Blue Water Grill's salmon tataki and applewood bacon maki sushi. (Jim Frost/Sun-Times)
"Bacon is texture ... texture, crunch, nuttiness, sandwiched layers of fat and meat ... it's beautiful," says Ambarish Lulay, chef instructor for the Dining Room at Kendall College.
"Bacon is far more than a food," writes Joanna Pruess, author of the new cookbook "Seduced by Bacon" (The Lyons Press, $24.95). "Can it be a religion?"Whether it's the lingering influence of the low-carb diet craze, the increasing availability of artisanal smoked meats or just happy chance, bacon is big. Preuss' book, which suggests popping corn in bacon fat and includes a recipe for brown sugar and bacon ice cream, is just the latest of the recent cookbooks showcasing the versatility of bacon.
Sara Perry helped drive the trend with her 2002 book, Everything Tastes Better With Bacon (Chronicle Books, $18.95), offering helpful tips and 70 bacon-flavored recipes for everything from soup to nuts. The 2003 Bacon Cookbook (CQ Products, $4.50), a pocket-sized guide, offers 101 different bacon-enhanced dishes.
According to the National Pork Board, the United States produces more than 2 billion pounds of bacon annually, making it the most popular pork product on the market. "Fifty-three percent of Americans always have bacon on hand," says Pork Board spokeswoman Pamela Johnson.
Its appeal goes far beyond breakfast. On food-discussion Web sites like eGullet.org and Chicago's LTHForum.com, gourmets are trading notes on curing their own bacon, making mayonnaise from bacon fat and roasting Thanksgiving turkeys wrapped in bacon. While the reliability of online cooking information can be hit or miss, a Web search turns up recipes for bacon cookies, chocolate-covered bacon, tempura bacon, spiced bacon and bacon butter. Googling on "bacon-wrapped" yielded 570,000 results.
"Wrapped in bacon is the new pink," proclaims Ed M., a contributor to Yelp.com.
Web logs devoted to bacon include The Bacontarian (bacontarian.com); Bacon Unwrapped (baconunwrapped.com); I♥Bacon (iheartbacon.com) and The Bacon Show (baconshow.blogspot.com), which posts a new bacon recipe every day.
Locally, chefs are finding all sorts of uses for the crispy, salty meat. "We throw bacon in everything," says Chef Paul Kahan at Blackbird in the West Loop. "It's kind of a crutch. If something doesn't taste good, we put bacon on it." Among other things, Kahan wraps trout in bacon and poaches rabbit in pancetta fat. Lulay likes to use it in one-bite appetizers. "A little bit will go a long way," he says. He also uses bacon fat to make vinaigrette and, for one of the autumn items on the Kendall Dining Room menu, braises smoked slab bacon with apples and apple cider until it takes on a rich, silky texture.
Chef Christophe David at NoMI in the Mag Mile's Park Hyatt hotel tops his artichoke soup with foamy bacon-and-Champagne espuma and then adds a garnish of crisp, paper-thin bacon. At The Stained Glass Wine Bar in Evanston, they wrap citrus- and celery-seed-rubbed pork tenderloin in bacon and serving it over grilled red onions, potato and celery-root puree and pomegranate jus. At The Signature Room on the 95th in John Hancock Center, Chef Mark Pivoney braises bacon with brussels sprouts.
At Fixture in Lincoln Park, Chef Sarah Nelson is serving a three-course fall Bacon and Beer menu featuring a frisee salad topped with aged Cheddar, quail egg and lardons of boar bacon (the remaining two courses use other parts of the pig). Over at David Burke's Primehouse on Rush Street, Chef Jason Miller makes maple-bacon satay, lacing bacon on skewers and coating it with maple syrup and black pepper.
Bacon crosses all ethnic borders. Chef Douglas Rodriguez at DeLaCosta in River East Plaza serves a warm, bacon wrapped banana with prawns and coconut-braised chicken in a Brazilian-influenced dish called xim-xim. At Edelweiss in Norridge, they dice bacon into the German fries.
Chefs Mark Chmielewski and Hiroshi Takaishi at River North's Blue Water Grill are making bacon sushi: For their salmon tataki and applewood bacon maki, the chefs roll bacon and cured salmon around rice filled with avocado, pineapple and basil, then sear it with a torch to crisp the bacon.
"Hiroshi's very traditional with his sushi," Chmielewski said, "but when we get an idea like this, we run with it."
Restaurants like Blackbird, Custom House in the South Loop and Parlor in Wicker Park are curing and smoking their own bacon. "For some customers who are regulars, we've served the bacon with our brownies," says Parlor's chef, Tim Small.
Although bacon is less fattening than you may think. According to the National Pork Board, two slices of regular cooked bacon contain 73 calories and 6 grams of fat. In comparison, two slices of a leading brand of turkey bacon contains 70 calories and 6 grams of fat.
What about nitrites? Should you be concerned? "No," the Pork Board's Johnson says flatly.
The salt sodium nitrite, which occurs naturally in vegetables like spinach and celery, has been used along with sodium chloride (table salt) in curing bacon for centuries. Nitrite helps the salt penetrate evenly throughout the raw pork and prevents the formation of toxic botulinum spores and malonaldehyde. It also contributes to bacon's characteristic color and flavor. Nitrite-free bacon tends to be bland.
