More food adventures

A BL(OA)T from scratch

Last year, cookbook writer Michael Ruhlman issed a challenge to make a BLT from scratch. Completely from scratch. Cure the bacon. Bake the bread. Make the mayonnaise. Grow the L & T. The only problem I saw with this is that I prefer a BLOAT to a BLT. Bacon-Lettuce-Onion-Avocado-Tomato.

Roswitha suggested that we grow our own wheat for this. I drew the line at raising our own pig, but everything else we could do ourselves.

Timeline

The biggest problem was going to be one of timing. The bacon was the easiest part; it only takes about 7 days. Winter wheat can take up to 9 months. Our avocado tree—a Bacon—bears in the winter, and tomatoes don’t arrive until summer. So there would be a small window of overlap, and we could stretch the avocados by keeping them in the refrigerator. This timing would put us way outside of Ruhlman's contest window, but that was not really the point.

So, let’s start with the meat of the matter, the bacon. I wanted to make this spicy for our Hotluck and for the BLOAT. I took the recipe from Ruhlman’s Charcuterie and amped it up a bit with smoked habanero powder. These were Red Savina and regular habaneros from our garden which I had smoked over cherry wood from our cherry tree. His recipe does not explicitly say whether or not to take the skin off the pork belly, although careful reading (which I did not do before buying the organic pork belly from our wonderful little neighborhood butcher) says—later—to remove the skin after smoking. So, being ever the experimenter, I asked Ed the butcher to remove half the skin. That way I could compare the result both with and without skin.

After trimming the pork belly, I rubbed it with a mixture of curing salt, kosher salt, brown sugar, black pepper, and smoked Red Savina habanero powder, and then set it to cure for a week. As per the instructions, I flipped it several times during the cure. Once it was ready, I smoked it over cherry wood in the smoker I had built.

BACON (based on Ruhlman’s Charcuterie)

  1. Trim pork belly, leaving skin on
  2. Cover generously (top, bottom, sides) with dry cure and spices and place in plastic bag and seal
  3. Refrigerate bag for 7 days (or until it feels firm), turning daily to ensure good distribution of the curing liquid
  4. Remove bacon, rinse well, and dry
  5. Rub dry spices on bacon and let rest in refrigerator for 2 to 8 hours
  6. Smoke over cherry wood at about 200°F until it reaches an internal temperature of 150°F
  7. Remove skin
  8. Allow to cool, then slice
  9. Fry and eat, or use in other preparations
Pork belly slab with cure Modified smoker with cherry wood from our garden Two smoked bacon slabs, plus a brisket

I sliced off some of the bacon and fried it up. Yummy, and slightly spicy. But I discovered that it was hard to slice it uniformly; I could get a few inconsistent slices. I even tried using a mandoline, which was only slightly better. After mangling some of it, I took my flitch back down to Ed the butcher, and he spent a few easy minutes on his slicer to give me a nice stack of rashers. (I probably had him slice it a bit too thin.) Thanks, Ed!

Avocados vs. the refrigerators

Our 11 year old Bacon avocado tree is right next to our small greenhouse, which gives it the protection of escaping heat during the winter. In general, our winters are mild, but there are usually several days each winter that descend into frost, and we do lose some branches from the avocado and some of our citrus trees. This past year was our best avocado year, when we got about 20 avocados visible on the tree, although the squirrels (AKA rats with a marketing department) took their share. Our plan was to leave the avocados on the tree as long as possible because they don’t ripen on the tree. The tree will eventually drop them (assisted in some cases by the squirrels), but almost-ripe avocados can be placed into the refrigerator, where they will ripen more slowly, and they develop a creamy texture.

That was our plan, up until our refrigerator problems.

Our main kitchen Sub-Zero had given us problems over the years, and it must have sensed our need, so it again stopped cooling consistently. (The freezer knew that it was not on the critical path, so it kept working.) I had repaired it in the past, but this time I was unable to get it working reliably. That was not a major problem, because we had our back-up party fridge, a glass-fronted True. (This is the same as the one you get your sodas from at the deli.) So I fired up the True, and transferred everything—including the precious avocados—into it. The grains and tomatoes were still several weeks away from being ripe. However, the next day I discovered that the True had stopped cooling. I transferred everything into coolers and attacked the True, which I’d also repaired in the past. This time I managed to kill it. Dead. (Well, expensive, really, and we were not going to buy a new compressor unit for our party fridge.) So I rushed the replacement plan, and got a new main kitchen refrigerator to replace the Sub-Zero, although there were some delivery problems (“What? They forgot to ship it?”) and a surprisingly easy installation. The avocados suffered, but were still usable with trimming after this journey. (During this time, I also managed to set fire to the experimental propane refrigerator, so it does not play into the story.)

