"Awesome!" A Blog.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Burgers' Jowl Bacon (bacon #2)

A few days ago, the dog started barking and a corn-fed man in a brown uniform strode back down my sunny driveway, having just deposited a hearty parcel of pork on my doorstep. Is there any tableau so quintessentially American? I nearly stood at attention, hat held proudly over heart, humming the Pledge of Allegiance. (I quickly remembered that the Pledge of Allegiance is not the national anthem, and sat back down.)

That is correct: Bacon of the Month Club shipment No. 2 is here. This one is Burgers' Smokehouse "Sliced Country Pork Jowl." It comes to us from the curiously named California, Missouri.

Being face bacon, rather than belly bacon, I suppose it's akin to guanciale, the mythical product that Mario Batali has been espousing for so many years. What I notice is that it's nearly pure fat, with very little meat. This is no bad thing. It's a cooking tool like any other, and I can see it as a sort of "final jammies," wrapped around so many different grilled foods, basting them while protecting their tender flesh from direct heat. I think of using it like caul fat, like the fancy fellows do on Iron Chef. To hold things together. Will I finally buy a weird little frozen quail? Will I finally do a scallop wrapped in bacon? I think all of these horseshoes are at least leaners.

I've only had a small sampling of Burgers' -- my typical "control group slice," done plain in a pan. It was pure fat, without any streak of meat, though most of the rest of the package does have a pencil of pink in it. It's nothing like Father's bacon. Tasting it does not bring to mind scenes of a randy redneck taking advantage of Ned Beatty in the woods while a cross-eyed hillbilly plucks a banjo on a porch. This product has none of that dense hickory perfume, and is just itself, pure pork essence. It's a much more subtle flavor.

I'll keep you posted. As ever, thanks for the recipes and techniques that continue to flow in. I read them all, and mull over them, and on occasion have even had them recur to me as I stood in a line or waited at a traffic light.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The San Francisco Giants Season Opener.

In the total body of work which comprises Achewood—a body of work which runs the gamut from topics as disparate as cutting-edge gay pornography and risotto burnout—you will notice a remarkable lack of baseball. In my youth, I played little league as earnestly as any mortally shy, four-eyed kid in jeans and non-regulation discount sneakers could, of course. My dad even coached a year or two, but it didn't amount to much (he listens to Sibelius in his Volvo and plays Frankenstein with heirloom rose grafts). At the end of my last year suffering under the mesh-backed, adjustable-strap crown of thorns, when the team awards were handed out, he had to give me an award just like everyone else, and I went home with a baseball in a spherical plastic case which read, "Most Versatile." Meaning, no matter which position they stuck me in, I'd be equally capable of moistening my dungarees if a ball came within twenty yards of my "responsibility zone." I eventually opted for Boy Scouts over baseball and my mother, whose arms grew taut and veined with the effort of hauling hundreds of yards of dungaree-ripe clotheslines to and fro each week, sighed with relief. Since that time, America's game and I have fallen irreparably out of touch.

Thus it was with no small amount of surprise that I found myself happily accepting a ticket to see the San Francisco Giants season opener last Tuesday. My old friend Jon, whom I have described elsewhere as a high-tech knee breaker and axe man who routinely travels the globe to put the screws to six-figure geeks, had a couple of sweet stubs that put us six rows back from third base, and I thought, "Hey, I'm a writer. I could use an excuse to wear pants this month. My wife would love it. She might even get out the camera."

I met Jon on the Caltrain that wends its way up the San Francisco peninsula from our southerly suburbs. The trip had been sold to me as an excuse to start drinking beer early in the day, a generative exercise with which I am professionally familiar. I wasn't terribly in the mood to sup on suds as I walked to the train at 11am this particular day, but I gamely picked up one of those mortar-size Heinekens at a corner liquor store and felt its cool weight against my hip as I waited for the train to toot and hiss up to the platform.

