Bacon keeps on sizzling
Despite a bad rap from nutritionists, bacon is enjoying a renaissance among chefs, home cooks
It's been vilified by nutritionists and glorified by hedonists. It is the Achilles' heel of many an aspiring vegetarian.Skip to next paragraph
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Its aroma is as recognizable - and beloved - as baking bread and chocolate chip cookies.
But while almost everyone loves bacon, it has also long carried a bad rap as the guiltiest of pleasures - a treat that could melt in your mouth but would stick to your thighs, and that is much more down-home than haute cuisine.
So why, then, is it showing up on the menus of four-star restaurants and the listings of gourmet catalogs? The Grateful Palate's "bacon-of-the-month club" has more than 1,000 subscribers - and that's just through word-of-mouth advertising. Sales of refrigerated bacon grew 21 percent between 1999 and 2001, according to the Mintel Group in Chicago.
"Bacon has had a renaissance," says Sara Perry, a food columnist for The Oregonian and author of "Everything Tastes Better with Bacon" (Chronicle Books, $18.95).
John Willoughby, executive editor at Gourmet magazine and coauthor of numerous cookbooks on grilling and meat, agrees. Because of the Atkins Diet - famous for getting weight-conscious Americans to load up on ground beef and half-and-half - people are eating more meat, he says.
But Mr. Willoughby also credits bacon's intense flavor - something he says more chefs are catching on to. "Even if you use a little, you get a richer, deeper taste to whatever you're cooking," he says. He sautés it at the beginning of braising beef, for instance, and likes to cook onions in bacon fat.
That idea of using bacon as more than just an accompaniment for eggs or a topping for a burger was part of what interested Ms. Perry, too. She still loves it as a breakfast food - bacon on Sunday morning is a tradition in her home - but is more excited about its possibilities as a flavor enhancer. In her cookbook, she adds it to white beans and pasta - one of her favorite recipes (below) - and to mashed potatoes (along with spinach and fontina cheese). She spruces up the old classics, too, adding a homemade herb mayonnaise to her BLT, and putting gorgonzola and toasted sourdough slices on her bacon cheeseburger.
"Bacon has bite," says Perry, trying to explain its appeal. "It's chewy, crunchy, slightly sweet, and habit forming."
Potatoes and pasta - fine. But apple pie with bacon? Perry admits she was skeptical of a dessert section. But then she got to thinking about pork and brown sugar - that irresistible browned coating on honey-baked hams, for instance - and decided to experiment a bit. The result is a chapter with concoctions like Try-It-You'll-Like-It Bacon Brittle and Double-Crunch Peanut Butter Cookies, which, Perry insists, are not gimmicks. "I like every one," she says firmly. "Especially the bacon brittle."
As with sausage, cheese, and chocolate, there are now countless artisanal varieties available. Forget Oscar Mayer. Many of today's bacon lovers visit specialty-food stores or shop online for small-farm varieties, where the choices range from hickory-smoked and sugar-cured to garlic-stuffed and pepper bacon.
Dan Philips, president of Grateful Palate, spends much of his time traveling through Appalachia and middle America looking for just such home-style variations. The cure recipe that each farm uses, he says, is as distinctive "as a thumbprint." Northern bacon tends to be hammier and sweeter, while Southern bacon is intense and salty.
Mr. Philips loves them all, but notes two particular favorites: Gatton Farms, a Kentucky bacon that he says "is to die for," and Summerfield, a molasses-and-brown-sugar-cured slab bacon that he compares to Christmas pudding.
"Once you have an artisan-made bacon," he says, "it's a whole other level."