Bread

Roswitha planted several types of grains in our garden, including wheat, triticale, and oats. It was only a bit later that she discovered that winter wheat takes about 9 months to mature. We started to recognize the time problem.

Flash forward to the June, and the harvest. Some of the grains seemed to be done and dry, and ready to harvest. But, how, exactly, does one harvest grains? OK, sure, cut the stalks, but then what? I had heard of threshing and winnowing, but how, exactly does one do it without investing in a thresher and a…um…winnower? Fortunately, we live in the age of almost all knowledge at the other end of a wire, so I became an instant expert. I tied together a fistful of stalks, shoved the heads into a pillowcase, and beat the crap out of it on the ground. Then I discovered the grain-spewing hole in the pillowcase, and replaced it with a not-so-ragged one. I beat and beat until my arms were tired, and then beat some more, until it seemed that most of the grains had been released. (Let me just point out that it’s not as easy as my simple description.)

Juni inspects the wheat Threshing is hard work Winnowing Mostly cleaned wheat

I dumped the fibrous mess into a huge plastic bowl, separated out the big stalks, and tossed the mess into the air. Fortunately it was windy, so much of the light chaff started to blow away (much of it onto me) while the heavier grains fell back into the bowl. Wow, magic! This might actually work. I continued to do this, every once in a while making a bad toss, scattering the grains all over the ground. A dustpan became part of the tool set. While the process seemed to work, I also saw diminishing returns, finding it progressively harder to get the last of the chaff to blow away. I hand picked the last of it. My arms were very tired by the time I had separated out about 4 pounds of grains, and I was covered in a thick layer of wheat chaff. And let me tell you: lighter oat grains are much more challenging.

Not having a grain mill, we turned to our Blendtec blender, which claims to be able to grind grain. And sure enough, it does a passable job, creating a reasonably fine whole wheat flour. The Blendtec recipe is a brute-force recipe, with high yeast and sugar quantities, almost guaranteed to leaven cement. We briefly flirted with the idea of doing sourdough with local culture (either captured—we do live near San Francisco—or with starter from a semi pro baker friend), but decided that we did not want to risk our hard-earned grain to failure for this project.

Whole Wheat Bread (from Blendtec recipe book)

  1. Mix water, yeast, and molasses and allow to sit at least 3 minutes
  2. Mill wheat in blender to get a fine flour
  3. Add water mix to flour and pulse to mix
  4. Continue pulsing until dough forms a ball (OK, we lightly kneaded it)
  5. Put dough in bread pan and allow bread to rise
  6. Bake 35 to 40 minutes in oven preheated to 350°F

This resulted in dense, sweet bread.

The yeast solution Mill that grain! Full loaf of very whole wheat bread

The first of our early-planted tomatoes looked to be Sungolds, which are large orange cherry-type tomatoes with good acid and great flavor. While their size is not ideal for a sandwich, it was the only choice. We could not wait any longer.

The yeast solution Mill that grain! Full loaf of very whole wheat bread

 

Mayonnaise

Sungold ripening was imminent, lettuce was ready for picking, we had grain, and the bacon was made, so now it was time to find some eggs for the mayonnaise. We had flirted briefly in the past with the idea of raising chickens, but had not done it. (The neighborhood raccoons are already well-enough fed.) I put out a call for neighbors and friends who might be raising chickens. Someone right nearby (thanks, Kirsten!) was able to spare a few eggs, and I got a few back-up eggs from another friend in the area (thanks, Dana!). He also had a couple of onions in his garden that the chickens had spared, so he gave us those as well. We had just planted our olive trees, so there was no chance to make our own oil (next year!). I just used some semi-local (Sonoma) olive oil. We have Meyer lemons almost year round in the garden, so those were readily available.

A few local eggs One of Dana's birds These should be enough eggs no matter how much I screw up Meyer lemon cleaned wheat

I used a stick blender to make the mayo (oddly, just around the time that Ruhlman posted his quick mayo video). I got the mayo to emulsify rather quickly, but, stupidly continued to try to use all the oil I’d measured out, so it broke. It was good that I’d gotten the back-up eggs, because I needed one to rescue the mayo.

