The Zen Balance of Maple-Cured Smoked Bacon

16 Jul

Talk about a hiatus, eh? Well, Neen has not abandoned her Notes, but the last few weeks have been a little bit tricky. My last week at the Folger was the epitome of bittersweet, and frankly I’ll admit that I’m still grappling with what and who I am now. It sounds strange; I never thought that I was so attached to seeing myself as Associate Production Editor of Shakespeare Quarterly until I suddenly couldn’t do it anymore.

Now Im the boss. That is beyond weird. Yes, the individual who hates being bossy or delegating tasks was suddenly thrust into the bizarre managerial scenario of being her own boss. And though I’m not perfect at it, I’m getting the hang of keeping my days busy and varied. I do crave a little bit of structure, which is on the horizon in the form of a recent acceptance into Tufts’ graduate certificate program in nutrition science for communications professionals, and (provided the application and interview process go well) beginning yoga teacher training in the fall at Pure Prana.

Where I’m headed with my career is vaguer. I write new letters and apply for jobs every day, but nothing has leapt off of the page at me yet. So part of what I am hoping to do through these personal and professional development courses is figuring out what exactly I’d like to be next. I’ve already decided that I don’t want my identity to hinge on it…who I am is Neen.  And pigeon-holing a person, or boiling down their essence to a single occupation? Well…that seems oversimplified to say the very least.

But there are some constants and certainties in life, and one of those is surely cooking. It has remained (along with family) as my home base, my safe place throughout this entire internal earthquake. It has been where I manage to find a center…and so what recipe more appropriate to share with you than the sweet-salty balancing of over-the-top-crazy-good MAPLE BACON.

My last few days at the office were full of last-minute trips to my favorite walkable spots on the Hill, and especially to Eastern Market. I decided to make some duck prosciutto (recipe here) and try out my new Cameron stovetop smoker on a batch of maple bacon. After acquiring the necessary animal parts at Union Meat (thanks guys!), I stopped to talk to Mrs. Calomiris and she as always sent me on my way with an armload of the perfect accompaniments, and an extra banana and a handful of cherries (“for your walk back to the office”). I felt rejuvenated after that trip, and ready to forge ahead with so many of the food projects I’d put off due to lack of time. So yes, while I haven’t written to you recently…oh, I have been cooking. And rest assured that this “so-good-it’s-gonna-make-you-swear” bacon is just the first of many treats to come.

Maple Cured Smoked Bacon

  • 5 lb. pork belly, skin on
  • 2 oz. kosher salt
  • ¼ cup dark brown sugar
  • 2 tsp. pink curing salt
  • 1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper (I used a citrus pepper blend)
  • ¼ cup dark grade b maple syrup

Combine the kosher salt, brown sugar, pink salt, and black pepper, and mix well. Add the maple syrup and stir until the ingredients are thoroughly combined.

20130612_17185520130612_171934Trim the pork belly until it is as uniformly shaped as possible. This is important because you want the cure to penetrate the meat evenly. Place the trimmed pork belly in a snug-fitting nonreactive baking dish. I used a 9×13 in. pyrex baking pan, but the pan you use will be dependent on the size and shape of your piece of meat.

20130612_172003Rub the meat thoroughly with the cure on all sides.

20130612_172401Cover the baking dish with plastic wrap and press down to remove as much air as possible. Move the dish to the refrigerator and allow the belly to cure for one week, flipping it every other day to redistribute the cure.

The bacon is cured when the meat is firm to the touch at the thickest point. If it still feels squishy at the end of a week, flip it and allow it to cure for another 24 hours. This belly took 8 days to fully cure. Once the meat feels firm, rinse and pat dry and move it to a wire rack over a baking sheet and refrigerate uncovered for 24 hours. This will allow the surface of the meat to develop a sticky pellicle for the important forthcoming smoky goodness to adhere to.

Now, if you have an outdoor smoker you’ll want to preheat it to about 250 degrees. I used an indoor stovetop smoker set over medium heat. For this batch, I selected applewood chips to add a little bit of fruitiness to the caramel-y molasses flavors in the brown sugar and maple syrup cure.

9299857471_6773c4974b_bSmoke until the belly reaches an internal temperature of 150 degrees and then allow it to cool completely before attempting to slice.

9299823731_80b87f011f_b9299844553_eda8328fcf_bGo ahead and slice it down yourself if you’re feeling like Chef Sakai. Me? I sought the excellent helpful hands of the folks at Springfield Butcher. For a more than reasonable $7 fee, they sliced the whole belly down for me and I had over 4 lbs. of perfectly even slices to share with family over our vacation trip to Fenwick Island.

9302600758_fbfc61dd8e_b9302584984_d72cf909bf_b9302554436_55faeb656f_b20130624_075909Verdict? Salty, sweet, deep caramel richness, and a fruity smoky finish. Well-rounded to the point of reaffirming my belief that finding balance in the kitchen is just a step away from translating it to other facets of life. Nobody has everything figured out, and even if someone did…wouldn’t that be kind of boring and predictable? I think I’ll keep looking for and refining the edges, because like the yogis always tell me: When you fall out of an inversion or a balancing posture, just reset your foundation and try again. Falling just means you’re reaching for something new.

20130705_09463620130705_094656

Something better.

Ciao for now,

Neen

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