Other people’s recipes: Two disappointing bacon dishes from Deborah Krasner

Despite what it may sometimes seem from this blog, not every recipe I try turns out. Today I’m writing about two recipes from Deborah Krasner’s cookbook Good Meat, neither of which was worth the effort. I don’t know where either one went wrong: it’s possible (nay, likely) that I did something wrong, but it’s also possible that these recipes were poorly specified, received inadequate testing, or contain hidden assumptions about the desired outcome that I simply didn’t share. My general view is that you’re going to cook with bacon, or indeed any meat, then you really have a right to expect that the results will taste like bacon — anything else is unnecessarily wasteful (you could even argue immoral). Neither of these two dishes has that effect, and while I have some ideas, not one fully explains the results on its own. I’ll go over both of them (I interleaved the cooking processes) below.

Mise en place for pea soup
We start with “Green Split Pea Soup with Berkshire Bacon Batons” (p. 226). Of course, I didn’t use Berkshire bacon, or even the “pastured pork bacon” specified in the recipe, because these things are not actually available here. I did use a thick-cut, cob-smoked bacon from Vermont, although I’m not sure whether that “thick cut” was actually one ounce per rasher as Krasner suggests. (I should have weighed them, like I’m always telling everyone else to do!) The other ingredients are as specified: onion, celery stalks, olive oil, thyme, minced parsley, white wine (I don’t drink but I have no objection to cooking with the stuff, so long as I can buy it in non-wasteful quantities), split peas, salt and pepper. (Pay no attention to the package of tagliatelle in the background — that’s for Monday’s dinner!)

Initial prep work completed
The first step is to prep the bacon, by cutting it into little batons. Here’s where things start (I suspect) to go wrong: Krasner writes, “Heat a 3-quart Dutch oven over low heat, and when the rim feels hot to the touch, add the bacon. Cook slowly over low heat to partially render the bacon fat. Add the olive oil.” Now you’ll recall that there are two ways you get flavor from bacon: the meat itself — and this bacon is disappointingly fatty — and from the curing and smoking process, which affects only the outer millimeter or two of the whole pork belly. Despite being “thick cut” bacon, there isn’t a whole lot of smoke flavor to be had here, and rendering it only partially, over low heat, is not going to develop much in the way of meaty flavors (whether from glutamate or Maillard browning) either.

Celery and onion chopped while bacon renders
The instructions say to chop the onion and celery “while the bacon renders”, then “add them to the pot”, without specifying what sort of condition the bacon is supposed to be in. Should it be fully rendered by now? It’s certainly not going to get any more rendered once I add a whole mess of watery onion and celery bits! The way the recipe is written implies that the bacon has had enough by the time you finish chopping the aromatics, but my intuition says that the bacon probably needs to cook for another ten or fifteen minutes, until it’s fully rendered, before adding anything else. (And I probably would have been better off using slab bacon, as James Villas’s The Bacon Cookbook suggests.)

Bacon, onion, celery, and herb mixture
After adding the onion, celery, and herbs to the bacon, it still doesn’t look like much. The instructions say to leave it on low heat (so this is a sweat, not a sauté) until the aromatics soften, which is fairly common, but the bacon still looks underdone. Next, the white wine is added, which the instructions imply will deglaze the pot, but this vessel has never been above “low” so there simply is no fond to deglaze in the first place. (So it should be unsurprising that there’s little flavor in the finished dish, either!) At least at this point we get to raise the heat (temporarily) to medium-high — but that has no effect, since the added heat is immediately quenched by adding first the (rinsed) split peas and then an unspecified quantity of cold water.

This is something I really, really, really hate in any kind of recipe. The instructions say “enough cold water to cover the peas by 2 inches”. How much water is that, really? And yes, I do have a ruler in my kitchen, several in fact, but I don’t care to immerse any of them in a proto-soup, particularly one that now has lots of green herbs floating in it such that I can’t even see at what level the peas are (or would be if they are actually spread out in an even layer rather than in uneven mounds as a result of pouring in the water). Just tell me how much water to add, please! (And how much salt to add as well, which Krasner generally fails to do. I know you’ve made this recipe thirty times by now and know how much salt is enough. I’ll make it perhaps once in my life, just please give me a hint!) Given how much of an influence the quantity of water used has on the final flavor, texture, and quantity of soup, this seems like a particularly unforgivable omission — particularly since the precise dimensions of the cooking pot will determine how much water “covers the peas” by any particular amount. (And few cookbook authors or editors would ever write the recipe this way if it called for broth instead of plain water.)

