Sunday, March 4, 2012

Smoked Coconut Bacon + 3 Quick Questions with Chef Jesse Kimball

When I first heard about coconut bacon, I pinballed around the internet to see what I could find. I landed on The Food Network site and watched a video of Chef Jesse Kimball of The Memphis Tap Room, which is located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, make this amazing looking, crunchy, smoky, non-bacon bacon.

I have been looking for a vegetable medium or process that will have that crispy crunch like bacon. Along the way, I've stumbled upon some pretty cool things, but I think that this coconut idea is the Holy Grail. So, inspired by Chef Jesse's brilliant idea, I whipped up a batch using a bag of shaved coconut we had in the pantry. I added soy sauce, vegetarian worcestershire, and maple syrup to the mix for that sweet Southern bacon-y flavor. And, hey, it worked! The coconut takes the smoke beautifully, and when it's baked, it the inherent fat in the coconut crisps the flakes. The best part is that they stay crispy. You can make a big batch of this and have it for lunch all week.

We have used this many different ways since first making it: as a garnish for an omelette, on pesto flatbreads, and on top of grits, but my favorite has to be my avocado BLT. All you do is load up two slices of seeded whole wheat with sliced heirloom tomatoes, olive oil mayo, crunchy romaine, sliced avocado, and plenty of Smoked Coconut Bacon. It's beautiful to hear the crunch of the bacon when you slice the sandwich in half.

At the Memphis Tap Room, Chef Jesse Kimball has half of his menu devoted to delicious vegan and vegetarian food. He serves a Smoked Coconut Club with lemon garlic tofu and herbed mayo. It's good enough to win over anyone's palate. I wanted to know more. Luckily, Chef took a few minutes to chat with me.

The Chubby Vegetarian: You're not a vegetarian, but you have an interest in vegetarian food. Where does that come from? Was it to impress a girl?

Jesse Kimball: I have been vegetarian and vegan at different times, and my parents are vegetarians, so it has been a part of my life. When we opened a bar (Memphis Tap Room) specializing in craft beer, we put an emphasis on food that craft beer drinkers like, and a population of them are vegan/veg, so we wanted them to be happy. I love cooking vegan food cause I can really use proper techniques, but just change the ingredients.

TCV: What lead you to the coconut? It couldn't have been the first thing you thought of, or was it?

JK: I was up in the Catskills and smoked some walnuts. I was amazed by how "porky" they were. I made a big batch for Christmas gifts, and when we opened here, I was using the smoked walnuts in a country gravy to go on biscuits and in a salad. We also made a sandwich with smoked avocado, lettuce and tomato, and a brown sugar roasted tomato mayo. I wasn't totally happy with that sandwich --

it lacked the texture that the coconut gives the sandwich. One of the cooks here told me the punk rock vegans were pouring liquid smoke on young coconut and calling it bacon, so that got me thinking. In NYC, the peanut vendors have these smoky little carts with honey roasted nuts and coconut, so I applied the bacon-making technique with the smoked walnuts using shaved coconut, and the result was great. Actually curing the coconut and smoking it gives it a great bacon-like quality. I never tried the liquid smoke technique because I don't like liquid smoke.

TCV: You work at a place in Philly called the Memphis Tap room. What does the name Memphis evoke north of the Mason-Dixon?

JK: We're just on Memphis Street here in Philly. It doesn't have anything to do with Egypt or Tennessee. You're more likely to hear Elvis Costello here than that other guy. I'm a record guy, so the name Memphis evokes Sun, Stax and Goner, The Oblivians, The Reatards. It's been a while now, but sorry for your loss on that one. Oh yes, and that movie Mystery Train.

Smoked Coconut Bacon
(makes 3 1/2 cups)

3 1/2 cups coconut flakes (available at Whole Foods in the baking aisle)
2 tablespoons maple syrup
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon vegetarian worcestershire
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon  liquid smoke (only of you don't smoke the coconut on the grill top)

Smoke the coconut flakes for four minutes using my grill-top method. Four minutes don't sound like a long time, but the coconut really soaks up the smoke quickly. This ain't no pork belly, y'all!

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Place the smoked coconut into a large mixing bowl and add the maple syrup, soy sauce, pepper, worcestershire, and sesame oil. (Only add the liquid smoke if you didn't smoke the coconut. This is just an option for people without access to a smoker.) Toss to coat. Spread the dressed coconut into a single layer on a parchment-lined 12-by-17-inch sheet pan or two smaller pans. Cook coconut for ten minutes, stir it around and spread it back out on the sheet pan, and cook it another five minutes or until coconut is nice and dark brown.