May 20, 2016
When the conversation in the room turns to bacon, all eyes seem to fill with smoldering passion as its devotees wax eloquent on the virtues of their beloved meat candy. I hadn’t thought of writing on this topic until I received a request from my friend, Sue Seitz, retired attorney and world traveler. (Wow! An actual request from a loyal reader of the blog? Gee! This must be how Delilah feels when she takes song requests from the lovelorn on iHeart Radio!) After a quick mental inventory of all things bacon, I decided that I do have some stories to share, as well as a few recipes and rants.
Bacon is right in my wheelhouse because … you know … it’s messy! I know several of you Fussy Fussertons prefer to avoid all that spattered grease on your stove and clothing by using packaged already-cooked bacon. (If you won’t muss yourself and your kitchen by pan-frying bacon once in awhile, how do you expect to reach bacon nirvana?) I have tried the already-cooked bacon several times. Believe me, I wanted it to be wonderful in order to save myself a lot of clean-up time. Alas, I had to give it a thumbs down—it’s flavorless and tough. Hear me out, my friends, the microwave is not your bacon’s friend—each piece becomes overcooked and crispy in the middle, while the ends often remain uncooked and rubbery. If you try to microwave the slices until they become uniformly crisp, then you end up with nothing but scorched, brittle bacon “boards”. I know, I know, pan-frying bacon requires constant turning and pressing down gently with a spatula. This futzing is essential for the bacon to brown evenly. It also helps you sense when each piece reaches its apogee, requiring it to instantly be snapped up off the heat and onto a platter.
I will always be content to stand at the stove until my arches crash to the floor in order to coax each strip to the peak of perfection. I should point out here that my mom does pan-fry a whole pound of bacon at once and then later microwaves a few pieces at a time for a few seconds whenever she and Dad are wanting some. This technique seems to work quite well because she uses good-quality bacon and she cooks it properly in a pan. Then she places the bacon between paper towels, puts them in a Ziploc bag, and stores them in the refrigerator or freezer. (True confessions. Bob and I really don’t have bacon very often. The fragrance is blissful for the first hour or two, but then as it infiltrates every room, I begin to feel that Village Inn has somehow vented its commercial kitchen exhaust fans into the interior of my house. The fragrance becomes a full-blown odor, and windows and doors must be thrown wide open, even if there’s a wind chill of 20 below.)
If you haven’t already guessed, I belong to an imaginary club called Picky Eaters Anonymous. (PEA-brains really aren’t that anonymous since we seem to continually pontificate about our food preferences to everyone.) Perhaps you are under the impression that all people who love to cook are intrepid eaters. No—not all of us can be like Anthony Bourdain. As a child, I nearly drove my mother out of the kitchen with my constant fretting about food and its preparation. This was especially true when I was expected to eat the food prepared by people I didn’t know. Here is the boiled-down truth about picky eaters, and it pains me to admit it: Because we cannot throw on an invisibility cloak and stand in other people’s kitchens to observe the condition of the food, the cleanliness of the kitchen, or how the food is being prepared, we must to build up great courage and trust … to be able to enjoy food prepared by people we don’t know or don’t know well. There. I said it. Over the years, we PEA-brains have developed loving relationships with family and friends, which has allowed us to let our guard down and truly appreciate what is set before us. I mean this sincerely—almost everyone I know is a wonderful cook, and I love to eat their food. (Don’t talk to me about restaurant kitchens, though. I know. I know. I really don’t want to know. I have had Anthony Bourdain’s book Kitchen Confidential sitting on my bookshelf for several years, and I can’t bring myself to read it.)
Probably your scariest moments as a child had to do with such things as spotting a spider crawling on the wall, or running from a barking dog, or fearing that an evil clown was lurking in your closet. The scariest times of my childhood? Potlucks. (Who decided that shredded carrots in orange Jello was a good idea? … It sure looks like someone borrowed their dog’s water bowl for a serving dish. … Who puts lutefisk and fried chicken on the same platter?) I always made certain that I knew what dish my mom made, and I wouldn’t hesitate to knock down a few people (in line politely holding onto their paper plates) to be sure that I got some of my mom’s food before it was gone. My mom laughs at this now, because she thinks she was not a very good cook back then. (Not true. She was always a great cook and still is.)
I enjoyed reading some of Sue’s humorous email observations about bacon when she sent me her request, and I want to share a few. In the course of growing up and continuing on through her married years, Sue says she and her family have enjoyed thick-sliced bacon and eggs, BLTs, clam chowder with bacon, and bacon-wrapped oysters (otherwise known as Angels on Horseback). “That was about it for bacon dishes for me,” she says, until she and her husband John retired from their law practices in Des Moines and moved to Tennessee. Now they attend many a cocktail party where they are “immersed in appetizers with bacon—bacon-wrapped shrimp, scallions, oysters, dates, dates with almonds inside, apricots with almonds inside, and figs with goat cheese. Bacon on burgers, sliders, and even on pulled pork, for goodness sake, and bacon candied by baking it with brown sugar”. One time she made a broccoli salad for a gathering of friends and found one of the guests “picking all the bacon out of the bowl and eating it”! She once joked at a wine-tasting party, after seeing so many bacon-adorned appetizers, “If I wrapped a slice of bacon around that stool leg, I’ll bet someone would eat it!” Everyone cast a furtive glance toward the stool to see if the leg was still there.