Mise en place for cornbread (except bacon)
Now we turn to the cornbread (“Sweet and Salty Bacon Corn Bread”, p. 224). This cornbread is made in a cast-iron skillet, and starts by rendering bacon (the same kind and quantity as was used in the soup), which is done in the skillet itself, while it’s heating in the oven. At 425°F there’s at least a chance of some Maillard browning in this process! The other ingredients are shown here: butter, cornmeal, brown and white sugars, baking soda, salt, eggs, and buttermilk.

Rendered bacon in cast-iron skillet
What was I saying about the bacon getting properly browned and rendered? Well, there’s a little bit of it, but not nearly as much as I would like. Still, the recipe said “10 minutes”, so that’s what it gets.

Bacon and melting butter
The two fats in this recipe — bacon and butter — get added together, and serve double-duty as both lubricant for the pan and part of the bread itself, so the residual heat in the skillet can be used to melt the butter. I really feel like the recipe ought to have included a “remove the rendered bacon from the pan” step here — as I was trying to get all of the bacon into the batter, I had to scrape some of it off with a spatula, removing the fat coating the bottom of the pan and causing the cornbread to stick. Of course, the bacon didn’t give much flavor to the cornbread, either. (Maybe this is just lousy bacon, and I should be buying a different brand? There are only a few choices at my meat counter, none of them pasture raised, and all but this brand were hickory or fruitwood smoked.)

The cornbread is made by a modified version of what Alton Brown calls “the muffin method”: dry ingredients are mixed thoroughly first, then liquid ingredients — eggs, buttermilk, and melted fat — are dumped on top, and the whole thing is stirred only enough to come together as a batter with no dry pockets. Then the batter is dumped into the pan and baked in the same hot (425°F, 220°C) oven as before.

Finished cornbread hot from oven
The cornbread looks pretty good, at least on top. It doesn’t taste especially bacon-y — but it does taste like corn, as a good cornbread should, since it’s made with cornmeal alone, no wheat flour to dilute the corn-y flavor.

Cornbread aftre depanning
But there’s a problem: getting it out of the pan. My cast-iron skillet is apparently not seasoned enough for this task, and I had to scrape off a thin layer of cornbread that was stuck to the bottom of the pan despite the substantial amount of fat that went in.

Slice of cornbread, cross-section
On the plus side, this recipe serves eight, and one serving, like that shown here, is only 200 kcal — so you can have two if you really like cornbread. (I really like cornbread, and it’s something I don’t allow myself very often, so I did have two slices!)

Cornbread minus two slices
And there’s the remaining three quarters of the cornbread. I used a bread slicer to portion it, wrapped three slices up in foil for the freezer and put three more in plastic wrap to have later this week. (Portioning it was a bit of a delicate task with the loose disk of crust that I had to remove separately from the skillet!)

Disappointing pea soup
Back to the pea soup. After adding in the water, it took about 15 minutes to come to a simmer, and then it cooked, covered, for another hour or so. In the end, it was disappointingly watery, needed a lot of salt and pepper, and has nothing of the creamy texture or smoky flavor I expect and desire from a pea soup. I made 1.55 kg of soup, giving four portions of 388 g each; I expect that each leftover portion will need to be cooked for quite a long time on the reheat to make it worth eating at all.

Pea soup as intended for service
The soup is finished, after portioning, with 2 tablespoons of sour cream, a drizzle of olive oil, and a splash of vinegar. None of these made any difference to the disappointing, watery soup. At least it’s only 271 kcal per serving!

Final verdict: both of these recipes were a complete waste of time, effort, and bacon. The cornbread is at least acceptable as a cornbread — I can’t say the same for the pea soup, which is more of an herbal broth with bits of pea and bacon in it.

Nutrition

For the cornbread:

Nutrition Facts
Serving size: 1/8 recipe
Servings per recipe: 8
Amount per serving
Calories 200 Calories from fat 81
% Daily Value
Total Fat 9g 14%
 Saturated Fat 5g 23%
Trans Fat 0g
Cholesterol 73mg 24%
Sodium 362mg 15%
Potassium 84mg 2%
Total Carbohydrate 23g 8%
 Dietary fiber 2g 7%
 Sugars 6g
Proteins 7g 14%
Vitamin A 6%
Vitamin C 1%
Calcium 8%
Iron 6%

For the soup (please be aware that I didn’t count exactly how much salt I had to add):

Nutrition Facts
Serving size: 1/4 recipe (388 g)
Servings per recipe: 4
Amount per serving
Calories 271 Calories from fat 108
% Daily Value
Total Fat 12g 19%
 Saturated Fat 5g 25%
Trans Fat 0g
Cholesterol 20mg 7%
Sodium 226mg 9%
Potassium 500mg 14%
Total Carbohydrate 31g 10%
 Dietary fiber 12g 48%
 Sugars 2g
Proteins 16g 32%
Vitamin A 18%
Vitamin C 7%
Calcium 5%
Iron 17%
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