bacon!

Ba·con. (bey-kuhn) noun. Cured and smoked meat from the sides and belly of a pig. Bacon. A smell immediately identifiable by hard core vegans and dyed in the wool carnivores alike. Bacon. A food that has reached a cult like obsession within the food community. Bacon. An item that until I made it myself, I really never gave a flying fig about. Bacon. The topic of this post…

Sure I’m the girl who gave you candied bacon, followed naturally by Candied Bacon Fudge; but I never really considered bacon as anything more than just another ingredient. However strangely enough, when we became the proud owners of a smoker my first thought was BACON! Crazy, right? Or perhaps not… Anytime I can figure out how to make something from scratch that I’ve ALWAYS had to buy, I do. Bacon seemed to fit that criteria perfectly! The more I considered bacon (be it homemade or store-bought) the more I began to see it’s inherent value. What would Quiche Lorraine be without bacon? And how sad would that BLT sandwich be without good ol’ bacon? Not to mention my roasted brussels sprouts or mashed turnips. I quickly came to the conclusion that bacon is in fact much more of a superstar than I’ve been giving it credit for.

Last summer was the first time we attempted curing and smoking a pork belly. I couldn’t find one recipe that seemed exactly right, so I cobbled two of them together and dove headlong into the process. The resulting bacon was not exactly a success. It was bacon all right but it was extraordinarily salty bacon, way too salty to be eaten on it’s own. I ended up using it in a variety of yummy recipes, but my desire to create the perfect slab of homemade bacon still loomed large in my little foodie heart. I spent the winter on a mission to find what I deemed the ideal bacon recipe, I was a girl obsessed. And then I found it. A recipe from Whole Foods for Brown Sugar-Black Pepper cured bacon. Naturally I tweaked the recipe a smidge (come on now, you know I can’t help myself!) but followed the curing directions to a tee. And guess what happened? Deliciousness baby. Total and absolute deliciousness!

We ate the bacon just as is. We ate bacon and egg sandwiches (on homemade english muffins). We ate black-eyed peas with bacon, brussels sprouts with bacon and maple syrup and one of my all time favorite side dishes— braised collard greens with bacon. We were in a bacon stupor and damn we were happy.

Bacon. Possibly the world’s most perfect food.

Homemade Brown Sugar-Black Pepper Bacon
Delish. Delish. Delish.

bacon group4

5 lbs. fresh deboned pork belly
4 cups coarse kosher salt
2 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
2 tbsp. ground black pepper

  1. Rinse pork belly and then pat dry with paper towels to remove excess moisture.
  2. Combine salt, brown sugar, granulated sugar and back pepper in a mixing bowl. Place half of the mixture in a large lidded container. Add the pork and cover with the remaining salt mixture, being sure that it is fully submerged in the salt.
  3. Cover and refrigerate the pork belly for 1 week, checking on it once or twice to be sure it’s still fully covered with the salt mixture. This will “cure” the belly, creating salt pork (a.k.a. unsmoked bacon).
  4. Remove the pork from the cure and rinse well under cold water. Fill a bowl large enough to hold the pork belly with water and submerge the pork. Allow to soak for 30 minutes then pat dry with paper towels and place on a rack fitted in a large rimmed baking pan (a lasagna pan works well). Refrigerate, uncovered, overnight to air-dry.
  5. Prepare the grill (or smoker) for indirect cooking over very low heat. Add 1 wood chunk (such as hickory or pecan) to the charcoal, or add 1 handful of the wood chips to the smoker box of a gas grill, following manufacturer’s instructions. Close the lid. When the wood begins to smoke, place the pork belly over indirect heat.
  6. Cook until pork is firm and slightly darker, about 1 1/2 hours, until the internal temperature reaches 145-150°F. Remember, you’re infusing the pork belly with a smoky flavor, not fully cooking it at this point. (If using a charcoal grill, replenish the charcoal as needed to maintain a steady temperature. Add 1 wood chunk to the charcoal every 30 minutes, or drain and add 1 handful of the remaining wood chips to the smoker box every 20 minutes before the old chips burn out.)
  7. Allow bacon to cool, then cover and store in the fridge for up to 2 weeks or thoroughly wrap and freeze for up to 2 months. (The colder the bacon is the easier it will be to slice.)
  8. Thinly slice, cook and enjoy!

*adapted from whole foods

Braised Collard Greens with Bacon
Even if you’re unfamiliar with collards and don’t really think you’d like them, this recipe will change your mind. It’s honestly one of my most favorite things to eat.

