broke down and on a whim bought Michael Ruhlman's book, Charcuterie. Among the recipes is of course one for your normal pork belly bacon, and another for canadian bacon. The latter is much easier to accomplish because it uses a pork loin, easily found at any megamart, but pork belly on the other hand is a challenge. I've been keeping my eyes and ears open for it, and so far the best I've found is a place that can get me pork bellies by the case. Not wanting to commit to $80 worth of meat straight out of the gates, I opted for the canadian variety.

Next problem was acquiring some sodium nitrite, aka pink salt, which is a very crucial element of curing meat. Unless of course you're fond of botulism of course, in which case go ahead and skip this step. I'm not so I didn't. Technically I suppose since this bacon is cooked within a few days of curing and since the cure is relatively short, there's not much risk of botulism. Mostly in this case the nitrite gives you the pink color and a bit of flavor.

Either way the darn stuff is near impossible to come by. I found meat cures at the outdoor store but that was all premixed with seasonings. I found Morton's Tender Quick at both Fred Meyer and Albertson's. That's could do in a pinch because it's quite similar to Ruhlman's Basic Dry Cure, but I wanted better control over the ingredients (for example, in this recipe there's no sugar, so the Tender Quick would have been all wrong).

There's the Internet and supplies of pink salt are readily available, but the shipping was pretty steep everywhere I looked and I didn't want to spend a ton on my first try (see above re: pork bellies). The solution came when I went on vacation to Oregon and had a chance to stop by Market Supply in Portland. They had it right there on the shelf for a whopping $1 per pound. Bingo!

The day of reckoning came. I stood with meat and cure in hand. Most of the process is spent in waiting. Bring the brine to a boil...and wait for it to cool. Put the meat in the brine...and wait for it to cure (2 days). Take the meat out, pat dry...and wait for a pellicle to form. Put the meat on the grill to smoke...and wait 3 hours to hit 150°.

One important note about this process is that I expected the meat to take on its pink hue while it was in the brine. It came out slightly pink but mostly a lifeless gray. I was somewhat concerned, although having invested so much already there was no way I could give up. So I smoked it and the pink came right out. The color ended up a wonderful rosy shade which I really must say is much more appetizing.

From start to finish it was 3 days. Not bad really. The results speak for themselves. The texture is much like any ham you've tasted, which is why Pizza Hut gets away with using the same meat for "ham" and "canadian bacon" on their pizzas. The color is pretty much the same too, and since it's a loin lacks any significant fat or gristle. The flavor though is outrageous. The smoke is what first hits you. Then the salt, since I left mine in the brine about 10 hours longer than I was supposed to. But ignore that and focus on the flavor. The spices are mild but compliment the pork nicely. It's a wonderful combination and save my mistake on the salt, very balanced.

Next step is to build a BLT out of this. Ruhlman's been running a BLT Challenge this summer and I plan to compete. I've got all my other components ready so sometime soon expect an update with the results. I can't wait!


Thoughts on School Lunch

My son is just finishing up first grade, so now is a particularly apropos time to reflect on how it went. Of course this year was his first year eating lunch at school. Long before last September we decided we would be sending him with a sack lunch and it's articles like this that make me glad we did.

We sat down and did the math before we started. For the $1.80 the school wants we can make a sandwich, buy a juice box and some snacks and still have a good $1.00 left over. So monetarily it makes sense. After reading the menus, nutritionally it makes sense too. We do let him eat hot lunch once a month, just for the experience of it (and sometimes when we run out of bread or wake up late). Without fail he chooses pizza day, and who can blame him? Pizza is delicious. We make pizza at home and he eats far more than his small demeanor would imply.

So while pizza is a fine food and is certainly OK to eat occasionally, what do we really expect from our kids? I have great faith in mine and they're smart, sure, but this is the same kid who stuck a BB in his ear requiring a trip to the doctor to remove it. They just don't have all the decision making skills of an adult and we shouldn't expect or require them to. It's our job to provide them with the right choices and show them why they're the right choices so they can make their own good ones in the future.

Getting junk food out of the school is an easy, no-brainer first step. Getting the USDA out, well that's a good next step.


