Spicy Apple Smoked Bacon Jam: The Ultimate Condiment!!

I have sampled some of the tastiest pepper jellies and onion jellies across the country, but I was about as excited as I’d ever been when I discovered a spread made with bacon…BACON!??! yes, bacon…the Cadillac of meat! The sole reason I can’t become a vegetarian. I first saw the product on a web site dedicated to all products BACON.  Then, one day I was eating a gourmet grilled cheese sandwich at a local brew pub that had spinach and bacon on it.  The bacon pieces were difficult to eat on the sandwich and would pull out when I tried to take a bite.  That’s when I thought, “that bacon spread would be perfect for this!” I searched and searched, and finally found several recipes.  My favorite came from the food blog, Not Quite Nigella. And, after some adaptations, I made a jar of one of the…well, yummiest is the best descriptor I have right now, condiments ever! Now, this recipe is not quick, but the end result is well worth the 2+ hours of cooking.  It’s also not inexpensive…one pound of bacon is reduced to a jelly jar or two.  Having the house smell like bacon for nearly three hours was definitely a bonus though!

Since this is a blog dedicated to the use of herbs and spices in cooking, I suppose I should mention the several used to make this wonderful concoction: garlic, peppercorns, red pepper flakes, and brown sugar.  Be sure you are using the best type and quality ingredients for the tastiest end result.  I use fresh garlic cloves, and bunches of them, of course.  As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, I prefer rainbow peppercorns and fresh coarse grind them to get the true essence of the pepper in the recipe.  Red pepper flakes should be RED.  If they are orange or brown, they are old and won’t be as potent.  I purchase my red pepper flakes at our local farmer’s market and they’re so fresh, my eyes water when I open the zippy bag and put them in a jar.  I can add the fresh flakes to pepper flakes I have that may be a little old, and after a day, the older flakes will absorb the essential oils and be refreshed. Lastly, anytime I use brown sugar in a recipe, including marinara sauce, salsa and barbecue sauce, I use dark brown sugar.  The dark brown sugar gives a deeper more molassesy flavor (yes, another made-up food word!).

Spicy Apple Smoked Bacon Jam

1lb smoked bacon (you can use extra smoked or just add liquid smoke for a more smokey flavor)

1 sm Vidalia sweet onion sliced thin
1 sm red/purple onion sliced thin
6 cloves garlic rough chopped
3 T dark brown sugar
1/2 T crushed red pepper flakes
1 T coarse ground rainbow peppercorns
Tabasco to taste
Liquid Smoke to taste
1/4 C apple cider vinegar
1/4 C Maple syrup
1 C coffee
1C apple juice

Fry bacon until just starting to crisp and turning a pink/brown.  I recommend using a heavy cast iron skillet for the best results.  If it is not coated or non-stick, you will need to babysit the jam as it reduces to be sure it isn’t sticking. You do not want to over-cook the bacon because it will continue to cook for the next couple hours.

Remove bacon to a paper towel lined plate.  Reserve the renderings for sauteing the onions and garlic. Clip the bacon into 1/2 inch pieces with kitchen shears.

Saute the onions in the bacon grease until translucent and just browning on the edges. When the onions are nearly translucent, add the chopped garlic.  Garlic will become bitter if over-cooked, that’s why I add it later in the cooking process.  Continue cooking until the garlic is soft and begins to brown.

 

Add the bacon back into the onion and garlic mixture.  Add the remaining ingredients, except for the apple juice…it will be added as the mixture reduces.

Simmer over low heat for about two hours, adding 1/4 C of apple juice every half hour.  Stir occasionally.

Reduced 1/2 hour
Reduced 1 hour
Reduced 2 hours

Allow the mixture to cool.  Pulse in a food processor until it is the desired consistency.  I like it a bit “chunky.”  Store in a jelly jar in the refrigerator.