You may have heard of Benton’s bacon. The famous Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams, which specializes in country hams and bacon, is only about two miles from Sue and John’s home. Sue says, “Their products are sold all over the country, maybe even the world, to high-end restaurants, including the famous Blackberry Farm here in Tennessee.” She adds, “When you go into the small public customer lobby to make a purchase, you need to immediately go home and shower; the smell soaks into every pore. One of my friends cooked a pan of Benton’s bacon when she first moved here a dozen years ago, and only recently has she been able to finally get all the smell out of her curtains.” (Sue cooks the bacon on her grill on the deck.)
One time when Sue went to Benton’s, the owner Alan Benton, saw that she had her Siberian Husky, Maverick, out in the car. After she made her purchase, Benton asked if he could send along a ham hock bone for her dog. “Maverick was thrilled and chewed on that bone for hours,” says Sue, “and then he drank water nonstop for the next 48 hours!”
Benton’s famous bacon and hams are available for your to enjoy as well by ordering online at: http://www.shop.bentonscountryham.com.
Another highly recommended bacon is found in Kansas City, Missouri. My friends, Shayla and Joel From, are passionate about the bacon at The Local Pig. The Froms say it is so thick and delicious that they call it “bacon steak”. So, when you’re in the Kansas City area, go ahead and sit down to a mouth-watering meal before you bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan. (My apologies to the late Peggy Lee.) Go to http://www.thelocalpig.com for more information about purchasing their products and the restaurant menu.
It’s no secret that some of the finest cured artisan meats to be found in the United States and beyond are made right here in central Iowa. La Quercia in Norwalk produces pancetta (Italian bacon), prosciutto (Italian ham), speck (smoked prosciutto) and several other pork products. I use La Quercia whenever possible in my Pancetta-Wrapped Asparagus Bundles (recipe below). It’s a privilege to have these world-renowned meats right here in our own backyard!
If I may be so brazen, I also would like to weigh in on turkey bacon. How about “just say no!” I heard someone recently refer to it as “bird leather”. Maybe I just have not found a delicious brand of turkey bacon yet. (When someone says,”It’s very close to the real thing,” that’s not close enough for me.) I do understand that there are probably many positive health benefits to eating it instead of real bacon. So, if you are a healthy-eater who just loves to gobble it up, I promise I won’t squawk.
My last bacon edict is that it cannot be “soaky”. That’s my term for bacon that has been lolling about in liquid for so long that it has become flabby (such as in a lentil or potato soup or a pot of brothy home-grown green beans and new potatoes, etc.). When I was young, Grandma Pearl would call Mom to say she had made a mess of green beans and new potatoes, and could we all come over and have supper with her and Grandpa Ernest? As the long-suffering picky eater, I would inwardly fret, “If Grandma has made a mess of the green beans, why should we be expected to eat them?” Of course, they were delicious in the special way that grandmas of that era prepared food—all the fresh green snappiness was boiled away, leaving lifeless bean bodies floating in the broth. There’s no denying, though, that Grandma’s well-timed launches of rafts of fried bacon into the boiling waves certainly did inject beautiful flavor into those swamped legumes. (I think perhaps she was right when she called it a “mess of green beans”.) I’ll bet you’re thinking that I didn’t like Grandma’s green beans with new potatoes. You would be wrong. After painstakingly plucking out every morsel of soaky bacon, I savored every bite of the mushy mixture. I wish I had a bowl right now!
Whenever I am asked to take an appetizer to a gathering, I often choose my sister Kris Gourley’s fabulous recipe for Bacon-and-Chive-Stuffed Mushrooms because I know that, when it’s time to go home, I will be carrying an empty platter back with me. There are never any leftovers. They are that good.
- 2 (8-ounce) boxes button mushrooms (smaller ones, if possible), wiped clean and stems removed
- 1/3 to 1/2-cup butter, melted
- Garlic salt (Lawry’s is best)
- 1 tablespoon fresh chives, finely snipped
- 1 (8-ounce) tub Philadelphia Chive and Onion Cream Cheese Spread (not “Lite”)
- 16 (approximately) slices bacon, fried and crumbled (I prefer Oscar Meyer Center Cut Original Bacon; I do not use thick-sliced for this recipe.)
