Chinese Food

I don't remember ever eating at a Chinese restaurant growing up. 

That's not strictly true, I guess. I remember going to a Chinese restaurant with a girl in high school. She and I dated for most of high school. So I might have been 15. Or 17. When does 'growing up' stop? I'm also not really sure why I remember that date in particular. I mean, we went to a Chinese restaurant in suburban Georgia in the late '80s. Which I guess is pretty memorable. But I don't remember it like "Oh, hey - I know! Let's go on a grand adventure and try some of that foreign food."  In my memory, it was kind of an ordinary thing to do, which means I had probably done it before. Maybe it sticks out because it wasn't salmon cakes*. 

*(for that to make sense, you'd have to know that every time I went over to that girl's house to have dinner with her family, her mom was making salmon cakes. Every. Single. Time. For three years. I couldn't explain it. I also can't eat salmon cakes to this day. I think I used up my lifetime quota while we were dating. And probably yours, too.) (You couldn't have known that before I told you that story. But now you do, see?)

I don't know what we ordered that night - probably something on the order of Sweet And Sour Fried Chunks Of A Familiar Domestic Animal With Pineapple Chunks. Because that would have been safe.  I also don't remember what the name of the restaurant was. It didn't stand out. Most Chinese restaurant names in America come from the same standard formula. Pick a word from column A [Asia/Jade/Golden/Hunan/Bamboo/China] and add it to a word from column B [Palace/Wok/Panda/Dragon/Garden/Wall]. Boom. You've got yourself a Chinese restaurant. 

I know that I must have gone out to Chinese later on, when I had entered college and was spending time with much more worldly friends in downtown Atlanta. I remember a giant lazy susan, pots of green tea and twelve or so of us trying to figure out if we could afford something more than a couple of plates of egg rolls. As worldly as we were, we probably still didn't venture too far from the aforementioned sweet-and-sour-pineapple-meat. 

I do remember learning to make fried rice from my older brother at some point in my youth. Many years later, when I was staying for a weekend at a different girlfriend's apartment in San Francisco (the girl who would go on to become my beautiful Bride. Despite the story I am telling you now), I sought to impress her by making fried rice like my brother had taught me. Because I didn't know much. But I knew that chicks dig a guy who can cook. So I asked her if she had the ingredients handy. 

Her: 'Probably. What do you need?'

Me: 'Uncle Ben's rice. One beef bouillon cube. And an egg." 

Her: "... Uncl- ... what?! What the hell? No.  Just... no."

Me: "This is San Francisco. It is the San Francisco treat. I've seen the commercials."

Her: That's Rice-a-roni. And still no."

Apparently sensing that intervention was necessary, we met a bunch of friends for dim sum at a Chinese restaurant near San Jose. It's possible that some of my family might read this, and still have never gone to a Chinese restaurant outside of suburban Georgia in the late '80s. So let me explain. 

Dim sum is a style of Chinese food separate and different from all other Chinese foods. It's small, appetizer sized portions, typically dumplings, buns, or other small & conveniently shaped portions of delicious somethings served in a steamer basket or small bowl. They're like Chinese tapas**. It's a great weekend brunch kind of thing.  In the really good places, you don't order off a menu. The dishes are brought out in stacks on wheelie carts - three or four different kinds on a cart. You just point and they put a basket of something steaming hot on the table and stamp your bill. Keep choosing til you're full. 

**Which may not help much in explanation. I didn't try tapas until I was almost thirty. 



I was never really a picky eater as a kid. I just was not adventurous. (Which I maintain is a different thing). I stuck to the things I knew, and was pretty happy. So when we went to this particular restaurant, I tried to figure out which mysterious basket held something that was sort of close to my comfort zone. I didn't expect to find anything in the Sweet and Sour food group, but I figured I could find something at least vaguely familiar. 

I pointed at one of the baskets and asked the cart-pusher, "What's in this one?" She said something back to me in Chinese. Which may or may not have included the ingredients in that particular dish. I smiled and tried again. "What's in this basket?"  She responded in Chinese again. Except louder, and more slowly. I shook my head shyly and waited for the next cart. 

Unfortunately, that didn't prove to be enough time to improve my Mandarin much. The lady helpfully tipped back the lids of the baskets so I could see the choices, though. Which all looked like a sweaty wonton wrapper, squished around small chopped bits of various somethings. One basket contained something that looked an awful lot like boiled chickens feet. (Turns out, they were boiled chickens feet). This had definitely not been on the menu of the Jade Wok of Conyers, GA. 

The pretty girl that had brought me smiled encouragingly between bites of ... whatever... she was eating, and offered me one out of one of the baskets she had chosen. I was hesitant, but I was also pretty desperate to not look like I was hesitant, and somewhat nervous that my earlier Uncle Ben's comment had not improved my chances of seeing this girl naked again. (Note to my children: only after we got married. By a priest. In a church. With our familys' blessing). So I took one.

It was delicious. I had no idea what was in it. Neither did she. 