There are so many uses for bacon jam.  Of course, you can just eat it on bread or crackers (I just spread some right out of the pan on a piece of warm french bread fresh out of the oven!!).  It makes a great appetizer spread on homemade croutons with a little Gorgonzola cheese.  You can spread it with your favorite cheeses, baby spinach and thin sliced tomato to make an amazing grilled cheese sandwich.  And, my family’s favorite, spread it on grilled burgers!! Mmmmmm!! The best part is that anytime you want that bacon and onion flavor on something, you just grab the jar out of the fridge…quick and easy, without the bacon frying!

Spicy Apple Smoked Bacon Jam
 
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
 
A sweet, spicy and smokey jam perfect on burgers, crackers or just a fork!
Author:
Recipe type: Appetizer, Main Dish
Serves: 1-2 jars
Ingredients
  • 1lb smoked bacon (you can use extra smoked or just add liquid smoke for a more smokey flavor)
  • 1 sm Vidalia sweet onion sliced thin
  • 1 sm red/purple onion sliced thin
  • 6 cloves garlic rough chopped
  • 3 T dark brown sugar
  • ½ T crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 T coarse ground rainbow peppercorns
  • Tabasco to taste
  • Liquid Smoke to taste
  • ¼ C apple cider vinegar
  • ¼ C Maple syrup
  • 1 C coffee
  • 1C apple juice
Instructions
  1. Fry bacon until just starting to crisp and turning a pink/brown. I recommend using a heavy cast iron skillet for the best results. If it is not coated or non-stick, you will need to babysit the jam as it reduces to be sure it isn't sticking. You do not want to over-cook the bacon because it will continue to cook for the next couple hours. Remove bacon to a paper towel lined plate. Reserve the renderings for sautéing the onions and garlic. Clip the bacon into ½ inch pieces with kitchen shears.
  2. Saute the onions in the bacon grease until translucent and just browning on the edges. When the onions are nearly translucent, add the chopped garlic. Garlic will become bitter if over-cooked, that's why I add it later in the cooking process. Continue cooking until the garlic is soft and begins to brown.
  3. Add the bacon back into the onion and garlic mixture. Add the remaining ingredients, except for the apple juice...it will be added as the mixture reduces. Simmer over low heat for about two hours, adding ¼ C of apple juice every half hour. Stir occasionally.
  4. Allow the mixture to cool. Pulse in a food processor until it is the desired consistency. I like it a bit “chunky.” Store in a jelly jar in the refrigerator.

 

 

 

