Thursday, March 31, 2005

Mmm..... bacon

Here's the double smoked slab bacon from Tip Top Meats. Will Owen from the LA Chowhound board dropped me an email, and we got to talking about Tip Top in general, and slab bacon in particular. He had recommended sources from his old stomping grounds near Nashville, and I'll post his choices after I've dug up more information.

Surprised to find the rind left on: that is, the pig skin, shown on the left side of the cutting board. This needs to be removed, because it's too tough to eat. Dry cured bacon is considerably dehydrated, and was easy to slice, especially when cold, right out of the fridge. It got a little wiggly as it warmed up, but still much easier to work with than raw pork belly, which squishes around under the knife like the slab of blubber it is.

I made thicker slices than most store bought bacon, and got a little variation, as you'd expect when doing it by hand. I should note it sliced easily because I just sharpened my thin carving knife. Don't try this with dull knives. Of course, the smart thing to do is to buy the slab, and ask the butchers to slice it for you, but I never claimed to be smart.

I see now that old fashioned bacon tastes much more meaty and natural than chemical-and-salt overtreated commercial product, say, like Farmer John brand. This bacon tastes intensely smoky, the sort that comes only from long exposure to cool wood smoke, and not of meat soaked in acrid liquid smoke flavoring. It still tastes of meat because the salt doesn't overwhelm it. Though this product was cured with nitrites and sodium erythorbate, it didn't taste chemically processed. I imagine they use just enough of these curing chemicals to keep the raw bacon pinkish instead of the dull grey of non-nitrited meat.

Would I buy this again from Tip Top Meats? Damn right I would. At $4.95 / pound, it seemed like a bargain for handmade bacon of this quality. I'll be seeking out some other mail order sources, and plan on writing a report in the upcoming months. If you have any favorite artisanal sources, let me know.

Monday, March 28, 2005


A shout out to my friends in Austin, TX who took time to call me last night while they were on a brief death march through the woods at 1 am. They are training for an extended three day adventure race in May which entails mountain biking, hiking, climbing, rappelling, kayaking, spelunking through bat infested caverns, macramè, a written essay, and who knows what else, all with no sleep. FOR THREE CONTINUOUS DAYS.

So sometime in their 12 hour overnight practice run last night, Marlene calls to ask how I'm doing. How I'm doing, while they're hiking dark trails strewn with rocks the size of babyheads in 40 degree, pissing down rain.

"Well, my lazy ass is reclined on the couch watching the Live Links commercial for the umpteenth time on Court TV, thanks for asking."

I then hear someone in the background holler, "UPDATE YOUR BLOG!!" So I dedicate this last entry to you, my team of superheroes. Please don't hesitate to call me if you need a team mate for the essay question.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Meat & vegetables

Springtime in Southern California means swarms of critters make their northward migration: the slugs return to Capistrano, and massive flocks of butterflies flitter purposefully toward wherever it is they go. On Saturday, I drove to San Diego County through thick schools of butterflies for the entire 70 mile drive. It looked like a plague straight outta the Old Testament, if biblical Egypt were set-dressed by the Queer Eye guys.

After a morning errand in Carlsbad, I headed over to Tip Top Meats. Ostensibly a European deli and meat market that makes German charcuterie, they also have a restaurant that serves their delicious house-made sausages, hams and bacon. I had the Big John breakfast, a bargain for the big breakfast eater: three eggs, home fried potatoes, toast and all you can eat smokehouse bacon, pork link sausage, Polish sausage, bratwurst, or ham, for $6. It's really a smart way to convince you to buy more product on your way out.
I tried all of their sausage offerings, and couldn't possibly finish it. They offer huge volume for the money, but also very high quality.

The smoked breakfast links were the best of the bunch, and I ended up buying some to take home. The fat brats and flavorful Polish sausages were griddled slowly to a dark brown, yet still juicy perfection. These sausage makers also know how to cook them well. I have to say I've had better brats in Sheboygan, Wisconsin (the brat capital of the nation), but Tip Top make a fine showing for Southern California.

They sell smoked beef bones for your ever faithful dog. They stock unusual wild game, like wild boar, ostrich, the Cajun specialty turducken, the Pennsylvania Dutch pork loaf called scrapple. They sell a half dozen varieties of German style liverwursts. If it mooed, oinked, clucked or grazed at one point, they have it here, or they'll order it for you.

Their butcher shop sells excellent fresh meats, and house smoked hams, bacon, and turkeys. They cure their own corned beef and pastrami, which I'll have to take home next time. I bought an unsliced slab of double smoked, dry cured bacon. Most supermarket bacon is wet cured, pumped full of brine and artificially flavored with smoke flavor. We end up paying for a lot of water at bacon prices. Before refrigeration was taken for granted, bacon was preserved by dry curing: i.e. packed with salt, sugar, flavorings (and nitrites) to draw out water from the pork belly, then hung in a cool smokehouse for hours which further dehydrates the meat and adds flavor. Can't wait to try it!

