Ginger-Orange Smoked Salmon Tacos with Avocado, Tomatillo Salsa, and Roasted Sweet Meat Pumpkin

I’m about to embark on a few weeks of travels, which somehow means that I’ve actually planned in advance and finished the April Charcutepalooza challenge a whole week early.

By this point of the Meat Festivities, I pretty much sit next to the computer like a crazy person waiting for the next month’s challenge to be announced.  When I read “Hot Smoking”…. I groaned. Ugh. Really? J. just bought a new smoker a few months ago and it has been Smoke City at our house, with him literally emerging from a cloud of smoke to wander indoors and ask if we have any more meat in the fridge that he can smoke. It’s not that I don’t think the taste of a slow-smoked chili-garlic-brown-sugar rubbed pork shoulder that drips with juice and falls right off the bone isn’t amazing… I just drank a touch too much champagne one night, happened to eat a lot of these smoked goodies, and now, let’s just say that the smell of smoke in my hair and on my clothing can sometimes make my stomach turn. It’s a pungent aroma, to be sure.

Instead of tackling the more complex charcuterie assignments (curing and smoking a pork loin to make canadian bacon or a pork shoulder to make tasso ham) I opted for the apprentice challenge: hot-smoke a piece of salmon.

I have to rewind here, and explain how we go about the whole process of smoking at our house.  Making smoked meats isn’t difficult, but it is time consuming.  Instead of grilling at high temperatures with charcoal briquettes or gas, hot smoking uses aromatic woods to create an indirect, smoky heat.  The long cooking time  and low heat results in moist, incredibly tender meats.  A pork roast or a chicken will be very dark and smoky looking on the outside, but juicy and pink on the inside.

Using the Smoker


There are so many different methods for smoking (you can use a simple Weber grill too), but I want to explain a little about ours.  J. did a ton of research and ended up choosing the 22.5 ” Weber Smoky Mountain Cooker.  It’s a large smoker with lots of versatility without completely breaking the bank. (I did see him gazing wistfully at the massive $2000 metal beasts, but I don’t even know how we would have gotten one home.)  Learning how to use the smoker and get a good fire was much more challenging for me than actually smoking some salmon.  Here’s the general process that I’ve figured out:

Soak the wood chips.

Now put a pile of charcoal briquettes into the chimney starter. Crumble up a few pieces of newspaper underneath it.
Use a long match to light the newspaper, which will start the charcoal burning.

Don’t mess with anything until the charcoal is hot. It will look like this:

Now dump the coals into the metal ring on the bottom grill rack.

The basic concept of all this is to get a really consistent heat going first, and then put your wood on top of the coals after that.  Since you want the coals to burn for a long time, when you put your hot coals on the grill you should also put some new cold ones on top of these.  We also use added a few big chunks of lump charcoal that burn for quite a long time.

Now you can put the middle section of the smoker on top of the base.  Inside this section is a large metal bowl that needs to be filled with water, helping to keep the meat moist while it smokes.

Replace the front cover, put on the lid, and go do something else for an hour or two.  The goal is for the temperature to be around 200-250 degrees.  Don’t get all antsy and try to start cooking right away; If you wait for it, the coals will create the right kind of low heat that we’re looking for.

Once the temperature gets around 200 degrees, open the front and put your soaked wood chips on top of the coals.  In a few minutes, a really impressive cloud of smoke will start billowing out of the grill.  You’re ready to cook.

And Now… A Recipe

Pigs are great and all, but you must try these fish tacos, with citrusy-spicy-smoky moist chunks of salmon, ripe avocado, sweet red onion, tomatillo sauce, roasted sweet meat pumpkin, topped with sour cream and fresh cilantro.  Not only will these totally blow your mind, but …. shhhh….. a healthy charcuterie recipe? It’s true. Don’t tell anyone.


Ginger-Orange Smoked Salmon Tacos with Avocado, Tomatillo Salsa, and Roasted Sweet Meat Pumpkin

There are several components to this dish, which you by no means have to replicate exactly. Store-bought salsa would be fine, as well as a different winter squash.