For mayonnaise, including local eggs, our Meyer lemon, and smoked garden chiles I should have stopped here

Mayonnaise
  1. Combine salt, lemon juice, water, and yolk in a bowl and mix
  2. Add a few drops of oil to the mixture and blend with the stick blender
  3. Slowly drizzle the oil in while continuing to mix
  4. The mixture will move from being thin and creamy to rich and pudding-like. As soon as it reaches that state, stop. You’re done.
Avocados and onions Frying some rashers Fried bacon Almost done

Finally, it was time to make our BLOATs. After all the work, assembly was trivial. We harvested the tomatoes and lettuce, toasted bread slices, smeared the mayo, scooped out some avocado, fried up the bacon, and settled in the garden to enjoy the sandwiches of our labors, joined by our friend Suku. We enjoyed the sandwiches with some olives I’d cured the prior year (taken from the nearby Stanford mission olive trees), pickled scallions, and some sun tea.

BLOAT lunch, much of it sourced within 50 feet of this table Can we eat already? All gone

I can't say that this was the best BL(OA)T I've ever eaten, but it was very good.

Costs

What did this little project cost? Some of the costs are easy to break down (such as the purchased pork belly transformed into bacon), and Dana has kept track of the cost of production of eggs from his two backyard chickens. However, the costs of things that we grew are harder to pin down. We can estimate the labor to prep the soil, plant, maintain, and harvest, but what about the cost of water and the cost of the land? We only amend the soil with compost, and use no other fetrilizers or insecticides. Although our water bill is larger than we'd like, the marginal cost per plant is very small, so we'll ignore that. We live in the SF Bay area, so we've got crazy real estate prices. I can simplistically look at the monthly land cost per square foot (mortgage plus taxes) and ignore the fact that we will some day sell the property. A little more realistically, I looked at the debt service and property tax, although this does ignore the (hoped-for) property appreciation. And one plant (such as a lemon tree or a tomato bush) produces numerous (estimated) fruits, so the cost can be amortized. For most of these, where we have some sort of multiple yield, the final cost is relatively small. I'm assuming labor costs to be the federal minimum wage.

         
$7.25/hour
     
Mtl. Cost
Land
Hrs
Labor
total
% used
  Bacon
$33.86
2.5
$18.13
$51.99
5%
 $2.60
  Pork belly
$30.00
0.0
$30.00
5%
$1.50
  Salt
$1.33
0.0
$1.33
5%
$0.07
  Dextrose
$0.75
0.0
$0.75
5%
$0.04
  Brown sugar
$0.25
0.0
$0.25
5%
$0.01
  Pink salt
$1.25
0.0
$1.25
5%
$0.06
  Cherry wood
0.5
$3.63
$3.63
5%
$0.18
  chiles
$0.08
$0.03
0.0
$0.11
5%
$0.01
  Spices
$0.20
0.0
$0.20
5%
$0.01
   
  Bread
$3.50
$14.40
6.5
$47.13
$65.03
5%
$3.25
  Honey
$0.20
$0.20
5%
$0.01
  red winter wheat
$3.00
$14.40
6
$43.50
$60.90
5%
$3.05
  Yeast
$0.30
$0.30
5%
$0.02
  total
$3.50
$14.40
6
$43.50
$61.40
5%
$3.07
  Make bread
0.5
$3.63
$3.63
5%
$0.18
   
  Mayo
$4.04
$0.08
0.2
$1.21
$5.32
2%
$0.11
  Eggs
$0.75
  Oil
$3.00
  lemon
$0.13
$0.02
  chiles
$0.16
$0.05
  Total & make
$4.04
$0.08
0.2
$1.21
$5.32
2%
$0.11
   
tomatoes
$3.00
$0.03
0.2
$1.45
$4.48
4%
$0.18
avocado
$100.00
$0.03
0.0
$0.12
$100.15
0.2%
$0.20
onion
$0.30
$0.20
0.0
$0.12
$0.62
10%
$0.06
lettuce
$0.50
$0.02
0.0
$0.12
$0.64
20%
$0.13
   
Total
$6.53

 

Costs by component Costs by resource

 

The total cost for one sandwich was about $6.53, with the most expensive components being the bacon and the bread. It turns out that the grain was a huge cost, due to the real estate costs (it takes up lots of area over many months), and the labor (it is harvested once, and is a lot of work to process by our unexpert manual methods).

It was worth it. I'm just not sure that we need to do it again, except for curing more bacon. That'll become a new tradition.

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