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Wednesday, September 25, 2013


Thick crunchy bacon, crisp lettuce, and garden fresh tomatoes on toasted bread with mayonnaise. What's not to love about a good BLT? Simple. Basic. Classic. Oh sure, there are countless gussied up variations. I could have cured my own bacon, baked a fine loaf of artisanal bread, or whipped up a creamy lemon-infused aioli. I didn't.

I spent a lazy weekend spinning a twist on the humble BLT.

Belly. Lettuce. Tomato.
Pork belly is a wonderful thing. Cut from the underlying belly of the pig, thick ribbons of soft white fat are layered with pinkish colored meat. It looks like a big slab of fatty uncooked bacon. In fact, when cured and smoked, pork belly becomes the bacon we all know, love, and crave. Left uncured, it can be cooked low and slow to break down the collagen before crisping up the fatty stuff. The good stuff.

Pork Belly.
I managed to track down a local source for pork belly, but they only sold it in 10 pound slabs. Even for big time pork lovers, 10 pounds seemed like overkill. I stopped by one of our local Asian markets and hit the aromatic meat/seafood/guess-the-product butcher counter. Tucked between bins of chicken feet and other things, I thought I recognized pork belly. I got the butchers attention, held up a slab, and pointed to my stomach. He approved with a simple nod. Win.

Here's the deal. Preparing pork belly takes time. A little time. Small effort. Big pay off.

Brine. To flavor and tenderize the meat, I threw together a simple brine. After simmering 6 cups of water in a stock pot, I added 1/2 cup salt, 1 cup sugar, bay leaves, fresh lovage, fresh thyme sprigs, whole black peppercorns, and dried green peppercorns. I tossed a few trays of ice cubes into the pot to cool the mix before carefully trimming the skin from the top fatty layer of the belly and submerging it into the brine. I covered the pork with plastic wrap and slid it into the refrigerator to marinate for several hours.

After 8 hours or so, I pulled the belly from the brine, scraped off the herbs, and patted the meat dry.

Braise. I heated olive oil in a large dutch oven until it was smoking hot. After scoring the fat on the pork belly, I browned it fat side down, flipped it over, and browned the other side. We adore thick cut applewood-smoked bacon. To mimic that familiar flavor profile for our twisted BLTs, I deglazed the pot with 1 cup apple cider to pick up the sticky fond. When the cider reduced to a light syrup, I added 1 1/2 cups chicken stock, 1 cup apple cider, 4 tablespoons apple cider vinegar, a sprinkling of chardonnay-smoked sea salt, and 4 tablespoons of pure maple syrup. I brought the stock to a boil, reduced it to a simmer, covered the pot, and slid it into a 325 degree oven to braise for 2 1/2 hours, basting the scored fat every 30 minutes.

After a few glasses of wine hours, I pulled the pork belly from the oven and let it rest. When it was completely cooled, I transferred it to a deep baking dish, covered it with the fatty braising stock, and covered it with plastic wrap. To compress the meat and squeeze out additional fat, I placed a small baking pan  on top of the plastic-sealed belly and weighed it down with  an aluminum foil-wrapped brick before sliding it into the refrigerator to chill overnight.  By the time I called it a night, I was covered in pork fat and smelled like a good way.

Crisp. I preheated the oven to 400 degrees and pulled the pork belly confit out of the refrigerator. After scraping the solidified fatty lid from the top of the pork, I carefully scooped the slabs of belly out of the gorgeous gelatinous  pork stock. I sliced the pork into small serving pieces and placed them fat side down in a small cast iron skillet before adding  the jiggly stock, a few split tomatoes, sprigs of fresh thyme, salt, and pepper. I roasted the belly pieces for 10 minutes, turned them over to expose the scored fat, and basted them constantly with the reduced maple-cider pork stock  until they were deeply caramelized.

Wine break.

Burnished with crackling fat, I pulled the mahogany-stained pork from the oven to rest.

BLT. After slathering Weisenberger Mills toasted cornbread croutons with mayonnaise, I nestled the candied belly bites onto the croutons and tumbled peeled green zebra cherry tomatoes to the side. I mixed the last harvest of Stonehedge Farm baby romaine with baby arugula, tossed both lettuces in a roasted Brown Berry cherry tomato poppy seed vinaigrette, and finished with scattered slivered radishes, halved Black Plum tomatoes, split Italian Ice tomatoes, and pickled apples.

Unconventional, to say the least. It's hard to cook and describe pork belly without embracing the fat. Fat. Good fat. Crisp fat. Sweet fat. Fatty fat. Embrace the fat. Fat equals flavor. Period. That being said, the fat was there without being overly there. It simply melted into the layers of pork, keeping the meat moist and tender. The charred scored tips were crisp and sweet. Candy. Salted maple-cider braised pork candy. Yep. However, like any conventional BLT, balance was key. With all the porkiness going on, it needed other stuff to make it work. While the roasted tomato vinaigrette added sweet zing, the ripe tomatoes, peppery radishes, lettuces, and pickled apples leveled the playing field with crunchy fresh acidic balance. Crazy.

Belly up

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


Michael and I took our first joint jaunt outside the continental United States a little over twenty years ago. Back in those halcyon days, we were young, adventurous, naive, and very poor. After a few beachside camping vacations (we're not campers), we booked a cheap package excursion to Freeport, Grand Bahamas. It seemed simple enough. Drive to Miami, board a ship, sail to Freeport, and have fun...with little money.

