I have not gotten on a streetcar and commuted downtown to the 'office' for several months now. Nor will I ever, as I no longer work for the 'crown'...or at least, I'm not on her payroll anymore (I may be billing her occasionally). Instead, I earn my bread and butter as a freelancer, pounding out reports and analysis at my rather rickety, albeit charming, oak dining table. This arrangement brings with it many advantages, including but not limited to, working in my pajamas, listening to my choice of music at a volume level that is not always sensible, and perhaps most importantly, I have spent more time with my lovely wife these past three months than I have in the past seven years. There are a few drawbacks, notably, getting the kid's breakfast slopped on to my files - a small price. To be honest, I initially dreaded the idea of working at home. I was concerned that I would fall out of the routine of joining the world of 'workers' who shower every morning, kiss their children goodbye, cram themselves, sardine-like, into the aluminum coffin we call a subway, eat crappy shawarma or pho for lunch, but largely enjoy the grownup environment where one doesn't have to stoop to speak and you don't have to repeat yourself seventeen times before being aknowledged.
However, this has not been the case. Save for a bit of an adjustment period, and the occasional too-loud episode of Dora the Explorer interrupting a conference call, this, ladies and gentlemen, has been pure bliss. I love being at home. Like some kind of major cultural shift, I find that I sleep better, I am more attentive with my family, I am more patient. Bless you nine to five drones. I was one of you for many years, and I recall that pain - getting home with just enough time to slap a dinner together before the kids fall apart before bedtime, getting a single hour with your spouse, exhausted, vegetating in front of the television set instead of cuddling like we used to and, well, let's just say that being at home is quite wonderful. I have now seen the other side, and I quite like it. Is this permanent? Not likely, but if there's anything I have learned as I have gotten older, it is to live in the moment and enjoy the present for what it is. Now granted, I figured being at home would lead to a lot more blog postings and lovely photographs, but as I said before - this latest gig has kept me pretty busy. An eventual lull in the work load will likely lead to some increased activity in this little space.
Another thing I like about this arrangement is that I have a complete handle on all the cooking going on this house. That last minute, urgent, guilt-inducing call to the pizza delivery happens rarely now, when once it was routine. Whatever you might think of its quality (and I don't think much), fast food delivered right to the door, hot and ready to go, is like a visit from an angel (with a debit machine)---a godsend for long commutes, burnt out parents and late hours. There were many years that the wife and I both worked. We had separate daycare pickups on opposing ends of our community. In my case, I had to pick up the kids via public transit - envision a stroller in a packed bus. Ugh. Everything was a scramble - if there was a traffic jam, it wasn't just inconvenient - it meant a kid was waiting at a daycare after all the other kids have gone home, while minute-by-minute, the late fee went up. After all that madness, the reward is coming home at 6:30 pm to a sink full of smelly breakfast dishes with two miserable and hungry kids in tow. And in the end, the daycare gets three-quarters of your pay cheque. Gah.
To those who do this - I salute you.
As it stands, I now have a rather well-developed sense of megalomania over all meals prepared in my house. I rub my hands together like a cartoon villain when I think of the possibilities. I can start my mise en place at 3pm. I can braise on Wednesday. In fact, the reassuring bubble of something cooking all day on the stove top whilst I work away on my laptop at the dining table is sweet. Really. I can now cure and smoke things at my discretion and not hurriedly, almost secretly, on a Sunday morning. Way back when, the first time I tried to make homemade pasta happened to be 6:15 pm on Wednesday night after a long day at work. My wife, wisely pointed out, 'why on earth would I do that?'. Indeed. I was too busy on the Sunday trying to cure a ham I suppose. Now dear reader, I can now come out of the shadows and cook properly. Hallelujah.
With this in mind, I attempted a recipe that is largely inspired by the famous hay-smoked ham chops of the Publican gastropub in Chicago. The original recipe uses some pretty extensive restaurant kit like a sous vide circulator and a vacuum packer, so I've created a home version. I also don't have hay, but I smoked with applewood. Apple and pork - a great combo.
Apple Wood Smoked Ham Chops
These chops are only 'lightly' cured which means that they are not terribly salty and although there are curing salts in the brine, the level of nitrates this represents is tiny (less than what naturally occurs in a bunch of celery). Of course, the curing salt is completely optional - it will not affect the taste, only the colour of the chop. You'll need a few days to pull this one together.
For the brine:
2 litres water
120 g of kosher salt
120 g of brown sugar
1 tbsp. of curing salt (sometimes called 'pink' salt)
2 bay leaves
a branch or two of fresh thyme
For the chops:
2 double thickness, bone in, centre cut pork chops, Frenched (preferably organic or naturally raised)
Apple wood chips
Put all the ingredients for the brine into a large enough pot to hold 2 litres and bring it to a boil on the stove top until all the ingredients have dissolved. Allow to cool completely. Get your chops into a non-reactive dish and cover with the now-cool brine. Get it into the fridge and let it cure for 48 hours. After it has cured, take them out, rinse them off, pat them dry and then get them onto a drying or cooling rack and into the fridge to dry out a bit for at least two hours, preferably four to five hours. Now get your wood chips and soak a few cups worth in some water for about fifteen minutes. Take them out and if you have a box smoker, get them in there, if not, create a foil sachet and fill with the wet wood chips. Punch holes in the sachet and get it into your gas grill on a low heat on one side and leave the other side completely off. Once it starts to smoke, get your chops in there on the extreme far side from the heat source. Using an oven thermometer make sure the temperature within the closed barbecue doesn't get any higher than about 250F or so. Let this smoke for about two hours. Make fresh wood chip sachets as you need them. Once you've smoked for about two hours, get the chops out and let them rest for at least twenty minutes. Then crank your grill up to full whack and sear the smoked chops on both sides just to get some lovely colour and grill marks. Allow to rest once more for at lest ten minutes before carving.
The original recipe form the Publican has the chops served on white cheddar grits. As an alternative, perhaps that is more suited to my style, I served these chops with creamy polenta, sautéed kale and some hot chilies. Well-worth the three days of work.