Some things are just meant to be.  The stars line up, you find yourself in the right place at the right time, and you’re handed something you didn’t even know you were looking for.  It can be a job opportunity, or a romantic connection, or something even deeper than those.

For us, it was bacon.

On January 26th, Mike read Bonnie Benwick’s profile of Mrs. Wheelbarrow and the Yummy Mummy’s tandem charcuterial endeavor and everything just fell into place.  We were just gearing up to start another one of our Cookbook Challenges – an attempt to winnow our ever-growing collection of cookbooks by attempting a new recipe from each one to make sure we still found the books helpful.  In fact, one of the first books Elizabeth reached for was Mike’s copy of Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn’s “Charcuterie: the Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing.”  Although he had received it a little over a year earlier, he had yet to attempt any feats of cured meat.

Enter “Charcutepalooza.”  The article made it sound tasty and fun all at the same time, and anyone who has read at least a few of our posts knows our love of all things brined, cured or smoked.  So we reached out to Mrs. Wheelbarrow through her website and decided to throw ourselves into the challenge along with the hundreds of other bloggers who have signed on.  A contest with some killer prizes has no doubt piqued the interest of some, but most seem genuinely motivated by the spirit that inspired the ladies to begin with.

The process seemed easy enough.  Each month a new pair of challenges is announced, with one for novices and one for those seeking a more intense assignment.  We all agree to work on the challenges ourselves and blog about our results on the 15th of each month.  We’ll continue like this throughout 2011, having cooked our way through a dozen recipes (more if you try both challenges in any given month) by the time we’re through.

So why am I up at 11:30 on a Monday night (Valentine’s Day, no less) waiting for my homemade bacon to reach an internal 150 degrees Fahrenheit?  My delicious, unintentional procrastination after the jump. Sure, I already had the Ruhlman book in hand, but that didn’t mean I was ready to jump right into the ancient and noble art of bacon alchemy.  I was missing two key ingredients – and considering the fact that I only had twenty days to work with, I knew I had to locate the others quickly.

The first was something that is alternately referred to as “pink salt,” “curing salt,” and the far more evocative “Prague powder.”  It’s a combination of 6.25% sodium nitrite and 93.75% sodium chloride, dyed pink to avoid confusion with basic salt (they can’t be used interchangeably, and you definitely don’t want to confuse this for gourmet pink salt from the Himalayas or other mineral-rich sources).  Simply put, this does the lion’s share of the work in curing.  It helps to draw out moisture from within the meat.  Its presence inhibits the growth of bacteria that could cause botulism.  It even gives bacon that rosy color.

One thing it doesn’t do: show up on your local grocer’s shelves.  I went looking for Prague powder a couple of years ago when I first got it into my head to try to make charcuterie, and I couldn’t find a single source in the DC Metro area that carried it.  Even a few chef friends who frequently make their own bacon told me they order their pink salt online.

So I placed an order and waited.  I read through the recipe and knew that I would need to let my bacon cure for at least a week.  That meant I needed the ingredients in hand by Monday, February 7th.  I turned my attention to the pork belly.

The second of the “Ruhls” governing Charcutepalooza states, “Let’s agree to use humanely raised meat, sourced as close to home as possible.”  Sure, it will make this a more costly endeavor over the next year, but it’s something we’ve been trying to do more of these days anyway.  I knew exactly the person from whom I wanted to buy my pork belly: Bev Eggleston.

If you’ve been to the Dupont Circle or Arlington Courthouse farmers’ markets, there’s  a pretty good chance you’ve met Bev.  He’s the outgoing face of Eco-Friendly Foods, a vendor that sells all kinds of humanely raised meat from a variety of local sources.  Whether you’re looking for local pasture-raised “grass-kickin’ chickens” or some caul fat for homemade sausages and terrines, Bev’s got you covered.

I paid Bev a visit at the Arlington market the weekend after we joined Charcutepalooza.  I explained what we were doing and asked if he could bring me a larger package of pork belly (most of the bellies he brings to sell are between a pound and two pounds).  I asked for three pounds and he instructed me to come back the following weekend to pick it up.  As it turns out, I couldn’t make the Saturday market on the 5th so I had to meet up with Bev on the 6th at Dupont Circle.  The smallest package of pork belly he had was almost six pounds, but I knew I was already cutting it close.  I purchased the belly, which had a per-pound price equal to the price of the high-end fresh-cut bacon at Let’s Meat on the Avenue in Del Ray, and took it home to start curing.

The Prague powder arrived and I quickly whipped up a batch of Ruhlman’s basic cure to press into the pork belly.  I cut the giant slab in half, both to make it more manageable and to allow me some creativity.  One half of the pork received the basic cure, while the other got the cure plus a dose of real maple syrup.  I was eager to see how the maple bacon compared to the original.  I put each into a separate storage bag and turned them diligently to make sure the cure solution permeated thoroughly.

Seven days being seven days, that brings us to tonight.  I’ve been waiting for my bacon to reach 150 degrees in my 200-degree oven for more than an hour longer than Ruhlman suggested I should.  The bacon looks beautiful, with its layers of creamy white fat and bright pink meat (more of a burgundy in the case of the maple bacon).  I can’t wait to separate the skin, slice up the meat and enjoy the fruits of my labor.  If it all turned out right, you can be sure I’ll be making this recipe again in late summer to enjoy with fresh heirloom tomatoes in a homemade BLT (I know, I know, Ruhlman held a challenge of his own to do exactly that way back in 2009).

But you have no idea how excited I am to have a full month to work on March’s challenge…