Everybody likes a BLT?

I was born in March. Not this past March, obviously, or my tiny fetal hands would have a much harder time typing this. My mom insists that when she was pregnant with me, she ate a BLT sandwich pretty much every day. That was her main “craving” I guess, and it stands to reason that I would like BLTs, right? Except I don’t. I’ve never even eaten a traditional BLT, and I’m 28 years old.

It’s not that I don’t like the idea of a sandwich that begins with bacon. I think it’s a fantastic idea. But two components of the sandwich throw me for such a giant loop that I’m unable to complete the transition from idea to actual meal.

First, mayonnaise. I detest mayonnaise in all of its devilish forms.

Second, tomatoes. As you know, I’ve recently embraced vine-ripened, in-season tomatoes. I’ll eat them with nothing more than a little sea salt, balsamic, and olive oil. But any tomato that can be found and eaten in the winter months can die in a fire. The months leading up to March definitely qualify as “winter.”

Some people love certain ingredients so much that they’ll eat them at any time of year, even if it’s not technically seasonal. I’m like that with sweets. I don’t even really care if it’s a quality dessert or not– if it has sugar, it’s going down the hatch. So I’m not going to judge my momma for eating tomatoes on her sandwiches while she was carrying my (near 10 lb) baby ass around. She just really likes tomatoes.

But I can’t do it.

And I can’t eat mayo. I’ve found that certain recipes call for a small amount of mayonnaise (like most dressings), and I’m okay with using it in those cases. It has to be freshly made, though. No jarred mayonnaise. Not even a teaspoon in a full cup of dressing. I don’t keep it in the house, and if anyone tries to sneak it in, they’ll be shot on sight. Zero tolerance. I’ve never had a traditional potato salad. I’ve never signed up to make deviled eggs. I just can’t get around the repugnance of mayonnaise.

Mayonnaise is easy to make, for being a potion moste fowle. You don’t need eye of newt or lizard’s tail or the blood of innocents. All it takes is a little bit of egg yolk, a bigger bit of oil, and some flavoring ingredients (salt and dijon mustard, notably). I make it in the blender. When I was in culinary school, I had to make it on a plate with a fork. I thought that was a giant pain in the ass for no reason, but the chef instructor assured us that at some point the topic would come up, and we’d be able to brag “I once had to make mayonnaise using a PLATE and a FORK. Turns out that time is now.

Blender Mayonnaise

3 egg yolks at room temperature
2 C vegetable oil
1 T dijon mustard
1 t salt

Put yolks, mustard, and salt in a blender on low speed until they are combined. Slowly (SLOWLY) drizzle in the oil, increasing speed to medium partway through. The end result is creamy mayo. If it gets too thick, add a teaspoon of warmish water and then continue to drizzle in the oil.

I like to think my hatred for most savory, creamy, white foods (I don’t do mayo, ricotta, cottage cheese, cream cheese, sour cream, alfredo sauce, hollandaise, or any others, for the most part) is actually a blessing. Aren’t those the super-high-calorie garnishes on most foods? So I’ve probably saved billions of calories by avoiding them like the plague. I love German potato salad, with its vinegary-mustard dressing. And I love vinaigrettes. And I substitute plain yogurt for sour cream. Those were always just survival foods for me. Like I can eat what you’re eating, it just has to be slightly different.

I’m like one of the little people on TLC. I can do everything you can, just with some small adjustments.

But survival foods ended up being healthier foods. Rock on.

The BLT, though. Sigh. It has eluded me. You can’t eat it dry, right? Enter some creativity…

I DO like ranch dressing. And I like it on sandwiches (like turkey and bacon). So my tiny, undersized woman brain began to percolate. Why couldn’t I make a BLT with ranch dressing instead of mayo? Buttermilk ranch, when made at home, is way lower calorie than mayonnaise. Buttermilk is actually incredibly low calorie, and packs vast quantities of flavor punch. So if there’s a bit of mayo and a bit of buttermilk, that’s going to be better for me than two bits of mayo. Logic allstar!

So I made some mayonnaise, and then I made some ranch dressing. And the ranch dressing was KILLER. Seriously, delicious. It lasts a good week or so in the fridge, so you can definitely make a full batch and use it up. I modified the recipe from Simply Recipes to make it a little richer and a little easier.