Company’s Coming…Quick! Grab Some Croutons!
You know those go-to foods…the ones you always have on hand or can quickly prepare!??! One of my favorites is homemade croutons.  I use the croutons for salads, soups and just to munch on. They are the perfect compliment to the roasted garlic, that I blogged about previously, as a quick and easy appetizer for those unexpected visitors. Using homemade croutons to top salads and soups (even just jazzed up store bought soups!) gives the meal a personal touch…it’s all about the presentation, you know!
I love, love, love bread! So, there is always some kind of bread around that I can use for croutons.  And even though you can use any ol’ sandwich bread or even leftover buns, my favorite croutons are from day old (or several days old!) crusty bread such as a French Baguette.  Slice the bread about 1/2 inch thick and cut to about 1 1/2 inch pieces.  The Baguette is already a perfect size, so I just slice it and am ready to season.
There are many different spice blends that work well for seasoning croutons.  Any of the store bought blends for dipping bread in olive oil are fine, but you can also mix your own.  By mixing your own, you control the amount of your favorite flavors you use.  I make a mix of Italian spices and Parmesan cheese, heavy on the garlic of course!
Parmesan Herb Seasoning Blend:
1 teaspoon dried parsley flakes
1/2 teaspoon dried minced onion
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon dried basil
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon coarse ground garlic
1/8 teaspoon coarse ground pepper
pinch of fresh ground nutmeg (I keep whole nutmeg in the freezer and just add it to the recipe with my micro-plane)
3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese (a mix of Parmesan Romano would be tasty too)
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.  Lay the bread slices on a baking sheet.  Generously drizzle with your favorite olive oil.  I am tossing the bread with Picholine Olive Oil (which has a lighter flavor that won’t over power the flavors of the spices) and topping with just a light drizzle of Garlic Infused Olive Oil from our local gourmet olive oil and vinegar shop, The Olive Twist.
Sprinkle a couple palmfuls (for the grammatical record, the computer doesn’t like the word palmful, but I am adding it as a scientifically based measurement term) of the seasoning blend over the bread.  Then, using your hands, toss the bread to lightly coat both sides of the pieces…adding more oil and/or spices as needed.  To enhance the garlic flavor, I’m drizzling a bit of the Garlic Infused Olive Oil and then adding a dusting of grated Parmesan cheese just before baking for that extra Parmesan crunch.
Toast the croutons at 425 degrees, turning once half way through baking, for 12-15 minutes.  Be sure the croutons cool completely before placing them in a storage container or bag so they stay crisp.
For a quick appetizer, set out the croutons with a bowl of roasted garlic as a spread.  You can also toss sliced ripe grape tomatoes, fresh basil, roasted garlic and olive oil, and top the tiny toasts with a piece of Mozzarella cheese and the tomato mixture for a yummy Bruschetta.  In the summer, I even toast the bread on the grill.  When grilling, the bread only takes a couple minutes each side to toast.
This recipe introduces the use of pre-mixed spice blends for achieving a particular flavor in a recipe.  Having spice blends on hand make it fast and simple to transform an unexciting, tasteless meal into something full of flavor!
Can Bacon Really Be Any Tastier? Yep! Just Add Pepper…Ask My Dog!
I’m here, I’m here!! Sorry for the delay…I’ve been slightly incapacitated.  We have a dog…a very large dog.  He’s actually still a puppy, but he’s a Mastiff so he’s double the size of most full grown large dogs.  He decided to have an adventure this week and pushed his way out the door.  In the process of catching him and encouraging him to return to the house, I injured my elbow…ouch! So, I was supposed to take it easy and not use the arm for a few days (yeah, right…I’m a mom!).  I’m snickering as I type this because he’s laying on the sofa he has claimed as his throne, snoring away…so sweet and innocent!
Okay, this is supposed to be a food blog, not a dog blog, but here’s something funny…the one last thing I was going to mention about peppercorns, before changing the topic, involves the dog! I mentioned in an earlier blog how surprised my friends and family were because it took several posts before I mentioned one of my true food loves: BACON!! Now, bacon itself is a wonderfully tasty treat, and probably the single reason why I could never become a vegetarian, but jazz it up with some fresh coarsely ground peppercorns and it’s even better!  How does this involve the dog?? Well, we don’t make a habit of feeding him people food, but on the weekends, he knows that mommy is going to be frying bacon.  He will walk over to his morning food, look at it, look at me, and then walk away from the food bowl and plop himself on the floor right in the middle of the kitchen waiting patiently for the sizzling bacon renderings to be poured over his food.  Then he feasts like the king he thinks he is!
Yes, you can purchase pepper bacon…some types more flavorful than others.  However, peppering it yourself puts you in control of the type of peppercorns, the freshness of the pepper and the quantity of pepper used.  Here are a few basic bacon tips: find a brand that you love and stick with it…surprisingly, that does not always mean the most expensive brand.  I love the thick cut bulk bacon from a local meat shop and I also love the store brand bulk packages from the grocery.  Cut the bacon in half (a tip I learned years ago from a friend’s mother) to make the pieces more manageable to cook and eat…they will lay better in the frying pan and not curl up as much.  Cook until perfectly tender-crisp…do this by adjusting the temperature you cook the bacon so that both the meat and the fat cook evenly.  Press the pieces flat and snip the fat curls to make them lay better.  Some people prefer to cook their bacon in the oven on a broiler pan so that the bacon fat drips away from the meat, and the bacon cooks flat and evenly.  Coarsely grind rainbow peppercorns and sprinkle generously over the bacon as it cooks.


