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    After the fifth barbecue stop in North Carolina my brother-in-law and I were delirious. We stumbled out of the door of the last joint, nearly tripping over ourselves like a couple of drunk freshman.  I called my wife but when I attempted to speak the right words wouldn’t come out.  Sure my belly was full of pork, but it was something about the addition of coleslaw, hush puppies, and glass upon glass of sweet tea to the equation that produced some kind of odd chemical imbalance in my brain.  I was drunk on pork, and I giggled at the buzz. 

    It surprised the hell out of me.  I thought I knew what North Carolina barbecue was before I ever set foot in the state.  I mean, just close your eyes and what do you see?  I figured I’d be eating a ton of pulled pork set on plain white buns topped with creamy coleslaw.  That's what I made from scratch all those years ago.  I knew the sauce would be vinegar-based, and I even knew that the western part of the state might add a little ketchup to that simple equation.  But that's really it.  And to be perfectly honest, I wasn't all that pumped for the drive.  Seriously, how good could 5 pulled pork sandwiches possibly be?

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    Turns out I was wrong...about a lot of things.  When I ordered barbecue, the above picture is basically what I got every time.  Now, you can find pulled--those sandwiches do exist--but by an large it means a plate of chopped pork, hush puppies, and some coleslaw.  This turns out to be a very good thing.  To pull pork you need to cook it until 185 to 195 degrees.  But to chop it the internal temp need only reach about 165 to 180, leading to juicier hunks and also more fat.  It's...um...better than pulled pork. 

    Where did our mission begin?  For help traversing the barbecue trail of North Carolina, I used Mike Mills and his daughter Amy Mills Tunnicliffe's Peace, Love, & Barbecue.  It's been my guide to all things barbecue for the past couple years, and it's never let me down.  Like my Memphis trip, I used their recommended Barbecue Shrines as the basis for my pilgrimage.  That included Lexington Barbecue, Stamey's, Allen and Son, and Wilber's Barbecue. I also got a tip on Twitter from Amy Mills that I needed to visit The Pit in Raleigh, so I added that to the list.

    And so off we went to find out what North Carolina had to offer. 

  • Ed. note: This is the third post in a "Repertoire" series on the interplay of food and style, with our friends The Midwestyle. We're helping their readers learn a few recipes, and they're teaching us a few things about doing it in style.

  • pineapple vinegar 2

    When I think of Mexican cuisine, I think of balance. Mexicans love acidity in their cooking, and that's what makes it so appealing to eat. Though it's a function of living in a warm climate--the same reason Thai cuisine is also fond of citrus, it's a necessary form of preservation--the culinary benefit has outlasted the necessity.

    When you have something rich and heavy in your taco--like, say, hunks of pork shoulder that have been slow-cooked in lard to become authentic carnitas--it is always accompanied by a bright, refreshing salsa to counterbalance it. That's something that's unfortunately lost in translation with so much Americanized Mexican food: the acidity. Americans aren't as fond of it. The typical Mexican restaurant, like the one in my college town of Greencastle, Indiana, serves rich, heavy food that sits in your stomach for hours. Cheese, beans, ground beef, all of it flavorful but nothing to set it all in relief. Your tongue just gets tired.

    A well-made guacamole is a perfect example of this necessary balance. Avocados are wonderful things, creamy and rich, and when you add salt their flavor deepens and becomes round.  But a guacamole really sings with a proper squeeze of lime juice. I've written before about the importance of acidity in seasoning, as important as salt itself, and Mexican cuisine intuitively understands this.

    I'm taking a cuisine of Mexico class right now in culinary school, and one of the things chef continues to refer to is the frugality of Mexican cooking. The frank reality is that most of Mexican cooking was developed by people who didn't have a lot of money. They made use of everything, including the seeds from dried chiles (they can be charred until black and crumbled into salsas to add a complex smokey flavor). And one of the biggest surprises was that the acidity in their cooking doesn't always come from limes.

    Limes and Mexican food seem inseparable, but the reality is that a lime tree can be a luxury, and most families didn't traditionally have more than one. Yet every dish needed that crucial acidity. So what did they do? They made fruit vinegar.

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    At the start of our class chef brought in a huge plastic bucket full of homemade pineapple vinegar, and we have used it for many of the dishes as a seasoning. The process of making it is simple: you simply combine the peels of a pineapple with water and brown sugar (actually, the tradition is to use a Mexican sugar called piloncillo, but brown sugar works just as welll) and allow it to become vinegar over the course of a couple weeks. Once you have the "mother," which is the good culture that has hence developed, it can be used to transform more water/sugar into yet more vinegar. It becomes an ever-replenishable well of acidity to be used without much worry of cost.

    My own homemade back of vinegar has just finished, and I just bottled it up. Here's a documentation of the very simple process...which is basically to dump everything in a container and wait around.

  • By Blake Royer I recently took a 3.4 pound pork...

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    I recently took a 3.4 pound pork belly, rubbed some salt and spices on it, and a week later, it emerged from my refrigerator as the most awe-inspiring bacon I've ever eaten.  I feel simultaneously triumphant and confused: why is this so good, and why was this so easy?