Labeling Education and Nutrition Act of 2009

Congress is considering a new bill which would modify the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act with requirements for labeling of food in restaurants. I know that there are some requirements now, but I've only ever seen nutrition information at fast food places so I believe the laws only affect them. As I read this bill, it would apply to any business which makes and sells food at least 90 days of the year and which operates at least 20 locations under the same name. That eliminates one of my beefs with proposals like this, that they will unfairly burden small purveyors who can't as easily afford the nutritional testing or calculations required.

I'm still opposed to it however. If this bill became law, it would do nothing to stem the tide of obesity in this country. Nutrition information hasn't stopped Americans from eating far too often at fast food restaurants. Nor has it stopped people from buying pre-packaged meals at the supermarket. It won't do anything in sit-down restaurants either. It's a premise that's well worth some research, but is far from proven effective enough to be cast into law. My gut tells me that it isn't going to discourage anybody from ordering the "unhealthy" items, and as we know from Brian Wansink, "healthy" foods tend to be over eaten because we feel less guilt.

No, the real solution doesn't involve a food priesthood, as Michael Pollan calls it. We don't need nutritionists to tell us what to eat. Stressing about fat calories and daily allowances just causes stress, which won't help anything. Deep down we all know more or less what we ought to be eating, but we've lost it somewhere in our industrialized food economy. Just eat real food and don't eat too much of it. It's really just that simple.


Super Sweet Cream Cheese and Berry Pie

On a whim last night I decided to make some tiny pies. Pie dough is easy; it's just flour, water, oil and salt (1 cup, 2 1/2 tsp, 1/4 cup, and 1/2 tsp respectively). I baked them blind for 15 minutes at 400°, then removed to a cooling rack.

Then I needed something yummy to fill them with, so I dug through the fridge and found some cream cheese. I also had some cream, which I figured I could whip and fold into the cheese. So far so good, but I needed to jazz it up a bit. I spotted some sweetened condensed milk in the pantry and then I was in business. (These measurements are approximations. Make sure to adjust for taste and texture.)

  • 4 oz cream cheese
  • 1/4 cup sweetened condensed milk
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

Put the softened cream cheese into a stand mixer and whipped it real good. Drizzled in the sweetened condensed milk until smooth, about the consistency of mayo. In a separate bowl, whip the cream until soft peaks. Add the sugar during whipping until it's just sweet. Fold the whipped cream into the cream cheese mixture. Spoon into pie crusts and eat immediately, or store in the fridge for up to a few hours. Top with fresh berries, if you like.


Bluefin Tuna

The BBC is reporting that the bluefin tuna fishery in the Mediterranean may soon be shut down. That would be a Good Thing™. For full details I recommend watching the Deep Crisis episode of Scientific American Frontiers with the adorable Alan Alda or listening to this episode of Science Friday. The gist of it is that Mediterranean fisherman are harvesting way too many tuna and unless we make a change, we're bound to do to tuna what we did to atlantic cod. You've heard of Cape Cod, right? Just try to find a cod there and you'll understand the consequences.

I've been mulling over an essay about wolves which fits in very nicely to this topic, but I think it's deserving of a much longer post so I'll hold my tongue until then. I will just say that to date we as humans have been very ignorant of our place in our ecosystem. Somehow we imagine that because we're intelligent, we're immune from changes we make to our environment. Sadly we've been grossly mistaken and unless we learn to treat our resources wisely and with respect, we may not have them much longer.


Taste Test: Maple Syrup

For Christmas my aunt and uncle, with help from my sister, sent me a bunch of assorted items they picked up around town. One thing my sister picked up was a bottle of 100% maple syrup from Trader Joe's (which we don't have around here). I've been wanting to buy some real maple syrup for a while but thus far my wife has balked at the price which is at least 4 times as much as the corn syrup + artificial flavoring kind. The question then has to be, is the flavor worth the added cost? Naturally, a test test was in order.

Since flavors from pancakes, french toast, etc. can add to or mask the flavor of the syrup I decided to taste them on a spoon. I had about a teaspoon of each. Due to a risk of spilling the viscous liquid, I wasn't able to randomize the spoons but in the end it didn't matter much. The difference was readily apparent.

