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Makin’ Better Bacon

As the proud owner of a Weber Smokey Mountain smoker, I have been searching for more “projects” to tackle since one can only eat so much BBQ Spare ribs, Pastrami, Smoked Meat Loaf, Beef Brisket and pulled pork. With the popularity of bacon rising to near cult like status, it struck me as natural to try to improve upon the substandard product proffered by todays producers.

Weber Smoky Mountain smoker
The Smoker assembled

Most commercial bacon is made using the pickling method which involves injecting the pork belly with a mixture salt, water and sugar and other curing and flavoring agents. One of these flavoring agents is the “smoke” as many commercial products never see the inside of a smoker. Traditional bacon is made using a dry cure mixture of curing ingredients rubbed on all surfaces of the “green” pork belly. The primary advantage of dry cured bacon is since no added water is injected during the curing process, the amount of shrinkage experienced when cooking the bacon is greatly reduced. The water cooking off is actually boiling your bacon and toughening it and remember, you paid for that weight cooking off. When you cure and smoke your own bacon you also have the advantage of personalizing your cure to obtain your desired flavor profile. The bacon will also absorb less salt during the curing process than that commonly found in commercial bacon.

Cured bacon at the start of smoking
Cured bacon at the start of smoking

Bacon can be made from any cut of pork but the most common is belly. Uncured pork belly is popular in many cultures but in America nearly all of it is made into bacon. As a result, belly can be hard to find. If you can’t find belly, use boneless pork butt to make backboard bacon. As a native of Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands, I enjoy my bacon cured with maple sugar, but feel free to substitute brown sugar if necessary.

MAPLE CURED BACON

Cure: (Amount given is based on a 5Lb Pork Belly. Ratio appropriately for larger and smaller amounts of belly)

1/4 Cup of Maple Sugar

1/4 Cup of Kosher Salt

1/4 Cup of Good quality Maple Syrup

2 Tsp of Insta Cure #1, Prague Powder (Insta Cure #1 can be order online from http://www.sausagemaker.com/ Required if you will smoke your pork belly to prevent botulism.)

If you can’t find Insta Cure, here is an alternate recipe:

Alternate Cure

1 Tbs of Morton’s Quick Cure per lb. of Belly

1 Tsp of Maple Sugar per Lb. of Belly

1 Tsp of Maple Syrup per Lb. Of Belly

Curing Process

Mix cure ingredients well and spread over all surfaces of the Pork Belly. Place into a Zip Lock Bag or Foodsaver Bag and remove as much air as possible and seal. Place in a refrigerator for 7 days. If using a Zip Lock Bag place it into a container to hold any leakage. Every day turn the package over (called overhauling). After a full 7 day cure check the belly. It should feel firm. You should also observe fluid drawn from the belly from the curing process. If the belly is not firm over the entire surface place it back in the refrigerator for an another day and recheck.

When the curing process is complete, remove the belly from the bag and rinse well. Then soak in cold water for 30 minutes. Change the water and soak for another 30 minutes. The belly is now cured. You can slice off a small piece and fry to check the saltiness. If too salty soak for another 30 minutes in fresh water. Continue this process until satisfied. Place the belly on a wire rack over a pan and place in the refrigerator for 24 hours uncovered to allow a pellicule (sticky coating) to form. This enhances the smoking process by allowing more smoke flavor to adhere to the Belly. You now have fresh Bacon.

Smoking Process

You can use a variety of methods to smoke the Bacon. In all cases you want to use indirect heat, maintain temperatures below 200 degrees F to reduce the amount of fat that renders from the bacon. You may use the smoke wood of your choice. I prefer apple wood. For a “stronger” smoke I suggest hickory. Smoke the bacon until the internal temperature reaches 150 degrees F. On my smoker this takes about 3 hours. Some sources recommend placing the bacon into the smoker at a reduced temperature without smoke for 45 minutes to 1 hour then add your smoke wood and raise the temperature to less than the 200F degrees. This reportedly further aids the smoke to adhere to the bacon.

Bacon after smoking
Bacon after smoking

After the bacon has reached the finish temperature of 150F degrees, remove it from the smoker and allow to cool. Place into the refrigerator for 24 hours to allow the bacon to set. Slice and fry to your heart’s content and enjoy the best bacon you may have ever had. Use a low temperature to fry this style of bacon remembering that you have none of the excess water in the product that commercial bacon has.

If your pork belly comes with the skin attached you have a choice. You can skin it before the cure or after smoking it or you can leave it alone and enjoy bacon with rind. If you choose to skin it after smoking make sure you do it when the bacon is still warm. Reserve the smoked skin as flavorings for soups and such.

