Lamb Bacon

When I was out procuring short ribs for the ill-fated hot dogs, I also stumbled upon some local lamb breast. I got four hunks of it for $8, which ranks as one of the better scores in recent memory. It can be pleasurable indeed to covet the cheap cuts, and guiltlessly filling one’s basket with meat is a major reason why. I’m especially glad I found these when I did, because the unmitigated hedonistic triumph of the lamb bacon–smoked at the same time as the dogs–really took the sting out of the beef debacle. Lamb bacon is seriously wonderful, and highly useful in a wide variety of culinary contexts.

To start, I trimmed the ribs off of the belly. As you can see, the belly is much like pork in its layers of fat and meat, though thinner and in this case skinless. I saved the bones, adding them to the container with the beef short ribs, and used them all (after a roasting to render off the copious fat and add flavor) to make phở. I love phở in all its forms, and use all sorts of bones to make it, unorthodox though it may be. Chicken, pork, lamb, duck: they all do an excellent job, but lamb and beef together might be my all-time favorite (except possibly for smoked duck). The roasted bones went in a big pot to boil, drain, refill, and then barely simmer for an hour, and then I added half a charred onion, a charred thumb of ginger, and a few toasted cloves, a cinnamon stick, three star anise, a fat pinch of black peppercorns, and a couple of cloves of garlic. It simmered, barely undulating, for another hour. I strained, cooled, and froze it in quart containers. It’s excellent both as a soup or as a braising liquid or finishing stock for almost anything.

I took the boneless belly pieces and rubbed them all over with a vaguely Moroccan-themed spice mixture, looking to add harissa notes to the meat as it cured. Salt, coffee, garlic, cumin, cinnamon, coriander, mustard, paprika, caraway, black pepper, spruce, fennel, hot pepper, and juniper all went in, along with a little pinch of pink salt. I cured them for 24 hours, then rinsed them off and let them sit for another day to develop a nice pellicle.

And into the smoker they went. I pulled them out just shy of 140˚ and let them rest for ten minutes, since I really hate overcooked lamb. The smells were pretty insane. Fried in strips, it tastes highly bacony at first, and then all of a sudden the lamb flavor rushes in to assert itself on the finish. It’s very good.

We’ve had it with eggs for breakfast, of course, and draped over a big bowl of phở with noodles, where it amplified the spices in the broth wonderfully, adding a smoky, chewy counterpoint to the flavor of the bones trimmed from these selfsame slabs of meat. But the best yet was this dinner, where diced bacon browned with fennel and red onion became the underpinning of a simple summer meal that hit every note it was possible to hit in the seasonally appropriate homemade food category.

That’s local, organic polenta cooked in the whey left from making feta yesterday and a bit of phở wrapped in blanched collard leaves. Underneath the rolls is a ragout of entirely homegrown vegetables: fennel, onion, dragon’s tongue beans, carrots, chioggia beets, chard stems, scallions, arugula, and garlic. The fennel, onion, and carrot got a good browning with the bacon at the outset, and I added the other ingredients one at a time so they’d all reach a perfect doneness at the same time. Once tender, I added an ice cube of beef demi-glace and a splash of cider vinegar. Thyme, borage, nasturtium, and lemon marigold flowers made a festive and flavorful garnish. In a lot of ways, this plate of food is the poster child for my entire cooking ethos: the vegetables are entirely homegrown, the grain is local and organic, and the bacon and stocks are homemade. The whey is a byproduct of cheese making, and does sublime things to polenta when used as a cooking liquid. Just the lardons from one fat slice of bacon and a tablespoon of beef reduction gave what otherwise would have been a somewhat dainty dish the backbone it needed to become a more substantial summer meal, leaving us craving nothing at all. When you have charcuterie on hand, and whey, and a garden, you never have to wonder what will be for dinner; you just walk out the door and take dictation.

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I'm a painter who happens to also spend a lot of time growing, making, and writing about food. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of frugal peasant cooking techniques and haute improvisation. And I have a really great personality.

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