Serves: approximately 8, depending on portion size

Cook Time: 1 .5 hrs, not including time to heat up the smoker

Ingredients:

  • Citrus Smoked Salmon (recipe follows)
  • 20 small corn tortillas
  • 3 ripe avocados, diced into 1/2″ pieces
  • 1/2 large red onion, minced
  • 1/2 c. chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 4 oz. container of sour cream (creme fraiche would be good here too)
  • Tomatillo Sauce (recipe follows)
  • Roasted Pumpkin (recipe follows)
  • 2 limes, cut into wedges
  • salt and pepper
  • about 1/8 c. extra virgin olive oil (for a quick drizzle before serving)

Heat corn tortillas.  You can do this several ways- either on a cookie sheet in a 350 degree oven, placed on the grill, or directly on the burner of a stove.  Each method only takes a few minutes, just to heat the tortilla and give it a light toast.  (about 8 minutes in a 350 degree oven, 2 minutes on a hot grill, or 1 minute right on the burner of the stove).

Fill heated tortilla with whatever looks good to you out of the ingredients listed above.  If you want to make them similar to what I did, one tortilla would have about 2 ounces of salmon, 2 tbs. sour cream, 1 tsp. red onion, 1 tsp. cilantro, 1 tbs. tomatillo sauce, 3 cubes of pumpkin, a drizzle of olive oil and a squeeze of lime, and a tiny pinch of salt and pepper sprinkled over everything.

Serve with cold beer or lemonade on a hot day.

Citrus Smoked Salmon

Cooking Time: 1 hour (not including time to start the smoker)

Serves: 8 or more, depending how much fish you put in the tacos

Ingredients:

1 small side of wild salmon, about 2 lbs.*

approximately 1/2 lb. applewood chips, for smoking the salmon

Spice Rub:

  • 1 tsp. fresh cracked black pepper
  • 1 tsp. sea salt
  • 1 tsp. orange zest
  • 3/4 tsp. ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp. garlic powder
  • 1/2 tsp. crushed cayenne pepper (feel free to use a little less)
  • 1/2 tsp. fresh thyme
  • 1/4 tsp. coriander seed

Soak applewood chips and start the smoker.

Combine spices together, and rub onto salmon.

Put salmon on the smoker, skin side down, and smoke at 225 degrees for an hour.  If you want a more pronounced smoky flavor, leave the salmon on another 30-60 minutes.  Take the salmon off the grill. Cut into rough chunks to put into the tacos. (I like the skin, but you can remove it if you want).

*This happened to be the nicest piece of salmon I had access to; the size is really quite arbitrary.  Normally I would have bought just one small filet and made less of the spice rub.

Tomatillo Sauce

Ingredients:

  • 1 tbs. extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 dried cayenne chili, crushed
  • 15 oz. can of tomatillos, including the liquid
  • 4 tbs. apple cider vinegar
  • 1/8 c. roughly chopped fresh cilantro
  • 2 tsp. lime juice
  • salt and pepper to taste

In a saute pan, heat up the olive oil on medium heat. Saute the garlic and crushed chilis for 2-3 minutes. Add the rest of the ingredients to the pan and simmer for 5-6 minutes (just to heat everything through and blend the flavors together).  Transfer ingredients to a blender or food processor and give the sauce a few pulses, but not enough to completely puree.  Season with salt and pepper. Serve hot over the salmon, or chill and serve as a cold salsa.

Roasted Pumpkin

Roasted pumpkin pairs well with the salmon. It tastes clean and light but still has a rich sweetness.  I used Sweet Meat, which I think has a great texture.  You could also use butternut squash or sweet potatoes.

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 small pumpkin, with the seeds removed
  • 2 tbs. olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. fresh cracked pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. garlic powder

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place the pumpkin, cut side up, on a cookie sheet. Brush with olive oil and sprinkle with salt, pepper and garlic powder.  Roast for one hour, or until the pumpkin is completely cooked through.  Remove from the oven and cool for about 10 minutes (or until it’s comfortable to handle). Slice into 1/2″ cubes.

