Jobs Homes Autos For Sale

It's bacon!
By Deborah Pankey | Daily Herald Staff

"Bacon is probably the greatest food in the world," says culinary authority James Villas


Peanut brittle bacon cookies


Bacon and apple turn Brussels sprouts into a glrious side dish.


Bacon shares the bill with crab and shrimp in this Maryland-style chowder. Author James Villas says any chowder can benefit from a bit of bacon.



 1 of 4 
print story
email story
Published: 1/23/2008 12:36 AM

Send To:





"Bacon is probably the greatest food in the world."

Culinary authority James Villas led with that remark during a recent interview. He got no argument from me, and gauging this pork product's popularity I gather many more support this stance.

You can't walk through the grocery store without noticing products touting bacon as an add-in (Ruffles Smoky Bacon and Cheddar Dip) or open a cooking magazine without spotting recipes calling for bacon (Cooking With Paula Deen's Mini Bacon Cheeseburger Sliders and Gourmet's Fried Chicken With Bacon and Pepper Cream Gravy). The bacon aisle itself is growing with brands introducing center cut, organic and wood-smoked varieties.

Head to the Internet and you can join the celebration -- celebacon? -- of artisanal products from Arkansas, Connecticut, Montreal and points across the globe.

"If you get hooked on artisanal bacon, you will be hooked for life," promises Villas. "There are some glorious premium bacons that make a monkey out of what you find at the grocery store."

Makin' bacon

Bacon, quite simply, is a cured (preserved with salt) piece of pork, generally the pork belly -- though it can be made from the cheek, hind legs and loin. Depending on the country of origin, writes Villas in his 2007 work "The Bacon Cookbook" (Wiley, $35), the pork is left unsmoked (Italian pancetta, for example) or smoked for varying amounts of time over a variety of woods or even corncobs.

It's one of the oldest meats in history, Villas says, with references in early Chinese and ancient Greek cultures.

"There can be little doubt that bacon was in the larder of the Mayflower when the first pilgrims came to America in 1620," Villas writes, adding that Colonial cooks used bacon to flavor soups, stews and "otherwise bland, starchy dishes."

With the advent of manufacturing in the early 20th century, bacon became widely available to mass markets and a staple in the modern kitchen.

Beyond breakfast

"There is no greater breakfast than two strips of bacon with eggs and an English muffin," says Villas, who reports consuming bacon daily.

Yet he says Americans don't do bacon justice, reserving it for BLTs and dicing it into baked beans when it can do so much more.

"When I traveled, when I would see bacon on a menu, I'd order it," Villas says, citing German soup and South American casserole. "I want to show how other people do so much more with bacon than we do."

"There's not much that bacon doesn't help," he continues. He adds little bits of bacon to "any kind of chowder, like corn chowder. It transforms it; makes it a whole different soup."

He also endorses wrapping meatloaf in bacon and says he can't imagine frying chicken without adding a tablespoon or two of bacon fat into the Crisco.

"If most of the recipes in this book illustrate nothing else," he writes in the preface, "they prove that it takes very little bacon to transform numerous other banal dishes into memorable culinary treasures."

Villas doesn't have to convince Padma Lakshmi, host of Bravo TV's "Top Chef" reality series and author of "Tangy Tart Hot & Sweet" (2007, Weinstein Books, $34.95).

"(Bacon) is still a much-prized secret weapon in my pantry, to use in times of trouble, when I need a little richness and luxury for a particular recipe."

Lakshmi, a former model, admits to a long love affair with bacon, wolfing down Carl Jr.'s bacon-topped barbecue burgers as a teen and sprinkling it on salads and grits, and she exalts it as an excellent hangover cure.

Chef Carol Wallack at sola restaurant in Chicago is equally smitten.

"I, personally, don't eat much meat, but I can never pass up bacon," Wallack says. "It balances every part of your taste buds."

Each week Wallack and sous chef Aleksiy Shalev smoke 8-pound pork bellies seasoned with ginger, Szechuan peppercorns, lemongrass, brown sugar and sea salt.

"When you cook for a living, you're always looking to create something different, to step out of the box," Wallack says. Wallack says she likes cooking with bacon and started making her own so it better fit her Hawaiian-influenced menu.

"On a burger, it's just plain great," she says.

The restaurant even offered a five-course bacon-tasting menu last year that included bacon-fat-infused butter, hash flecked with bacon served alongside steak and bacon brittle ice cream.

"The saltiness balances nicely with the sweet and creamy of the vanilla ice cream," she says.

Pigging out

Villas says bacon has a place in today's healthful diets. Two strips of bacon, he says, contain 73 calories, 6 grams of fat and 11 milligrams of cholesterol -- about one-third the counts in a glazed doughnut or pork hotdog.

"We're so obsessed with health. Our problem isn't bacon, it's our eating habits. We are pigs. We eat too much," Villas says. "You don't sit down and eat eight to 10 strips of bacon. If you eat normally, sensibly, bacon is part of a healthy diet.

"Treat bacon like caviar or it destroys the privilege."

Peanut Brittle Bacon Cookies

1 cup (2 sticks) butter

1 cup brown sugar

1 cup granulated sugar

2 eggs

½ cup smooth peanut butter

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 cup peanut brittle, cracked into ½-inch pieces

1½ cups bacon, crisply cooked and cut into ½-inch pieces

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Cream together butter and sugars until light and fluffy. Mix in eggs, one at a time. Add peanut butter and mix until incorporated.

In a separate bowl, sift together flour, salt and baking powder. Add the dry ingredients 1 cup at a time to the butter mixture, scraping the bowl as needed. Stir in peanut brittle and bacon.

