I don’t like cooking in broad daylight, it turns out. I can’t see what I’m doing and I get far too bloody hot. I’m used to cooking in the evening. By which I mean after my daughter has allowed us to finish putting her to bed. Quite often that leaves me cooking at ten at night, which is suboptimal at best.
There are occasions where I do find myself cooking in the less than vampyric hours of daylight, often because I have deigned to entertain my relatives and so need to formulate a more communal dining experience. My partner and I are happy eating later, but this suits neither the young nor the elderly.
On this occasion the reason for the earliness of my cooking is duration. I want to cook the dish I have scheduled for this evening for a long time: the oven timer is set for more than two hours, and that’s just for coking the meat. I’ll be cooking the lot for a full hour after that, at least. That length of time means that I can’t just rock up at six or seven; I needed to start at two, just to be on the safe side.
And what am I cooking for so long? Well, it so often goes that the cheaper the cut of meat the longer it should be cooked for. I am definitely cooking meat, and it was definitely cheap: offcuts of bacon.
Bacon isn’t just for sandwiches, and big lumps of bacon don’t have to be gammon. In many of the big supermarket chains, and many of the low-end discount stores, you can find what is termed “Cooking Bacon”. As opposed to the stuff we all eat raw, of course. (n.b. Do not eat raw bacon; it’s not good.)
Essentially big chunks of fatty bacon, they used to be sold in big blocks, labelled “Bacon Mis-Shapes”. At some point, at least one of my relatives – although it may well have been me – misread this as “Bacon Mishaps”, and that is how they became known. They were a frequent purchase in my youth, as they were cheaper than chips and went a long way, especially in my mother’s big batches of soup.
Imagine a big side of bacon, sitting in a bacon slicer: the machine cuts slice after slice of bacon, neat and perfect, all ready for your sandwich. What happens when they come to the end of the side, and can’t get any more perfect slices out? Do they throw those lumps out? That would be waste, and no companies like waste; especially not waste you can turn in to profit. The offcuts are packaged up and put in shops, and many people don’t even know they’re there. But I do and I love to cook with them.
Once upon a time, I had no money. Actually, it’s been quite a lot of times over the years, but mostly when I was a student and when I lived on my own. On both occasions I was fully employed, although in my student days that was in a restaurant kitchen, so I always had a meal in front of me. By the time I started living alone, in a flat above a shop, I was working in an office: no free food there.
I had to find cheap eats, and I wasn’t going to eat rubbish. Thankfully I have always been able to cook. I have never understood the people who find it a challenge to cook for themselves every day. I see it crop up quite frequently on BuzzFeed: people without much money struggling to not eat as much takeaway. I have always cooked, even when I have been financially secure; I do love to cook.
I used to visit all of the local supermarkets and discount stores for meat which had been reduced in price, as it was approaching the end of its shelf life. I still remember the day I bought two dozen big fat beef burgers for a few pence. Split, frozen, and treated appropriately I had weeks of Bologneses, stews and curries from that meat. Vegetables, herbs and pulses are always cheap, and make a meal.
What is not so cheap, however, is wine. And this, more affluent version of tonight’s dish, has just consumed half a bottle of it. That would normally have been me – if I were cooking later in the day – but not this time. This time is was a big mug of coffee. The wine is an optional extra, thankfully.
I start by sweating the bacon mishaps off in a casserole dish. They don’t need any lubrication, but a dot of butter or a splash of oil won’t do any harm. I cook them with the lid on to draw out the added moisture we have in bacon, and to start rendering out the fat. While that is going I shred down some base vegetables: carrot, celery, onion and a broccoli stalk in this case. I used a food processor so that I could get the veg down to a small enough size to thicken the sauce later. It saves using a roux.
Once the meat is suitably browned, and the pan has enough liquid in it, I take the meat out and put the veg in. Then I sweat the veg down in the fatty juices, and add a lot of pepper. No salt, because the bacon is salty enough. I take this opportunity to cut the excess fat off the bacon. Either add this in to the veg to render down, or put it in the bin: your call entirely. I love to render it all down.
It’s at this point that I add the wine, and start cooking the veg base down in to a sauce. I had a good handful of dried herbs – your preference is advised, but I like a mix of thyme, rosemary, parsley and basil. Dried herbs are great at the start of a stew like this: they rehydrate well, and add great depth.
Once the wine has reduced by two thirds I add the bacon back in, along with the water from two tins of white beans, and a stock gel. Back in the day I would have soaked dried beans overnight, cooking them with the bacon for several hours. Nowadays, tinned beans make my life so much easier. The whole lot goes in the oven for a couple of hours. Cooking the beans for that long would turn it all in to mash, so I tend to add the beans in at the end, before I give the whole lot an extra hour or so.
Bacon mishaps are a variable thing. Sometimes you’ll get inch thick slabs of meat; sometimes you’ll get big lumps of fat; sometimes you’ll get slices of bacon. Don’t be put off: they can all be used to make something fabulous. They’re exceptionally versatile as long as you have the time to cook them out, and lots of veg to serve them with. They’ll always reward your patience well. Just add beans.