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Kale and White Bean Stew

We’ve been busy… planting zinnias, carrots and camelias, getting compost ready for May planting time, making orange marmalade and so much more.

grow!

This stew is the “holy crap I’m way too exhausted to cook anything elaborate but I really want to eat something healthy with vegetables and not just pasta” dinner.  If you have a lot of kale in your life right now, this is a good dish to make. Also if you happen to be short on time, energy or money.  It’s can easily be made vegetarian or vegan if you want. Such a simple list of ingredients, too: greens, broth, noodles, beans, cheese.

Kale and White Bean Soup

Cooking Time: 30 minutes minimum, but you can let it simmer longer

Serves: 6

  • 1 slice of home cured bacon or pancetta, diced (store bought is fine too, but it sure seems like there are a lot of people curing there own bacon these days… you could absolutely omit the meat altogether if you don’t have any in the fridge that day)
  • 1 tsp. butter or olive oil
  • 2 medium bunches or 1 very large bunch of kale, rinsed and roughly chopped (any variety will do; feel free to substitute chard, collards, mustard greens or even dandelion greens, taking care to adjust cooking time for the specific greens that you choose)
  • 2 quarts vegetable or chicken stock
  • 2 cans cannelini beans, drained and rinsed
  • 4 oz. shaved parmesan or romano cheese
  • 8 oz. of uncooked chiocciole noodles available from Bionaturae (substitute large macaroni noodles)
  • salt and fresh cracked pepper

1. Bring a medium sized pot of water to boil for cooking the noodles.  Season the water with salt.

2. In a large soup pot, melt butter on medium heat. Add diced bacon and saute for 4-5 minutes, or until it begins to brown. Add the chopped kale into the pot and saute for 2-3 minutes, or until the kale begins to wilt. Pour in the stock and bring the stew back up to a simmer. Cook for 20 minutes, or until kale is tender. If too much stock cooks off, add some water to thin the stew out again. Gently stir in the beans, and cook on low for 10 more minutes to bring the flavors together.  Season with salt and pepper.

3. While you are cooking the kale, cook the noodles separately in the pot with boiling water (I cook them separately to avoid overcooking the noodles and ruining the consistency of the broth). Cook to al dente, drain, and set aside.

4. To serve, put hot noodles into soup bowls, ladle the stew over the top of them, and give a few stirs to mix everything together.  Top with a liberal amount of shaved parmesan cheese.  Sweet potato biscuits or sourdough bread are great with this if you’re feeling extra inspired, and maybe a beet salad.

Happy eating and have fun out in the sunshine!

UPDATE: 10/26/11

I wanted to update this post with a local source for my favorite beans in the universe. West Side Renaissance Market in Ukiah sells heirloom beans from Rancho Gordo, a farm in Napa. They grow the best beans I’ve ever tasted- they’re meaty, rich, flavorful, and delicious simply simmered in some stock with few or no other ingredients.  Up until recently, I thought you could only buy their beans closer to the Bay Area, and when I discovered them at the WRM,  I bought a pack of their Cannelini beans and made this recipe.  The cannelini beans from Rancho Gordo are huge, the size of lima beans or butter beans. I don’t always follow the proper instructions for cooking with dried beans, but it never seems to matter. If you want to add dried beans instead of the canned beans the original recipe calls for, here’s the instructions:

Cooked Cannelini Beans

Soak dried beans for two hours. Drain. In a large stock pot, combine beans with a lot of water. I never measure…  I would estimate a ratio of about 1 part beans to 5 parts water. Keep an eye on the pot, if the water gets low you should add more water to keep the beans from burning. Add a liberal amount of sea salt and a few sprigs of fresh herbs like bay leaves or thyme.  Simmer the beans on very low heat for about 4 hours, or until they are completely tender but not falling apart. Drain, and set aside until you’re ready to combine them with the other ingredients in the stew recipe above.

