Last Sunday I made bacon and eggs for breakfast.
Nothing earth shaking about that — but I didn't buy the bacon from the farmer's market or even Farmer Joe's. Actually, I made the bacon myself — from a 2 lb. package of pork belly I received through Operation Pork.
I rarely cook meat — even though I am a meat eater. When I was single and lived alone, I pretty much only ate meat when I dined out with friends. Now I often eat meat at home because Peach is in my life and cooks it — oh, so tastily.
I grew up eating meat that came almost entirely from our farm's cows and pigs.
I saw pigs being born, pink piggies running hither and yon, and pigs nursing under the shade of simple, wood A-frame huts. Once a summer, my father got me out of bed at 5 o'clock in the morning to help him round up pigs in the pasture. After sorting the mothers from the growing babes, my dad and a local vet vaccinated, added nose rings, and castrated the males. (Believe me, this part wasn't fun to watch — especially on an empty stomach.)
But before this time of year came, my younger sister and I often rode on the tractor with my dad, as he pulled a trailer loaded up with both water and grain. Carmel and I stood to either side of my dad, on opposite foot spaces between tractor seat and wheel. Seems more than slightly dangerous by today's standards, doesn't it? I assure you, I held on tight, real tight, as the tractor crawled and jostled over grassy trail and then off it, dodging tree branches, while winding up and down the inclines and declines near creek beds, both large and small.
Finally, we reached the first A-frame hut and watched as my father hopped down to add water and then grain to two round metal pans, residing just outside the hut, where an exhausted sow lay on a comfy bed of straw, nursing her offspring.
This ritual continued on and on, driving from one hut to another, this way and that way, until the job was done — and all were fed.
At each stop, my dad counted the number of piglets, sometimes because the sow had just given birth, and he wanted to know the number — but more often, to make sure all were accounted for. Every now and then, he'd pull out a dead piglet, who had died most likely from being suffocated from the weight of its mother — a hazard of neglect, not malice. The lifeless pink body was then tossed over the fence into that year's corn or soybean field to decompose back to the earth.
I never raised any pigs myself, like some kids did — usually as a Boy's 4-H project or through FFA. I wasn't really interested at the time or encouraged to do so. I was a member of Girl's 4-H, where each year was devoted to a specific area of homemaking: cooking, sewing, and home improvement.
I was blissfully unaware of the reality of slaughter, except for seeing chickens running with their heads cut off once. However, I knew our meat came from our animals and that they were sent off to a local locker nearby when that time came. To be honest, I was glad that the only "edible" farm animal I bottle fed, when I was about eleven years old, was a white female calf — a runt who needed some extra care and attention. When Snowflake got big enough, she and Ginger (my sister's calf) rejoined the herd to become mothers. If we ever ate Snowflake, some years down the road, I was not notified, thankfully.
About once a year, white packages of pork — individually stamped with the name of both the cut and our farm's name, "Pop Corn Farms, Inc." — arrived to fill our deep freeze out in the breezeway. Unusual cuts by today's standards, like tongue, heart, and feet, were given to -- or requested by -- my grandparents. (My grandfather was a fan of head cheese.) If I remember correctly, our bacon was cured at the time of processing, so while we ate our own bacon, we had no hand in its making.
Pork belly time
So, now after much deliberation, I cured my "Operation Pork" pork belly using a recipe passed to me from the New York Times. I liked this particular recipe best of all the ones I perused because sodium nitrate was just an option, and the meat was roasted in the oven, not smoked.
To begin, I gathered together my curing spices: salt, garlic, brown sugar, pepper, and bay leaves. I used a pestle to pulverize the pepper cloves. And tore the bay leaves by hand.
Once the spices were sufficiently mixed, I placed the pork belly into a half-gallon Ziploc bag and began to smooth small handfuls of the spice mixture over the top, bottom, and sides — until it felt like every bit of surface was covered.
I made sure the zipper was completely sealed and placed the pre-cured bacon package into the refrigerator.
After a full seven days, I expectantly opened the bag to my nose and took in a deep sniff. Relieved to smell cured but not spoiled bacon was my reward.
I held the meat in my hands under lukewarm running water — rinsing off the cure. I used a paper towel to dry the meat off and then laid the meat on a cookie sheet.
Now it was time to roast the cured meat in the oven until it reached an internal temperature of 150 degrees — which took a little over two hours. The first time I checked the temperature, after about an hour, I panicked that our meat thermometer was broken, as the needle remained still. I even attempted to get a hold of Lady Persimmons next door, to see if she had a thermometer I could borrow. I was so concerned about preparing this meat properly, so we wouldn't get sick. I also didn't want to waste this meat for any reason.
Lady Persimmons was out. So I was on my own. Fortunately, the thermometer's needle began to rise later on. The cured belly fat slowly becoming bacon in my very own kitchen.
Once it was done, I cut off the thick layer of rind and then proceeded to cut the rind into approximately 1 inch squares, which I then tossed into a Ziploc freezer bag. I immediately put this bag into the freezer with the intention to use each square in soups or stews for extra flavor.
I let the bacon cool before wrapping it in plastic wrap and then placing the entire meat package into another Ziploc bag.
I waited a day before I got it out again. It took three knives to find one sharp enough to cut the bacon block into 1/8 inch slices. My serrated Cutco knife proved the best one for this task. The first three slices were short ones (see photo below and top) — because I didn't follow the recipe's instructions to trim the meat before curing. But why waste any of it for aesthetics?
Those short slices became my first tastes of homemade bacon. My initial reaction was that the bacon was more herby tasting than what I was used to. But, hmmm, once I quickly got over wanting it to taste just like storebought, I thoroughly enjoyed it. And now after having bacon the last two weekends, it tastes just like the bacon I make... from scratch.
Adapted from "Charcuterie"
by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn
1 5-pound slab pork belly
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons sodium nitrite (see note), optional
3 tablespoons kosher salt or 1½ ounces noniodized salt
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons coarsely ground black pepper
4 bay leaves, crumbled
4 or 5 sprigs fresh thyme.
- Trim belly so edges are square. Combine garlic, sodium nitrate (if using), salt, sugar, pepper, and bay leaves in a bowl, mix well.
- Place belly in 2½ gallon resealable bag. Add spices and thyme sprigs and rub over belly to give it a uniform coating. Seal bag and refrigerate for 7 days, occasionally rubbing meat to redistribute seasonings, and turning bag over every other day.
- Remove belly from cure, rinse well and pat dry with paper towels; discard cure. Belly can be refrigerated, covered, for 3 days.
- Preheat oven to 200 degrees. Place belly on rack on a baking sheet. Roast until it reaches internal temperature of 150 degrees, about 2 hours; begin checking temperature after 1 hour. While fat is hot, slice off rind; save for stocks and stews. Cool to room temperature. Wrap well; refrigerate until chilled. Can be kept refrigerated for up to 2 weeks or cut into slices or chunks, wrapped well and frozen for up to 3 months.
- When ready to use, cut in 1/8-inch slices or ½-inch lardons and sauté slowly until fat is rendered and bacon is crisp.
Yield: 12 to 16 servings.
Time: 15 minutes for preparing the cure, 7 days for curing, 3 hours for cooking and cooling
Note: Sodium nitrite is sold under various names. It is available from the Butcher & Packer Supply Company (butcher-packer.com) as DQ Curing Salt.