Porktober: A Tradition for the Ages

We held a fabulous dinner party a few weeks ago to celebrate all things pork-related and to usher in that delightful season of conviviality and festivity we call “The Holidays.” We gathered together to toast good friends, communal consumption, and the sizzle of bacon on hot cast iron. In early preparation for the annual Thanksgiving parade of gluttony, we pulled out all the stops. For those of you with an aversion to pig products or meat in general, we advise you to proceed with caution (although the sumptuous bounty we presented did manage to seduce two traditionally-vegetarian dining companions).

Porktober was established last year both as an excuse to eat bacon and as a result of the natural affinity humans seem to have for the portmaneau “porktober.” I just like saying it. Porktober. PorkTOber. Besides which, pig products are fun to cook with – savory, flavorful, versatile. We incorporated something piggy into almost everything we made, down to the pecan pie. It’s an interesting exercise, and the array of dishes managed not come off redundant or repetitive. Fruits, sugar, fresh greens, and fluffy biscuits pulled the pork in different directions – sweet and crunchy here, smokey and silky there – so each bite was a new experience.

Our dynamic duo started the work mid-morning by frying bacon (now there’s an auspicious start to any project) and putting together the biscuits. Lard, butter, and flour went into the mixer and we sighed with longing for the finished product. Sweet potatoes were peeled, bacon was chopped, the heady scent of animal fats filled the kitchen. When a bag of pecans refused to stay in the cabinet where we had stuffed it, we decided it was the hand of God at work and He was clearly telling us to make a pecan pie. On a whim, we decided to add a fistful of crumbled bacon bits because what’s the point of having a themed dinner party if you’re not willing to got to absurd lengths to observe the theme?

We set to work on the cheese straws next. These were several years in the making. A very memorable visit to a B&B with her now-husband in New Orleans inspired my cooking partner to track these down when we took our Ladies’ Tour of the South this summer. We searched bakeries and cafes and grocery store counters for these elusive snacks, but they were nowhere to be found. We managed to locate a few battered packages in gift shops along the way, but the real deal remained curiously absent. We finally broke down and asked a shop owner where people sourced this classic Southern treat. “Oh, it’s not a Southern party without cheese straws,” she said brightly. “Right,” we responded, “but how do they get to the party?” And with the same bright smile she replied, “well, you know I have no idea. But they’re a tradition!” So we were left simmering in frustration and 70% humidity. Finally, with the menu planning for our Porktober event, we decided it was time to try out a recipe for the spicy crackers. The one below produces delicious, peppery cheese sticks, so reminiscent of those we sampled in the South you might think you’re standing on the banks of the Mississippi instead of the shores of the Pacific. They do indeed make a statement at a party (that statement is I love you, dear guests) and they’re easy to whip up beforehand.

The pecan pie turned out divine, chewy and sugary with a little extra depth from the fatty bacon bits. The biscuits, warm and soft, we pulled from the oven next. We topped two with some of the country gravy we had put together and indulged in an impromptu mid-afternoon snack because at least one biscuit needs to be eaten fresh out of the oven.  Thick, unexpectedly fluffy, and savory, the gravy was an interesting contrast to the brown gravy I associate with autumn meals. Hunger sated for the moment, we tucked the pork loin into the oven and set the table. Just before everyone arrived–this cook having preemptively celebrated the success of our meal with a glass of hard cider–we sauteed the beautiful greens, throwing in plump, sweet raisins to complement the juicy loin.

The true testament to the power of Porktober is that we wanted to eat before pictures of the finished sweet potato, chard, or pork loin were taken. Our hunger would wait for no professional obligations, and it was well into the meal that we realized that we hadn’t gotten any shots of the dishes we’d spent all day laboring over. This disappointment was more than made up for by the heavenly meal we shared. Now, thoroughly primed for the holiday season of feasting, we’re looking forward to delicious fall dishes and more stories of sharing and enjoying food!

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 Southern Pecan Pie (Adapted from Southern Living; pie crust recipe from chow.com)

INGREDIENTS

Pie Dough
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon fine salt
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
8 tablespoons cold unsalted butter (1 stick), cut into small pieces
4 to 5 tablespoons ice water
Filling
1 tablespoon powdered sugar
4 large eggs
1 1/2 cups firmly packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup butter, melted and cooled to room temperature
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup chopped pecans
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons milk
1 1/2 teaspoons bourbon
1 1/2 cups pecan halves
1/4 cup minced cooked bacon
DIRECTIONS
  1. Combine the flour, salt, and sugar in a large bowl and stir briefly until the mixture is aerated. Using a pastry blender or your fingers, cut the butter into the dry ingredients until it’s in pea-size pieces that are slightly yellow in color, about 4 to 5 minutes.
  2. Drizzle in 4 tablespoons of the ice water and mix just until the dough comes together. (Add the last tablespoon of ice water if necessary, but don’t overwork the dough or it’ll become tough.)
  3. Shape the dough into a flat disk, cover it in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes; roll it out.
  4. Preheat oven to 325°. Fit pie crust into a 10-inch cast-iron skillet; sprinkle pie crust with powdered sugar.
  5. Whisk eggs in a large bowl until foamy; whisk in brown sugar and next 6 ingredients. Pour mixture into pie crust, and top with pecan halves.
  6. Bake at 325° for 30 minutes; reduce oven temperature to 300°, and bake 30 more minutes. Turn oven off, and let pie stand in oven, with door closed, 3 hours.