The pound package of beans yields more than the two cans of beans called for in the original recipe, so I added another bunch of kale and a little more broth. Just eyeball it for whatever you’re in the mood for, though, and it will be fine.  If you don’t want to put in the full amount of beans, the Rancho Gordo website suggests puréeing the leftovers with some caramelized onions to make a spread for crostini, which sounds pretty divine. P.S. While I’m raving about Rancho Gordo’s amazing beans, I have to also recommend their Yellow Indian Woman Beans.  J. and I love making a huge stock pot of homemade chicken broth (the full deal, with bones, carrots, celery onion, leeks, and parsley) and then using the broth to make a big pot of the Indian Woman beans.  A nice loaf of bread and a salad from the garden complete the dinner, and we eat the leftovers with hot sauce and sunny-side up eggs the next day.

 

Featured Recipe: Stinging Nettle Spaetzle from Hunter Gardener Angler Cook

These spaetzle were the side dish that I made with my wild duck cacciatore the other day.  The recipe is from Hunter Gardener Angler Cook, one of my favorite sources for information about hunting and foraging.  Hank Shaw creates beautiful, upscale recipes for wild foods, and has a book coming out that you can be sure will be on my kitchen shelf.  Finding the Forgotten Feast is on pre-order at Amazon.com here.  His recipes are for dishes that you’d except to find in a high-end restaurant using expensive ingredients, and it never ceases to amaze me that the ingredients are actually all around us, waiting for us to find them.  If you take some time and learn what to look for, anyone can make forage and cook this food.

Wild stinging nettles are high in Iron, Vitamin C, and many other vitamins and minerals.  They grow throughout the United States in a variety of areas, often in the woods with filtered or full sunlight.  I’ve seen them in growing in open fields and among the Eucalyptus trees near the beach, too.  This website has some good pictures of nettles in the wild.  Don’t forget- when you’re foraging for wild plants, make sure that the area hasn’t been contaminated in any way, whether by pesticides, run-off from a nearby road, or, if you live at my house, pets (dog pee isn’t toxic, but it sure it gross to think about eating it).

There are only a couple of ingredients for this recipe: flour, nutmeg, a little salt and sugar, fresh eggs and some stinging nettles.  The nettles function very much like spinach, so if you really can’t get your hands on any, you could substitute either fresh spinach or frozen chopped spinach.

Whenever I tell people about nettles, I get a lot of comments along the lines of “Yeah, you’re insane, have you touched those things? No way am I eating that.”  I swear to you though, as long as they’re cooked, you’re totally fine and will NOT end up going to the hospital with stingers in your throat.  I promise. It is, however, incredibly important that you protect your hands and arms when you pick them, because those little suckers inflict some serious pain if you touch them when they’re raw.  I wear heavy gloves and a long sleeved shirt or coat and it works fine.  After you pick them, put them straight into some kind of container where you won’t touch them, like a tupperware or a thick bag.  From there they go straight into boiling water.

You’ll want to have two pots of water boiling.   First you blanch the nettles for about 3 minutes to remove the stingers and clean off any dirt or bugs that might be hiding in the leaves.  The nettles are now safe to handle with your bare hands.  In between blanches, shock them in an ice bath to keep the greens from overcooking and maintain their bright green color. The second pot of boiling water finishes cooking the nettles.

The nettles I was able to forage were on the older side, but it doesn’t mean they’re unusable. Their stems were tough and fibrous and they had started going to seed.  If you run into this, just run your fingers along the stem to separate the leaves from the stem (just like cooking with big kale leaves).  The seeds might get mixed in with your greens, but you won’t notice in the final product.  Feed the stems to the chickens or put them in the compost.

kind of messy at this point...

Once you’ve actually got the nettles processed and ready to cook with, you can either puree them or chop them up finely.  The original recipe on Hunter Angler Gardener Cook said to puree them with the milk, but my blender just broke, so we’re not doing that.

Squeeze out the water with a clean dishcloth or a paper towel.