Butter a rimmed baking pan. Place mushroom caps in pan and fill each one with melted butter. (I use a small jelly spoon.) Sprinkle each cap lightly with garlic salt. Mix chives, cream cheese, and bacon. Fill caps. (I just use my clean fingers to press the filling into the caps. Yes, some of the butter may flow down the sides of the caps when you stuff them, but that’s fine.) Bake 25 to 30 minutes at 350 degrees until lightly browned. (You may bake them 1 or 2 hours ahead, if preferred, and then rewarm them at 350 degrees for 5 minutes, or they can be briefly rewarmed in the microwave.)
Several years ago and even still today, a popular way to prepare asparagus was introduced—wrapping pancetta (or prosciutto) around shredded Parmesan cheese and fresh asparagus spears, and then oven-roasting them. Even though I liked the recipe, I decided it could become amazing with the addition of two ingredients—soy sauce and brown sugar. And, it was! If you want to enjoy an unforgettable side dish, try this version. (Better make more than one bundle for each person!)
Pancetta-Wrapped Asparagus Bundles
Pancetta-Wrapped Asparagus Bundles
- 40 to 48 fresh asparagus stalks (depending on how large they are)
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 (4-ounce) packages pancetta or prosciutto (I frequently use prosciutto, instead.) (I almost always use La Quercia brand, but I occasionally use Trader Joe’s. It’s a pretty good substitute.)
- 8 heaping tablespoons freshly shredded Parmesan cheese
- 1/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce
- 1/4 cup packed brown sugar
Wash and dry the asparagus spears, and trim the ends so they are uniformly 5 or 6 inches long. Place them on a plate and drizzle with olive oil, rolling them around until well-coated. Line a rimmed baking pan with parchment paper. Place 8 slices of pancetta or prosciutto on the parchment. Gather the asparagus into 8 bundles (6 to 8 spears per bundle if they are skinny; 4 or 5 of them if they are fat). Place 1 heaping tablespoon of Parmesan cheese on top of each bundle—try to put it in the center where the pancetta will somewhat cover it when it is wrapped around the bundle. Bring the two ends of the pancetta firmly around each bundle and secure with half a toothpick or two. Roast at 400 degrees for 20 minutes (or until pancetta starts looking crispy). While asparagus is roasting, stir together the brown sugar and soy sauce. Then spoon a tablespoon or 2 of the soy sauce mixture over each bundle and roast for 2 more minutes. Watch closely to make certain they don’t burn. Remove the toothpicks and serve alongside the entrée on each dinner plate.
Because spring is a time for many celebrations, and because bacon is loved by so many, I created a new appetizer—Broccoli and Bacon Blossoms. They are a pretty and savory treat when served on a tray or tucked in alongside a luncheon salad.
Broccoli and Bacon Blossoms
Broccoli and Bacon Blossoms
- 1 (1-pound) loaf Pepperidge Farm Very Thin Sliced White Bread
- 1 cup (4 ounces) finely shredded Parmesan cheese (or 1/2 Parmesan; 1/2 Gruyere)
- 1/2 cup (or so) Hellman’s mayonnaise
- 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon Grey Poupon Country-Style Dijon Mustard
- 2 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped shallots
- 1/4 cup broccoli florets (trim off only the very tops of the florets; see photo below)
- 5 strips crisp-fried bacon, crumbled
- 1/8 teaspoon granulated garlic or garlic salt (Lawry’s)
- 1/8 teaspoon ground white pepper
- Dash or 2 of Sriracha sauce (optional)
- 1 (2.25-ounce) can sliced black olives
Using a 3-inch diameter “scalloped” cookie cutter, cut out a “flower” from the center of each slice of bread. (Hint: Press down firmly and evenly on the cutter. While it is still pressed into the bread, flip it over and press your finger along the edge of the cutter on back side to be sure it has gone all the way through.) Mix all the ingredients together, except the olives, and spread mixture on each “flower”—making certain that the mixture doesn’t glob up in the space between each scallop (that way, the breads will maintain their scallop shape while baking). Place an olive slice in the center of each flower and gently press down. Bake at 400 degrees for 6 to 8 minutes. Serve immediately—they are also tasty after they become room temperature. You can also bake them an hour or two ahead and then reheat them again at 350 degrees for 4 minutes or so before serving. (Keep an eye on them when reheating so they don’t get too brown.)
Chef, author, and television personality Anthony Bourdain drolly refers to bacon as “the gateway meat”, turning herbivores into carnivores. Hmmm, I wonder how many vegetarians have managed to sneak a piece or two from the platter as it’s passed around the table.
I can’t wrap this up without giving a nod to Des Moines’ own “Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival, ‘The World’s Premier Baconfest'”. The 9th annual festival was held in Des Moines in February, with over 10,000 people attending this rapturous rasher tribute. Holy Smoky! That’s a lot of adoration!
My thanks to Sue Seitz for suggesting this topic. I had more to say than I thought! My next post will be on Friday, June 3rd. (Remember, I post every other Friday!) Please stop by again soon, and ask your friends and family to visit The Messy Cook Blog, as well. Thank you!—Tracy