Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Homemade dry-cured and smoked bacon with roasted carrots, garden courgette and cucumber and mint and parmesan sauce

Another week, another curing project. In a totally spontaneous manner I have managed to fill my summer with a number of lengthy and not entirely necessary preservation projects. But although I’ve had to put up with many estranged “are you crazy” type looks from the friends, family and total strangers whose ears I’ve bent detailing my doings, I have to say that they have all absolutely been worth it. It is true, you can buy good, exceptional even, sardines, and in this case bacon, from some fabulous independent suppliers. They will definitely save you time and might even in some cases be cheaper, but there is definitely something for the satisfaction felt in sitting down and eating something that has been days or weeks in the making. I have also discovered that a big lump of bacon as a gift inspires a great deal of happiness.

In this case, I was inspired by reading old Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall books where he explores old-fashioned techniques such as curing, smoking and preserving, and it occurred to me just how simple a lot of it is. I used to think that DIY bacon was something that was unreachable to small-flat city dwellers, but I was instantly taken with the idea, and I quick trip to my local Ginger Pig saw me committed with a large hunk of pork belly. Miraculously the whole process was surprisingly simple, and even without a proper smoker I managed to achieve a similar result using a BBQ which had a lid to catch the smoke. I have to say, the bacon that came from this labour of love tasted pretty damn good, and happily I have still got a big old piece in the fridge to whittle away every so often. 

Bacon is normally the bridesmaid. There to discretely add a depth of flavour or add a salty contrast to the primary ingredient. After getting this far, I really wanted it to be the star of the show in this dish. I’ve cut thick, proper slices and fried them until crispy, and only paired them with subtle vegetables and herbs to create something fresh and light yet packed with flavour. This year I’ve been growing courgettes, cucumbers and mint on my balcony, and it’s been lovely to walk out on a summer evening and pick a few things to go with dinner. 

As I said, you can buy fantastic bacon if the process puts you off. If that’s the case, this dinner becomes a very quick affair indeed. But I’ve caught the bug now, and am on the hunt for more ingredients to chuck in the smoker… 

Serves 2, plus a good bit of extra bacon 


For the bacon: 

2.5kg pork belly, ribs removed for eating on another occasion 
1kg table salt 
200g brown sugar 
1 lemon, zest only 
10 sprigs of thyme 
4 tbsp black treacle 
Juniper chips for smoking for 24 hours 

For the roasted carrots: 

6 small heritage carrots, trimmed, washed and scrubbed if necessary 
3 sprigs thyme, leaves picked 
1 garlic clove, crushed into a few pieces 
¼ lemon, juice only 

For the courgettes and cucumber: 

2 baby courgettes, flowers reserved 
2 baby cucumbers, flowers reserved 
1 lemon, juice and zest 
3 sprigs mint, leaves picked and roughly torn 
Splash of cider vinegar 

For the mint and parmesan sauce: 

½ bunch of mint, leaves picked 
5 sprigs fresh oregano, leaves picked 
1 clove of garlic, grated 
1 lemon, zest and juice 
3 tbsp grated parmesan 
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil 

To finish: 

The flowers from the baby courgettes, stamens removed and leaves roughly torn 
The flowers from the baby cucumbers 
Red-veined sorrel leaves 
Fennel herb sprigs 

Start by curing the bacon. Mix the salt, sugar, treacle, thyme and lemon zest together in a bowl. Pour a quarter of the mixture into the bottom of a large, deep dish, big enough to accommodate the pork belly. Place the pork belly on top, then evenly distribute more of the curing mixture over the top and sides, rubbing the meat in the process. Keep about a quarter of the cure. Cover the dish with cling film and refrigerate for 5 days. After a couple of days moisture will have drained out of the meat. Drain this away and pack the remaining cure around the pork. After 5 days, rinse the meat clean and pat dry. It should have firmed in texture and darkened. Clean the dish and place the meat back in it, then refrigerate, uncovered, in the fridge for another 24 hours to dry out. 

Create a long, heaped line of the fine juniper chips on the bottom of the smoker or barbeque and light one end until caught and smoking constantly. Place the pork on a rack above, then cover with a lid. Slightly open any ventilation ducts and leave to cold smoke for 24 hours. Check every 3-4 hours, topping up and relighting the chips as and when needed. When smoked the bacon will have taken on a golden colour and have a lovely smokey aroma. Wrap with cling film and refrigerate until needed.

To prepare the courgettes, use a mandolin to slice into thin cross-sections. Cut the baby cucumbers into long quarters. Put both into a bowl and add the lemon zest and juice, vinegar and mint leaves along with a good pinch of seasoning. Mix to combine then cover and set aside. 

For the mint and parmesan sauce, put all ingredients into a food processor and blend until everything is finely chopped and combined, adding a little more oil if needed to loosen. Taste and adjust the seasoning and/or acidity if needed. 

Pre-heat the oven to 180⁰C. 

Put the carrots on a baking tray and scatter over the thyme leaves, garlic clove and seasoning, then drizzle with olive oil. Roast in the oven for about 20 minutes, or until tender. When cooked, squeeze over the lemon juice. 

Pour a little olive oil into a frying pan and set on a medium-high heat. Cut two thick 2cm slices from the bacon joint and fry for about 5 minutes on each side, until well browned and crisp on the outside and cooked through. When ready, remove the bacon from the pan and use a little of the juices to dress the courgettes and cucumber. 

To serve, transfer one piece of bacon onto each plate. Place some of the courgette and cucumber slices and roasted carrots around it. Scatter over some of the vegetable flowers, fennel sprigs and sorrel leaves and finish by dotting some of the mint sauce around the plate.

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