Now combine the nettles with the other wet ingredients, milk and beaten eggs.  I happened to be out of cow milk when I made these and so I used soy milk instead.  I know, I know, eew, soy.  The recipe turned out fine though.  I also was distracted and put in three eggs instead of the two that the original recipe called for, and the recipe turned out fine.

dry ingredients combined in one bowl, wet ingredients combined in another

Stir the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients, forming a sticky, moist batter.  It reminded me of the consistency of a wet biscuit dough.

Transfer the dough to into a colander.

The next step sounds a lot simpler and cleaner written down in a recipe than it actually is.  Hold the colander over the pot of boiling water, and push the batter through the holes so that little pieces fall off into the boiling water.  You probably will end up with a big sticky mess, like I did:

The problem was that the individual piece didn’t want to fall off the colander (maybe it was the accidental extra egg?)  It still works though, just take a small knife and flick the individual pieces into the water.  It will be sloppy.  The point of spaetzle, though, is not to have perfect, uniform dumplings.  The irregular, rustic shapes adds to the charm of this rustic dish.  Just roll with it.

The spaetzle will float to the top when they’re almost done cooking, almost like gnocchi or other fresh pastas. I worked in batches, pulling out the cooked spaetzle and putting them in an ice bath while I waited for the other batches to finish cooking.

Drain off the ice water.  The spaetzle will hold well in the fridge for several days at this point.  To serve, I give them a quick saute in some butter with garlic and fresh cracked black pepper.

Stinging Nettle Spaetzle, from Hunter Gardener Angler Cook

To read the original recipe, written by Hank Shaw, go here. This is my very slightly adapted version.

serves: 6

cooking time: about 40 minutes, with 10 minutes of active cooking time

Ingredients:

  • 1 c. blanched stinging nettles, finely chopped
  • 1 c. milk (soy milk will work as well as traditional cow milk)
  • 3 medium eggs, beaten (the original recipe calls for 2 eggs)
  • 1/2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
  • 2 tsp. salt
  1. To process the nettles: Bring pots of water to a boil to blanch the nettles.  Liberally season the water in both pots with salt.  Put about one pound of unprocessed nettles into the water, being careful to transfer the nettles from their holding container and into the water without touching them (to avoid being stung).  Cook for 3 minutes.  Drain the nettles, and transfer into an ice-bath.  Wait 1-2 minutes to let the nettles cool.  Remove from ice water, and wring out any excess water.  Put the blanched nettles into the second pot of water, and cook for 2-5 minutes depending on the age (cook young nettles for just a few minutes, older ones need more time to become tender).  Drain, and rinse with cold water.  Strip the leaves from the stalks and discard the stalks, and pat dry with a paper towel or dish cloth.
  2. Combine dry ingredients in one bowl.  Whisk together finely chopped, dried nettles, eggs, and milk in another bowl. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and mix until combined. The dough should be wet and sticky, but hold together.
  3. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil for cooking the spaetzle. Transfer the dough to a colander.  Holding the colander over the boiling water, push the dough through the colander so that little pieces fall into the water. Use a small knife to flick off any stragglers that don’t fall right away.  The spaetzle will float to the top of the water, let them boil for another minute, and then they’re done.  It’s easiest to work in batches, pushing through about 1/3 of the batter into the water at a time.  Remove the spaetzle from the water with a slotted spoon and transfer to an ice-water bath.  Keep going until all the batter is cooked and all the spaetzle is in the ice-water bath.  Drain the spaetzle and hold in the refrigerator for up to three days before serving.  The quality, of course, will be the best if you serve them that day.
  4. To serve, heat a tablespoons of butter in a saute pan with some minced garlic, add in the spaetzle, and cook until heated through.  Feel free to add mushrooms, scallions, cream, or anything else that’s exciting to you. These are delicious little noodles and I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!

