Michael Ruhlman (a well-known and accomplished author) issued a challenge earlier this summer on his blog to “Make a BLT from scratch.” He specified that “From scratch means: You grow your tomato, you grow your lettuce, you cure your own bacon or pancetta, you bake your own bread (wild yeast preferred and gets higher marks but is not required), you make your own mayo. All other embellishments, creative interpretations of the BLT welcome.” This challenge appealed to me on so many levels. First of all, I always like a challenge, especially one that involves food. Second, we have become so distanced from the sources of our food in this day and age, that this type of meal would force me to look at the work that goes into producing something as simple as bread, or pancetta, and would force me to have a closer connection to where my food was coming from. So I decided to take on the challenge. The difficult thing about a menu like this is that the planning begins long before the meal actually takes place. Tomatoes and lettuce must be planted and cared for, pork to cure must be obtained, the pork must cured–in other words, you cannot run to the grocery store at the last minute to grab any items you’ve forgotten. This is about as far away from fast food as you get. You really have to sit down and think things through. Last night (Saturday, August 29th), we sat down to dinner with our family, my mom, my youngest brother and his friend Miss L and enjoyed one of the more complicated, yet simple meals I’ve ever eaten in my entire life. The meal was not without its hiccups, yet it was still delicious.
On the menu:
1) BLTs 2) Cucumber Salad 3) S’mores
Let’s look at the anatomy of a traditional BLT: You’ve got 2 slices of bread and sandwiched between those two slices is bacon, lettuce, and tomato, with a bit of mayonnaise to hold it all together.
We had two different styles of BLTs for our meal–a more traditional one and a vegetarian version. We ate homegrown tomatoes on both, but in place of lettuce we had homegrown basil (I didn’t grow any lettuce this summer).
I started the bacon several weeks ago. I was unable to find pork belly to make proper pancetta, so I used easier to find pork shoulder. I cured it using the basic dry cure method described by Ruhlman.
I rubbed the dry cure on the meat, put it in a large ziploc bag and threw it into the refrigerator where it stayed for a week.
After a week I pulled it out, thoroughly rinsed the dry cure off of each piece of meat, and improvised hanging it by skewering the pieces onto BBQ skewers and hanging them on a bowl.
They dried like this for a week. When the week was up I roasted them in the oven for 2 hours at 250 degrees Fahrenheit until they were tender.
When we were ready to eat, I pulled several pieces out, sliced them thin, then fried them up just like regular bacon.
For the vegetarian BLTs I made homemade tofu. I will be going into more detail on how to make tofu during the coming week, but to give you a brief preview, it all begins with dried soybeans that are soaked overnight in water.
Then those soybeans are used to make soymilk.
Then a coagulant is used (I used granulated nigari, a byproduct of sea water) to curdle the soymilk.
The curdled milk is then ladeled into a tofu press where it is pressed into a block of tofu.
When it was time to eat, I sliced the tofu into slices, sprinkled them with some shichimi togarashi (Japanese 7-spice), and pan fried them (fried each side until they were lightly golden brown).
The bread was a bit of a disaster. I made a sourdough starter using the method described by Ruhlman.
Everything seemed to be going well. After a couple of days when everything looked good, I proceeded to make a loaf of bread using 1 part starter, to 1 part water, to 2 parts flour (and a small amount of salt) (all measured by weight). I mixed up the dough and left it to rise. This is where I started to get worried. Things weren’t progressing as they should have been. But I pushed onward, determined to follow it through no matter what happened.
After the first rise I formed the dough into a long loaf and set it on a cookie sheet for the second rise. By the end of the rising time, the dough had spread out into an unappetizing slimy flat slab of dough on the cookie sheet.
Curious to see what would happen, I threw it into the oven anyway. This is what came out:
Don’t worry, it’s okay to laugh, I certainly did! My brother and I both agreed that it looked like a giant madeleine. I cut it open to find a very impressive yeast bubble inside which my brother promptly named “The Yeast Cave.”
Luckily I had a backup plan, just in case something like this happened. I have a bread recipe I’ve been working on perfecting, so I pulled it out and whipped up two loaves. (Watch for that recipe sometime next week.)
