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 Last week, I found another cracker recipe on 101 Cookbooks and decided to take it as a sign. I love crackers and should probably buy some stock in the producers of Triscuits as many as I go through. And I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that making a batch of my own crackers wouldn’t be too hard – no yeast or rising required, but cracker recipes are relatively few and far between. When Heidi first published a recipe for crackers made with polenta, I was, of course, without polenta in the house. By the time I bought some, the cracker project had been forgotten. So last week’s post on semolina crackers was a nice reminder of that original mission and I happened to have some semolina sitting aimlessly in my pantry.

 The cracker dough couldn’t have been easier – all-purpose flour, semolina, salt, extra-virgin olive oil and water – mixed together, portioned out and let to rest. Glossy and pliable, the dough was easy to roll out; I used my pasta roller, which I adore and love any excuse to use, to thin the dough evenly. Using smaller balls of dough than Heidi reccommended, I was able to roll them thinner for a more crisp snap and then finished them in the oven on a hot baking stone.

 One of the strengths of this recipe, as Heidi notes, is the ability to play around with flavorings. I started with plain sea salt and fresh-ground black Tellicherry peppercorns, moved on to red pepper flakes and parmesan (which didn’t stick very well), and ended with balti seasoning, a spice mix from Penzey’s that contains coriander, garlic, ginger, cumin, dundicut chilies, Ceylon cinnamon, and quite a few other indian-inspired spices. The balti crackers were my favorite, delicately scented with just a hint of heat.

 After finishing the crackers, I wanted to pair a spread with the indian flavors of the balti spice without overwhelming the crackers I had just spent an hour rolling out and baking. Looking through the pantry, I decided on a classic hummus. It’s one of my go-to recipes, something I’ve been making regularly since I discovered it in college, one of my first culinary epiphanies. Concerned about my large consumption of hummus from tiny tubs in the grocery store, my friend Abby dug up a recipe for me. I can remember the awe I felt upon first making it – “This is so easy! And it tastes better! And it’s cheaper! Why didn’t anyone tell me this was this easy?” (I guess Abby did.) And I’ve been making this hummus ever since.

Hummus Bi Tahini

     thanks to Abby, makes ~ a little less than a quart, which goes pretty fast at my house

  • 2 garlic cloves, minced or pressed

sprinkle the minced garlic with a pinch of kosher salt, then scrape/press it across the cutting board with the edge of a knife to form a paste, breaking down the individual bits of garlic. add to the bowl of a food processor along with

  • 2 (15 oz) cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 1/2 cup tahini (sesame paste)
  • 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup warm water

process on low until oil is incorporated.

  • 2 lemons
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 teapoons ground cumin, optional

add the juice of one lemon, salt, pepper, and cumin if you are using it. process until smooth and creamy. taste. add more lemon juice and seasoning to taste. the tasting part is key, as is a bit of restraint with the garlic and lemon. I’ve gone overboard with both in the past in this recipe and I’ve found that tasting carefully for balance between the ingredients is key here. you can also add a bit more warm water if you are looking for a creamier, more dip-friendly texture after you have got the acidity right.

for a pretty presentation, spoon into a serving bowl, make an indentation in the center, pool extra-virgin olive oil in the indentation and sprinkle with za’atar, a middle-eastern spice blend, or a bit of cayenne.

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 Looking for a way to highlight some of the bacon I just finished making, but not feeling in the mood for anything too heavy, my thoughts turned to a southern classic – wilted spinach salad.  I always love the premise – bright green spinach, softened slightly with the heat of the warm dressing, contrasting with the snap of crisp bacon and creaminess of a perfectly hard-boiled egg. 

 I think the key is in getting the spinach to wilt and gloss over with the warm bacon grease in the dressing, rather than just coat the leaves and clump up.  Cooled bacon grease = bad mouthfeel. 

 Leafing through an old Cook’s Illustrated, I found a solution.  By tossing the aromatics in the dressing recipe into the hot pan with the drippings from the bacon and building the dressing around them, the dressing is able to retain enough heat when tossed with the cool greens to successfully wilt the spinach.  Think of each bit of onion and garlic as a tiny hot water bottle warming up the greens.

 The results were fabulous.  The bacon was crisp and perfectly salty, ensconced in greens wilted just enough for contrast. 

Wilted Spinach Salad with Warm Bacon Dressing

     adapted from Cook’s Illustrated, serves 2

  • 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • 1/4 teaspoon sugar
  • couple of grinds of black pepper
  • pinch of salt

 mix vinegar with sugar, salt & pepper. set aside.