Buttermilk Ranch Dressing
1 C buttermilk
.75 C mayonnaise
1 t lemon juice
.25 t paprika
.25 t dry mustard
.5 t salt
.25 t black pepper
1 T chopped fresh parsley
1 t chopped fresh chives
.25 t dried dill

Put it in the blender, or whisk it together until thick and fully combined. Allow it to sit in the fridge for at least 15 minutes so the flavors can meld together.

After tasting the dressing, it was so good that I didn’t want to just smear a touch of it on some bread and then overwhelm it with bacon and tomatoes and breadiness. So the BLT salad was born. I made some quick croutons (the new convection oven is actually gobsmackingly efficient at making croutons), chopped up some farmer’s market lettuce, cut some of my fresh slab bacon into little bacon bits, halved some cherry tomatoes, and WHAM. The BLT salad.

It was really, really, intensely satisfying. I spent some time trying to create “perfect bites,” where I had a crouton, a bacon baton, a tomato half, a piece of lettuce, and a drib of dressing on my fork all at once. Those were the best bites. But none of the other bites were half bad, either. That ranch would go great with anything short of pancakes, and the bacon is so good on its own, and the farm-fresh produce is more than willing to steal the show of any particular bite you’d like to introduce to your mouth…

BLT and I are striking up a tentative friendship. I guess it’s more of a BLRT, since it gets ranch, but if the original BLT doesn’t mention mayo in its moniker, then I don’t see why I have to add an “r.”

I run with gangs.

Anyway, make this for a light and healthy dinner at some point before the tomatoes go to March on you, and before a salad doesn’t feel like it’ll stick to your ribs enough to brace you against the winter cold.

When that cold hits, though, I’d go straight back to chicken and dumplings.

My little dumpling

There are a few key phrases I can say if I want my husband’s face to light up like a Christmas tree.

Some are recreation-related:
“I’ve been wanting to play more video games lately.”
“Can we have a lazy day?”
“I’m willing to watch Firefly with you on a trial basis.”
“For some reason, the lawn didn’t grow this week, so we can skip mowing.”
“Let’s get naked.”

And some are food-related:
“I feel like nachos are an acceptable lunch for today.”
“I made meat pie.”
“Chipotle.”
“I found a rogue tub of Mission to Marzipan ice cream at Safeway.”
“Would you like a frozen Twix bar?”
“I accidentally bought Mike’s Hard Lemonade instead of manly dark beer.”

But the number one food that is likely to elicit joy from him is chicken and dumplings. Or chicken pot pie. But really, chicken and dumplings is almost the same thing as chicken pot pie, it’s just got a softer “crust” that floats around like islands in the same filling. You can argue that point, but the way I do it, they’re very similar.

They’re the perfect winter comfort food, and I love to make either one of them. Except in August. In August, I get myself into kind of a rut where I only eat produce, candy, and sandwiches. It’s too hot for anything else, let alone something that simmers on the stove all day long. Most of my meals, as I’ve mentioned, end up being a yogurt and a giant serving bowl of cut up fresh melon. Or cold salads involving fresh tomatoes.

And homemade refrigerator pickles. I love vinegary food.

But Chris has been a saint lately, running on shopping trip after shopping trip helping me get the house restocked with food and art and furniture and clothing. He goes to HomeGoods with me every week. Do you know what that does to a man’s sense of self? Nothing good, is probably the answer. He even pretends to like it, so I don’t feel guilty. And the Amazon packages that have been arriving daily haven’t even phased him. Not one bit. So I figured he deserved a meal that would warm all of his cockles and make him whole again.

“Hey Chris? Do you want chicken and dumplings for dinner?”

Cue his skin bursting into sparkles like Edward Cullen, his eyes creasing up in sheer delight, and the slow-but-steady exposure of his childhood dimples on both cheeks.

OMG.

How is it possible that I don’t make this for him every night?

Oh yeah. The heat. And the labor. And the mess.

And the calories.

Chicken and dumplings is NOT a low-calorie food. I’d suggest eating a bowl of it on a day where you’ve had nothing but melon and yogurt for your other two meals. Balance is key. I LOVE me some high calorie foods, but you’ve got to find ways to trade it out elsewhere in your diet for that week, or you’ll end up like Sally Struthers, schilling for orphans who don’t have any food, all the while looking like you live in a cozy pied-a-terre inside the milkshake machine at McDonalds.

There are some simplifications you can make to this meal for summer, though. This one was ready in under an hour, with the exception of the stock that was made a few days beforehand. It’s deceptively simple, and really, really good.