Suddenly, I figured out that was kind of the fun, and I started pointing at things, and baskets were dumped on our table. Sometimes, the cart lady would cut up the longer sweaty wantons. Sometimes, she would pour an equally mysterious sauce on my plate that I guessed was supposed to make the dish taste better. It worked. Sure, every once in a while, I would find one that I didn't care for, and I'd try and remember its particular shape so I didn't order it again (anything with taro root). (also. the chickens feet).  But I still look back on that lunch as the moment that would've let me eat the two cups of live catepillar gumbo for a million bucks or whatever reality show I might end up on. 

Fortunately, the Critter has never had an issue - she started out as an adventurous eater, and while she's got a couple of things that aren't really her bag (e.g. beans. Of all the things in the world), she'll try pretty much anything at least once.  

The Boy, on the other hand, is pretty much just like I was. He'll eat anything, if it's covered in a decent amount of ketchup. But his instinct is to stick to what he knows. Chicken. Bread. Maybe some green beans. Anything that comes from a cereal box, with or without milk. And peanut butter. Probably not all together at once. 

But one day, Boy. You're going to meet a girl who's going to take you to a Chinese restaurant. And you're going to have a choice. 

I recommend anything but the chicken's feet. 


Where I get all snobby about my bacon


In our house, bacon is serious stuff.

We have extended conversations about bacon. We discuss the merits of different styles & different brands the way OC families might discuss fashion. We consider, savor and discuss a new pack of bacon like teenagers might talk about a new song, or that guy that what's-her-name was seen with last week in the mall. 

We are judgmental and picky. Though truth be told, it's hard to find a bacon that we we won't let back into the house, even after a less than stellar review. (There are notable exceptions: the house brand at Whole Foods. It's just sadly unflavorful. And do not utter the words "turkey" and "bacon" in the same sentence in my daughter's presence).

Bacon in our house is divided into three distinct categories:

- American bacon. This is the streaky stuff made from the belly of the pig with a dry rub of salt and potentially a few other flavors (e.g. maple, smoked, etc.)

American bacon is only good when put on top of other things. A salad. A good burger. Candied and crumbled on top of oatmeal. (trust me on this

American bacon is the co-king of "makes things better when put on top". It shares this glory with a fried egg. (Trust me on this one as well. If you see something on a menu topped with a fried egg, I guarantee you it will be one of the best dishes on the menu. I would not lie to you about this. Other things, ok maybe. But not about a fried egg. We're friends like that.)

- Italian bacon. Also known as pancetta. It's made from the same cut of pork belly as American bacon, but with a different cure approach. It's indispensible in a good pasta carbonara, risotto, or diced and fried with a mess of shredded brussel sprouts. (Ok. You can switch out for guanciale - made from the streaky pork cheek - but the effect is nearly the same.) 

I have a great recipe for pancetta. It takes about 6-8 weeks to cure, and considering that I can get a decent Oscar Meyer bacon for a few bucks, but good pancetta costs me more than $20 a pound, all the bellies of my annual autumn pigs are cut & reserved for pancetta, instead of more typical bacon. 

- and best of all: English bacon. Which is the only kind of bacon meaty enough to stand up on its own as a breakfast main in our house. 

So sayeth the Critter. And so it must be true.



British bacon comes from the loin of the pig, not the belly. Where you get pork chops (without the bone). It's also called 'back bacon', because of where this is located along the pig - It's along the upper side - usually cut (as ours is above) to extend down and include a little of the upper belly (along the left hand side of the picture above).  This is the same cut used for Canadian bacon - usually found on pizza here in the lower part of the continent. (Canadian bacon is cured with more sugar, typically smoked, and is just as often treated as ham here in the U.S. and doesn't rightly belong in the "bacon" category at all, at least in our household). 

I took a picture of this cut above after curing it for about 8 or 9 days. Most American bacon is cured with a 'dry' cure - essentially rubbing it with salt, probably sugar and a few other spices, and maybe smoking it. 

The best traditional British bacon is cured in a wet 'Wiltshire cure' - a brine that the cut is submerged in to soak in all of the delicious flavors.  About half of British bacon sold in stores there is smoked after curing. The rest is sold 'green' or unsmoked. I prefer the unsmoked - both because of the simpler taste, and because it's easier to make. 

The cure is pretty straightforward - I've listed my basic recipe below. 

Wiltshire cure: 

  • 1 gallon of water
  • 1 lb kosher salt
  • 1/2 lb brown sugar
  • 1 heaping tsp pink salt
  • A few crushed juniper berries
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Anything else I happen to grab out of my spice drawer: 10-12 Black peppercorns. A hefty pinch of dried thyme. Nothing if I'm feeling lazy.

Add the salt, sugar & spices to the water in a large stock pot and heat until the salt & sugar are dissolved. Let cool to room temp (I often cover the pot and stick it out on the porch or in the fridge to accelerate things). Add the meat and ensure it is fully submerged (with a plate on top or some other weight) and put into a cool place (basement or garage). Don't bother it again for 5-8 days. I tend to leave mine for 8 or 9. 