Jon wandered into my car and set down a Safeway bag full of Guinness and high-end potato chips (as I have mentioned elsewhere, Jon works hard, and takes his pleasure when and where he can get it). We cracked a couple of the cans and got to chatting about our kids. Here and there we broke off a couple of the Clotted Cream and Kielbasa Kettle Chips (real name forgotten) in our mouths and chewed like horses. I traded him my Heineken mortar for a humbler and more nutritious Guinness pint, and after a fashion we rolled into the San Francisco terminus, a mere block from AT&T Park. Having fortified myself earlier with a toaster waffle, I found the rate of Guinness absorption wholly pleasant.

Awash in a sea of fellow fans, we made our way to the park and had a quick Anchor Steam at the peripheral ACME Chophouse (how many ballpark slop-shops can say that their menu and food philosophy were designed by Traci Des Jardins?), before entering the gates and getting an Anchor Steam to wash down all that Anchor Steam. To dogpile the beer and keep it subdued, we ordered an unusual number of ethnic sausage sandwiches from the dizzying assortment of food concessions (correct me if I'm wrong, but I think I saw one small booth that was permanently serving a still-beating cobra heart to an animatronic Tony Bourdain). "Hey," I thought, "Maybe it's not me that's stayed the same. Maybe it's baseball that's changed." It was a happy moment. Perhaps I would have to have baseball over for halibut cheek ceviche and Żubrówka appletinis sometime.

We descended to field level and took our seats. My warehouse guy, who actually follows baseball with a religious fervor, described our address in the sixth row as "worth killing [me] over," so I was happy when we finally alighted and there was no C-4 duct taped to the underside of my seat. We settled in next to a couple of drunken, fat blowhards with chunky watches (Wikipedia: season ticket holders) who quickly engaged Jon in expert baseball camaraderie. I played it loose and fast on the other side of Jon and was largely ignored, despite my looseness and fastness.

The first few innings went smoothly, and I found myself watching the batters' stats on the Jumbotron. After noting a few curious trends (e.g., a perceived Gaussian distribution of batting averages in the batting order), I felt ready enough to dissect the sport with the drunkest and blowhardiest of the chunky watch brigade. Unfortunately, the subject never came up within earshot, so I busied myself with watching the Giants spray clouds of raunchy foul balls into the upper deck.

Before long, it was clear that I would get sunstroke, so I rolled down the sleeves of my fancy hiking shirt and pulled the bill of my old Boston Red Sox cap (purchased during the frenzy of the 2004 ALCS, at which time I happened to be in Boston) even lower on my brow. Jon wandered off to get a few more eight dollar beers, and the near-most blowhard pressed his opinions on me. After a bit of deft prying, I was able to get him to admit that he was very successful, and had sold a lot of things to a lot of people lately. Life had been worse for old him, he admitted in full candor. His friend afforded that the fellow's house was an excellent place for parties, and that there were always cool people there. I said that I agreed it must be so, and they seemed pleased. It was as good a time as any to head to the lavatory.

Using the men's room at a Major League baseball game is an institution and culture of its own, ancillary to the game itself, dependent but distinct. It is a milling, densely packed cattle call where fathers try to teach their too-young sons how to use regulation urinals. Teenagers gripe at the backs of the old, who can no longer muster significant PSI. Here and there a laugh spreads at an odd vector across lines of men who are half-paying attention to whatever micturation foible or embarrassing cell phone conversation is most obvious. Those who have just finished their business part the seas of uncomfortable men like a uranium Moses. If you find yourself next to a thorough hand-washer, you use the soap too. If not, your fingers dance briefly beneath the auto-activated spray and you are on your way back down the steps to your seat. To the blowhards.

