I could wax poetic about how good bacon tastes because bacon is what I made for this column this week. But we all know how good bacon tastes.
Instead, what I’d really like to think about is why I like to cook and the satisfaction that I get from making food from scratch—by following the ingredients from beginning to end. It’s not just as simple as eating well, although that’s part of it. It’s not just because it’s less expensive, because sometimes it isn’t. And, like most of you, I have many moments when I just don’t feel like cooking.
My girlfriend is a runner. And there are times when she will force herself to go for a run even when she doesn’t want to. She knows that when she gets back from the run she’ll feel better than before she left, even if it’s not really what she wants to do. It’s like that with me and cooking. Even when I don’t want to roll up my sleeves and sharpen my knives, I feel better when I can hold out a plate of food that I crafted using my own hands, made with care and love and all those other intangible ingredients that we pour into home-cooked meals, which make all the difference. Of course, the tangible ingredients matter too.
I’ve been buying my pork from a farmer named Dean Carlson. His farm, called Wyebrook, is the kind of operation that all farmers should aspire to. He raises pigs (and other animals, too) that are allowed to wander through the Pennsylvania woods, searching for acorns and whatever else pigs like to eat. I’ve met many of his pigs. I’ve spent time in the woods with them and I’ve seen them cuddle with each other in mud puddles and oink their way around the trees and undergrowth, foraging.
When I bought my piece of pork belly from Dean it occurred to me that I had probably met the pig that it came from. And I like that idea. I like knowing, firsthand, that this pig lived a happy life and had a chance to cuddle in mud and frolic in the forest. It makes me want to treat the pork belly as well as I can.
Now, let’s think about bacon.
Most bacon, made from pigs who never get to cuddle or forage, is cured with a chemical called pink salt no. 1. It is the vehicle used to introduce nitrates into the bacon, which act as a preservative. There is plenty of research that suggests nitrates are no good for you, and I like to add as few chemicals to my food as possible. And while you can just skip the nitrates altogether, you shouldn’t. Because after being brined, the bacon gets smoked, and chances are that it will sit at a temperature at which nasty bacteria can thrive. But skipping pink salt no. 1 doesn’t have to mean skipping nitrates; as in most cases, nature has an answer.
Celery is extremely high in natural nitrates. If you find bacon at the grocery store with claims of “no nitrates added” on the packaging, it’s likely that it’s made with celery. So, there are nitrates added, but they just come from nature instead of a factory. I like that idea too: Adding natural preservatives instead of manmade versions. Your bacon won’t have that pretty pink color, a byproduct of using pink salt, but you gain even more flavor. My bacon does not taste like celery. It tastes like bacon that came from a happy pig, which was made in a healthy (as healthy as bacon can be) way, and fried up with love to feed myself and my girlfriend—who, no doubt, will be running a few extra miles this week due to the fact that her loving boyfriend feeds her bacon.
(Makes 2 pounds)
Approximately 1/2 a head of celery
2 cups water
3/4 cup fine sea salt
1/4 cup brown sugar
2-pound piece fresh pork belly, with any skin removed
Equipment: a vegetable juicer, a grill, hardwood (preferably hickory or apple)
Juice enough celery to make 1 cup of juice. Heat the water in a small saucepan with the salt and sugar, stirring until the salt is dissolved. Set the pork belly in a deep baking dish. Add the celery juice to the brine, then pour the brine over the pork belly. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 3 days. Remove the pork from the brine and pat it dry.
Start a small hardwood charcoal fire in the grill and let it burn down to coals. Soak the hickory or apple wood in water. Push the coals over to one side of the grill, then place the soaked hickory on top of the coals. Place the pork on the opposite side of the grill as the coals. Cover the grill and close all the vents on the grill. Smoke the bacon, adding more hickory if needed, for 2 to 3 hours, or until it reaches an internal temperature of 150 degrees.
Wrap the bacon, then chill it. When ready to cook, slice the bacon and prepare accordingly.
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