If you are hand slicing your bacon you will find it difficult to evenly slice the last ½” or so. You can chunk this potion using it as a seasoning for green beans, other vegetables or for soups. You can also fry the chunks and make cracklins. If you are unable to source pork belly you are not out of luck. You can follow the same process using boneless Boston Butt extending the cure stage to 10 days. Trim the excess fat from the Boston Butt and butterfly or section the meat so no part of it is thicker than 3.5″ . Frying this style of bacon takes about one half the time of regular bacon.

Slow Cooker Scrapple

Regular readers may have noticed I have a bit of an obsession with scrapple, but up till now I’ve only written about the scrapple served in restaurants. That changes today with the formalization of my method for preparing my favorite breakfast food in a Crock-Pot®.

Why use a slow cooker? For one, it is not necessary to watch the pot during the initial stock making phase. I can start the process before I go to work in the morning or before bed at night and have the stock ready when I’m prepared to proceed. The stock can also be held on the WARM tempertaure setting waiting for use. But the most important reason is the ease of cooking and cleanup after the cornmeal is added. Anyone who has ever made scrapple, polenta, mush or anything else with cornmeal knows what a pain it is to constantly stir it to avoid scorching and that even the most minor sticking is difficult to clean up. The even heat of the ceramic cooking vessel makes this concern a thing of the past.

Scrapple fanatics can skip this next paragraph, but a few words are necessary for the neophyte scrapple heads.

Scrapple in America originated with the Pennsylvania Dutch (Deutsch or German) residing in the farm country near Philadelphia. In the late fall or early winter the hogs were butchered and processed into hams, sausage and other products. Wasting nothing, the farmers took everything that was left over from the butchering (heads, feet, organs, etc.) and cooked them all together, removed the inedible parts and thickened the mixture with cormeal and flour. The mixture was then poured into molds and when cooled and set was sliced, fried and served primarily as a breakfast meat.

Scrapple making was a lot of work and my goal with this recipe was to create a process to cut down on the labor but still create an authentic product. The key to this authenticity is the quality of the stock, and  unless you have a commercial kitchen or a huge outdoor kettle that can accommodate a pig’s head, your only option is pig trotters (or feet). One possible exception are fresh hocks, but these are rarely found as they are reserved for smoking. DO NOT use smoked hocks. Recipes on the net that call for chicken stock and ground pork will NOT create a quality product. What the trotters provide is gelatin. The gelatin creates a rich stock that sets up firm when cold. This allows the use of less cornmeal and thereby a moister product with a creamy interior when cooked. In the spirit of frugality, I do not purchase meat speciffically for scrapple. My method is to buy a bone-in pork butt and break it down for another dish (today Segedínský Guláš ) and then use the scraps and bone in the stock. Any cheap cut of pork will suffice though if you choose not to buy a whole butt. When it comes to liver, the historical choice is pork, but I have made scrapple with beef, veal and even chicken in a pinch with good results. Naturally beef gives a stronger offal flavor. One final ingredient that is significant is the buckwheat flour. The brand of scrapple I grew up with was made with buckwheat so I prefer it but you could easily substitute all purpose flour. It should be noted buckwheat flour is gluten free so keep that in mind if gluten is an issue for you.

SLOW COOKER SCRAPPLE

 

INGREDIENTS:

  • 2 pig trotters(feet), cleaned and split
  • 1 lb pork meat and scraps (add bones if you have them)
  • 1 lb liver , cubed
  • 1 onion, medium size cut in half
  • 2 sprigs fresh sage (substitute 1 Tbs dry if not available)
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 2 sprigs fresh thyme (or 1 Tbs whole dry)
  • 2 celery tops
  • 1 Tbs black peppercorns
  • 1 Tbs whole allspice
  • 6 whole cloves
  • 8 garlic cloves
  • 1 ½ Tbs Sea salt
  • ½ tsp cayenne pepper
  • 3 C yellow cornmeal
  • 1 C buckwheat flour

 

PROCEDURE:

Make a bouquet garni of the sage, bay leaves, thyme, celery, allspice, peppercorns, allspice and cloves tied in cheesecloth.

Place all ingredients in a large (minimum 6 Qt. ) slow cooker and cover with water.

Cook until pigs feet or falling apart (6 to 7 hours on high or 10 to 12 hours on low)

Strain through a fine sieve.

Skim fat (reserve if desired)

Measure 3 Qt of the remaining stock (add water if necessary) and return to the slow cooker. Turn heat to high.