Which brings me to why we left in the seventh inning. The Giants weren't up to much, and we'd had enough sausages, so it seemed unnecessary to run the risk of getting corralled into after-game beers at the blowhard party house. Jon and I instead ran a con about a sick kid or a wife with dysentery or something of the sort, shook a few quick hands, and trotted up the steps and out of the stadium. Feeling smart, we had a few beers, a couple Subway six-inchers, and caught the next train south. By six o'clock that evening I was standing in front of my hallway mirror and admiring my lobster-red sunburn dickie. A hot andouille curled against my pancreas and went to sleep. Anchor Steam trickled slowly from my ears. I was happy. Baseball was something different to me now, just like fishing and summer music festivals. As with those other sterling examples of boredom and agony, beer had drawn everything into focus. Thank you, Jon. Thank you, beer.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Moving on to Bacon No. 2

Part One: Thanks, Players.

First of all, thank you to the hundreds of players who have sent in bacon-based recipes. I could never hope to answer you all in a high-quality, "bacon"- style way, so let it be known that I have read and enjoyed all of your letters and suggestions. Here are some "fun facts" that I have culled from your correspondence:

1) People from England who have travelled in the United States uniformly assume that all of us cook our bacon into bitter little dry, hard strips at every opportunity. They think that if we come to England, we will break into their houses while they are away and cook all their bacon until it snaps when you drop a pencil on it. They think we sneak away from our own college graduations to ruin bacon in a van parked behind the stadium. How wrong they are. How strong their own country's bacon propaganda machine must be.

2) On the whole, most of the recipes I received were for some sort of pasta carbonara. I have had good—nay, great—carbonara, and it is an adipose indulgence on a par with eggs Benedict, foie gras, and rillettes. I know what you are talking about, and I know you write with love. I will attempt a carbonara, but I don't yet know in which month. [note to self: at the end of this paragraph, include a joke about a tap-dancing kidney, and how he sings about his need for fresh water.]

3) Black-eyed peas. If there is one treat that takes me back to my childhood kitchen with high-grade ballistic precision, it is black-eyed peas. Pair them with a butter-topped pile of steaming white rice and the only thing missing from that youthful, sensory triumvirate is the time I saw my half-naked, senile old neighbor mowing his front lawn with a load in his shorts.

3.1) In (3), I originally intended to thank the fellow who wrote in with the Hoppin' John idea, but "the tale grew in the telling," as they say. That's where I was going with that black-eyed pea angle.

Part Two: Putting Father to Rest

You may as well know the truth. After last I wrote, I had already dispatched the remaining four slices of Father's hickory-smoked bacon into the great gullet that spells end-of-days. I hid that information from you, as a writer. I knew I was doing something wrong, or at least disingenuous, yet still I carried on; I felt as though the greater time I afforded myself to come to terms with Father's final application, the more adequately I could convince you of its ultimate appropriateness.

After last time's egg-and-lardon salad, as you know, I had four slices of this supremely smoky bacon left. It was getting close to three weeks, and despite my best efforts, Father's bacon wouldn't last forever out of the deep freeze. I had to act quickly, and I did. With an inbox full of roasted butternut squash risottos and bacon-wrapped quail in mustard pesto, I did the unthinkable one morning, when no one was home.

I cooked the slices until tender, spread seasoned mayonnaise on two toasted pieces of bread, and set the bacon on a book-matched bed of cool, crisp, tender romaine hearts. A flash of the blade down the middle and there I had it: a thick, smoky bacon sandwich without much in its way.

Father's had a lot of personality — it was a cigar in a room full of dippers, a Stetson in a sea of beanies. As I wound down my trials with this first shipment from the Bacon of the Month Club, I didn't feel bad to use it this way. I feel I was lucky to grasp the essence of this particular meat just in time: that it was strong enough to stand on its own. If a slice of steamed ham is Liberace, with his wardrobe of lettuces, onions, pickles, sauces, cheeses, and fridge-ripened tomatoes, Father's was every bit a dying man with a wooden guitar, alone in the back seat of a Cadillac, the one who didn't need to dress up to say goodbye.

