So I Made Some Bacon…

I don’t fit a lot manly stereotypes. I’m not an armchair quarterback, don’t go hunting, don’t own guns, have no use for a man cave, don’t like fishing and have no working knowledge of automobiles. I like doing laundry, spending the majority of my home time in the kitchen and I love shopping for new clothes. Chances are, if you have a preconceived notion about me based solely on my gender, it’s probably wrong.

Except cooking with fire.

Gods bless America, I love cooking with fire.

Last year I finally trashed my old propane gas grill. It was a hard break-up because it was my first outdoor grill and together we learned a lot about fire, meat, cooking meat on fire and singeing arm and hand hair before dinner. The grill had rusted out, had a faulty starter and ran out of propane mid-chicken. While the chicken finished off in the oven, I figured I could either head out the next day to get more propane or I could buy a new grill altogether.

I went with the latter.

And with the latter, I also chose to switch fuel sources and buy a barrel-style charcoal grill. It’s an inexpensive Char-Griller with 830 square-inches of grilling space that utilizes cast-iron grates. Barbecue fanatics and YouTube recipe makers will tear this grill to shreds and modify it to the point where it’s no longer recognizable but it looks cool to me and it’s made some lovely steaks, shrimp, chickens, mushrooms and vegetables.

Sure, I wanted to switch to charcoal as a fuel source, hence the decision to purchase this grill, but my real reason was the side fire box upgrade. The fire box was sold separately and I made the upgrade shortly after the first of this year. I’ve been wanting to get my feet wet in the world of smoking and I now had my first-ever legitimate offset smoker. I was PUMPED.

Now before you start with the “they make automated smokers blah blah blah blah” let me just tell you that I’m not at all interested in them. Are they both handy and dandy? Sure, but they take out a lot of the effort that makes smoking meat so special. The idea of babysitting a piece of meat for hours at a time may be bothersome for folks, but to me it’s a challenge worth accepting.

I broke my smoker’s cherry with some barbecue ribs a few weeks ago using a dry rub and 3/2/1 smoking method. I learned a lot during this first smoke and made some pretty incredible ribs considering they were my first-ever on the barbecue.

Not much more information to give here, not even photos, because this post is about bacon, y’all.

I had been digging through some articles from barbecue guru Meathead Goldwyn and started thinking about how perfect it would be if I could learn how to make my own bacon. After having success with the ribs, I knew bacon had to be my next project, so I headed to the market to pick up a pork belly.

I started with a 5lbs pork belly and after washing it off, threw it up onto my cutting board, knife in hand, ready to take the skin off. The first lesson I learned: pork belly skin is a pain. In. The. Ass. to take off. I had a pretty crappy knife I was using, but from what I can tell, there is no good or easy way of doing it at home. Sure, I could have a butcher take it off for me, but my intention was to do it all and do it all myself. I hacked and scratched and peeled and tore at the skin until it was removed from the pork belly, though there was an enormous amount of fat still attached to the skin.

I’d later learn that the difference between pork rinds and cracklins is cracklins have a layer of fat on them. Fine, then. It was decided — I was also making cracklins.

I special ordered some pink curing salt (since the shit isn’t safe for human consumption and isn’t sold in stores) and once it arrived, I mixed it in with some salt, black pepper and brown sugar — a simple dry-rub and equally simple cure.

After curing for about a week, it was time to rock. I took out the cured pork belly rinsed it thoroughly and patted it dry. It went back in the fridge on a rack to further dry off while I prepared the skins. According to Meathead, it’s best to cut the skin into strips and then boil it for half an hour. This helps render a lot of the fat from the skins and will also help prevent the skins from getting tough later on. Once these were ready, I fired up my grill and prepared a few chunks of hickory. We were about to make smoke.

I received an iGrill Mini for Christmas and finally got to use it on my ribs. It worked perfectly as long as I was in range, which was frequently as I continued to add coals and wood chips to my fire. With the iGrill inserted into the thickest part of my pork belly and my grill fired up to about 180 degrees, I threw on both the pork belly and the skins.

The skins were supposed to smoke for about an hour, which they did, and I took them off while the pork belly finished. After about 45 more minutes (1 hour, 45 minutes total) the internal temp of my pork belly had reached our goal of 150 degrees — it was time to come off.

