Every now and then I can't help but ask Mr NQN annoying and/or odd questions.
"Will you cry if I die?" (see that? I asked "If" as though there was an option to live forever). His answer "Of course I will" followed by a big sigh.
"Am I weird looking?" (his answer? "Looking? No but...")
"Why don't you have a picture of me on your desk? Is it because I am actually weird looking?" (his answer? "Okay give me a picture to put up but make it THIS one.")
"Do you mind if I just watch you for a bit?" said while holding up a pair of binoculars from across the room.
As a result, Mr NQN has come to expect the unexpected like receiving a slab of home made bacon for Valentines Day. Although he loses patience when he has to be roped into schemes. Like bacon making or making part of his own Valentines Day present. I tasked him with the smoking, something completely novel to him.
I knew that I wanted to make a home made bacon from scratch for a Valentines Day story. Last year I made bacon roses and you Dear Readers were either for or against these as a Valentines Day gift and the answer depended pretty much on gender. Men loved the idea while women preferred actual roses. This got me to thinking...what's the best gift for a man? Is it his very own slab of bacon?
You'd be surprised how fun bacon is to make at home and more importantly, how wonderful it tastes. Some of it involves patience which is why I'm sharing this recipe so far ahead of Valentines Day. You firstly salt cure a pork belly in a simple salt rub for a week in the fridge and all that involves is turning it over once a day.
My salt rub recipe is from Nancy's lovely blog JamJnr. She didn't smoke the pork belly but just salt cured it. I've had unsmoked bacon and it's really wonderful too although a bit different but I'd even say more versatile than smoked bacon. Which brings me to my beloved valentine.
Poor Mr NQN looked a bit panicked before I pointed him towards some youtube videos of bacon smoking. I had only seen fish hot smoked with tea during a cooking class but bacon is another matter altogether because we had to find the wood to smoke it with. This involved delving into the world of barbecues and smokers.
What I learned is that smoking with sawdust as opposed to wood chips is different as the sawdust burns slower than wood chips. The key to bacon is to not cook the pork but to smoke it. However wood chips are often easier to buy. We ended up finding some hickory sawdust at "The Cook and the Chef" in Camperdown. You want to use something like hickory, maple or apple wood chips or sawdust for pork. If you use wood chips just soak them for an hour beforehand so that they smoulder rather than flame but sawdust doesn't require any soaking.
I've included three methods of dealing with the pork belly once you've cured it (barbecue, wok/pot or oven). You could probably make your own smoking box too but I'm about as far away from being MacGyver as you can get. I realise that not everyone has a barbecue or has smoked anything before but it's quite addictive once you start.
The smell of the hickory wood smoking is incredible and I promise that the taste of the home made bacon made with patience and love is so, so much better than what you would buy. There's none of this briney white liquid that comes off the bacon when you fry it and the flavour is as strongly smoked as you want it with the flavour from your curing embedded into every bite. You can even customise the salt rub to include flavours that the lucky recipient likes.
My next question to Mr NQN was of course "Would you ever leave me now that you know that I can make my own bacon?"
So tell me Dear Reader, what are you hoping to receive this Valentines Day? And what will you be giving?
- 1.5-1.7kg pork belly (rind on or off)
- 100g/3.5ozs. salt
- 75g/2.5ozs brown sugar or 75ml/2.5 fl ozs maple syrup
- 4 bay leaves, broken into small pieces
- 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
- 1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
- 1/2 teaspoon cracked black pepper
- 2 cups hickory sawdust chips
- 2/3 cup uncooked rice
Step 1 - You can use a pork belly with or without rind. Without the rind, the smoke penetrates quicker, you can make crackling and it also cuts easier at the end too. But I kept it on because I was lazy. Mix all the spice rub ingredients together. Massage the spices into both sides of the pork belly and wrap in cling wrap and then place in a large ziplock bag.
Step 2 - Place the pork belly sitting flat in the fridge. The bacon will release liquid so make sure the zip lock is shut tight or place on a tray. Turn over once a day for 7-10 days.
Step 3 - On the day you want to smoke it, remove it from the fridge and take it out of the bag. Wash the salt and spices off well (you're supposed to use a high powered hose but inadequately my kitchen comes with just a plain tap ;) ) and then soak it in water for two hours to draw out more of the salt.
Step 4 - Pat dry with paper towels and place on a rack in the fridge uncovered just until you are ready.
Step 5 - You now need to assemble your smoking tool. You just need some foil, a barbecue, wok or pot with lid, a rack that fits inside and high on it, woodchips/sawdust and an internal thermometer. Don't use your best pot for this as it will mark the pot. A cheap wok in place of a barbecue is perfect.
Mr NQN makes art out of foil. Okay it's a tray but I encourage it...
Step 6a - (if using a wok or pot indoors). Remove the batteries from the smoke detector and open all of the windows. I closed the bedroom doors too because as much as I love bacon, I don't want the smell in my sheets. There is a reason why smoking is best done outdoors with a bbq but despite what everyone thinks, not every Australian residence is equipped with a barbecue.
Place the foil on the bottom of the wok or pot. Scatter the sawdust and rice at the bottom. You can make a little tray out of foil - Mr NQN did that while I wasn't looking and I figured who am I to discourage interest in cooking? Heat the wood/sawdust until fragrant and you get some smoke - this can take some time but soon enough, you'll smell the hickory coming through.
Step 6b - (if using a bbq). Light coals using briquettes. Open the vents and once the coals are glowing and covered in grey ash, place the wood/sawdust and rice in a foil or metal container in the coals.
Step 6c - (if using an oven to finish it off). Preheat oven to 93C/200F oven and brush the pork belly lightly with liquid smoke. Place on a baking dish and cook for 75-90 minutes or longer until the internal temperature reaches 60C/140F (ignore steps 7 and 8). Purists will probably be horrified and this isn't smoking but hey don't have those people over. They're probably not the best company anyway and would probably look through your bathroom cabinet.
Step 7 - Place the pork belly on the rack ensuring that the pork doesn't touch the woodchips and that there is airflow around the pork belly. Put the lid on and turn the heat down to low - I made it 2 or 3 out of 10 when 10 is the hottest. The idea is to not cook the bacon but just to smoke it and the rice helps knock back the heat a bit. Do not remove the lid no matter how tempting. Alright, I did a couple of times just to make sure that the bacon wasn't cooking too much. The outside might change colour but if you keep it low while still smoking then the inside should be pink still.
Step 8 - After 1.5 hours check on the internal temperature. You need it to reach 60C/140F and when it does YOU HAVE BACON!! Time to do a happy dance.
Step 9 - Remove from rack and cool. To make it easier to cut, place in fridge until it firms up. Then using the sharpest knife you have, slice into rashers. Or you can just cut and eat it straight away while fending off marriage proposals and additional suitors.