- - -

Next Time: New Shipment! "Burgers' Smokehouse Sliced Country Pork Jowl." First impressions of pork face fat quality, tasting, and rumination. Includes centered photograph.

Join the Bacon of the Month Club! gratefulpalate.com

Monday, April 02, 2007

Success With Four Slices Left

Time's running out for Father's Bacon, what with the next mystery shipment of pork hitting the vans today (I get an automated email letting me know that I had better be home or call in to the mothership if it's going to be otherwise). I've got four thick slices left after tonight's modest success, and I think maybe I'll even ask for a professional opinion as to what to do with them. There — any professional cooks out there? I've read and considered every recipe the readers have sent in, but these (with absolute respect to all contributors, and I hope to hear from more of you) peaked at wrapping a hot dog in bacon. Sure, on paper—technically—it's a remarkable achievement of charcuterie, but I feel like something as transcendent as smoked pork ought to do more than adorn an already-tasty hot dog. It ought to elevate something in need of its bountiful charity.

Foraging around my mental gallery of germane recipes this afternoon (price of admission: honor system; take one of the Chinese delivery menus I pretend are brochures), I considered the workhorse bistro salad of frisée with bacon and poached egg. Dress the lettuce, toss it with some lightly-rendered bacon and croutons, and drop a poached egg on top. How could you not like that? You would be a crazy fool with a nugget of cocaine under his eyelid if you tried to act like that would not be delicious.


On the left are two slices of Father's bacon in mid-render. On the right is a badly Photoshopped headshot of the final dish. I was so ashamed of my overexposed, washed out, hardcore-amateur picture that I put images of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il in each corner, in the hopes that they might wick away some of your ire and disappointment. Normally I like to make a big to-do of Achewood food photography, but I was rushed in this case. (I'm trying to get together a pithy statement about how temperature is the most important ingredient in any dish, bear with me.)


Like a beaming grandmother who sprays perfume at an asthmatic infant whom she hopes to mold in her image, I put the bacon slices down to cook whole. After a fashion, something told me that a chef with a thermometer in his tricep pocket would have cut the bacon into its little lardons (French for "lil' lardy-bops") first. Something about edge texture and more attractive finish. I removed the meat from the pan and quickly dispatched the strips into 1/2-inch bits before returning them and finishing the render.

Meanwhile, I got an egg poaching. I tossed in some vinegar to help the egg bunch together and look lovely, but I used red wine vinegar (even though I was only making dinner for one person, I made a lot of hack mistakes like this). The top half of the egg wound up with some pink discoloration around it, so at the end of the thing I plated it upside down on the lettuce (and attempted that deft food photographer's slice, the one that frees a nice little rivulet of ooey-gooey yolk).

When the bacon was done, I turned it out onto some paper towels and poured the grease into a can of Coca-Cola Cherry Zero (I will make sure this subtle nuance is in the final recipe). The pan had two great fond-outlines from the original strips, and the crouton cubes I'd set to brown in there didn't scrape them up, so, once the croutons colored, I dumped them into the frisee and poured my dressing into the pan to release the chewy brown outlines. I'd never done a functional warm dressing before. It was exciting; I felt like a person with red pants on. I felt like a person with red pants who becomes something better than himself because of the pants he is taking a chance on. I'm sure you have all been there.

In all, I was glad to find myself returning to basic dishes. When you taste this bacon, you don't sit around talking about redolent wisps of deprecated hyacinth, or tumescent campylobacters (like with most bacons, I'd guess). After my first bungling tribulations with the first bacon of the Bacon of the Month Club, I've arrived at a plump little maxim: "it's bacon, not paid-by-the-word hackneyed Victorian food writing." Bacon is simple, like a man smoking a cigarette on a train platform in Budapest. He doesn't need you, and he doesn't care if anyone cares about you. He's perfect at what he does, which is make everything porous smell like him. If a wolf ate him, the wolf would be named after him. The wolf would stink forever, and no hunter would place much value on his pelt.

Next time: putting Father to rest.