It’s encouraged to chill the slab of meat before trying to slice it because it’s easier to slice that way. It’s also encouraged to go ahead and slice off a piece of the hot shit because you’ve worked hard and, by gods, you deserve it!

My skins went back on to the grill over indirect heat while I grilled some chicken breasts for weekly meal prep. They grilled for about 45 more minutes and were puffy and popping around when I pulled them. They looked fantastic.

In the end, my cracklins weren’t great. They were still tough and not that enjoyable to eat. Then again, I’ve never had cracklins so maybe this is how they’re supposed to be. Who knows. What I DO know is that my bacon came out great! The flavor is definitely there and I’m very proud of what I was able to make.

The next lesson I learned is that I need a slicer. Hand cutting the bacon is laborious and inaccurate. I’ve ended up with bacon that’s sliced so thick it’s almost like strips of salty ham. I’m still not mad.

For real. This stuff is good, you guys.

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I Finally Made Meatloaf – AKA “Close Enoughloaf”

I read something in the last week or so, probably from Men’s Health’s Guy Gourmet, that said #FoodRule If at first you don’t succeed, cook, cook again. That’s pretty great advice, even if it does seem a little obvious.

When we lived in North Carolina and I was only beginning to learn to cook I tried making a homemade pizza dough. Following the recipe’s instructions, I mixed my dry ingredients in one bowl, my wet in another, then dumped the dry onto the countertop, creating a well in the center. When I poured the wet ingredients into the well they did exactly what science and nature wanted them to do and ran, quite literally, all over the place. It was a disaster and we were still picking dried yeast and flour out of the cracks between the counter and stove on the day we moved out of that apartment. That was awful, but if I didn’t “cook, cook again” I would’ve never gotten over it and would’ve never made the best homemade pizza I’ve ever made last week.

Same goes for that time my salmon was, apparently, freezer burnt and sucked fiercely in the center. Same goes for the time I made boring tilapia with a “rindy” mango salsa. Same goes for all the other mishaps, accidents, failed shortcuts and all-out poor jobs I’ve accomplished in the kitchen over the years. You’re going to make bad things: the key is to bounce back from it with at least some form of grace. It also helps to remember that if dinner really is that bad, Taco Bell is open LATE.

I’ve spoken about it before here but I’m a stickler for a nice presentation even when I’m merely cooking for Erin and myself. Dinner may taste wonderful but if it doesn’t look good then I chalk it up as a fail and mark one up under my culinary L column. I’ve also been known to curse, stomp and even throw things when something doesn’t “look” the way it should but this isn’t the place to discuss those events :-)

Last night’s dinner was dangerous and was, as lame as it may sound, a ballsy thing for me in the first place. For the first time I was tackling meatloaf. That may not sound like a huge deal but I have a history with meatloaf and have formed many unfavorable opinions on the subject.

I’d like to preface my first point by saying that my grandmother was a great cook. Her Thanksgiving potato “filling” should be world famous and I remember requesting her salmon patties as often as she’d be willing to make them. She could bake like a woman possessed by the devil of granulated sugar and when the monthly fellowship luncheon was on down at the church she was always the one bringing crock pots of roast beef or soup beans with homemade cakes or pies, biscuits or rolls, casseroles or cold salads while everyone else was bringing store-bought fried chicken and those rock-hard chocolate chip cookies. All that to say: My Gran was a helluva cook.

Except meatloaf. From what I remember, Paps was a fan of meatloaf and so she would make it for him fairly regularly and since I stayed with them for half of the time I would also eat that meatloaf on the regular. And, poor thing, it was awful EVERY time. Dinner at Granny’s was one of those things where you had to eat two servings of everything on the table lest you be accused of not liking it. And I did this well except on meatloaf day. I would spend dinner crumbling the loaf up and mixing it in with my mashed potatoes and peas, even sopping all of that up with a dinner roll, all in an attempt to mask the taste of her meatloaf. It was just bad all the way around. My mom would make meatloaf, too, and fairly regularly as well but thankfully hers was more tolerable. I remember a thick layer of ketchup that would turn gelatinous during baking smeared across the top and I think this was the saving grace for mom. Woe be unto me if the loaf was prepared alongside scalloped potatoes*, another food item I never cared much for.