March Charcutepalooza Challenge: Brining

For the March Charcutepalooza challenge, we made corned beef, which then ended up in a whole bunch of dinners:

Corned Beef and Cabbage

This dinner pairs slices of corned beef with gently simmered vegetables right out of the garden.  That cabbage in the picture is the first cabbage I have ever grown in my life, which makes this that much more exciting.  I named her Cleopatra. Cabbages strike me as being pretty feminine  (in a Georgia O’Keefe kind of way.)

Reubens

Dinner #2 was the one I was really excited about, since sliced corned beef is ridiculously expensive at the grocery store.  Now that I know how to make my own (for significantly cheaper) I can have these perfect melty cheesy crunchy tangy sandwiches whenever I feel like.  My little brother is in town for spring break, and when he took a bite of his sandwich, all I heard was “mmffffff good smchh mmmm” through a giant mouthful of corned beef.  The homemade corned beef isn’t just cheaper, it’s also way more juicy and flavorful than the grocery store counterpart.

Corned Beef Hash and Eggs

Dinner #3 was the simplest and maybe the best.  It was one of the crazy nights where there wasn’t a lot of food in the fridge or time to cook dinner, but some scrambled fresh chicken eggs and a quick sauteed hash was way more delicious than I was expecting.

Three Weeks Earlier

To end up with all this food, I started out with a beef brisket that I bought at a great little butcher shop in Bernal Heights called Avedano’s Meats. When I walked in, I came face to snout with a whole pig on the back table that three of the guys that worked there were breaking down with huge saws.  Very nice.  The cases were lined with all sorts of gorgeous meats-  rabbit, duck, beef, and more. When I noticed the case filled with guanciale, pancetta, bacon and other cured goodies, I felt like these folks would like what we are doing. I purchased two beef briskets and a pork belly (now that we know how to make bacon, we can’t stop doing it), and headed back home.

The next step was to make a brine.  Brines are simply salt solutions used to flavor meats or vegetables.  There’s lots of room for creativity when you’re brining something, all depending on what herbs and spices you infuse your salt solution with and how long you leave the items in the brine.  You can do a quick brine on pork chops or chicken for just a few hours before you’re ready to cook them, or you can do a long brine, where the meat stays in its salt batch for a week or more.  The texture changes, and the meat becomes very juicy and tender.

our homemade pickling spice, with all kinds of aromatic herbs like bay leaves, coriander, and crushed cayenne peppers from the garden

Once you’ve made the saltwater and infused it with spices, you let it cool, and throw in your meat or vegetables. Then, you wait….

The original recipe called to leave the brisket in the brine for five days, but there’s a small chance that I got really busy with a bunch of other stuff and almost left it in there for three weeks (yikes).  I was terrified that I ruined it.

beef brisket in the brine, day 20

The three week gap was a epic saga of farmers markets, marmalades, and a whole road trip to through the California Central Valley and the Sierra Mountains. The almond trees were blooming, and the air was filled with flower petals and bees.  I won $8 at slots in Reno at 2 a.m., with a really sad Journey cover band singing Don’t Stop Believin’ to one sad looking guy at the bar.  I drove through mountain passes, happy that the roads had stayed clear, but nervous about the 25′ snow banks on either side of the highway. Then back home, to the brisket.

The next step was to boil the corned beef.  I’ve found this whole charcuterie learning experience very confusing, because even though I know deep down that vinegar and pink salt (sodium nitrite) are preservatives, and that this big chunk of meat should be perfectly fine to eat, I still am slightly confused and baffled that the process works so well.  All I can think of is that if I put a piece of brisket in a tupperware in the fridge for three weeks with nothing on it, it would be a disgusting rotten mess.  Instead, when it sits in its herbal salt solution, it turns into this really delicious flavorful corned beef.  Crazy.

After the beef is boiled, it’s ready to eat however you want. I saved some of the cooking stock and boiled vegetables with it for our first big corned beef dinner, which turned out great.