After loading my hand-me-down Ford Granada with our duffel bags, traveling snacks, and vodka, we set out on the 1200 mile trek to Miami.  It was an adventure. Although the Port of Miami was a hectic place to maneuver, we managed to get our ducks in a row before boarding the Scandinavian Sun, a relic of a ship retired from bygone European cruising itineraries. We had no idea what cruise ships were supposed to look like, but we had an inkling the Scandinavian Sun had seen better days. It didn't really matter. The boat was merely transportation to the Bahamas. Well appointed with restaurants and bars, it was a glorified water ferry with perks. We had a blast on the 6 hour journey. Because it was a small ship without modern day stabilizers, the ship tipped and rocked violently as it cut through the rolling swells. When the crew eventually turned the ultra hip discotheque into a sick bay for the other passengers, we mocked them with rum runners. Six hours on an archaic boat and suddenly we were sailors. Drunken sailors.

Not knowing what to expect, we finally docked in Freeport Harbor. The harbor looked like an industrial wasteland. It wasn't fancy. It wasn't anything. A few shacks, rope, water, and boats. What the hell were we thinking? After making our way down the gangway, we shuffled our way through the stifling heat, a dusty parking lot, and stray chickens to find a cab to our hotel. It wasn't the right time to second guess our apparent folly. Covered in sweaty red dirt, we hailed a cab, tumbled inside, and made our way the The Lucayan Beach Hotel & Casino ( demolished years ago, it's now the Our Lucayan Radisson Beach Resort).

The hotel vanquished the port of misery from our rum-ridden heads. It was gorgeous. Our skanky cheap room was under renovations, so they upgraded us to a suite located in one of the newer wings of the hotel. After winding our way through fragrant dangling bougainvilleas, we stepped into our unexpected and undeserved ground level floor-to-ceiling marble tiled ocean front suite. We were speechless. Instead of a coffee maker, the vanity was lined with bottles of Stolichnaya vodka and Myers Dark Rum. Boom. Booya. We dropped our bags, made cocktails, kicked open the french doors leading to the patio, and stared at the clear Caribbean Sea serenely lapping at our doorstep. Within seconds, we quietly fell into the pristine teal blue water. Naked. Raw.Wet.

Swaddled in faux luxury, we made the most of our time on limited funds. We gambled once, shared a few gazzilion-dollar shrimp cocktails, and  spent our days on the hotel beach drinking Bahama Mamas. Everything changed when the sun went down. Armed with plastic cups filled to the rim with rum, we strolled the beachfront properties of the surrounding hotels (pretending to be guests) and enjoyed their nightly complimentary Bahamian beach cookouts.On those rum-induced nights, we fell in love with  puffy conch fritters, tomato-based conch chowder, fry fish, and conch salad. I was totally smitten with the ceviche-like conch salad. With the texture of abalone or calamari, tender sweet pieces of conch were tossed with diced tomatoes, peppers, onions, and  flecks of habanero peppers before taking a quick swim  in fresh orange juice and lime juice. The brilliant combination offered a cooling respite to the warm night air and sticky dark rum. Heaven.

Eventually, the clock struck midnight and we had to leave paradise. Back into a cab. Hello chickens. Long lines at the harbor. Immigration hut? Check. Our pumpkin awaited. On the sail home, we didn't drink, gamble, or mock anyone. We climbed to the highest most forward section of the ship, rested against the hot metal siding, held hands, and melted into a sea of dreams.

Until recently, we never returned to Freeport.

20 years later, after a fabulous 7 day Caribbean cruise, we barreled into a revamped Freeport Harbor on a grand seafaring chariot. For a brief time, we were back in our forgotten paradise.

Michael wanted a watch.
I wanted conch.

We boarded a tender for a scenic sail to Port Lucaya Marketplace.  When we arrived at the dock, Mr. Brown (Da Conch Man) greeted us, arms outstretched, with fresh conch hanging from his fingertips.  We shopped around the marketplace before settling into a dockside bar.  While we waited for our Yellow Birds to arrive, I snuck behind Mr. Brown's pastel-colored wooden shed for a peek at conch cleaning. Working under the splintered shade of the conch shack, his crew split the spiral tips of the shells (cracking), snipped the tendons to release the squiggly meat (jooking), and washed the conch meat in fresh water (slopping) before slicing off the head, foot, and tough outer skin. Messy business.

With the conch dispatched and cleaned, I watched Mr. Brown prepare my conch salad.  Using a machete, he gracefully diced tomatoes, onions, green peppers, habanero peppers, and conch. After seasoning everything with a sprinkling of salt, he scooped the salad into a plastic cup before showering it with hand squeezed orange juice and lime juice.That was it. No herbs. Nothing fancy.

I grabbed my salad, plastic spoon, and paper napkin. We chugged our cocktails and boarded a bus for the short trip back to the ship.

Michael had his Movado watch.
I had my fresh conch salad.

Paradise lost.
Paradise found.
Lucky boys.

Back in our old Kentucky home, I wasn't quite ready to let go. I ordered 5 pounds of frozen cleaned conch meat from Charlie's Seafood Market. Yep. No cracking, jooking, or slopping. I let it thaw overnight in the refrigerator. The next morning I made a beeline to the farmers' market and picked up Casey County green bell peppers, Elmwood Farm cipollini onions, Stone Hedge Farm  habanero chilies, and Madison County Mountain Spring beefsteak tomatoes.

I simply mimicked Mr. Brown.
Diced. Chopped. Sliced. Squeezed. Nothing more, nothing less.

I even dished it up in the same plastic cup.

So, how did the conch salad stack up to the fresh  Freeport version?  It was close enough to turn the page, finish the chapter, and close the book on the islands.

For now.