Sunday, March 27, 2011

Lavender Cured Pancetta

I was inspired to begin making my own bacon a couple of summers ago. Since then I have cured at least a dozen pork bellies, handing out little slabs of cured goodness to anyone who seemed even remotely interested, all the while extolling the virtues of preserving your own meat. (One of my friends recently told me I was her go to 'meat girl'...I blushed with pride and handed her a little slab of delicious) As a little girl, my family would buy an entire cow or pig and split it amongst everyone. We'd spend a weekend with uncles, aunts and cousins at the grandparents farm processing the meat into a variety of sausages and packaging special cuts. I learned to not look into large pots on the stove during this time if I wanted to avoid the horror of a pig face staring up at me as it was rendered down for head cheese. (seriously? head cheese?) A full larder, I knew even then, was a very, very good thing. (can you guess I was a huge Laura Ingalls Wilder fan?) 

The family that makes sausage together...well, you know the rest. 

When I left home I toyed for a while with vegetarianism, but my heart wasn't truly in it. I think now that I was rejecting the mass production of it all, no longer did I know where my meat was coming from. Plus buying it in the grocery store is expensive. I longed for those familiar packages wrapped in white butcher paper with the contents scrawled in black magic marker. (I never did open that one that said head cheese) Once I moved to Alaska, being a vegetarian was no longer an option for me. There was too much fresh fish and excellent wild game available to not embrace my new home, culinarily speaking. I love the hunter-gatherer culture that exists here. Way before it was fashionable to eat locally these people have done so because they have to. Getting goods from 'outside', while easier now, is still costly and problematic and all for an inferior product. You can definitely tell how many miles that grocery store tomato has traveled. This especially applies to meats and specifically cured meats. There is a strong culture of drying and storing proteins for long term. This area is still host to many native communities and their traditions of putting food by have seeped into the transplanted local population, helping us make the most of this life in the north. Smoked salmon is a mainstay at any party and everyone has their special version or technique. I have so many friends that smoke fish that I don't. Smoking has always freaked me out a little. However, I do love my bacon. (in my period impersonating a vegetarian, if I cheated it was with bacon) So that summer when I read this post about curing bacon at home, that you could make pancetta and not have to smoke it at all, as you can guess I was completely enamored. And as I said earlier, I have been making it for my family and friends ever since. This year I also had a big lavender plant that thrived on my porch all summer and brought into my kitchen to winter over, is still sending out little shoots. When it came time to cure my next round of belly I was out of thyme, literally. No fresh to be had in town, either. (Ah, grocery stores in winter in alaska...) I looked over and saw that lavender plant and genius struck like a bald eagle on a chihuahua. I clipped a big handful of lavender and tucked it into the bag with the cure. I did add a little more sugar as well, but that was it. When I opened the bags after a week, the smell of lavender was still very strong. I rinsed the meat and dried it as usual. John and I could hardly wait to cook it up. We both wondered if the lavender, which tastes like it smells, would transfer to the flesh. As we fried those first pieces, the room filled with the familiar flowery scent, only baconized. Then we tasted it and while not full frontal in lavender flavor itself, the essence of it was present in every crisp, sweet and juicy bite.  

Monday, March 21, 2011

What the Pho?

I hate people with tans. It's not a malicious hate, more of an envious one. I know, I know...who can blame them, these people escaping the cold and dark. I forgive them, they do it because THEY CAN. I've been one of those people. My first 5 years of calling Homer 'home' I worked at a local resort hotel that closed in the winter. It was a natural thing to go to the warmth of Hawaii and work the high season there, get some sun and return to town when things started to get fired up again. The first time I came back, all tan and fit and enthusiastic, I was met with a little animosity, even hostility, from some of the longtime locals. (Oh, is it that time of year already?, the snowbirds are returning, they'd say with a wry smile) The next time I learned to hang back a little, let the tan fade before rubbing it in these poor people's faces. The cold and the dark are great and all, but everyone of us wishes we could get on a plane and go collect our fair share of vitamin D in a sunny place closer to the equator than here. Those times when the stars don't align in our favor to go south, (read: Alaska Airlines permanent fund deals did not include Hawaii or Mexico) we'll do almost anything to make the best of it. I remember one winter when my kids were quite small and we weren't going anywhere, there was a tropical themed fundraiser in town. The decorations, made by local artists, included a palm tree made out of paper mache and crepe paper. We put that tree in the corner of our tiny bakery and it lifted our spirits all winter long. Other years we travel through food. This winter I became obsessed with Pho (fuh). A vietnamese broth and noodle dish that is traditionally made with beef (pho bo). Having the need to make one that could serve both meat eaters and veggie heads alike drove me to create this mushroom version (pho chay) that can be poured over beef or mushrooms. The spicy ginger infused broth with the crunchy fresh condiments make you feel like you've just taken a quick trip somewhere exotic, and I don't mean visiting your grandma in Kansas.