**A note on stock– This stock was made by simmering the bones from a chicken carcass with some leftover fire-roasted poblanos, carrots, onion, garlic, bay leaves, peppercorns, thyme, and rosemary. The poblanos left a very faint, back-end spicy heat that tickled the tongue without being assertive. I am VERY fond of adding a touch of spice where it would otherwise not appear. Delicious. I froze the stock, and used part of it to make this meal. While homemade stock really helps with this type of thing, you won’t go immediately to hell if you use store-bought. Just be sure to use a good quality, free-range stock. That Swanson’s crap is terrible and tastes mostly like sodium and sadness. I like the Pacific brand of chicken stock when I’m in a pinch. They sell it at most grocery stores, and sell six-packs of it at Costco for cheap.

Okay, onto the recipe. It looks like a lot of steps, but it comes together quickly and isn’t hard at all.

Quick Chicken and Dumplings (yes, there is such a thing)

Serves 2, plus lunch the next day

3 chicken thighs
3 C stock
2 eggs
1 stick plus 2 T butter
.5 C flour (plus 3 T flour, separately)
1 t parsley
1 small onion, 1/4″ diced
2 medium red potatoes (or other waxy potato, like yukon gold) peeled and 1/2″ diced
1 large carrot, peeled and 1/4″ diced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 small sprigs (sprockets?) fresh rosemary (or 1 t dried, if you must)
4 fresh sage leaves (or .5 t rubbed, dried sage)
.5 t cracked pepper

-First, poach your chicken in the butter. To do this, melt one stick of butter over medium low heat in a small saucepot. Submerge the chicken thighs and simmer very gently until the internal temperature reaches 160 F. Remove chicken from butter and set aside. When cool, chop into a bite-sized dice.

poached chicken thighs are butt-uggers, but delicious, moist, and cheap (even the free-rangers)

-Take about 4 T of butter/juices from the chicken-cooking liquid and put into a large, oven-safe, high-sided pan or dutch oven over medium heat. Add your onions, garlic, and carrots, and sweat gently in the butter until translucent but not mushy. Add a sprinkle of salt to help this process along.
-Meanwhile, in a medium-large pot, bring your stock and potatoes to a simmer. Cook your potatoes until they are juuuuuust tender. Don’t boil them hard, and don’t overcook them.

gently, gently, or they’ll turn to mush.

-While they’re simmering, add your sage and rosemary to your carrot/onion/garlic mixture and gently press them to bruise them a little. They should start to smell pretty fragrant. Add more butter/juices if you need to to keep the mixture from getting dry.

This smells incredible, and makes a great base for stuffing, too!

-When your potatoes are done, add your 3 T of flour to your carrot/onion/garlic mixture and stir to coat the veggies in a paste. Cook for a minute or so to get the raw flour flavor out. Then carefully pour your potatoes and the stock they were cooked in into the pan with the veggies. Stir continuously and turn the heat up to medium-high. You want to bring it to a gentle simmer, but not a boil. Add your chopped chicken and stir. Taste for salt and pepper, and add as necessary to make a savory, delicious filling.

The flour you added to the carrots will thicken the liquid. If it gets too thick, add a touch more stock. Too thin? Let it simmer a few extra minutes.

-Set your oven to “broil.”
-Quickly mix up your dumpling batter. Stir together your eggs with 2 T melted butter (from the chicken liquid, if there’s enough left. If not, melt the additional butter and allow to cool for a moment before adding to the eggs) and a pinch of salt and pepper. Then add .5 C flour and 1 T chopped parsley and stir until just combined. Add large spoonfuls to the simmering chicken stock/veggie mix.

dumpling batter

They’ll just float on the top, and that’s okay. Don’t disturb them.

They shouldn’t be touching, either. They’ll grow a bit when they cook.

-Simmer for a minute or so, then stick into the preheated oven to finish cooking the top of the dumplings. This only takes about 2-3 minutes. Watch it carefully, as broil will quickly burn things if left unwatched.

This is their final appearance after broiling. You don’t want any color on them, really. Just doneness.

-Remove from the oven and serve, sprinkling with extra chopped parsley.

You would eat this any time of year. I promise you that.

If there’s someone in your life who really likes tasty comfort food, make them this.

If you’ve had a rough day, and you need to be coddled a bit, make yourself this.

If you’ve been awarded a snow day, make this.

And let’s get naked.