So having a history of mostly no-good meatloaf aside the fact remains that meatloaf sort-of sucks just within its own name. Meatloaf. Meatloaf. Quite literally a loaf of meat. A loaf is something meat should never be able to make. Just hearing the word brings up images of the meaty remains of a butcher’s table, gelled together with dried blood and pus, crystallizing in the walk in freezer. Meat simply doesn’t loaf but it does work well in nice round patties called hamburgers. In fact, that’s one of my favorite uses of meat and I think is a much better use. You’re out of your mind if you think otherwise.

Finally, there’s the fact that I’m kinda snobby when it comes to the idea of meatloaf. Meatloaf, to me, isn’t something a civilized kitchen has the ability to make. It is served at places like Shoney’s, Ryan’s and Golden Corral, all of which are places any person that considers themselves fans of food should never step foot in. To me, if you make and enjoy meatloaf then you probably cook out of a box, frozen or otherwise, at home and consider an additional sprinkle of shredded cheese to the finished product the sign you’ve become a culinary mastermind. At my house we do not cook out of a box and if you think that means we’re stuck-up foodies then you’d be correct because that shit just isn’t going to fly in my kitchen.

So please take note – meatloaf doesn’t happen in the Simpson residence…

…Unless my wife wants me to give it a shot.

Yes, Erin likes meatloaf. She’s eaten it in the past and enjoyed her experience. We’re still waiting on her test results from the lab to determine if she truly has lost her marbles. Until then, I had a thought: I don’t like meatloaf, Erin does. As a home cook, it is my job to make food that my guests (usually guest) are going to want to eat and if my guest likes meatloaf then I’d be a total jerk to not at least attempt it once. Just because I don’t personally care for it due to past experience doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be able to improve it – and what kind of home cook would I be if I were too afraid to give it a shot? Meatloaf Challenge: ACCEPTED

…And this is where the Close Enough part comes in. I found this recipe from PaleOMG for Bacon Chorizo Chipotle Smothered Meatloaf. Even if it was meatloaf it’s made with ground beef and chorizo and is topped with bacon and chipotle mayo. Additional ingredients include spinach, mushrooms, carrots, onions and garlic so even if it sucks it should still be good, right?

In the end, yes, it did taste pretty good considering it was a bonafide meatloaf. Chorizo is one of my favorite things and it made for a good addition to the standard meatball-like flavor and consistency of your typical loaf. The bacon was chewy, yet crispy around the edges and the carrots were still undercooked enough to give a nice soft bite when they popped up on the fork. As far as pleasing the palate was concerned, my meatloaf was a success.

As for presentation, though…Well…Let’s just say I was reminded of this classic “Close Enough” meme. Go ahead and have another look at the recipe from PaleOMG real quick. I’ll wait for you here…

Now feast your eyes on this:

Ruined. For starters, I didn’t tuck my bacon strips far enough down into the sides of the loaf pan so when it started cooking it started curling up. By the time it was finished I had bacon “curls” on top of a meaty head. I didn’t cut my carrots up finely enough so there were spots of carrots poking out giving my already awkward teenager of a meatloaf giant carrot zits. I took the lazy route and decided to not make my own chipotle mayo and opted for the pre-made version created by Kraft so my creamy garnish came out of a semi-rectangular spout from a squeeze bottle the combination of which made it virtually impossible to form a steady stream of mayo for a presentable garnish so instead my meatloaf had nice pinkish blobs scattered throughout. To top it all off there simply was no slicing it. I dug my chef’s knife in directly in the center and my loaf just started to cave. Granted, I probably should’ve let it cool a little longer but I’ve never made meatloaf how the hell am I supposed to know this? There was no way of saving it so I just plopped it down on the plates alongside some coconut creamed spinach that I’ll probably never make again and said bon app├ętit.

It pleased the wife, which I guess was the original intent, but it still bugs me that I wasn’t able to present it well. If at first you don’t succeed, cook, cook again, I suppose, but I have a hard time believing I’m ever going to make meatloaf again. It could happen, yes, but as a great philosopher once said “It could happen…And monkeys might fly out of my butt!”

wayne_campbell

*Scalloped potatoes is something I’d like to give a shot, myself. If I remember correctly the scalloped potatoes I had growing up were prepared with a mix that came out of a little red box. I think this can be made well if one uses REAL food.