We all know that there are aspects of bacon that may not be real high on the healthful food attribute list.  American style bacon is made from a cut of fatty pig belly that is cured in a salt brine (sodium nitrates) and sometimes flavored with maple or brown sugar.  By cooking bacon until it is crisp, much of the fat is rendered out.  However, you should avoid cooking it at high temperature for long periods because the nitrates can turn to nitrosamine, known for negative health effects.  Okay, now I sound like a prescription medication commercial listing all of the negative side effects that have people wondering why they would ever take it!!  So, ignore most of that last paragraph and just EAT MORE BACON!!  

Who is Reuben Anyway??

Sitting here with my tummy very full, I was thinking it’s funny that most people associate the Reuben sandwich with St. Patrick’s Day.  I suppose it’s because of the main ingredient – corned beef.  However, the Reuben actually originated in the United States as a deli sandwich, and though the inventor of this delectable concoction is debatable, he was most probably German…not Irish.  At our house, we typically enjoy corned beef, cabbage and potatoes on day one, and then Reubens and homemade potato chips with the leftovers.  This weekend’s busy schedule had us going straight to the Reuben sandwiches today. 

Here’s how I make my melt in your mouth Reubens: Prepare the corned beef.  It should be amazingly tender when it’s ready.  Have you ever eaten a Reuben sandwich at a restaurant and when you take your first bite, the entire piece of corned beef pulls out because it’s too tough to bite through?? That won’t happen here!  

As for the rest of the ingredients, there are many variations, but my Reuben contains corned beef, Gruyere cheese (regular Swiss can be used, but I like the nuttiness of the Gruyere and how it melts), dressing (I make my own with mayonnaise, ketchup, spicy sweet pickle relish and course ground pepper), and sauerkraut.  I prefer to use marble rye bread and grill the sandwich.

Heat a non-stick skillet, or my favorite, a cast iron skillet over medium heat.  I love the flavor of real butter and olive oil, so I butter the bread on one side and also drizzle a little olive oil in the skillet just before I toast the sandwich. Build the sandwich.  I suggest bread, cheese, dressing, sauerkraut, corned beef, more cheese and bread.  Having the cheese on both sides helps to “glue” the sandwich together and having the moist ingredients in the middle keeps the bread from being soggy.

 
Toast until a deep golden brown on each side and the cheese melts.  Let sit for a minute or two before cutting in half for easier handling (I say that, but it will still be simply so tender and ooey gooey that it will be a wonderfully messy eat!)  Serve with chips and enjoy!! Now I can’t wait until leftovers tomorrow! 

The luck o’ the Irish is pickling spice and peppercorns!
The well-filled belly has little understanding of the empty. ~ Irish proverb

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Even if I weren’t Irish, I would love this day for the corned beef alone! I’m prepping a corned beef brisket for a day of soaking in a steamy meat hot tub with a mix of spices that will have the beef super tender and amazingly flavorful later today.  This is going to be a two-part blog: the first part will focus on the brisket spices and the second will share how to make the perfect Reuben sandwich…Mmmmm! My mouth is watering as I type!