3/4 cups homemade bacon cut into lardons (or slab bacon, diced)
1 1/2 lb. bunch collard greens
4 cups onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, grated
1 12 oz. bottle of beer
2 cups chicken stock
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. black pepper
1 tsp. smoked paprika
1/4 tsp. ground cayenne pepper

  1. Dice the bacon, add to an already hot stockpot and allow it to crisp and the fat to render, about 5-8 min. Rinse the collard greens and remove the tough center stem of each leaf. Stack a few leaves together and slice them into thin strips. Repeat with the remaining leaves.
  2. Add the diced onion and garlic to the bacon fat and saute until the onion is translucent. Add the beer to deglaze the pan, being sure to scrape up any brown bits that have formed on the bottom.
  3. Add the sliced greens and stir until they are all moistened. Cover and cook for 5 minutes or until they begin to wilt. Add the spices and stock, reduce to low and cover. Allow to simmer, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes. Uncover and cook for 15- 25 more minutes. (I like my greens to still have a bit of texture to them so I cook them for 35 minutes, if you like yours mushy go for the 45.)

grandma’s minestrone

There’s a market about 10 minutes from my house that’s a grocery shopping adventure unlike any other. A trip there is a total sensory experience; from the Benetton ads worth of languages being spoken, to the enormous varieties of produce being sold (some completely exotic and unfamiliar). From the olive bar, fish market and cheese counter (which on any given day may include a sweet little old man making fresh mozzarella) to the fresh “you name it-they’ll make it” smoothie stand and united nations of a bread aisle. And let us not forget the bakery and chocolate department; an enormous chocolate fountain, hand dipped fruit, and chocolate Easter eggs the size of a small child’s head— Yeah they have it. Sounds like a crazy place, right? It is, but it’s also such an interesting no-two-visits-are-the-same kinda place that my kids actually jump at the chance to go. Even the NY Times has written about the experience of shopping there: “It’s mid afternoon, and as usual, Corrado’s is thronged with customers. In front of the deli counter, two women chat in Italian as they wait to buy sausage. A woman in a diaphanous pink sari prowls the spice aisle. In the produce section, a young Chinese man examines huge papery heads of garlic. ‘We cater to everybody and everybody comes to us,’ said Joe Corrado of Corrado’s Family Affair, one of the Northeast’s largest ethnic markets.” Don’t you wish you lived near me? Anyway, on to the point of my story…

Corrados has an entire aisle dedicated to pasta and grains. Seriously, an entire aisle! I’ll be honest with you, typically when I buy pasta I buy the brown rice type— it is after all the healthier and less filling option. But when I’m at Corrados all bets are off. You’ll find pastas there in shapes, sizes and varieties that you never imagined existed. How could I possibly walk away from such an amazing selection?!? On a recent shopping trip I loaded my cart with enormous rigatoni, spaghetti the thickness of no. 2 pencils and a couple of bags of pearled Italian Farro. In case you’re unfamiliar with Farro I’ll give you a quick primer: Farro is an ancient grain that’s steadily gaining in popularity. It can be made into hot cereal, served as a cold or warm side dish, turned into a risotto of sorts and even be served as a warm dessert with a little crumbled fresh ricotta and a drizzle of honey. However when I bought those bags of Farro I didn’t really have any of those uses in mind. In fact I didn’t really have anything in mind, I just thought I’d buy it now and figure things out later. The Farro sat in my cabinet for a while just waiting to be used until one day I found myself thinking of my little Italian grandmother. Not for any particular reason or of any particular memory, just thinking of her.

Grandma Perrone was the littlest of ladies, sweet and soft spoken and an amazing cook. She could take the simplest of ingredients and turn them into a feast. I can’t think about her without remembering the delicious soups she used to make; pasta fagioli, chicken with pastina and tiny meatballs and a hearty minestrone… and suddenly I found my inspiration.

Minestrone with Chicken Sausage + Farro (á la Grandma Perrone)
This is a wonderfully hearty soup that works equally well with escarole, kale or spinach. And while I prefer to use chicken sausage you can certainly use spicy pork if that’s more your thing.

farro soup

7 oz. pearled Italian Farro
2 tbsp. olive oil
14 oz. chicken sausage, broken up
2 cups diced carrots
2 cups diced celery
1 1/2 cups diced onion
4-6 garlic cloves, grated
8 oz. baby bella mushrooms
2 1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1/4 cup red wine
2 14.5 oz. cans fire roasted tomatoes (with their juice)
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
6 cups low-sodium beef broth*
1 medium head fresh escarole, roughly chopped
1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper
grated Pecorino Romano cheese, for garnish

  1. The night before you plan to make the soup place the dry farro in a medium saucepan. Cover with cold water and allow to soak overnight. The following morning drain, rinse and set aside.
  2. In a large stockpot over medium heat, warm the oil. Add the sausage pieces and allow to brown. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside. Add to the pot the carrots, celery, onion and garlic. Cook 5-6 minutes or until everything begins to soften. Add the mushrooms, salt and black pepper and cook until the mushroom have released all their liquid.
  3. Add the red wine to deglaze the pan, being sure to scrape up any bits stuck to the bottom. Then add the tomatoes, broth, farro and reserved sausage. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and allow to cook for 15 minutes. Add the escarole and crushed red pepper and allow to simmer for 3 more minutes or until the escarole is tender.
  4. Adjust seasonings and serve garnished with additional crushed red pepper and a healthy sprinkle of grade cheese.

*I realize this seems like a lot of broth, but the longer the soup sits the more liquid the farro absorbs.