While the stock is coming to a boil, pick through the scraps reserving the edible portions and discarding the rest. Chop finely by hand or food processor.

Return reserved meat and liver to the slow cooker and bring to a boil.

When boiling, SLOWLY add the cornmeal and buckwheat flour stirring constantly. (You’ll note in the photo that I slipped a bit adding the cornmeal which resulted in a few yellow patches in the finished product)

Cook the mixture for at least 1 hour (after returning to a boil) stirring occasionally. The scrapple will begin to pull away from the sides of the crock when properly cooked.

At this point you may optionally add additional fat in small quantities and stirring until well dispersed. This is the old time way of using the reserved fat which I dispense with for health reasons. If you choose to add it, stop when you see fat collecting on the surface.

Taste and correct for seasoning. You may need more salt as the cornmeal absorbs a lot. I try to watch my salt intake so you may find the recipe a bit light on it. I always add some fresh ground pepper and a bit more cayenne, but season to your taste.Scrapple in freezer containers

Pour into greased molds of your choosing. Most people use loaf pans. I use pint freezer containers as they are a more convenient size for a single guy and I can pop them right into the freezer when cool.

Scrapple and eggs
Scrapple ‘n eggs

One final note on cooking scrapple. The goal is to get a crispy crust with a creamy moist interior. By far the best utensil to achieve this is a cast iron skillet. Nothing conducts as well for browning and the cooking surface is always dead flat. If you don’t have cast make sure the skillet is heavy and very flat. The preferred grease is lard or bacon fat. Butter works too but do not cook scrapple in oil. In addition, I always flour my scrapple slices to help with creating a nice crust. You’ll find may ways to serve scrapple on the net. As a kid I always ate mine with REAL local maple syrup but now prefer it with eggs. If you plan on doing something with this scrapple other than slicing it, I would add a bit more corn meal or cook it longer to tighten it up a bit.

Impromptu Hot Sauce

This morning  used the last of my home-made hot sauce on my scrapple and eggs. It had been a great season for peppers and this batch was one of the best I’d ever made. Short of making a trip to the grocery store I appeared to be out of luck. Then I remembered the quarts of pickled peppers I had also put up this summer. Thus was born this Caribbean inspired sauce. I’ll probably play with it some more but here’s the first attempt.

 

IMPROMPTU HOT SAUCE

 

INGREDIENTS:
2 Qts assorted pickled peppers

3 Cups reserved pickling juice from peppers

2 carrots, peeled and dice

½ C chopped onion

10 garlic cloves

2 oranges, juiced

2” piece of fresh ginger

½  tsp turmeric

1 Tbs dry mustard

½ tsp cumin

Salt

Xanthan Gum (optional)
PROCEDURE:
Drain pickled peppers reserving juice. Stem and remove seeds.
Bring 3 cups of the reserved juice to a boil with carrots, onions and garlic. Simmer till tender. Remove from heat and cool.
Cool, transfer carrot/juice mixture to blender along with all other ingredients EXCEPT Xanthan Gum.
Process until smooth adding more reserved juice if necessary to reach desired consistency.
Taste and correct for salt.
If you would like to keep your sauce from separating, add very small amounts of Xanthan Gum while the blender is running. If you are not familiar with Xanthan Gum PLEASE read the note below.

YIELD: About 6 cups

Notes on Xanthan Gum
Xanthan Gum is a natural food additive useful for stabilizing emulsions (like salad dressing) or suspensions (like this hot sauce). It is a VERY powerful thickening agent and is particularly useful because the thickening is not dependent on cooking and does not vary with temperature (think cold gravy). The viscosity DOES vary with agitation. Think of a bottle of commercial salad dressing. It is thick enough in the bottle not to separate but guts thinner as you shake the bottle. It then returns to the original viscosity on your salad. When using Xanthan Gum add very small amounts while mixing vigorously. Stop the mixing and let the product sit undisturbed for awhile to check for thickness. Add more as necessary. To give some idea how powerful Xanthan Gum is, I used less than a teaspoon to thicken this batch (6 cups) of sauce. Be careful!