Corned beef gets it’s unique flavor from a mix of spices that are typically used in the pickling process.  The mix can vary, but usually includes bay leaves, cloves, garlic, coriander, mustard seed and ginger.  Some recipes also have nutmeg, cinnamon and allspice.  Peppercorns are also used.  Most of the spices used are whole or roughly crushed.
In the mix I am using today, I am leaving a couple of the bay leaves whole and crushing one.  Because I love the flavor of the black, green, white and pink peppercorn mix, I am using a couple of tablespoons and just rough crushing them in my spice grinder to really let out the essence.  I always keep whole ginger and nutmeg in my freezer so it is quick and easy to just pull them out and grate them with a micro-plane.
Corned beef spice mix: 2T mustard seeds, 2t coriander seeds, 2t whole cloves, 1t ground ginger, 1t ground nutmeg and 2T mixed peppercorns whole & roughly ground, 2-3 bay leaves whole & crushed and one whole clove of garlic.
Place the corned beef brisket in a crock pot with all of the packaged juices.  Add an additional cup  of water.  Sprinkle the spices over the brisket.  Cook in the crock pot for at least 5-6 hours (6-7 hours if frozen) until the beef is fork tender. In the meantime, enjoy some Jameson or Guinness or both!! Later we’ll use the perfectly cooked corned beef to assemble a tasty (and not really Irish) Reuben sandwich.
Crock Pot Corned Beef Brisket
 
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
 
Perfectly seasoned and tender corned beef brisket
Author:
Recipe type: Main Dish
Serves: 8 servings
Ingredients
  • Corned beef spice mix: 2T mustard seeds, 2t coriander seeds, 2t whole cloves, 1t ground ginger, 1t ground nutmeg and 2T mixed peppercorns whole & roughly ground, 2-3 bay leaves whole & crushed and one whole clove of garlic.
Instructions
  1. Place the corned beef brisket in a crock pot with all of the packaged juices. Add an additional cup of water. Sprinkle the spices over the brisket. Cook in the crock pot for at least 5-6 hours (6-7 hours if frozen) until the beef is fork tender. In the meantime, enjoy some Jameson or Guinness or both!! Later we'll use the perfectly cooked corned beef to assemble a tasty (and not really Irish) Reuben sandwich.
Pass the pepper please!

I know, it seems strange to some that I can actually ramble for an entire posting about pepper, but trust me, I can.  As I’m pondering what to blog about next, and focusing on my favorite herbs and spices, I have come to the conclusion that there are several I should probably own stock in (if that were even possible…I don’t recall PEPP being a choice on the little Dow ticker thingy) and pepper would definitely be one of them. I always remember “peppering” my food heavily, and I still can’t quite fathom my younger sister’s extreme aversion to pepper in food. I can even remember getting my first pepper mill (which is amusing because I really can’t remember getting my first car!)  And, even though they are typically used together, I rarely grab the salt shaker in conjunction with my pepper mill.  Not that I don’t like salt…I will chat about it at another time.  I just use salt in moderation, only as it’s needed in the recipe…but, I love the flavor of pepper in my food!  Like garlic, pepper can be found is several forms in my kitchen…fine and coarse ground black pepper, rainbow peppercorns in my pepper mill for table use, and peppercorns to be very coarsely ground using either my mortar and pestle or an electric spice grinder.

Black pepper is a flowering vine and peppercorns are the tasty fruit of the vine which are dried and used as a spice.  Most people purchase the already finely ground black pepper and use it from a shaker.  After reading this blog, I hope you invest in two things: a pepper mill and what you often see called “rainbow” peppercorns.  There are several types of peppercorns; black pepper, which is the dried, ripe fruit of the pepper vine, green pepper, which are the dried unripe fruit, white pepper, which is the dried seeds, and pink pepper, which is the dried fruit of a different plant.  Each has it’s own distinct essence and freshly ground together,  they are very flavorful and enhance the taste of your food.  As with every spice, being freshly ground provides a more intense flavor.

My motto for pepper is the same as my motto for bacon: everything’s better with pepper! (I’m certain those people closest to me are shocked that it has taken me three blog posts to mention bacon!) And, now that I have mentioned it, I am going to go fix some bacon…and pepper it heavily!

Garlic: Vampire deterent and super tasty!