Corned Beef and Cabbage

Feeds: 6

Cooking Time: about 45 minutes

Ingredients:

  • 1 corned beef brisket
  • 1 large cabbage, split in half
  • 6 large red potatoes, split in halves or quarters
  • 12 large carrots
  • 6 cups reserved cooking liquid from the corned beef
  • salt and pepper
  • horseradish, optional, for serving

1. Pick vegetables.

2. Rinse and prepare vegetables. Put them in a large pot with the cooking liquid from the corned beef.  I cooked my corned beef separately from the vegetables, but if you haven’t boiled off the beef brisket yet, you could certainly cook everything all together, in one pot.  We’re goin for simple here.  Add water to cover the vegetables.  Cook for 45 minutes, or until all the vegetables are tender.  In the last ten minutes, add the corned beef brisket into the pot to heat it back up for serving.

3. Season vegetables with salt and pepper, if needed.  Nicely arrange cooked veggies on a plate with a few slices of corned beef.  I like my carrots and cabbage with a little smear of horseradish on them for a spicy kick, but this is up to your own personal preference.  Eat up!

If that’s not an easy dinner, I don’t know what is. That’s been the wonderful thing about learning to cure and preserve meats; it tends to be a fair amount of time and effort spent up front obtaining ingredients and learning the process, but in the end you’ll have a large supply of items on hand to make lots of separate meals, which means I have more time to spend in the garden and less time in the truck doing errands.

And a preview: next months challenge in Hot Smoking, and J. totally coincidentally bought this massive new smoker three days ago.  It’s gonna get crazy!

When Life Hands You Lemons, Take A Bunch Of Cold Medicine And Make Bacon Cheeseburgers

It’s 4:55 a.m. right now, and I suppose this must be why they invented NyQuil, which I currently have none of. I have lots of other cold medicine, which I am taking, and which doesn’t seem to be particularly effective. By which I mean that it’s completely not doing anything.  So, since I can’t sleep, you know…  I might as well write my Charcutepalooza Bacon Challenge Post. Right? (NO? I should go back to bed? Lies. The bed is not working for me right now).

This is gonna be a crazy post.

For the February Charcutepalooza Challenge, we turned fresh pork belly into delicious, home-cured bacon.  It was a Star Wars Meets Lord Of The Rings-style epic journey trying to get my hands on fresh pork belly and the pink salt needed for the curing process.  I know a lot of farms that raise pigs, but for some strange, strange reason, everyone that I called wanted to – get this- keep their pork belly and sell the bacon since bacon basically sells like winning lottery tickets, or free vacations to Hawaii, or, you know…. NyQuil if they were in my house right now. The point is, bacon is one of the most popular items at all the local farmers markets, with vendors often unable to even fill the existing demand, and no one had any spare pork belly lying around.  Totally weak.

Well, I ended up being in San Francisco, and I went to a great butcher shop that had piles and piles of it, right there, all for me.  Normally I like to know exactly where my meat came from, but there was a bit of a language barrier.  Even getting past “Do you sell pork belly?” and “Yes we do” was pretty impressive, so I bought two and considered it a victory.

at the butcher shop
duck!

 

much higher quality than the grocery store stuff....

Back when I didn’t have the flu, or whatever this is, I kind of intended on writing a little something about how supporting local specialty shops is a great thing to do, and how often do you find a proper butcher shop where they have high quality meats and they do all the butchering right there, on site, and you can talk to the butcher about the different cuts of meat and…. blah blah blah.  You see the pictures.  That meat looks darned good– try to find that at Safeway.

The Curing Process

So, first we had to find a special type of salt (Sodium Nitrite? I can’t remember. It’s pink, and usually just called Pink Salt).  The organic folks don’t always like sodium nitrite, since it’s definitely not organic, but in Charcuterie, Michael Ruhlman tells us that it’s completely safe in small quantities, and that you just wouldn’t want to use it like table salt. Which is why it’s bright pink, so that you don’t accidentally season your next big pot of soup with it. That salt was super hard to find, but for any San Francisco Bay Area folks, I finally found it at Village Market in the Ferry Building.  For people who actually plan in advance (the horror!)  the internet is also an available solution which doesn’t involve traffic, parking, lines, etc.

planning in advance and ordering pink salt off the internet would have avoided this

Once you finally have the pork belly and pink salt, the basic idea is to season the pork belly with a salt rub and then let it sit in the fridge for a week. (For the full set of instructions, refer to Charcuterie, by Michael Ruhlman).

pork belly

When the week is up, the pork belly is slow roasted in a low oven for a few hours.

cured pork belly before it goes into the oven

After that, you’ve officially made bacon, and you’re ready to cut of a piece, fry it up, and eat it!

