Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Magical Bacon. Also, How to Ruin Perfectly Good Clams.

On a hill in Madisonville, Tennessee, there is a verdant green hill with a non-descript cinder block building about half way up painted with the logo "We Smoke 'Em." The unaware traveller might think that this is a simple Tennessean's expression of what to do with the mushrooms that grow in cow poo. The discerning pork enthusiast will look at that block house with a knowing smirk, however,  while salivating in the jowls thinking about the magical bacon curing inside.

 Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams is a family business that follows age old principles of pork production to create truly transcendental bacon, prosciutto and country hams, and you should all keep your coronary arteries open just long enough to get a taste of their magical products. Tennesse, the perfect state (my home state), is the perfect place to raise pigs who produce the perfect bacon. Heritage breed pigs are an important factor in perfect bacon, and Benton's uses these. For perfect fattiness, the pigs need to eat a natural, evolutionarily correct food source, which happens to be acorns. Tennessee's abundant wild oak tree forests are perfect for these, and Benton's pigs roam free and eat a diet exclusively of acorns. Having the right pig on the right diet is one thing, but Benton's seals the deal by dry curing the bacon for months at a time using brown sugar, salt and intense hickory smoke. I'm sure lots of bacon producers can boast similar checklists. But there is something about Benton's that makes high end restaurants all over America pine for their stuff. I had to have some.

It took about a month and a half for my bacon to arrive due to the long backorder. It wasn't really expensive. It cost less than Oscar Meyer per pound (you have to order at least 4 pounds at $4.29 per pound), but the shipping costs add enough so that it's not something you want to do every day. When it arrived, even the outside of the box was perfumed with delicious smoke. I thought about eating the cardboard, but I knew my wife would judge me, so I refrained.

There was a lot of pressure on this bacon. I'm not going to lie. When I fried some up to add to my clam broth tonight, I had high, high hopes. I separated out two slices and diced them up to go with my standard clam preparation. At once, I noticed the intense smoky smell, even before it hit the pan. It is almost acrid. The entire kitchen was soon smelling like a 19th century smokehouse. The fat content in the bacon was about twice what you see in typical bacon. You could tell something was different about it as it warmed up in the pan. It started to turn translucent and melt much more quickly than usual. The rub on the outside (simply brown sugar, salt and sodium nitrate) was very thick, and the edges started crisping immediately. It was almost upsetting to stand over the pan, because the smoke smell was burning my eyes. By the time I got it crisp, there was a huge amount of renedered fat in the pan, and the bacon pieces were golden brown. I tried one (ten) of the little pieces, and they truly were like nothing I have had before. The smoke is not overpowering in flavor, but it is definitely intense. The flavor of the red meat and the fat is like a cross between the best bacon you ever had and a really fine piece of tender country ham. I can totally see what all the fuss is about.

Now for standard bacon strip consumption, Chef Craig Hartman's Redeye Bacon from the BBQ Exchange is pretty tough to beat for me. But for flavoring of other dishes, this Benton's bacon may be my new go-to.

In unrelated news, I made this beautiful bowl of clams with linguine in a white wine bacon garlic sauce, and was extremely excited about eating it. Most of my clam cooking has been done with farm raised clams, which usually come pre-cleaned. The ones tonight were fresh from the sea, however, and they were jam packed with sand. I soaked them in cold tap water for about 15 minutes before steaming, but apparently fresh wild clams need more like an hour to expell all of their sand. Oops. The first one I bit into was like chomping on a wet paper towel full of sandy grit. It was awful. But in between tooth breaking gnaws, I could taste how delicious the broth was, which was really frustrating. Epic Fail.

Moral to the story, soak wild clams for a really long time in cold water so they don't save a little surprise for you.

Basic Delicious Clam Broth
1 pound small clams (littleneck or cherrystone clams are the best)
1/2 bottle good dry white wine
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 vidalia onion, diced
2 roma tomatoes, diced
1/2 stick butter
2 strips bacon, diced
salt and pepper to taste
fresh chopped parsley

Soak clams in cold, fresh water for AT LEAST AN HOUR IF THEY ARE WILD CAUGHT.
Some say salty water works better, and some even say putting corn meal in the water makes the clams eject their sandy poo more efficiently. Whavev, just make sure they eject it. Sand equals a deadly bite.

Fry bacon over medium heat until lightly crisp. Remove bacon from fat. Add butter and sautee onions and garlic in bacon fat for 4 minutes over medium heat, until translucent. Pour in wine and scrape brown bits off the bottom. Raise heat until boiling, and add clams to liquid. Cover, and after about five minutes, the clams should be open and done. Discard any clams that didn't open, and pour the broth over pasta. Add the clams on top and sprinkle with fresh parsley and grated fresh parmesan cheese. Serve with crusty bread for dipping.

1 comment:

  1. I'm lucky, we can buy Benton's at a local market. Dang...now I need to run to the market.