The artificially flavored syrup, this one from Great Value (Walmart store brand), was sweet and had a nice round flavor. I suppose I would describe it as maple although to that point in my life I had never tasted real maple flavoring. The Trader Joe's syrup, on the other hand, had an extremely rich set of flavors. There was not just one. There were a hundred flavors hitting my mouth at the same time. It was quite pleasant. It didn't seem quite so sweet. That's probably due to the corn syrup in the artificial syrup. It had some vanilla flavors, even some coffee flavors. The range was just extraordinary.

It's going to be difficult (to say the least) to go back to the plain stuff. I'm not sure how or if I can do it. This real stuff was, well, really good.


Egg Nog

People seem to have strong feelings about egg nog, mostly negative. I wondered how much of that might be because of commercially available egg nog, since often times home-made items will taste vastly different from something purchased at the store. Such is certainly true of chocolate chip cookies and bread, to name a couple. A lot of factors play into that I suppose. I decided to whip up a batch and find out.

The recipe I followed was of course Alton Brown's, he being my go-to guy with recipes. Be warned that it calls for raw eggs which some people are sissies about. Not me, no sir.

Simply put, you make the nog in two steps. First is whipping up the yolks with sugar. Then toss in the cream, milk and nutmeg (I had to substitute cinnamon as I only to late discovered I was out of nutmeg). In another bowl you whip up the whites to stiff peaks, then combine. I chose to whip the eggs by hand and let's just say I don't plan to do that again. Ouch.

The biggest difference from store bought (and I'm going from memory on this) was the viscosity. Store bought nog is pretty thick, kinda makes you feel 10 pounds heavier after drinking it. Alton Brown's was nothing like that. I started with 3 cups of liquid, plus eggs and ended up with about 6 cups of egg nog. All the difference was air and I could definitely taste it.

I also liked that I could add my own flavoring. As I mentioned, I used cinnamon which was good. I also tried a bit with hazelnut syrup and that was nice too. I bet most of your coffee syrups would be yummy too.

Bottom line, this egg nog is a keeper.


On Food Recalls

Certainly you haven't missed the rash of food recalls. One that stands out in particular is that of the Topps Meat company, which recalled 21.7 million pounds of hamburger patties due to possible infections of E. coli. This eventually led to the company going bankrupt and closing its doors. I also remember the bagged spinach debacle from last year, because a local kid died from the illness and because I grew some mighty fine spinach in my garden last summer so I didn't worry for a second that I would be at risk for eating the affected food.

Well just today, moments ago in fact, I discovered that the latest recall has hit my freezer. General Mills has recalled a number of frozen pizza products including the "10.7-ounce packages of 'Totino's The Original Crisp Crust Party Pizza, Combination Sausage & Pepperoni Pizza'". I purchased them some weeks back to feed to the kids and in fact the only reason they're still in my freezer rather than in my children's bodies is that the smell of them makes my wife vomit. Don't be surprised by that though. She's pregnant and everything makes her drive the porcelain bus.

Seeing all these food recalls has really got me to thinking about food policy in this country, specifically to the lack of a sane food policy. Look no farther than the farm bill which subsidizes food in the exact opposite proportion of that which the FDA recommends to us for better health. I have just a few questions which I would really like some answers to.

  1. What is the USDA actually doing since they're clearly not protecting our food supply? You can see the little "Inspected" symbol on my box of pizza, but obviously they didn't check closely enough. I could cut them a little slack if they missed this E. Coli outbreak because they were all busy playing Halo 3. I mean, c'mon. That's a fair excuse. But I suspect instead it's because the USDA is so filled with corporate goons from the very industry it's meant to police. They've got little incentive to do anything about all the problems.
  2. Why do people keep buying this crap? Literally. You do know were E. Coli comes from, right? Perhaps I should explain why I bought "this crap" in the first place, especially since I really should know better. It's because of the aforementioned pregnancy, which has sent me scurrying around the supermarket trying to find something, anything, that we can eat without disgusting my wife. It's getting pretty tough. This was just one of the many things I would normally not buy.

    Consider also that this is the cheapest form of calories in the store. Dollar for dollar you can buy more calories in a frozen pizza than you can in say a carrot (props to my man Michael Pollan whose book I will review shortly). If you look at the waistline of Americans, those are typically calories we can do without. But profits are to be had, so companies go for it.