At this point, your bacon is ready to slice, cook and eat.

A couple of years ago, I called my Bride a few days before Father's day and told her I knew what I wanted to celerbate my father-ness. A meat slicer.

There was silence on the other end of the phone, and then, "I'm not getting you a meat sli- .... You already have one picked out, don't you?"  

"I'm one click away from having one on our doorstep, baby."

I picked up the one above off of eBay for a two or three hundred bucks, and it's more than adequate for most things. This little deli slicer makes quick work of the bacon. But you could just as well do it with a sharp knife, slicing what you need. (and I have)

I could write a whole other post about what I've learned about meat slicers since buying this one. But as a good, home-use level slicer, it's perfectly adequate. If a pain in the ass to break down and clean afterwards. But hey. Good bacon demands some sacrifice. And I'm ok with that.



I lay out the bacon on easily sorted sheets of wax paper. You can pick them up in a decent grocery for next to nothing. It keeps things tidy for breakfast, when I have kids clamoring for the stuff. 

The only thing I'll point out about this particular batch of bacon is the extra-thick layer of fat. This pig was beautifully fatted, and I hated to lose too much of it. It could have been sliced off and used to make lardo, but I kept most of it. I sometimes end up trimming that fat off before I cook a slice, or throw it to the dog. But just as often, I end up eating it. Don't say 'ew. gross.' Think of what percentage fat your Oscar Meyer bacon is. That's just flavor. 

Note: If you cut it thicker, you end up with gammon. One of my first lunches with the team in the Liverpool office, I was trying to decipher the menu, and asked someone what this 'gammon' thing was. 

'It's like a bacon steak,' one of the guys said. 

Bacon steak. Holy shit. You just combined two of my favorite concepts in one fantastic meal. And they serve it with a fried egg on top. 

A half inch slice of Wiltshire cured pork loin (bacon), griddled with an egg and served with good pub chips and taken with a pint of beer, and you're in heaven, my friend. It is not to be missed.



However, this is how I like my bacon best. Griddled in a pan, and put between two pieces of good toast, buttered and hot. A good, traditional 'bacon buttie'. 

Lots of Brits top it with a bit of brown sauce (the HP stuff behind it - we keep it around because my Bride likes it). But I'm a simple man. 

This right here - this is good bacon. And is one more example that the Brits - despite the rumors - do know what they're doing in the kitchen. 

I would write more. But my bacon buttie is getting cold. 

Sometimes, living things are unpredictable

Today I got a call from the butcher. One of my pigs had two broken femurs. Which translates into two less prosciuttos I can make - the blood from the contusion settles into the muscle and doesn't drain, and the surrounding meat is unusable. 
I called the farmer. It's pretty clear that the pig didn't walk on or off the truck with two broken legs. The bones were more or less splintered. It didn't - couldn't - have moved far without complaining vociferously. It looked almost like the pig had tried to back out of the chute at the last minute and been pushed forward with a tractor or hit by a heavy gate. But the farmer had loaded them and unloaded them without an issue.  (and our farmer is a great guy - He's a dairy farmer, and deals with livestock every day. Not to mention he's my neighbor. His word is more than enough to satisfy on any front). So that wasn't it. 
So I called the slaughterhouse. And got an "Ah. Yeah."  
When pigs are slaughtered, they're led to the killing floor and stunned. They're then hoisted and drained by opening an artery. It's a fairly peaceful, low-stress way to go, which is humane for the animal, and better for the product. Right after the high electric shock that stuns them -  if they jerk or otherwise react, they can thrash about, preventing the rope which loops around their back legs and hoists them from getting set properly. And boom. In the worst of accidents: broken legs. 
No one wants to see this, least of all the slaughterhouse. It's unfortunate, and unpleasant for anyone involved but sometimes? Living things are unpredictable. As the saying goes: Livestock happens.
I get it, and I sympathize, but I also balked a bit at paying for unusable meat.  No one won here (least of all the pig), so I threw it on the table to see how the various parties would respond. 
The farmer knocked some out of his price. Which is painful for him, because the price of grain is up more than 20% this year.  But he and I have been doing business for years, and he knows I'll be back for more. 
The slaughterhouse knocked out their price for that pig, which is fair, but means they're eating into their own margin, since all the rest of their work was still done.
I'm paying a bit more per pound because I want to meet these guys part way. The butcher won't have to prep and bag the bad meat, so I will see some lesser amount net there as well. My overall cost per pound will be up a bit, but I feel good.
And I thought it worth sharing, because this situation underlined the value of knowing and dealing fairly with as many parts of your supply chain as you can. Not only was this a reality of dealing with the processing of livestock into food that we've kind of forgotten about or hidden away from our daily lives, this was also the kind of fair dealing and relationships that supported agro-business for most of history.
(In good news: the bacon parts are still totally edible. And the other pig was flawless.)
So: go find a farmer and give him a hug.  I'm feeling thankful.