Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Of bacon and prehistory

The test (OK, my test) of a decent cookbook is if you can browse through it looking for a dinner idea and come up with something for which you have most of the ingredients.
That’s the premise behind this exercise/slash/blog (which I need to spell it out every so often): Does a cookbook have that go-to durability, or is it just serving to insulate my walls against the coming winter?
So, I’m flipping through A-16 before the weekend, wanting to make something substantial, but also unfamiliar, which brought me to the spareribs. I never make spareribs, or ribs of most any description. But there they were, seemingly simple in their preparation and – key finding - I had the ingredients (all but the ribs, anyway) on hand. They’re patted with a spice rub of fennel seeds, cardamom seeds and red pepper ground together, then slathered with plain yogurt and left to marinate. Braise them in the oven, finish on the grill or broiler, then finish with a squeeze of lemon. I could do this.
And thanks be that I didn’t have the ribs, because then I got to Clancey’s Meat & Fish, the little butcher shop in the Linden Hills neighborhood, and that’s when I got to witness owner Kristin Tombers gently, oh so gently, lure a lost lamb back into the fold.
An earnest young man was placing his order – a pork roast and some bacon. Then he asked, how do you prepare your bacon? Tombers described the smoking, the wood used. Mmm-hmm, he said, but do you use nitrites? And informed that she did, he hesitated, as if fearing to appear rude, then said to never mind the bacon. Who cancels an order of bacon? “We’re trying to avoid nitrites.” He said it apologetically. After all, Clancey’s is one of the meat counters that dotes on organic and grass-fed and every other “love your body, love the Earth” way of raising flesh.
Tombers went about wrapping his roast and then, in the spirit of “I’m just sayin,’” told him in so many words that he’d have to eat a side of bacon the size of Balloon Boy Dad’s ego to have any ill effects. He thanked her, said he’d look into it, and vamoosed with his pork roast.
So I looked into it.
Folks at the University of Minnesota Extension Service, who look even deeper, have reported that people normally consume more nitrites from vegetables than from the cured meats they eat. And lending some science to my crack about Balloon Dad, for a regular size guy to get a lethal dose of sodium nitrite, he’d have to eat almost 19 pounds of bacon at one sitting. And even then, the researchers added, it’s the salt that would probably kill you.
So much for my defense of bacon, which has nothing to do with A-16, but more with the experiences you run across when you shop at places where customer and owner actually can have that sort of exchange.
You can tell how I feel about bacon because I digressed even while knowing it would keep from talking about one of the best sauces I’ve had in ages. It was a soffrito, more of a condiment, actually. This “concentrated flavor enhancer” infuses steamed vegetables with a slow-cooked flavor, as did the Tomato Anchovy Soffrito into which I stirred some braised kale.
The soffrito was deeply rust-colored – it does bear watching on the burner as it simmers – and was another piece of evidence in the case for how anchovies have this way of melting away in the midst of tomatoes, onions and olive oil into this flavor that goes right to the brain stem. It’s almost prehistoric in its depth.
I had never made one, and now, as with the cheese brodo, a soffrito will become a part of my kitchen work. Besides, eating all the kale made me feel really healthy. Bring on the bacon.


  1. it would not be all that hard for me to eat 19 pounds of bacon at one sitting, as long as there were fresh garden tomatoes to go with it.

  2. And mayonnaise. Don't forget the mayonnaise. If you're gonna go, go big!