Pork Belly Legislature

Bacon inspires lust in the culinary world. I mean, also bacon inspires lust in me personally, but also I have yet to see any major, non-vegetarian chef who is not completely enamored of the stuff, and rightly so. It’s smoky, sweet, salty, fatty, versatile, and jam-packed with savory, porky goodness. Bacon tattoos are not uncommon, and word on the street is that a certain New York chef has the word “bacon” tattooed on the inside of his lower lip. It’s not a bad idea, really.

But I rarely have bacon when I need it. And when do I not need it? The stuff they sell at the regular grocery store is in violation of the humanely-raised policy, and I’ve yet to live close enough to a WhoFo that I can just jaunt out at 8 am on a Sunday to grab a package when we’re all craving a bacon scramble. **A bacon scramble is NOT when you fry up a bunch of bacon and then toss it in the yard for greedy children to chase and bicker over at length, though I don’t think that’s a bad idea, either.

Target used to carry the Niman Ranch bacon, which was excellent. Niman Ranch was one of the first large, humane operations for pork production. They love their piggies. I love their piggies. We have a common goal of wanting the piggies to be happy and healthy up until the point that they become part of the food chain. I think God wants it that way. I don’t think he’d take kindly to us mistreating the creatures he sent to feed us. So I’m thinking of petitioning the religious right to take up the cause of humane farming. It’s about time they did something that was ACTUALLY in line with Christian values and not just in line with pissing me off. Anyway. I sent Target a letter thanking them for carrying humanely-raised options, and their VP of sales called me personally to thank me and let me know that they were working hard to expand their humanely-raised options to include even more, and that it was a cause to which they were committed. I almost drove down to Target headquarters and offered him a “J” of some variety. I didn’t, though, because I don’t know where headquarters are located.

Three months later, the product was no longer on the shelves. Assholes. That’ll teach me to withhold lovin’ from top executives who take time from their busy secretary-nailing, stapler-hoarding schedules to call me and thank me for giving a rat’s ass.

So now they’ve got the regular options and nothing more. Like Bar S Bacon (motto: “You can taste the suffering in every bite!”) and other such gems. Fantastic. And while we’re LOUSY with humane, local beef around here, there haven’t been any local pork farms that I’ve seen in my endless Googling or farmer’s marketing. Woe. The same thing in Texas. I guess it’s just more profitable to raise humane, pastured beef than it is to raise the same quality of pork. That’s also why pork, despite being the most intelligent of the common food animals, is the one that’s most often treated with extreme cruelty.

So what’s my option, then? If I want affordable, delicious, convenient, ethically-uncompromised quantities of bacony goodness in my everyday life?

BIBAF

Buy In Bulk And Fabricate

That means get a wonkload, in its more whole form, and cut it up yourself. It works for damned near everything, and it’s fantastic. I’m discovering that the less people interfere with my food, the better it tastes. Whole fruits and vegetables? Much tastier than precut and packaged. Entire pork belly, cured and smoked? Much tastier than sliced, packaged bacon. Sure, I could buy a pork belly and cure it myself. That’s probably the next step. But I don’t have a source for whole pork belly yet, and WhoFo was more than happy to order me an entire side of bacon for very little money (comparatively, I mean. It’s not markedly cheaper than regular Oscar Meyer bacon, but it’s of much higher quality and ethical standards). And it’s from Niman Ranch! Woot! See all the pieces?

When you buy slab bacon, it tends to come with the “rind” still attached. The rind is just the skin. It’s full of smoke flavor, but chewy and not delicious for eating like regular bacon. It will have to be removed in most cases, but not all. Fortunately, it does have a great fat cap and a lot of flavor benefit to impart, so I stuck the pieces of rind that I removed into a separate baggie for use in flavoring greens and other pork-friendly venues. In that same baggie, for big pots of beans and stews, I put the ends. The ends of the slabs are almost all fat and rind, and while they’d make truly craptacular bacon, they are exactly what the doctor ordered for carnivore baked beans or bean soups or whatever other winter fare you can imagine. Plus, a couple cubes can be rendered down in no time to make lard for tortillas and tamales. But I didn’t tell you that.

Note: Lard is lower in saturated fat and higher in unsaturated (good) fat than butter and/or shortening

Additional Note: I mean the lard you render at home, not the stuff you buy in shelf-stable bricks at the grocery store. That stuff is hydrogenated and will make the insides of your arteries look like the filling in a Krispy Kreme eclair.

Third Note: You shouldn’t eat large quantities of lard, butter, or shortening or you will become a “lardass.” But moderate use is fine, and should take the first note into consideration.