    I knew I was going to make bacon at some point once I began curing meat. People devote entire blogs to the subject of bacon; it's considered a pinnacle of eating, and a vegetarian converter.  But if you haven't made your own bacon, you're missing out on even further worlds of deliciousness. It's like going from a store-bought pie to a real one. Have you seen the way commercial bacon is made?  Huge brining machines filling the bellies with liquid to speed up the curing process to the shortest time possible.  Then, liquid "smoke" goes in.  It's an unnatural process.  Making it yourself, after your first time, seems the most natural thing in the world.  Yet hardly any of us know how to do it.  Bacon comes from the grocery store.

    Again, like all of our meat-curing projects so far--and this is probably sounding like a broken record--homemade cured meat is remarkable not only because of its superior flavor, but also its confounding easiness.  To make homemade bacon, I did almost nothing, except find myself some pork belly and decide on some spices. 

    Which isn't always easy--though any butcher would probably order it for you, and many ethnic markets stock it.  I'm lucky to have access to meat from Fleisher's butchers, a purveyor of exceptional pork and other meats in upstate New York, through Tom Mylan at Diner/Marlow & Sons.  Fleisher's are real trend-setters specializing in organic, pasture-raised meats that are raised kindly and sustainably, and therefore have a superior taste. They sell Berkshire pigs, the pig equivalent of Kobe beef, whose meat "is dark, meaty and richly marbled with a distinctive lush, juicy taste," compared to regular commercial pork which, in comparison, tends to be white, lean, and flavorless.

    Every week Tom gets his meat from them for his restaurant group by ordering entire animals and butchering them in-house--so I called ahead, then stopped by to pick up my belly that same day.  When I arrived, he was moving at high speed because his meat order had come in late.  As I stood in a tiny square foot corner of the butchering room, just behind the door to the walk-in cooler, Tom took an entire half pig, which had been split right down the middle, and, using a combination of a saw and knife, broke it down into ham, shoulder, ribs, a stretch of pork chops running the entire back length, and finally, the belly.  Seeing this happen so matter-of-factly in the back of a restaurant felt very unceremonious.  But it was also an astonishing sight: here was a pig, and minutes later, here was a rack of ribs and some pork chops.  The pieces of meat I was seeing weren't abstracted; I saw, literally, where they came from. 

    Tom needed most of the belly for the restaurant, but he sliced me a 3.4 pound triangle from one end, and sent me on my way.

  • By Nick Kindelsperger A couple of Fridays ago, I showed...

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    A couple of Fridays ago, I showed up at my sister's house with a big hunk of pork belly, a pork butt, and some hickory sawdust, and for the next 8 hours I smoked meat.  I thought it would be a carefree time and a big improvement over the first time I tried to smoke meat.  I dreamed of watching the smoke pour out the side of that grill, while taking slow, steady drinks of a cold beer and listening to Hank Williams.  But my experiments don't always go as planned.  The first hour was chaotic.  I couldn't get the smoke to come and tried various ridiculous steps to figure something out.  But once it came, as the above picture does attest, it billowed.  I could do nothing but sit and stare at the smoke.  The moment was among the most satisfying experiences I have ever had. 

    I was spurred to smoke by a great barbecue book called Peace, Love, & Barbecue by Mike Mills and Amy Mills Tunnicliffe.  Their book had a recipe for the perfect pulled pork, which I'll write about that later.  But with the smoke pouring out, I thought I would tackle bacon again.  I needed to right a few wrongs. 

    My previous attempt wasn't necessarily a disaster, it just turned out differently than I had wanted.  That River Cottage approved bacon was heavily salted and perfect for stews, big pots of beans, and other hearty dishes.  But I wanted breakfast bacon.  I wanted a maple syrup tinge and I wanted smoke.  I realized I'd need to hunker down and really figure how to do this right. 
  • cold oatmeal 1
    Oatmeal at Cafe Fanny in Berkeley

    I think I've always loved the idea of oatmeal for breakfast: it's simple to make, it sticks to your ribs until lunch, and it's economical. I don't always put a lot of time into breakfast, or much thought, save the occasional calm morning of a slow-fried egg on toast or scrambled eggs with chives from the windowsill garden. Oatmeal seems like a good, honest solution. Though I've occasionally had some wonderful bowls of oatmeal in cafes, when it hasn't been gluey, and drizzled with just enough maple syrup and floated with a cream, I've never developed an oatmeal habit. It struck me a few weeks ago when I was in San Francisco, and had what could only be considered a transcendant bowl at an Alice Waters place called Cafe Fanny in Berkeley.

    This was Platonic Ideal stuff, the best an oatmeal lover could ask for, each grain its own distinct pearl of flavor, the entire bowl just creamy enough. But all I could think about was a line from one of my favorite comedians, Mitch Hedburg, describing the importance of starting out a comic routine strong and finishing just as well. "You can't be like pancakes: all exciting at first, but by the end you're f***ing sick of 'em."

    Obviously, the instant stuff sucks, and though I've read about steel cut oats cooked a dozen ways (in rice cookers, slow cookers, and quickly over high heat morning-of, etc.), I've never been convinced that the hassle is worth it. Maybe you could convince me? Do you have the best way to prepare oatmeal?

  • 50_1

    How to turn your Weber grill into a pork-smoking machine and spend an entire, exhausting day creating barbecue.
    by Nick Kindelsperger
  • 50_1

    Just like your grandmother, I now own a cast-iron skillet.
    by Nick Kindelsperger
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