The Recipe

What to make with bacon, well, besides the obvious?

farm fresh eggs and home-cured bacon

I think the real question is, what would I not make with bacon? (Sorry Deborah Madison.  I love your cookbooks but I am putting bacon in with those veggies.)  Back before I got sick, I had nice ideas about making some kind of pasta dish, with roasted pumpkin from the garden and bacon lardons, maybe some toasted nuts, fresh parsley, some asiago cheese…

ingredients for the dish that never was

The Fever and the Cold Medicine say that we’re making Bacon Cheeseburgers and that all that vegetable stuff is for losers.

The Best Bacon-Filled Bacon-Topped Cheeseburgers EVER!

These are the BEST cheeseburgers! I think the only reason I’m really sharing this recipe is all the cold medicine, usually it’s a big secret.  These burgers are juicy and packed with flavor (and super bad for you!)  Also, there’s a secret ingredient- grated fresh tomato! I stole this from a Middle-Eastern kebab recipe, because it’s works well in burgers too, and adds a ton of extra flavor and moisture.

In the winter I use a cast-iron grill pan to cook these burgers. In the summer, they go outside on the Weber grill.  You could also sear them in a cast iron skillet and then put them in the oven for about 10 minutes if you don’t own a grill pan.  

Makes about 6 burgers

Cook Time: 30 minutes

Ingredients:

For The Burger:

  • 1.5 lb. 80/20 ground beef
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 large onion
  • 1 small slicer tomato (not a cherry tomato, just a small tomato)
  • 1/8 c. BBQ sauce (whatever you have is fine)
  • 1 c. cooked, diced bacon (don’t be a baby, yes, I wrote ONE WHOLE CUP, just do it)
  • 2/3 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. fresh cracked black pepper
  • 1 tbs. garlic powder
  • a few tablespoons of grapeseed oil to season the grill

For the toppings:

  • lettuce, tomato, and onion
  • 8 bacon slices, cooked
  • 5 oz. extra sharp cheddar cheese (about 1/2 block), sliced thinly
  • 6 hamburger buns, toasted (whatever type floats your boat is fine)
  • ketchup, mustard, mayonaise
  • homemade pickles

1. I like to preheat my grill pan on very low heat.  Turn on the flame and using a clean cloth, rub grapeseed oil all over the grill.  Any other high-heat oil will work (like canola oil).

2. Using the large holes in a box grater, grate the tomato and onion and put the resulting pulp in a bowl.  It will be watery and messy, just dump it all in the bowl.

burger ingredients

3. Add the other ingredients for the burger to the bowl with the tomato and onion.  Using your hands (wash them first!), fold all the ingredients together gently, trying not to overwork the meat, but still making sure everything is well-incorporated.

4. Form the mixture into six patties and set on a clean plate until you are ready to grill (these could be made in advance, if you wanted, and put in the fridge now).

5. On medium heat, grill for about 4 minutes on each side, or until burgers are cooked to medium.  When they’re two minutes away from being done, layer two bacon slices and about an ounce of cheese on top of the burgers, and cover for a minute to melt the cheese. (I just use big lid from a different pan, since grill pans don’t really have covers).  Very important: Since these burgers have a ton of moisture in them, they will fall apart easily on the grill.  Don’t mess with them! Just put it on the grill, wait four minutes, flip it, wait four minutes, and put it on a bun. Don’t rearrange the grill 900 times while you’re waiting for them to finish.

6. Arrange the burgers on toasted buns with whatever toppings you like, and serve with pickles. Be happy.

bacon goodness