Back to the blogging grind, then, shall we?

I took some long hunks and set those aside for freshly-sliced breakfast bacon. Individually freezer-wrapped, they’ll keep for quite some time. When is it ever a bad thing to get up on a chilly morning, bust out the meat slicer, and cut thick rashers for your guests? Never. Unless your guests are some streetwalkers you picked up in a moment of serious loneliness, and all you want– ALL YOU WANT– is for them to find whatever remnants of their skeezy edible underwear that your dog hasn’t consumed and LEAVE YOUR HOUSE RIGHT NOW before your housekeeper shows up and tells everyone in the neighborhood that you slept with some chick with a Magnum PI mustache, and it gets back to your mother. Or unless your guests are vegetarian, and for them I have Morningstar sausages, which are deceptively tasty and soy-based.

We set aside big hunks of center-cut bacon for things like braising and experimenting.
The center is less fatty and more meaty, so it seems like it’d be perfect for a slow braise with onions and garlic, and then a quick shred over some mashed potatoes.
I don’t even know how it’ll work out, but I’m game to try. These got individually freezer-wrapped, too. The first time I smell fall leaves in the air, one of these bad boys is going in the dutch oven for the aforementioned braised bacon on mash. It’ll be a miniature celebration. Maybe I’ll use hard cider as my braising liquid. I don’t even KNOW. But it’s going to be epic.

Okay, I’ve saved my favorites for last. IQF lardons. IQF means “individually quick frozen.” Lardon means “thick, meaty cubes (cylinders?) of love.” When I was in school, cutting lardons was a task that was announced with relish and fanfare. Like, “hey, Brandon! Stop looking at my lardon.” Or, “check out the thickness of my lardon.” Or any sentence that used the word “lardon” with a slant toward boner-referencing. And it has to be pronounced “Lard-On,” or you’ll have nowhere near the fun.

Mirth aside, the lardon is magic. It takes the crispy/chewy/unctuous of sliced bacon, but makes it thicker and cube-like. So each bite has a little more fat left inside, and a little more chew to it. When you put a lardon in your mouth, you want it to stay for a minute, am I right? Not just fade away like crispy, sliced bacon. Cutting lardons from sliced bacon is an option, but it doesn’t work as nicely as, say, having a handful that are frozen but not stuck together that you can toss into a pan for anything. Omelettes, green beans, salads, potato salads, baked potatoes. Anything with an egg or a potato that isn’t going to be dessert (and some things that will become dessert) benefit from lardons.

Note: Babies are made when a man and a woman love each other very much, and somebody puts a lardon near an egg.

And pretty much any vegetable dish with lardons will entice the most finicky meat-eaters.

So we cut up a bunch (LOTS) of lardons, then spread them on a sheet tray and put them in a freezer that was set at -2 F. That’s not anything like as cold as a traditional IQF food, but the lardons are small, and you make due with what you can. I left them in the freezer for 20 minutes, at which point they were just starting to get a thin, frozen patina on the outsides. No longer, or I’d suffer freezer burn indignities, but long enough that they wouldn’t stick together in storage. Then I put them in a freezer Ziplock, pushed out much of the air, and then put the whole bag in an industrial strength tupperware-like device to keep in the freezer. Here are a few of the little darlings, though we ended up with a gallon bucket of them in the end.

Now I can just reach in and grab a handful of lardon for whatever I’m making. Many a great recipe starts like this:

That was the beginning of a German potato salad. I would have posted pictures of it, but truth be told I lost interest when our friends came over and it was time to eat the potato salad. I’ll make it again soon and post the recipe so you can try it out. It’s good for those of us who aren’t so much into mayonnaise except as a punishment or torture device.

So next time you’re at the market, ask if they can order you a side of slab bacon and cut it up yourselves. It’s a great way to save money, play with textures, get higher quality food, and have access to a thick lardon whenever your little heart desires without having to go to all the trouble of….

You get the idea.

Mr Nutkin


Installing the squirrel feeder in my backyard was genius. Not only can I sit in my breakfast nook enjoying the frantic, early-morning squirrel antics that never fail to make me laugh, but now I can also watch them go James Bond-style on the fence while they gnaw away at hunks of sweet corn and seeds.

And the cats and pup think this is better than any TV show around, and are all gathered, pressing their fuzzy little faces against the windows like kids at a candy store.  Or, you know…me at a candy store.