Carolyn and I have a symbiotic relationship, perfected over decades of wedded bliss, when it comes to chores like grocery shopping, cooking and house cleaning. She hates shopping/cooking and I am an inveterate slob who can’t seem to keep his area neat. But I don’t mind shopping for groceries because I can buy whatever catches my eye, including the occasional (forbidden) bag of jelly beans or a bag of Pepperidge Farm cookies. So, happily for Carolyn, I enjoy projects and hobbies that follow a step-by-step process which takes something raw and transforms it into something useful, interesting or edible. Back in the day, I built a full-blown color darkroom to support my insatiable photography habit. I also like to build models to display on my train layouts which are under perpetual construction having taken over our garage. (Who says, “Only God can make a tree”? I’ve made dozens and dozens!) And then there’s cooking. I enjoy cooking. It’s especially fun if I have an appreciative audience like my wife of 45 years (although, honestly, she’d applaud if I served dry breakfast cereal for dinner…Carolyn REALLY hates meal preparation!). And (this is the best part), I can walk away after creating an epic disaster in the kitchen and Carolyn cleans it all up! What could be better?
So, instead of serving up another political dish today, I thought I would put a few observations about cooking on the table…specifically, how to prepare two ingredients which can be prepared in advance, stored in the refrigerator, and added to recipes for great effect. I am talking lardons and caramelized onions. These are two very versatile flavor enhancers that I’ve come to rely upon.
Lardons (prep time 30 – 45 minutes). If you are like most carnivores, bacon is a prized taste-treat. But it’s a prize that comes at a cost: it’s a terrible mess to cook and the outcomes are sometimes less than stellar (I’m looking at you, flabby bacon slices!). I am a big fan of crockpot cooking and I found a recipe for beef bourguignon (full recipe follows in another blog post) which, in turn, led me to discover ‘lardons’. Lardons (which is pronounced ‘LARD-ns’…so forget any unflattering puns you were working on) are crispy, tasty bits of bacon that have more character than bacon bits, which are too dry for my taste. Cooking lardons en masse guarantees perfect bacon taste/texture and is a breeze if you take the time. I’ve started using these little match stick sized tidbits of thick-cut bacon on all sorts of things. They top salads and pizza or can be added to vegetable dishes like steamed green beans and are essential for crab-stuffed mushrooms or dropped into scrambled eggs…there is no end to their tasty applications! I store them in the ‘fridge and just dole them out as the opportunity arises…and it arises often! Make them on a day when you are going to be puttering in the kitchen anyway and then enjoy them with no preparation fuss.
Cooking lardons is easy, but it takes some time and patience. It helps to have something else to do at the same time because there are many pauses between stirring the pot. Start with at least a pound of thick-cut bacon from the grocer’s case. It shrinks up in the process, so a pound of raw bacon produces a dismayingly small pile of cooked lardons which disappear much too quickly. So yesterday I worked with 3 pounds of raw bacon which produced a Mason jar’s worth of tasty bacon morsels. Begin by placing the bacon package in your freezer for 30 minutes or so. This firms the bacon up so that you can cut it into ¼” x 1” matchstick shapes. If the bacon is too soft, it’s a misery to attempt to cut. I use a large butcher knife sharpened to a razor edge, cutting through multiple pieces at a time. Transfer the pile of raw cut bacon into a large stew pot with a lid. Using a large pot instead of a fry pan contains the spatter of the cooking bacon which the clean up crew greatly appreciates. The pot’s lid is useful to direct the potent bacon fumes towards our stove’s vent. Start off with a high heat to get the cooking underway and to heat the bottom of the pot…then turn the heat down to low and let nature take its course. I set a timer for 5-minute intervals to remind me to stir the cooking bacon bits…it goes very slowly at first, but the cooking pace picks up as the bacon begins to brown. When the cooking process is nearly finished, you’ll notice that the grease starts to foam and eventually the foam obscures the cooking lardons. This is your cue to watch the bacon carefully – you don’t want to overcook it, or they will become disappointingly dry bacon bits. The magic of lardons is that they have a texture of juicy/crunch, so pull them from the grease with a slotted spoon when they are brown and crispy, but before they are rendered into bits of bacon flavored charcoal. Blot with paper towels and allow them to rest for five minutes. I store mine (those that we don’t eat on the spot) in a vacuum-sealed Mason jar which then goes in the ‘fridge.
Caramelized Onions (prep time 45 min +/-) Even if you don’t especially like onions, you may make an exception for the sweet, mellow, subtle flavor of caramelized onions. And not just any onions…I am talking Vidalias or Walla Walla sweets! I think you are more likely to encounter Vidalias here in Durango, Walla Wallas are common in the NW. Both are fleeting seasonal treats, so cherish them when they are available. Otherwise, use whatever generic sweet onions you can find. Standard issue onions will also work, but GIGO*.
Like the lardons, you must start with a lot of raw material to end up with a satisfying quantity of caramelized onions. I use them in every recipe that calls for cooked onions and in many recipes that don’t call for onions at all. Meatloaf, tacos, spaghetti sauce, veggie lasagna, fajitas, any stir fry, hamburgers…the list is endless. Begin with at least 6 onions and a large fry pan (or you can use the big pot trick, but the onions don’t spatter nearly as much as the bacon). Depending on the aesthetics of your recipe, dice the onions or cut them into strips – any shape will do. Melt a few TBLS of butter in the pan and add the onions in a big heap. Stir to mix with the butter. (If I am making a vegan dish I use oil instead of butter, but straight oil doesn’t seem to work quite as well. I’ve also heard of using a combination of oil and butter, but I’ve never done that). As with the lardons, start with a medium or high heat but turn it to very low as soon as the pan heats up. Stir every few minutes, don’t allow any sticking…add more butter if necessary. There is no way I know of to speed this process up…if the heat is too high, the onions will just burn. It can take the better part of an hour to complete the transformation. The trick here is to provide enough heat to caramelize the sugar in the onions without burning them. SO, a low heat, a long cooking time and frequent stirring are the keys. Eventually, the huge pile of raw onions transforms into a much smaller clump of sweet, brown, caramelized onion. Store it in the refrigerator and enjoy.
Vacuum Packing. I use our FoodSaver vacuum sealer for almost everything. The primary use is to seal prepared meals for the freezer; I always make a double recipe (or more!) when I cook and store the extra in freezer bags or in Mason jars (read on). These quickly-defrosted entrees are a gift to your future self! Or you can seal all the raw ingredients for a crockpot recipe in bags for freezer storage. I assemble multiple meals for the crockpot in an afternoon by portioning out raw ingredients into vacuum bags, freezing them for future use. When you want to use it, just open a bag and drop the contents into the crockpot. My FoodSaver also has an adaptor that creates a vacuum in Mason jars. You’d be amazed at how things stay fresh in a vacuum-sealed Mason jar! Left over fruit salad stays fresh for days and days. Before I fire up the grill, I put raw chicken into Mason jars with marinades and vacuum seal it…the vacuum causes the chicken to absorb the marinade in just 15 minutes. The vacuum seal appliance is one of the most valued tools in our kitchen! It pays for itself quickly by preserving food which would otherwise end up unused.
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*Garbage In, Garbage Out