Avocado wood-smoked bacon

Rashida Purifoy, owner of Cast Iron Gourmet, slices bacon that she cured for seven days and then smoked for three hours over avocado wood. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times / June 17, 2011)

Bacon and avocado are two of my favorite foods, so when someone idly suggested smoking pork belly with avocado wood, I thought it was a brilliant idea and began searching for places to buy the right lumber. "You won't find any," warned Rashida Purifoy, a professional chef and friend who'd already been on the lookout for some.

I didn't think any more about our conversation until a few months later, when I fatally overwatered an avocado sapling in my front yard.

I occasionally make my own bacon in a backyard smoker and figured the corpse, which resembled a long, dried twig, might be enough to make one batch. So I called Purifoy to see if she was still interested in trying it out.

"Hell, yeah," she said.

Purifoy, who last year started a company called Cast Iron Gourmet, smokes her bacon in 500-pound batches using mainly hickory wood and had never cooked with avocado wood. We weren't sure if it would have a strong flavor like hickory or if it would be sweeter like cherry. Did it burn intensely, like oak, or slower, like apple?

We decided to ask an expert. "Let's go to TiGeorges' Chicken," Purifoy said.

As we drove down Glendale Boulevard in Los Angeles, I recognized the restaurant from the smoke wafting out of the top. When we parked, the air smelled different, although I couldn't put my finger on what was so distinct about it.

It turns out that TiGeorges' owner, George Laguerre, uses avocado wood to cook his rotisserie chicken.

Laguerre, a Haitian immigrant, said it's a staple in his home country, but he never intended to use it when he opened his restaurant, figuring he wouldn't be able to get enough.

But one morning in 2002, he ran out of the citrus wood he normally used and was desperately driving around Echo Park when he saw a downed avocado tree. The owner told Laguerre to take as much as he wanted.

He figured the wood would be a one-time-only event, but a Times article mentioned that TiGeorges' featured food cooked with it and people started asking for the avocado wood-infused chicken, and "I was stuck," Laguerre said with a laugh.

He now drives to the Santa Ynez area twice a month to get his wood, free, from area farmers.

I could see why Laguerre makes the trip when his chicken arrived. There were some of the mysterious flavors I'd smelled outside, a slight herbal aroma and even a bit of creaminess, like a fine, mild cigar, and none of the charred tastes of a stronger wood like hickory.

I was getting excited, with visions of turning my small, dead avocado tree into savory, creamy bacon.

But when Laguerre took a look at the wood in the trunk of my car, he simply closed the lid and said, "No."

He said the small pieces were too dry and would burn too hot, rendering the fat. But he gave us two large logs from his private stash, each about 18 inches long and a foot wide, much bigger than what I normally used.

After buying four slabs of pork belly, about 16 pounds in all, at a Chinese market, Purifoy and I took them to my house to cure.

We dry-cured two of the slabs in a typical salt and brown sugar rub, hoping it would provide a neutral base that would highlight the smoke flavor.

"Let's do something fun with the others," Purifoy said as she rummaged through my refrigerator.