Bedford Diner, Bedford PA


My recent PSU road trip brought me through Bedford, PA and to the Bedford Diner for breakfast. They are located on Route 222 just off of the Bedford exit of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and are easy to spot due to the huge sign out front and equally huge letters on the building itself. Bedford Diner, Bedford PAAlthough the building is not of typical diner construction, the interior layout is, having counter seats, booths and lots of stainless steel. White boards above the back counter advertise the daily specials, most of which are “all you can eat” and feature local favorites like ham pot pie. The breakfast menu is a bit larger than most as evidenced by the four varieties of pancakes served. I spotted country ham on the menu and had hope that since the menu also offered a ham steak I might have actually found a restaurant with the real thing. I ordered it along with eggs over easy, home fries, and toast ($6.95) accompanied by a side of scrapple ($1.60). Alas, the restaurant was out of country ham, so I must continue my search for the real deal. I settled for sausage, lowering the price of the meal to $4.95. While waiting for the breakfast, I scoped out the array baked goods, all of which appeared to be house baked as advertised. The pie safe didn’t contain those impossibly high meringue pies traditional in diners, but there were numerous other pies along with some huge cakes garnished with fresh fruit. My meal soon arrived and I was immediately struck by the scrapple which was a massive, thick slab that had been deep-fried. I’d heard of deep-fried scrapple before but this my first experience of eating it. I found it surprisingly good. The outside was very crisp and it was cut thick enough that the inside remained moist and creamy. The rest of the breakfast was not quite as successful. The sausage had a good flavor, but it had been cooked ahead and it had dried out from the holding. I had ordered the eggs over easy, but they arrived medium and were on their way to hard. The potatoes, although fresh, were cut so thin they fell apart into tiny pieces. Overall this was not a bad breakfast, but they clearly need more attention to detail. Cooking an egg properly is a basic skill that no diner can neglect.
Bedford Diner on Urbanspoon

Bombers Over Uniontown at B21 Coffee & Food Depot

For those of you who have followed my reviews, I believe you’ll detect a certain philosophy of food which my writing affirms. I stand for honesty, respect and a lack of artifice in cuisine. I hold the simple roadside diner in as high regard as the haughtiest of haute cuisine palaces when the ingredients are respected and prepared with care. Opulent surroundings and complex presentations are meaningless if the underlying food is conceived or prepared poorly. I’ve had more memorable meals standing on a street corner in Baja than in many of the high-priced restaurants I’ve eaten in.

One new establishment which adheres to this philosophy is B21 Lunch at B21 Coffe & Food DepotCoffee & Food Depot in Uniontown. Their address is 2 West Main Street, but unless you’re familiar with Uniontown the address can be a bit confusing. I, for one, was confused due to the fact that 2 West Main Street is on the opposite side of the street from 30 East Main Street. I don’t recall ever being in a city that doesn’t adhere to the convention of having odd numbers on one side of the street and even on the other. An additional issue is that the entrance for B21 is actually on Beeson Street, not Main. The confusion is explained by the fact that B21 is located in the basement (bunker) of the First Niagara Bank Building which does front Main Street.

B21 was opened several months ago by Roger Clatterbuck, an experienced and accomplished chef, to bring quality coffee, breakfast and lunch fare to the Uniontown business community. Being business oriented, they are open Monday through Friday from 7:30ish to 2:00 PM with take out orders and delivery a large part of the business. The hours allow Chef Clatterbuck to also run a catering operation known as War Eagle Rations. Chef Clatterbuck is backed up by two experienced chefs specializing in pastry and garde manger. Desserts at B21 Coffe & Food DepotEntering the military themed “bunker”, the patrons are immediately drawn to the wares of the pastry chef which are on prominent display. An array of brownies, cookies and coffee cakes are displayed under glass domes with samples being offered for tasting. The baked goods along with a cup of the excellent Caribou Coffee (which B21 serves) is a popular breakfast on the go for the office workers streaming in every morning. For a more substantial start to your day, breakfast sandwiches are available and are offered on a choice of excellent breads, bagels and naan.

Lunch is basically soup and sandwiches, but as served by B21, they reach a whole new level. Many larger and “classier” restaurants don’t bother to make their own soups anymore, but here the soups are house made and funky. The offering on my recent visit was “Mushroom Beef and Biscuit”, a rich cream of mushroom soup with chunks of beef and biscuits. Definitely a bit unusual. Sometimes you can’t tell what the soups are by their names and you’ll have to ask Chef for the composition. I couldn’t even guess what “1,2 3 OMG Soup” is. The soups are available by the cup, pint or quart and are packed in microwavable deli containers for convenient reheating at the office or home.

