We’re beginning this article under the assumption that you, dear readers, are familiar with Baconfest Chicago. If you’re not, there’s a short verison: Massive consumption of bacon. Top restaurants from the city competing. Harder ticket than the Blackhawks. This year, we got our chance to throw a pork harpoon at this White Whale of Chicago food events. And damned if it wasn’t the best thing we’ve done yet.
A few months ago, representatives from North American Breweries (specifically, their Labatt Blue brand) asked about our interest in partnering on a Baconfest table. So, newly in partnership with our Benevolent Canadian Overlords, we decided on going in as Canadian a direction as possible. And since we know a mere handful of things about our friendly neighbor to the North – most of them based on reruns of Due South – we went for poutine, which is basically French Canada in a bowl. Fries, cheese curds, and gravy from the heart of Quebec.
To complete the Herculean task of pushing 2,000 servings to hungry Chicagoans who each paid at least $100 to be there, we assembled a Voltron-like team of ManBQue members to conceptualize, prep, and serve a metric (Canada!) ton of poutine. Each came with different styles and experience. The only common thread – everyone had a beard.
Jesse “The Godfather” Valenciana: ManBQue leader and ambassador. There to kiss hands and shake babies.
John “JB Mays” Carruthers: Carnival barker in a past life. One proven skill – repeating the name of a dish 2,100 times without getting Tom Waits voice.
Pat “Bus Station” McBride: Potato hash sensei. Puzzled about his ManBQue name. As are we.
Jason Gilmore: Chef at Cobra Lounge. Smoker of bacon. Prep kitchen provider – which he surely came to regret.
Ed “Baby Meat” Kowalski: Columbus chapter leader. Made 32 gallons of bacon gravy and transported it across state lines, Jackie Gleason in hot pursuit.
Carlos “I Wear a Packers Hat and Thus My Judgment is in Question” Salgado: The name says it all. Prepped all the beer cheese and provided morning caffiene for 18 hour service day. Spent Baconfest night working a prom – information we present here without context.
2,000 portions later, we were toasting Malort and talking over each other about the event. The crowd and our co-vendors were all amazing, and bona-fide Canadians gave the thumbs-up to our version of the Quebec classic. CanadApproved! This is likely the only time we’ll be in the same room pushing food with two Top Chef Masters contestants (Sarah Grueneberg/Spiaggia and Heather Terhune/Sable) and such an incredible array of Chicago chefs and restaurants. And it’s definitely the first time we’ve had Bacon Malort Orange Julius, because Matt Troost at Three Aces is a madman. He was also the winner of the coveted Golden Rasher, which he promptly broke.
And so, long-ass intro out of the way, here’s the scaled-down version of a recipe that rocked heads at Baconfest. It’s a multi-day, multi-step process – at least it was for us – and presented as such. I suppose you could replace Jason’s homemade nitrate-free bacon with some store-bought stuff, but that’s not very lumberjacky of you. It calls for a lot of Labatt Blue, because that’s what we used. I hope our naked self-interest in promoting our sponsor is clear enough here so none of you go all Internet Guy on us. They were very nice to us, and as such, the least we can do is reciprocate transparently in our mildly-popular blog.
5 lb piece pork belly, skin removed
1 cup sugar
1 cup salt
1 cup molasses
1 cup maple syrup
2 quarts (64 oz.) water
2 quarts (64 oz) apple cider
1/2 lb (6-8 pieces) thick-cut applewood-smoked bacon, cut to 1/4″ pieces
1/2 c all-purpose flour
1 c whole milk
6 oz. Labatt Blue beer
Kosher salt, to taste
black pepper, to taste
2 lb russet potatoes, cut into 1/4″ dice
1 cup maple syrup
2 tbsp Labatt Blue beer
Salt, to taste
Peanut oil, to fry
1 lb smoked bacon cheddar, shredded
8 oz beer (with remaning 4 oz. reserved)
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tbsp Worcestershire
1 tsp Sriracha
1 tsp dry mustard
1 tsp steak seasoning
“Baconfest is this week – time to panic!” (One week out)
1. Bring half the water, along with the sugar, salt, molasses, and maple syrup to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar and salt.
2. Pour into a large container with the remaining water and stir in the apple cider. Let cool, then place in the refrigerator until it reaches 40 degrees.
3. One the brine has cooled, place the pork belly into the mixture and submerge it, weighing down if necessary. Refrigerate for 7 days.
“BACONFEST IS TOMORROW!” (Day before)
1. Remove pork from the brine and pat dry. Discard the brine and heat a smoker to 200.
2. Smoke pork belly for four hours, until the internal temperature reaches 155. Remove and cover.
3. Place the shredded cheese in the bowl of a food processor or large bowl along with garlic, spices, and Worcestershire. Process or mix with 8 oz of the beer until the cheese achieves a uniform, slightly lumpy consistency. Pack into a covered container and refrigerate overnight. Sure, it’s good now – but tomorrow it will be legend. Just remember to remove the cheese from the fridge before you start cooking tomorrow to let it come to room temperature.
“Wasn’t there something I was supposed to do today?” (Day of)
1. Heat the peanut oil to 350 in a fryer or deep pot with a thermometer. Fry the hash until the potatoes begin to take on a reddish-brown color. Don’t pull them out too early – they’re not French fries.
2. When they reach a light reddish-brown, remove, shake off oil, and spread out to cook on a parchment-lined pan.
3. While the potatoes cool, heat a large skillet to medium heat and add the bacon. Cook until the fat renders and the meat is slightly crispy. Whisk in the flour a bit at a time until it’s all incorporated.
4. Add the milk, whisking constantly, until the gravy thickens and bubbles.
5. Whisk in beer, bring back to a simmer, and let cook until reduced slightly.
6. Season to taste with liberal amounts of salt and pepper. Cover and keep warm while you finish the rest.
7. Bring the bacon to room temperature and slice to desired thickness. Saute briefly in a pan until warm.
8. Mix maple syrup with beer in a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer and turn off burner.
9. Return the potatoes to the oil, frying and agitating constantly until dark brown and crispy.
“Greatest day … ever?” (Serving)
10. Salt the potatoes lightly as you remove from the fryer and toss with maple glaze 1/4 c at a time until glazed but not soggy.
11. Lay the potatoes at the bottom of a bowl and add the bacon, gravy, and beer cheese. Mix that up properly and you’ve got a delicious lumberjack verison of Cap N’ Crunch.
12. Eat paired with a cold Labatt Blue. Have we mentioned yet that our sponsor, Labatt Beer, provides a crisp and delicious product in addition to Baconfest patronage to meat clubs? Well, they do. LABATT!