  •  4 slices thick-cut bacon

slice into 1/2 inch lardons.  fry in medium skillet over medium-high heat until crisp ~ 10 minutes.  remove bacon from skillet with slotted spoon.  pour bacon fat into a heatproof bowl. measure 2 tablespoons of the fat back into the pan. 

  • 1/4 of a medium red onion, chopped (~1/4 cup)
  • 1 small garlic clove, minced

add onion to pan & saute over medium heat, stirring frequently, until softened ~ 3 minutes.  toss in the garlic, stir 15 seconds.  add cider vinegar mixture & remove pan from heat, scraping the bottom of the pan to get all the good, browned bits.  swirl and quickly toss with  

  • half a bag of baby spinach (~3 oz)

until spinach is slightly wilted.  garnish with bacon and

  • 2 hardboiled eggs, quartered or diced, if desired

 serve before the bacon grease can cool. 

Making Bacon at Home

February 8, 2008

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 My first shot at making bacon seemed much less like cooking to me and more like an exotic collecting expedition.  First I had to come up with pork belly, then curing salts – neither of which was to be found at the local Food Kitty.

 The curing salts were easily enough found online under the name Insta-Cure #1, so I clicked through and impatiently waited for them to arrive on my doorstep.  I have read about the health concerns associated with nitrites, but my sources said they were crucial if I wanted to smoke the meat at low temperatures for any length of time, preventing the dread botulism.  And since I had decided early in the process that I would give smoking the bacon a shot, this seemed necessary. 

 (Apparently it’s not a deal breaker if you finish the bacon in a low oven, though I’m not sure how this would affect the need for the nitrites.  Another experiment for another time.) 

 The pork belly was a little more difficult, with no luck at the local grocery or on a trip to a couple of fancier places in the DC area.  (To be fair, I should have called ahead.)  But I hit pay dirt at an asian grocer, Lotte Plaza, in Ellicott City, MD.  I lunched out in front of a case of pork bellies for a good ten minutes before choosing two perfect pieces.

  At home, I started the process, using the basic cure recipe out of Charcuterie and adding maple syrup to one belly section and fresh ground black pepper to the other.  I adore peppered bacon, but I thought I try out the sweet cure and see how it worked.  This part took a total of ten minutes (including the dithering over the maple syrup and my amazement over how truly pink the pink curing salt really is), and the bellies went into the fridge to cure.

The next week consisted of me peering into the fridge and poking at the bellies to try and ascertain whether anything was actually happening in there.  R. was much better at actually remembering to turn (and occasionally massage) the bellies on a dailyish basis.  But really when it came down to it, flipping them every day or so was all that was required.  Not exactly high-maintenance.

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Finally the week was up.  The bellies seemed to have firmed up upon poking, so I rinsed and dried them and fired up the grill for some smoking.  Full disclosure here – I own a gas grill, not exactly what anyone seemed to be calling for in the how-to-smoke sections of anything I read, but I decided try and see what happened.  I soaked some hickory chips I had been “aging” on my back porch for quite a while in hot water and made a packet for them out of aluminum foil.  I set half of my grill on the lowest setting, put the packet on that side and the bacon on the high rack on the other side, closed the lid and waited for the bacon to come up to 150°F.  Four hours later (and 15 minutes before I had to be at work), the thermometer alarm went off.  The bacon was beautiful and smelled, well, you can imagine, like smoky goodness.

On Becoming a Charcuterista

February 6, 2008

charcuteriecover.jpgI guess it’s appropriate to begin my new identity as Charcuterista with bacon. It’s an enduring love affair I’ve carried on through my life. One of my favorite professors in college, a vegetarian for 25 years, once admitted to me that bacon was the one meat she still craved; I can believe it.

This adoration, coupled with a more general urge to know how foods are made and where they come from, led to my Christmas wish list this year. I stumbled across Charcuterie by Michael Rulhman and Bryan Polcyn in Harvard Books while visiting some friends in Boston over Thanksgiving. Flipping through the pages, I realized that these traditions (something approaching the power of magic in my head thus far) were possible, and not only that, actually doable.

Part of the attraction of charcuterie for me is the utter abandon of it – the sensuousness of a silky, thin slice of prosciutto; the shattering crisp of bacon; the unctuous spicy flavors of sausage. Part of it lies in the opening for creativity, variation, and the ability to make something new and different.

But the most important part I see is the possibility of forming a new relationship with what I am eating. I am not a vegetarian, nor am I terribly interested in becoming one, but I am interested in how what I eat affects others. I feel like charcuterie is a way to make more with less, a way to use parts that might otherwise be wasted, and a way of intensifying meats so I can use less of them.

My first project, of course, had to be bacon.