Seven sandwiches (“Bombers”) are offered on the menu, but daily specials and the “You design it” option gives the diner a multitude of choices. Continuing the military theme, the sandwiches are named after WWII war birds (though I’m not familiar with a B21). The sandwiches are offered on a choice of breads notably a Pugliese roll, a crusty Italian variety “bigger than a babies head”. I opted for naan, a middle eastern and Indian flat bread, which was stuffed with the daily special chicken salad, Havarti cheese, shredded leaf lettuce and ripe Roma tomatoes. The chicken salad was supremely fresh, with my only complaint being that the pieces of chicken were a bit large to be eaten in the naan. The naan itself, although not prepared on-site, was a lighter, fresher and more flavorful alternative to pita. I’ll forgive them for not making the Naan, as a 900 degree tandoor would turn the small space into a literal oven. Other creative touches include the “gravy-mayonnaise” and corn succotash served with the “XB35 Flying Wind” (turkey and cheddar) and the poblano preserves served with shaved pepper roasted beef sandwich (the “B32 Dominator”). And where else can you get the childhood favorite fried bologna sandwich, serve appropriately on white bread with American cheese and yellow mustard? All sandwiches are priced at $7.50 for a whole and $4.50 per half. Side dishes available include the usual cole slaw and macaroni salad, but being freshly prepared, they far surpass the versions served by many restaurants. Hummus served as a side is a nice touch and several salads are available in two sizes. Since B21 is geared primarily for take out service, the food is served in disposable containers and wrappings which actually adds to the spartan military atmosphere.

Although having limited hours and seating, B21 Coffee & Food Depot offers simple food well prepared with enough creativity to keep it interesting. Uniontown native George C. Marshall would certainly be proud of these “Bombers” and I would have to agree.
B21 Coffee & Food Depot on Urbanspoon

Impromtu Rainbow Trout

Planning the perfect meal is half the fun of cooking. Finding a recipe, shopping for the best ingredients and choosing a wine is to me as enjoyable as the meal itself. However, sometimes we don’t have the luxury of meticulous pre planning and must improvise. Yesterday was a case in point. While at work, my friend Jim brought me two beautiful freshly caught Rainbow Trout of about twelve inches in length. Normally I would have taken the trout home, planned the meal and prepared them the next day. However, I had plans for dinner the next evening (review to follow) and  since there was no way I would let those trout sit more than 24 hours (or freeze them) I decided to prepare them with the ingredients I had on hand. Unfortunately, the pantry was pretty bare and I had none of the items you would initially think of when preparing a mild fish, as for instance fresh herbs and lemon. What follows is the result.

 

Impromptu Trout

 

Ingredients:

  • 2 Rainbow Trout
  • 6 Scallions
  • 2 TBS Extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 Orange
  • 2 tsp Herbed red wine vinegar*
  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

 

Procedure:

  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
  2. Gut and clean the trout, leaving the head and tail on. Wipe dry.
  3. Clean scallions, mincing about 2 TBS of the green tops, leaving the remainder whole.
  4. Cut 6 half circles of the orange, reserving the remainder.
  5. Squeeze the juice from the remaining orange sections into the cavities of the trout.
  6. Place the minced scallions and orange slices in the fish cavities.
  7. Coat the trout on all sides with the olive oil and place on a bed of the reserved scallions on a baking sheet.
  8. Salt and pepper to taste.
  9. Bake the fish according to the Canadian Cooking Method**, 10 minutes per inch of fish thickness, measured at the thickest part of the fish.
  10. Sprinkle the fish with the seasoned vinegar and serve.

 

 

 

* The herbed red wine vinegar is one I make myself. It is flavored with orange peel, garlic, fresh rosemary, black peppercorns and hot peppers. I will post the recipe or the version I make is available for sale at Route 31 Bike, Board & Ski, Somerset, PA.

 

** After 35 years in the restaurant business, I rarely time my cooking, rather I cook “till it’s done”. However, the Canadian Cooking Method is very reliable and I often use it in recipes or when I cook whole fish. In 1959 the Canadian Department of Marine Fisheries started publication of the Canadian Fish Cookbook, a mostly forgettable tome except for the technical aspects of cooking fish. James Beard, a veritable god in culinary circles, often quoted the book and he brought the method to my attention through his writings. The method is simple. Measure the fish at it’s thickest part and calculate 10 minutes of cooking time per inch of thickness. Calculate exactly, neither rounding up or down. For example, a fish 1 ¾ inches thick will take 17 ½ minutes to cook. It doesn’t matter if the fish is baked, broiled, fried, or whatever. It will take 10 minutes per inch to cook it perfectly. Naturally, if you’re cooking a thicker piece of fish (½ “ or larger) and the heat source is from one side (broil or grill) the fish should be turned half way through the cooking time.