 Swiss Chard with Raisins (Adapted from Martha Stewart Everyday Food)

INGREDIENTS

2 bunches (about 1 1/2 pounds total) Swiss chard, stalks cut crosswise into 1-inch pieces, leaves torn into 2-inch pieces (keep stalks and leaves separate)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/3 cup golden raisins
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
Coarse salt and ground pepper
DIRECTIONS

  1. Wash chard, leaving some water clinging to stalks and leaves; set aside.
  2. In a large saucepan, heat oil over medium-high. Add stalks and cook until beginning to soften, about 4 minutes. Add leaves, raisins, and garlic. Cover, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook until tender, 6 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  3. Pull lid back slightly, and tilt pan to pour off water. Stir in vinegar and pine nuts; season with salt and pepper. Serve.

Mashed Sweet Potatoes (adapted from the Brown Sugar Kitchen cookbook)

2 lb Orange fleshed sweet potatoes, peeled and quartered
6 Tbsp Pure Maple Syrup
1/4 cup heavy cream
4 Tbsp Unsalted butter, melted
Pinch of cayenne pepper

  1. Heat the over to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. In an ovenproof dish, spread the sweet potatoes in a single layer. Add enough water to come up about a quarter of an inch the sides of the potato pieces and cover with aluminum foil. Bake until tender, about 45 minutes.
  2. In a food processor or with a masher, combine the sweet potatoes, maple syrup, heavy cream, melted butter, and cayenne and process until smooth. If the potatoes get too thick, add a bit of water.
  3. Season with salt and pepper and serve warm.

Southern Biscuits & Pepper Bacon Gravy 

FOR THE BISCUITS
2 Cups All-Purpose Flour
1/4 Tsp Baking Soda
1 Tbsp Baking Powder
1 Tsp Salt
6 Tbsp Unsalted Butter, very cold
1 Cup Buttermilk

  1. Preheat your oven to 450°F. Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl, or in the bowl of a food processor.
  2. Cut the butter into chunks and cut into the flour until it resembles course meal. If using a food processor, just pulse a few times until this consistency is achieved.
  3. Add the buttermilk and mix JUST until combined.If it appears on the dry side, add a bit more buttermilk. It should be very wet.
  4. Turn the dough out onto a floured board. Pat the dough with your hands until it’s about 1/2″ thick. Fold the dough about 5 times, gently press the dough down to a 1 inch thick. Use a round cutter to cut into rounds.
  5. Place the biscuits on a cookie sheet- if you like soft sides, put them touching each other. If you like”crusty” sides, put them about 1 inch apart- these will not rise as high as the biscuits put close together.
  6. Bake for about 10-12 minutes- the biscuits will be a beautiful light golden brown on top and bottom.

FOR THE GRAVY
1/2 Cup Vegetable Oil
3/4 Cup All-Purpose Flour
1 Tsp Salt
1 Tbsp Freshly Ground Black Pepper
1/4 Cup Bacon, cooked and cut into small pieces
4 Cups Milk

  1. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Whisk in the flour, salt, pepper and bacon pieces until smooth. Cook and stir over medium heat until browned, about 10 minutes.
  2. Gradually stir in milk so that no lumps form, and continue cooking and stirring until thickened. If the gravy becomes too thick, you may thin it with a little more milk.

Cheese Straws (adapted from Food & Wine)

1 2/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoons dry mustard
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 pound extra-sharp Cheddar cheese, coarsely grated (2 1/2 cups)
1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 tablespoons water

  1. Sift the flour, mustard, salt and cayenne into a medium bowl. Using an electric mixer, beat the cheese and butter on low speed until well blended. Gradually beat in the flour until completely incorporated. Add the water and beat for 1 minute.
  2. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead 5 times. On a large sheet of wax paper, roll the dough into a 12-by-9-inch rectangle. Slide the dough onto a cookie sheet and refrigerate until chilled, about 15 minutes.
  3. Preheat the oven to 425°. Cut the dough in half crosswise, then cut it into 6-by-1/4-inch strips. Transfer the strips to 2 cookie sheets. Bake 1 sheet at a time for about 14 minutes, or until the cheese straws are golden brown and crisp. Let cool slightly, then transfer to a rack to cool completely.

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