Mantry Unboxing: Bourbon Breakfast + November Favorites

So I missed posting about my favorites from the October Mantry box, GQ: How to Entertain in Style, but looking back, I don’t think it was as much “I forgot” as it was “I wasn’t that impressed.” The salami was good, as most cured meats are, and the chocolate “salami” was as tasty as it was an interesting concept but nothing really hit right-on for me. Thankfully our November Mantry box, Leftovers, was different and I want to share some of the things I enjoyed most:

  • Good News Cashews and Coconut Granola by Hudson Henry Baking, Co.
    Just before starting on this blog post I ate about a handful and a half of this stuff. Something about granola makes me think it’s going to be a terrible snack but if you can look past how messy it can be if you eat it by itself, it’s really not. I paired it this morning with a bit of blueberry Yoplait Light yogurt. The bag it’s delivered in is sizable – probably one of the most impressively large items I’ve had delivered via Mantry, and the flavor it provides is not lacking in either the cashew or coconut categories it draws its name from. Fresh and crunchy, this is some A+ granola!
    Buy it Here

  • Maplewood Smoked Bacon by Broadbent’s
    This was the first thing I tore into upon receipt of the box. The bacon is thick-cut and fries up beautifully. I added nothing to it or the pan aside from some fresh-cracked black pepper and even it wasn’t necessary. Mine and Erin’s tastebuds were assaulted with the strong, salty flavor you’d expect from country ham with a texture that was much thicker and sort-of chewier than your average bacon. There’s very little grease when you fry it up, likely because of how it’s cured, so you feel like you’re getting a nice fatty protein without as much of the fatty part. I enjoyed this bacon so much I ordered some for my parents and for my sister and her husband for Christmas.
    Buy it Here

  • “Ragin’ Rooster” Sriracha Mustard by Green Mountain Mustard
    Last week I made up some hamburgers that were equal parts lean ground beef and breakfast sausage. With a side of hand-cut cheese fries, the burgers didn’t need anything extra to assist with flavor but the addition of this Sriracha Mustard was a wise one. The mustard was a nice flavor compliment to the spice in the sausage while the Sriracha aspect provided a spicier “kick” while also adding a hint of sweetness that you don’t normally find in your average hamburger. We were both big fans of this one!
    Buy it Here

  • Spicy Maple Bourbon Pickles by Brooklyn Brine
    Also going on the aforementioned sausage burger, these Spicy Maple Bourbon Pickles stood well against the strong flavors of the sausage and Sriracha mustard, allowing for an even fuller range of tastes that basically attacked the palate on every front. I’m not a huge pickle-eater but these pickles along with the tiny onions floating around with them brought forth a nice extra bit of spice (but not too much) and a sweetness to the table. Again, not a big pickle eater, but I think these would stand well even on their own, let alone a kick-ass burger.
    Buy it Here

I’m trying to keep up the practice of utilizing my newborn Pinterest account to maintain a list of the Mantry items I’ve reviewed. You can find that board here.


December’s Mantry crate’s theme is Bourbon Breakfast and aims to give us a legit reason to look forward to waking up in the morning, especially during these cold, dark winter mornings most folks are currently experiencing (I say most because it was 53 degrees on the way to the gym at 5:30am here in east Tennessee). So maybe it isn’t as cold here as it is other places and maybe I’m more of a morning person than most but that doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to enjoy some of these bourbon-infused and inspired breakfast delights in this month’s box! Let’s get going:

Going left to right:
Hazelnut Whiskey Cookies from Whimsy & Spice, Brooklyn, NY
Bacon Spread from Skillet Street Food, Seattle, WA
100% Pure Vermont Maple Syrup from The Syrup Shop, Burlington, VT
Hazelnut Pancake Mix from Freddy Guy Hazelnut Farm, Monmouth, OR
Bourbon Blueberry Jam from Jam Stand, Brooklyn, NY
Spicy Borsellino from La Quercia, Norwalk, IA

Saying I’m excited to get down on some of these breakfast goodies is an understatement. I struck out when I made these Pumpkin Chocolate Chai Protein Shakes from PaleOMG this morning – a little too bitter for my taste and, according to Erin via text message, adding honey doesn’t do it any favors. I do intend to give these another shot on Wednesday, though, and will be adding some things I think will make them taste better (and still keep it Paleo-esque) since serving them in our Butterbeer cups we picked up in Diagon Alley back in October apparently didn’t do the trick on its own!

Fingers crossed for good results from everything and tasty breakfasts!

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