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I can guarantee that there isn’t a vampire anywhere that would venture within a thousand feet of our home…they could probably sense the tons (okay, not literally…but close) of garlic in my kitchen.  At this moment, if you peeked into my cupboards and fridge, you’d find garlic in nearly every form available: fresh, roasted, minced in a jar, whole peeled cloves in a jar, garlic salt (fine and course ground), garlic powder, pickled garlic, garlic paste and garlic infused olive oil (inserting plug for our local gourmet olive oil and vinegar shop, The Olive Twist, here…yummy stuff!).  If a recipe calls for garlic, you can bet I will add extra…and if the recipe doesn’t call for garlic, it might just have some added anyway! Other than being wonderfully flavorful, garlic even has several claims of health benefits: helping to manage blood pressure and cholesterol, and antioxidant effects.  I’m not a doctor or even an herbal medicine expert, but if garlic does indeed provide those healthy benefits, we’ll just consider it a bonus!  

A couple things about garlic to remember: if you have a fresh bulb of garlic and it is sprouting, it’s past its prime…you can use it, but the flavor might be impacted, and if it’s mushy or crumbles, its just not good anymore.  The finer you chop garlic, the more potent the flavor will be and raw garlic is more potent than cooked.  Cooked garlic becomes wonderfully sweet.  But, if you overcook garlic it will turn bitter…so toss it in to the dish a little later in the cooking process.  As a time saver, there is absolutely NOTHING wrong with having garlic in a jar in the fridge because having it handy might encourage you to use it more often. The minced is great to have…not many people have the desire to stand and finely mince multiple cloves of garlic.  Getting those teeny, tiny pieces can mean the loss of fingers if you aren’t careful! 

My roasted garlic has been depleted, so I will be roasting some more tonight.  I love the way it makes the house smell!! Roasting garlic is simple and the finished product can be used for many things, one of my favorites is as a quick and easy appetizer for unexpected guests.  Just set it out with crackers or large croutons (I make my own from day old french bread).  My problem is not eating it all before it makes it to the refrigerator.  

To roast garlic, you can either use a handy, dandy garlic roaster or simply a piece of foil.  Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. 

Peel any loose layers of the paper-like skin of the garlic away, and cut the tips off of the cloves.

Set the whole bulb, cut side up in the roaster or on the foil.  Drizzle with a small amount of olive oil, and sprinkle with a generous pinch of salt (I use Kosher or Sea Salt).

Put the top on the roaster or close the foil around the garlic.  Place in the oven and cook for about 45 minutes.

The smell will be amazing!! The garlic will become soft and the edges will brown slightly.

Allow to cool.  Then pull the cloves apart and squeeze gently into a storage container.

Then, lick fingers (of course!) and eat half of the garlic before it gets put into the fridge! 🙂 oh wait, maybe that’s just me!!  

 

So we’re talking the same food language…

To make sure that we are talking the same food language here, I thought I should define what I mean by “seasonings.” When I say seasonings, I am referring to the things that can be added to food to alter or enhance it’s flavor such as herbs, spices, oils, and vinegars.  Primarily we’ll be talking herbs and spices. 

So, what is the difference you might ask?? By definition, herbs are plants that have seeds, leaves, flowers, barks, berries or stems that are used to flavor foods.  Some are used for medicinal purposes as well.  Spices are the result of an herb being dried.  And, someone way before me had the brilliant idea of combining the flavors that are typical in certain foods to make spice blends…a busy cook’s best friend! 

Why blog about seasonings??  Because I can talk forever about something I am passionate about, and because many family members and Facebook friends are probably tired of hearing my everyday menu play-by-play.  Maybe, just maybe, there are people out there interested in great food and want to cook for their families, but don’t know how to make the same ol’ chicken into something new and yummy.  Hopefully, we can share easy, inexpensive and fast ideas. There are so many tasty flavors out there, and we need to get away from the idea of just salt (a sometimes needed, much overused spice) and pepper on food!! I’ll share my favorite seasonings (look out…my spice collection rivals most of my girlfriend’s shoe collections!) and amazing recipes to make boring meals exciting.  And, to help me get out of any spice rut I might have fallen into, I will explore the hundreds of herbs and spices available.  I’ll start with an easy one…and my very favorite: Garlic.  

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