Thursday, 5 December 2013

Because It's Just Better with Bacon: Three Thanksgiving Side Dishes for 2013

Greetings, Foodies and Food Fans of the Blogosphere! Somehow the end of my first semester in graduate school has arrived and with it comes the rather hectic week of finals. That said, I need to take a quick break from all that to make a fun announcement (and finally get this post published). If you haven't seen via Facebook, LearningthroughFood has recently been catalogued on Very Good Recipes's website (linked here). Soon after, I signed on to join VGR webmaster Stéphane Gigandet (who recently launched http://openfoodfacts.org) and eleven other food bloggers from around the world as a judge for VGR's "Christmas Menu" recipe challenge which opened up earlier today! But before I get to that, I wanted to share with you my entries into VGR's "Thanksgiving Your Way" challenge (which you could join as well, until the 7th: http://verygoodrecipes.com/thanksgiving-challenge).

Last week, I cooked up three side dishes to contribute to a Thanksgiving meal held at my godparents' house in Michigan. Inspired by a question on this year's Thanksgiving Live special ("How can I incorporate bacon into my Thanksgiving meal?), and because frankly everything's better with bacon, I decided to take three otherwise vegetarian dishes and pork things up a bit. For the sake of the VGR challenge, I'm going to try and keep the recipes as separate as possible, though just take note all three were made concurrently within an hour or so timeframe. On the bacon-enriched menu: Brussels sprouts with an orange-balsamic reduction; kale and beets with crumbled goat cheese; and sweet potato casserole with toasted marshmallows.

In response to the Thanksgiving Live special (you should have seen my reaction as soon as I heard the question..), my first thought was to fry up Brussels sprouts in rendered bacon fat (which I did for this past St. Patrick's Day dinner..oof, which I still need to blog about). By the way, if you love Brussels sprouts and aren't all that into bacon (more for me I guess), check this out.

For each batch of Brussels sprouts (two 1-pound batches in my case), I fried up four slices of bacon. Meanwhile, I sliced the Brussels sprouts in half and after removing the crisped bacon from the pan, I got each sprout half into the bacon drippings. It's important to leave the sprouts alone so they can not only take in all that porky goodness, but also have time to caramelise, as well. Feel free to crowd the pan and stir things around to make room (the Brussels sprouts will shrink a bit) for any remaining sprouts that didn't get into the pan the first time around. After about 10-15 minutes (the sprout halves should be anywhere in the golden to deep brown colour range), transfer them into a bowl and repeat the process as needed.

While all of that was going, I got into a small sauce pot about 1/2 c balsamic vinegar and 1/2 c orange juice (with pulp), and let them simmer on low heat. By the time my two batches of Brussels sprouts were finished, the balsamic and orange juice mixture had reduced by about half. At that point, I added about 2-3 tablespoons and let it reduce in half again.

Once reduced, I added the lot to my bowl of sprouts, gently tossed it all together and topped it off with about four slices worth of crumbled bacon.

As I was daydreaming of the Brussels sprouts, Bobby Flay had made the suggestion that adding bacon to kale and goat cheese would be one of the easiest ways to get in the pork craving (my words in that latter part, not his). I had already thought of wanting to cook up some beets for Thanksgiving, so why not serve them all together? For this second recipe, I decided to chop up the bacon into smaller pieces and render more bacon fat. Note to self: I don't think I'll ever do that again, unless I'm really in a time crunch. Though chopped bacon definitely cooks faster, they tend to get to that bitter, burned stage more quickly, too. (Thankfully I was able to save some of them.)

Anyway, I began peeling and dicing a total of six beets while the bacon was cooking. After rescuing the chopped bacon, I lowered the heat and cooked the beets directly in the rendered bacon fat (I did strain it first, though, to get rid of any leftover bacon char), adding more beets as I was finished prepping them. While the beets were cooking, my sister prepped the kale (one bunch), cutting the fiberous stems from the leaves, and then giving the leaves a rough chop.

The bacon, along with the moisture released from the beets, yield enough liquid that's perfect for steaming the kale. That being said, I added the prepped kale in small batches to the beets. I covered the lot and let the steam wilt the kale. Before each addition of kale, I gave the kale-beet mix a delicate toss along with a pinch of kosher salt. There's no need to add an inordinate amount of salt, as the goat cheese and bacon will take care of most of the flavour for you. Also, you know you're all done when the kale has completely wilted and has changed to a darker green colour (not too dark or else it'll get mushy), and a fork can easily pierce the beets (again, don't over cook the beets, as you still want them to retain their shape and slight bite).

Drain any excess liquid and transfer the kale and beets into your serving dish, and complete it with crumbled herb goat cheese (plain works just as well, but why not add more flavour?) and about 2-3 slices worth of bacon.

At the grocery store, I decided to cook up some sweet potatoes. I've only really eaten sweet potato fries and have only ever cooked one sweet potato dish which was purposefully non-Thanksgiving, so I wasn't entirely sure what I was going for this time around. As I had gone grocery shopping on Thanksgiving Day, it turned out all the sweet potatoes had been purchased (they also happened to be 50% off so they must've been sold wicked fast). Luckily, there were some sweet potatoes that were sold in microwavable bags; a bit more expensive, but it wasn't a drastic dent in my bank account. Each bag was about 1.5 lbs and I didn't use all of them. If you attempt to recreate the following recipe, I'd say look for 2-2.5 lbs worth of sweet potatoes.

