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.

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."

Perry acknowledges a particular fondness for Nueske's applewood-smoked bacon from Wisconsin, but says the key to buying any bacon is choosing one with a good meat-to-fat ratio. Many commercial bacons are almost all fat, and shrivel to nothing when cooked. She also advises cooking slices on much lower heat than is typical. It may take longer, but it will avoid the "roller coaster" look that bacon often gets. Besides, she adds, "you have that great aroma."

That aroma, in fact, and the nostalgia it often evokes are a big part of bacon's appeal. Willoughby remembers a friend's daughter who felt homesick when she arrived at college. The first thing she did was to buy two pounds of bacon, cook it, and eat it. "It's one of those childhood indulgences," he says. "You connect it with all those memories."

Pear Salad With Bacon and Honey-Hazelnut Vinaigrette

2 tablespoons hazelnut oil (for a less costly choice, substitute olive oil)
1 teaspoon honey
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/4 teaspoon coarse (kosher) salt
Pinch of freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon white-wine vinegar
2 ripe but firm Bartlett pears, peeled, cored, and cut into 1-inch pieces
4 crisply cooked, thick, smoked or unsmoked bacon slices (4 ounces uncooked), cut crosswise into 1/2-inch pieces
1 small head endive, sliced crosswise into 1-inch pieces
2 cups loosely packed, trimmed, tender young arugula leaves
1 ounce Roquefort cheese, or the best blue cheese available, crumbled

In a small ceramic or glass bowl, mix together the oil and honey. (If the honey is thick, warm the mixture for a few seconds - no longer - in the microwave.) Add the mustard, salt, pepper, and vinegar.

In a medium bowl, gently toss together the pears, bacon, endive, and arugula, lifting and blending the ingredients. Pour the vinaigrette over the salad, toss again, and divide among 4 chilled salad plates. Garnish each salad with crumbled cheese and serve immediately. Serves 4.

Sizzling Herb Pasta With White Beans and Crisp Smoked Bacon

Zest of 1 large lemon, minced
1 large garlic clove, pressed
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 can (15 ounces) white beans, drained and rinsed (about 1-1/2 cups)
4 to 6 thick smoked bacon slices (4 to 6 ounces uncooked), cut crosswise into 1- to 2-inch pieces
12 to 14 ounces dried fusilli
1-1/2 cups coarsely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh sage
2 to 3 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh rosemary
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Grated Romano cheese for serving

In a small bowl, whisk together the lemon zest, garlic, lemon juice, and olive oil. Stir in the beans and set aside.

In a medium-heavy skillet, cook the bacon pieces over low to medium-low heat, turning as needed to achieve uniform crispness. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a paper towel to drain. Pour off the bacon drippings, reserving 1/4 cup in the skillet.

Meanwhile, prepare the pasta according to package directions. Using plenty of boiling salted water, cook the pasta until al dente (tender but firm to the bite). Drain well, reserving 1/2 cup cooking water.

Transfer the pasta to the warmed serving bowl, add the beans with their marinade and the bacon pieces, and lightly toss.

In the skillet used to cook the bacon, heat the reserved bacon drippings over medium-high heat until hot. (To test, add an herb leaf to the hot drippings. When it sizzles, the temperature is right.) Add the parsley, sage, and rosemary to the hot drippings and saute quickly, 10 to 15 seconds. Drizzle and scrape the bacon drippings and herbs onto the pasta mixture and toss to blend. For a moister coating, add a little of the reserved cooking water. Serve immediately in warmed shallow bowls. At the table, season with salt and pepper to taste, passing the cheese.

Serves 4.

- from 'Everything Tastes Better with Bacon'

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