I think I was cursed when it came to the bread for this meal because I wasn’t paying attention and didn’t separate the racks in the oven enough, and so the loaf on bottom rose up into the other rack, which destroyed its appearance a bit (but at least it was still edible).
Sigh. I’m blaming all mistakes on sabotage by kitchen goblins. That or sleep deprivation due to a teething Bug.
The mayonnaise was one of the last pieces of the meal I pulled together. I used the recipe from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking (you can find the recipe on The Nibble).
I made the mayo with olive oil and a combination of lemon juice and wine vinegar. I took the easy way out and made it in my food processor, so it came together quickly and perfectly.
I put the mayo into small jars and then spiced one of the jars up with some of my homemade chili garlic paste.
So, in a face off between tofu and bacon, which sandwich was better?
That’s hard to say. They were both delicious in their own way.
The bacon was unlike any bacon I’ve ever had before. The flavor was amazing! It was so baconey. I can’t think of any other way to describe it, except for that it was like a flavorful slice of bacon times five in the flavor arena.
The tofu was creamy and slightly sweet, and tasted amazing paired with the spicy chili mayo.
Both sandwiches were fabulous on my homemade bread, and I didn’t miss the lettuce at all.
In fact, I may just start using basil on sandwiches in place of lettuce from now on!
2) Cucumber Salad
As a side, I made a simple salad using pickling cucumbers from a local farm. I thinly sliced the cucumbers (using a mandoline), then sprinkled the slices with some seasoned rice wine vinegar, lime juice, a bit of cayenne pepper, and salt and pepper.
In my world, no meal is complete without dessert. I decided that to match my all-American BLT meal, I needed a dessert that was along the same lines. I decided to make s’mores–one of the quintessential summer desserts from my childhood (and very appropriately, a sandwich type dessert). For these s’mores, I made homemade graham crackers and homemade marshmallows. Then I sandwiched a marshmallow between two of the crackers and dipped them partially in melted chocolate.
The crackers were made using a recipe from Smitten Kitchen. The dough was quick to mix up, but it was kind of finicky to work with–a lot like pie dough.
I could only work with part of the dough at one time because otherwise it would soften up quickly and become a sticky mess.
As such, the crackers took time to roll out and cut.
The marshmallows were also made using a recipe from Smitten Kitchen. These were really easy, and would have been easier if the kitchen goblins hadn’t struck again and caused me to not pay attention to the candy thermometer on my first go.
Guess what happens when you don’t pay attention to sugar, corn syrup, water, and salt that is simmering on the stove? The temperature gets too high and then the mixture turns into a hard glass-like rock at the bottom of the pot.
The second time around went smoothly without any hiccups, and I got a beautiful white pillowy mixture that I poured into my prepared pan.
After the marshmallows set, I inverted them onto a cutting board, cut them into one and a half inch squares, rolled them in confectioners’ sugar and set them in a plastic container to use for later.
The finished s’mores were a lot of fun. The graham crackers were a bit thick, but they tasted wonderful. The marshmallows were amazing: light and fluffy, like eating little squares of sugary cloud. Paired with the chocolate, everything was absolutely s’more heaven.
So what did I learn from all of this? Well for one, even with all that planning, things can still go wrong (at least in my kitchen). I also learned that I’d like to spend some more time figuring out the whole starter/wild yeast process (I’m determined to get bread that actually looks like bread and not a giant madeleine). I also learned how satisfying it is to see a meal from start to finish. I recently wrote about the enjoyment that comes out of anticipating foods that are in season. This meal encompassed that, as we enjoyed fresh tomatoes and basil from our own garden.
But it also encompassed another type of anticipation and subsequent enjoyment–the anticipation of working towards a goal and then enjoying the fruits of our labor.
What a wonderful meal. It was a simple one–just a few BLTs, a bit of cucumber salad, and some s’mores, yet it was so much more than that. It was gardening and harvesting, curing and roasting, soaking and pressing, mixing and baking, waiting and more waiting, failure and triumph. It was a meal to remember.
* Special thanks to Foodbuzz for showcasing my post as part of the monthly Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24 Event which showcases 24 meals, written up in 24 posts, from 24 Foodbuzz Featured Publisher bloggers, all of which occur around the globe during a 24-hour period.
Coming Next: Tofu Week!