I set the oven to 350°F, and proceeded to peel and thinly slice (maybe 1/4") the sweet potatoes. I arranged them with a slight overlap and topped the first layer with a light brown sugar. Atop the second layer, I sprinkled more light brown sugar and a healthy dose of ground cinnamon. All of the store brand heavy cream was sold out, too, so I ended up getting a pint of half and half. I poured the whole thing into the baking dish, which was just about enough to cover the sweet potatoes. I put covered the dish with tin foil and got this in the oven. (While this was in the oven, I was working on the above dishes.)

After about half an hour, the potatoes didn't look done, so I put them back for about 15 more minutes. At that point, a knife could easily pierce through them, but there was still quite a bit of liquid. I ended up spooning out about a cup of the half and half, and because time was working against me, I decided to remove the tin foil completely, cover the sweet potatoes with about 5 oz mini marshmallows, and then set the oven to broil on high to toast them.

About three minutes or so should do the trick, depending on how close the casserole is to the heat source. In any case, just be sure to keep a close on it; or if you've got a mini torch or a salamander (no, not the animal; this one), toast the marshmallows with either of them. jBy the time all of the dishes got to my godparents', some of the half and half had spilled, but no bother. I drained some more of it off and it all still tasted great. Into the future, I'm going to stick with heavy cream and/or make sure to thicken whatever resulting sauce/liquid the sweet potatoes will be cooked in. Oh, and as for the bacon element, I just sprinkled the remaining bacon over the marshmallows for a smoky, sweet-and-salty finish.

So there you have it, three dishes that could theoretically do without the bacon. But really, I'm just thankful for bacon, so I might as well celebrate it, no? For these, and all of my other Thanksgiving 2013 photos, click here. Also, if you've got an original recipe from your past Thanksgiving that you'd like to share on Very Good Recipes, don't forget you've got until Saturday to submit your recipe in time for the Thanksgiving challenge! But if you're really continuing to read for more information on the Christmas Menu recipe challenge I'm helping to judge, keep on reading.

As summarised/restated from the official challenge web page (here), VGR's Christmas Menu recipe challenge began/begins today (December 5, 2013) and will go through January 5th, 2014, giving you plenty of time to test out any recipes in advance and/or write up any spur-of-the-moment recipes you end up concocting. Anyone and everyone is encouraged to share their original recipes and join in this fun, international collaboration, whereby food is at the heart of it all.

Official Rules:
  • There must be at least one picture in your recipe, and both the recipe and picture need to be your own. If your recipe is inspired by another, please mention it in your recipe.
  • You cannot use an already published recipe to participate in the challenge, you need to publish a new recipe (otherwise there's no challenge!)
  • We would love to have participations from all around the world, including from blogs in languages other than English. Please do include an English translation of your recipe in your post though. :-) If you need help with the translation (proofreading etc.), we will be glad to help if we can.
  • You can participate with up to one recipe for each category: Christmas appetizers, entrees (main dishes) and desserts.
Submitting Your Entry(-ies):
  • If you have a food blog registered on Very Good Recipes, you just need to publish your recipe on your blog with a link to the challenge page http://verygoodrecipes.com/christmas-menu-challenge in the text of your recipe. (Note how I linked this post to the Thanksgiving challenge.)
    Please also add a link to the recipe category so that we can find participating recipes easily: It will then be automatically listed on the Christmas Menu recipe challenge page. (If you don't see it after 30 minutes, e-mail Stéphane.)
  • If you have a food blog (or a blog with a recipe category or label) but are not yet registered on Very Good Recipes, you can register in 30 seconds.
  • If you do not have a blog, you can participate by sending Stéphane your recipe with one or more pictures. He will publish your recipe on Very Good Recipe's blog so that it can be displayed on the challenge page.
The judges, including yours truly, will select four winners. The grand winner will be selected from among those who submit three recipes, one from each category. In addition, there will be a winner for each of the three course categories. At stake are not only bragging rights, but cookbooks and laurels that'll be posted on VGR's website and which can also be posted on winners' respective blogs!

This Challenge's Judges:
- Anyonita: http://www.anyonita-nibbles.com/
- Clem: http://urbanfoodcrawl.wordpress.com/
- Jenny: http://bubbuleincucina.blogspot.it/
- Karon: http://www.larderlove.com/
- Leslie: http://cookingmemoirs.blogspot.com
- Marica: http://www.cookingwithmarica.net/
- Mark Anthony: http://www.learningthroughfood.blogspot.com/
- Stefania: http://bigshade.blogspot.com/
- Vera: http://vojvodjanskakuhinja.blogspot.fr/
- Yankee Chef: http://theyankeechef.blogspot.com/

Finally, please feel free to pass along this challenge to your friends and family! For more information, check out the Christmas Menu recipe challenge page. I look forward to seeing all this recipes for this challenge, especially those from Learning through Food readers. :)

1 comment:

  1. I am Jewish and therefore do not eat bacon. However, I used to eat bacon until I was 15 and I have to admit: YES, everything does taste better with bacon ;-)

    I now unfortunately use substitutes like soy bacon or beef fry (beef-based bacon, which, believe it or not, is VERY close to bacon).

    Thanks for these ideas!

    Mike, Member of the Jury of VeryGoodRecipe's December challenge