I also took home a chunk of black pepper ham. The lingering burn of coarse ground peppercorns smolders for a long time in the mouth, complementing the understated smokiness of the mostly lean ham. A bit spicy for wee kids and invalids, but a good choice for grownups who love black pepper.

They sell all manner of imported goods from across (mostly Northern) Europe, such as the Scandinavian lye-preserved codfish called lutefisk. Take a homesick European there, and you'll bring back one happy Euro. After reading about it for years, I finally tried licorice drops from Holland. Some two dozen varieties are stocked, each with a different shape, texture, or flavor. Unlike American licorice, the less sweet Dutch varieties are spiked more heavily with that distinct anise flavor, and surprisingly, salt. Sometimes lots of salt. One variety used an overwhelming amount: definitely an acquired habit. However, I'm glad that Tip Top stocks so many, and I'll try some others when I take the family to see the famous Carlsbad flower fields in a few weeks.

Tip Top Meats & European Delicatessen
6118 Paseo del Norte
Carlsbad, CA

About ten miles further south, the Chino family produces unusual varieties of fruits, vegetables, and herbs, and famously supplies such temples of California cuisine as Los Angeles' Spago and Berkeley's Chez Panisse. Since strawberries are in season, I bought two small containers of the small French cultivar called mar du bois for a pricy $5 each. These small berries the size of my thumbtip packed with intense tart and sweet flavor make industrially farmed stawberries taste like flavorless red pulp. They grow every kind of produce for flavor, and pick at the height of ripeness to eat that day. Their boutique produce is very expensive, but you'll know where your money goes.

Chino Nojo (nojo being a Japanese word for farm) is well off the freeway in a still underdeveloped part of highly exclusive Rancho Santa Fe, and it's worth going out of your way to buy the best produce grown in Southern California. Bring cash - lots of it - because they don't take credit cards.

Chino Nojo
6123 Calzada Del Bosque
(exit the 5 fwy at Via del Valle east, go about 5 miles and turn right after "The Vegetable Stand" sign)
Rancho Santa Fe, CA

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Banh mi story in the OC Weekly

I've been in love with the Vietnamese sandwiches called banh mi for some time now, and did an extensive taste test in Little Saigon back in January 2004. I wrote a two part review on Chowhound based on that survey: part one is here, part two is here.

I got a wild hair to pitch a query letter to some magazine offering to write about banh mi, so I held off writing more about it. Concerned about publishing rights and so forth, but mainly because I could slack. As it turns out, the food editor at the OC Weekly read the Chowhound writeups and approached me to write one for him. That story came out in today's edition.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

But Dad, it's Smoky....

This is the "before" picture of baby back pork ribs I smoked last Sunday. The "after" photo didn't come out well because I lost too much daylight by the time they finished cooking, but the ribs cooked up just fine: deeply smoked over hickory, and gently spiced with an improvised (and therefore secret recipe) Oscar night dry rub.

A full load in my Weber Smoky Mountain cooker equals 10 racks of baby backs - a fairly expensive loss if I screw it up. I once screwed up a beef brisket that came out tasting lightly of creosote instead of tasty applewood smoke, but I've solved that problem.

Now that I'm getting more confident, I'm filling the cooker to capacity for the maximum return on my time investment. It takes anywhere from 4 hours for baby backs to 18 hours for a large brisket, so I'm going to fill the cooker, even at the risk of messing up from time to time. One of these days, I'll screw up the courage to smoke a prime rib roast, which costs about $100. Maybe Easter dinner. Or Passover Seder. Note to self: look into the Kosher rulebook.

If you're a fan of real slow cooked Southern barbecue, you'll be disappointed with the lack of a truly great commercial source in Orange County. Yes, there are a few places that'll do in a pinch (Burrell's in Santa Ana, Clayton Shurley's in Newport Beach & Aliso Viejo). Los Angeles has more options, and some really good ones at that (Phillips, Woody's, Bad 2 Da Bone, Jaybee's, Rib Nest...)

But no matter where you live, why gripe about the lack of good cue when you can have fun making it yourself? Sure, there's a learning curve, mostly in controlling the heat of an open fire. But Weber designed their cooker to make good barbecue easy for the home enthusiast. This is not Peking duck or advanced pastry. Head over to the Virtual Weber Bullet, a forum dedicated to the use of the Smoky Mountain cooker. Read up on the basics, and get yourself a Weber. You know you want to.