Roll dough into ½-inch balls and place on parchment-lined cookie sheets. Flatten each cookie with the palm of your hand to about 1 inch in diameter. Bake about 15 minutes, or until the edges begin to lightly brown. Remove to a cooling rack to cool completely. Store in an airtight container up to one week.

Makes about five to six dozen cookies.

Nutrition values per cookie: 90 calories, 5 g fat (2.5 g saturated), 10 g carbohydrates, 0 fiber, 2 g protein, 15 mg cholesterol, 100 mg sodium.

America's Dairy Farmers

Brussels Sprouts Braised With Apple and Bacon

1 quart fresh Brussels sprouts

2 slices lean hickory-smoked bacon, cut into small pieces

1 tablespoon butter

1 cooking apple (such as a Granny Smith), stemmed and cored and cut into chunks

2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Pinch of grated nutmeg

Remove and discard any wilted leaves from the Brussels sprouts, trim off the stems (but not too close or the sprouts will fall apart), cut an "X" in the base of each sprout and set aside.

In a large, heavy skillet, fry the bacon over medium heat until it releases its fat. Add the butter to the fat and heat until melted. Add the Brussels sprouts and stir gently until they begin to brown, about 10 minutes. Add the apple and lemon juice and season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Cover, reduce the heat to low, and cook till the sprouts are tender and the apple has softened, 10-15 minutes. Serve hot.

Serves four to six.

Nutrition values per serving: 110 calories, 7 g fat (3 g saturated), 10 g carbohydrates, 3 g fiber, 4 g protein, 10 mg cholesterol, 95 mg sodium.

"The Bacon Cookbook" by James Villas (2007 Wiley, $35)

Bacon-Wrapped Figs Stuffed With Almonds in Port

12 fresh firm-ripe figs, peeled

1 cup Port wine

1 tablespoon minced orange zest

12 toasted almonds

6 slices lean applewood-smoked bacon, cut in half

In a saucepan, combine the figs, wine and orange zest and bring to a simmer. Remove from the heat and let steep for 1 hour.

Heat the oven to 425 degrees.

Pick out the figs and reserve the wine. Cut a small pocket in the center of each fig and insert an almond in each pocket. Wrap each fig with a piece of bacon, secure the bacon with a toothpick that has been soaked in water and arrange the figs on a baking sheet. Bake until the bacon is crisp on all sides, 15-20 minutes, turning once or twice.

To serve, arrange 3 figs on small dessert plates. Reheat the wine and spoon a little of the liquid around each portion.

Serves four.

Nutrition values per serving: 380 calories, 18 g fat (5 g saturated), 38 g carbohydrates, 5 g fiber, 6 g protein, 25 mg cholesterol, 290 mg sodium.

"The Bacon Cookbook" by James Villas (2007 Wiley, $35)

Maryland Crab, Shrimp and Bacon Chowder

4 slices lean bacon, cut into small pieces

2 medium onions, diced

4 medium potatoes, peeled and diced

1 cup water

7 cups milk

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

¾ pound fresh claw crabmeat, carefully picked over for shells and cartilage

¾ pound small fresh shrimp, peeled and deveined

Sweet paprika, for sprinkling

In a large, heavy saucepan, fry the bacon over moderate heat and drain on paper towels. Add the onions, potatoes and water to the fat in the pan, bring to a simmer. Cover and cook until the water has evaporated and the potatoes are tender, 15-20 minutes.

Add the milk and salt and pepper to the pan and return the mixture to a simmer. Add the crabmeat, shrimp and bacon and again return to a simmer. Cook 5 minutes stirring continuously.

Serve the chowder in soup plates, sprinkle with paprika.

Serves six to eight.

Nutrition values per serving: 350 calories, 12 g fat (5 g saturated), 31 g carbohydrates, 3 g fiber, 31 g protein, 125 mg cholesterol, 690 mg sodium.

"The Bacon Cookbook" by James Villas (2007 Wiley, $35)

Grilled Cheese Toastie with Portobello and Bacon

2 strips applewood-smoked bacon

½ cup portobello mushrooms, chopped

½ teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

2½ tablespoons honey

4 teaspoons spicy mustard

4 slices sourdough bread

4 ounces sheep's milk cheese, cut into ¼-inch thick pieces

Heat a frying pan over medium heat. Add the bacon. When cooked well done but not burned, remove and place on a paper towel.

In the same pan, saute the mushrooms in the bacon fat, adding the fresh thyme after 3 minutes. While the mushrooms are cooking, cut the bacon strips into bite-sized pieces, cutting away any excess fat if necessary. Put the bacon back into the pan with the mushrooms. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes more until the mushrooms are browned and then turn off the heat.

Whisk the honey and mustard together in a small bowl to make a thick sauce. Thinly spread the honey-mustard sauce on one side of each slice of bread. Then cover 2 of the slices with the cheese, making sure to cover the entire surface. Spread the bacon and mushroom mixture over the cheese.

Place the other 2 slices of bread on top and butter the outsides of each sandwich. Place the sandwiches in a frying pan and cover.

Cook on medium-low heat for 5 to 6 minutes until the bottom sides are golden brown. Then carefully flip the sandwiches over with a spatula, cover and cook for another 3 minutes. In the last few minutes, when you can see the cheese melting on the sides, remove the lid to let out the steam so the sandwiches don't get soggy. Cut the sandwiches into bite-size squares and serve while still hot.

Serves four.

Nutrition values per serving: 340 calories, 14 g fat (7 g saturated), 45 g carbohydrates, 2 g fiber, 15 g protein, 30 mg cholesterol, 690 mg sodium.

"Tangy Tart Hot & Sweet" by Padma Lakshmi (2007 Weinstein Books, $34.95)