Fresh pork belly for seventh grade Bacon Unit
So, last month, in the course of discussing bacterial growth with my seventh graders, we got around to talking about salt and food preservation. (It was only a matter of time.) We had been talking about the conditions where bacteria thrive, and I had them suggest some ways that we keep things from spoiling nowadays. They brought up the refrigerator, freezer, heat, plastic wrap, preservatives, antibiotics!, and salt. So we talk about the book Salt, by Mark Kurlansky, which I loved (and here they think I’m crazy for reading a whole book about salt in the first place, but also for liking it). They studied explorers in sixth grade social studies, so they’ve heard about salting meat for long voyages (proving that they remember some things from year-to-year, for the record). And some of them know that shaking salt on slugs causes them to shrivel up, because apparently a few of them still play outside from time to time (and are devious enough to torture slugs with science). And now they know what the salt does to bacteria. I even mentioned osmosis, which they’ve all heard of — even if they don’t know what it means yet — because of Osmosis Jones (which I’ve heard of, but have yet to see). It was a good lesson. (Next year I’m planning to throw in a clip of Alton Brown’s “Urban Preservation II” episode, where he dehydrates the pool at the bacterial spa, around 4:55 in…). I mention that they can make their own bacon in the same way; cure it, smoke it, slice thick, fry it up. And if they weren’t paying attention before, they were now.
So I thought it was time that the class learned where bacon came from…
A few weeks before I had ordered a whole pork belly from Greyledge Farm in Roxbury, CT. It came in at 11 lbs, one of the thickest and meatiest slabs of belly that I’ve gotten so far, and I was really happy with it. The timing worked out well. I had it at home in my fridge, and decided that this was the time to introduce pork belly to the seventh graders. We discussed the basics of good meat sourcing, about finding a local farmer, if possible, one that can tell you about the provenance, breed, and diet of your pig. I mentioned the farmer’s market here in New Canaan, where I got mine, and explained that any pig farmer would be happy to get you a slab of fresh belly. It’s occasionally available at Whole Foods. I’ve also gotten good pork belly from John Boy’s Mountain View Farm in Washington County, NY. Walter Stewart’s Market carries Mountain View’s Berkshire pork. Talk to Pete at the meat counter.
Yes, kids, this is where bacon comes from
I introduced Michael Ruhlman’s Basic Dry Cure from Charcuterie, and referenced this post of his for making pancetta, with the plan to smoke over hickory chips instead of drying it. We scaled the recipe down for a 3 lb slab of fresh pork belly (using ratios; math teachers and Ruhlman would be so proud!), and we added brown sugar, black pepper, and crushed juniper berries to the cure in the zip-top bag. After curing, I brought the pieces home to smoke over the weekend (the timing on this didn’t work out to do a smoke-roasting lesson at school, which wouldn’t be too interesting anyway; the interesting part isn’t watching the smoked meat, but eating it).
The following week we had class downstairs in the kitchen, and students worked on a review sheet on viruses and bacteria while I fried up our thick slices of bacon. I slow cooked it that morning, wrapped in foil in a 225 degree oven for about 2 1/2 hours, then crisped it up in a pan. There wasn’t enough for a whole BLT per kid or anything, but they did get a good taste, and several of them asked after class, “Where can I get that recipe again?”
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