  3. Why are these pathogen outbreaks a nationwide epidemic? While food contamination is a mostly preventable problem, it's going to be impossible to completely obviate them. But let's go back to the spinach incident of last year. If the spinach I bought this year (mine all died the moment it sprouted), I would know exactly who infected it, the wonderful folks at Shoemaker Farms in Blackfoot, ID who sold me a big bag of fresh spinach at the farmers market. He told me that when the news came out, he couldn't give his spinach away until he put up a sign saying that he grew it locally. What a crying shame because they have some of the best produce I've ever had.

    Of late I've been trying to change to a more local diet. We now get our milk at the local dairy (and in fact, it's cheaper now since gas prices have skyrocketed). I spent more time at the farmers market this year than last. I intend to join the new food coop that is getting started up here in Idaho Falls, possibly tomorrow even. We've gotten into canning our own food, my favorite probably being the tomatoes (which we got from Shoemakers).

    It's impossible to change our track and revert out of this global economy that we've constructed, and I'm not sure that I would want to anyway. But just because something can be done, doesn't mean it should. We definitely need to import chocolate from Africa and South America. It just doesn't grow here, so that's our only option. But we shouldn't be bringing in New Zealand apples during the height of North American apple season. Give me a break! (And if you're buying apples in September, you've clearly got no friends.)

That's enough ranting for now. I hope dear reader that you will be spurred to some introspection. I am definitely not the model of perfection, as evidenced by the fact that I bought the contaminated pizza-like cardboard object in the first place. Slowly I'm getting better though. I find that I think a lot more about my food purchases and that's really what I hope to inspire in you. I think I'll send in the UPCs from my pizza boxes, just to send General Mills through the hassle, but I can tell you for certain I won't be redeeming any coupons for frozen pizzas.


Cheese Experiment

For some time I have wanted to try my hand at making cheese. It's such a varied product and unfortunately, artisan cheesemaking isn't something you see much in the US. It'd be fun someday to create my own type of cheese and have a cheese cellar chock full of the stuff. But that isn't going to happen tomorrow.

Starting with David Fankhauser's wonderful cheese pages, I read a lot about the theory of cheesemaking. So far, so good. I decided to try labneh, which is a yogurt chese. To sum up the recipe, you salt some yogurt and hang it out until it turns cheesey.

The last part is where I had difficulty. Wanting to not waste food, I opted to use a 1/2 pint of yogurt rather than a full quart, as called for in the recipe. I think that's where I went wrong. Normally it should be set after 24 hours, but mine sat for 72 hours and was still pretty gloopy. There just wasn't enough weight to force the whey out.

I did get a bit of cheese out of it, though, and that little bit was good. Really good, actually. I tried it on some tortilla chips and that was delicious too. So I think I'll give it another try sometime soon.


Taste Test: Diet Lemon Lime

For a while, 7UP was running a promotion on their website wherein they would send you a free can of Diet 7UP, Sprite Zero and Sierra Mist Free, so I filled it out and it arrived a few days later. The box came with a cute little instruction card which I found to be a little humorous. Basically they said to chill the drinks, pour them into cups and drink the Diet 7UP last. Well, that's a little less scientific than we do things around here, so we made up our own strategy.

We labeled three cups and filled each with a separate drink, all at room temperature. Then I closed me eyes and mixed them up really good. We tasted each one a few times before making our decisions. Only after we had finished did we look to see which cup was which.

Of the three, we didn't really have a favorite. They were all excessively sweet. Now, let me preface that by saying that neither Karin nor I drink much soda, and in fact sugar products are pretty rare around our house. I'm sure we're not the target audience of these drinks.

The one thing we agreed on was which one we liked the least. Would you believe it was the Diet 7UP? It was the sweetest of the three and the taste was just a bit off balance. It was very hard to discern much difference. The bubbles contributed there. The other two weren't disagreeable, but as I said none of them particularly struck our palates.

After drinking so much pop, I ended up feeling rather sick. I'm not inclined to purchase any of these drinks.



Subscribe to RSS - food Subscribe to - All comments