Marketing of such bacons plays on concerns over nitrosamines, which in large quantities have caused cancer in animal tests. Nitrosamines can form when nitrites combine with chemicals found naturally in some foods and in the stomach.
However, after three decades of review of studies about sodium nitrite in cured meats, the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have concluded that nitrite is a safe ingredient and not associated with cancer in humans at the levels permitted — which are no more than 200 parts per million of sodium nitrite in the finished product.
You can find bacon smoked with applewood, hickory, juniper, alderwood, maple, mesquite and corn cobs, and flavored with cinnamon, pepper, garlic, paprika, soy sauce and more. At Paulina Market, 3501 N. Lincoln, they make a double-smoked bacon. The Grateful Palate, an Oxnard, Calif., company, offers a Bacon of the Month Club that will deliver a different artisan-made bacon to your door every month for $140 plus shipping per year (888-472-5283, www.gratefulpalate.com).
The best artisanal bacons are dry-cured, rubbed with a mixture of salt and sugar or spices, and dried before smoking. Most supermarket bacon is cured in a liquid brine or injected with a saline solution. Cheap bacon, pumped up with fluid, exhibits the most shrinkage in cooking.
When shopping, look for bacon with an equal ratio of meat and fat streaks. Bacon with strips of lean meat distributed throughout tends to cook crisply, while bacon with the same amount of lean concentrated in larger sections will be chewier. Thinly sliced bacon will cook to crunchiness, while thick slices provide a meatier chew.
For best results, store bacon in vacuum-sealed packages in the coldest part of the refrigerator till the "use by" date on the package. Once opened, use within a week. Uncooked bacon can also be frozen for up to two months.
Let bacon come to room temperature bacon before separating the slices to prevent them from tearing. If you can't wait, insert a thin-bladed spatula to help pry the slices apart. (If you're going to cook a whole pound, you also can warm it in the microwave in three pulses of 20 seconds each, rotating each time.)
Bacon lends itself to myriad cooking methods. We've heard of grilling it on the barbecue, sandwiching it in one of those clamshell grills, dropping it in a deep fryer and cooking it with an electric clothes iron, but we've achieved good results with these methods:
Pan-frying: Lay strips of bacon flat in a single layer in a heavy, cold skillet or on a griddle. Cook over low to medium-low heat, turning once or twice, for 10 to 15 minutes, until it achieves the desired crispness. Fry at low temperatures for the least shrinkage and spattering.
More frequent turning, or a heavy metal bacon press can help keep it flat. Tongs make flipping the bacon easy. Drain on paper towels.
Baking: A great method of preparing bacon for a crowd. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Lay strips of bacon in a single layer in a rimmed jelly-roll pan and bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until crisp. Remove the bacon to drain on paper towels. For less crisp bacon, cook on a rack.
Microwaving: Our favorite method for fast, no-muss, no-fuss cooking of small amounts of bacon. Line a heavy-duty paper plate with several layers of paper towels. Lay strips of bacon on the paper in a single layer. Place another sheet of towel on top. Microwave on high about 1 minute per slice. Remove the bacon promptly or it may stick to the paper.
If you fry or bake bacon, strain the rendered bacon fat into a covered container and refrigerate. It will keep indefinitely in the fridge, ready to flavor all sorts of dishes. A little bacon fat is ideal for cooking eggs (of course), but also potatoes, vegetables and even chicken and fish. It also can be used in dressings and sauces.
Leah A. Zeldes is a local freelance writer.
MAKES 12 HORS D'OEUVRES
1/2 cup mango chutney
1/4 cup Dijon mustard
6 slices thin-sliced bacon
12 slices Canadian bacon (about 1/2 pound)
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Stir together the chutney and mustard. Set aside.
Lay the bacon on paper towels on a microwave-safe plate. Cover with another towel and microwave on high 2 minutes, or until translucent. Cut in half crosswise.
Roll the Canadian bacon slices into tight cylinders. Wrap each in a half slice of bacon and secure with a toothpick.
Place on a baking sheet and bake 10 minutes, or until the bacon is crisp. Drain on paper towels. Brush generously with the mango mustard and serve hot.
Nutrition facts per serving: 62 calories, 2 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 11 mg cholesterol, 5 g carbohydrates, 5 g protein, 381 mg sodium, 0 g fiber
From Leah A. Zeldes
MAKES 4 SERVINGS
2 cups fresh or frozen corn kernels
4 tablespoons maple syrup
3 slices bacon, diced small
1 large yellow onion, peeled and diced small
1 teaspoon chopped fresh sage
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste
In a medium skillet over high heat, saute the corn with the maple syrup until golden brown and caramelized. Remove from the pan and set aside.
Add the bacon and cook over medium heat until crisp. Add the onion and cook until the onion is clear. Return the corn to the pan and cook 2 minutes more. Remove from the heat, add sage and salt and pepper to taste.
Note: Serve this with chicken or pork. For zestier flavor, add a chopped chili pepper with the onion.
Nutrition facts per serving: 163 calories, 2 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 3 mg cholesterol, 33 g carbohydrates, 4 g protein, 68 mg sodium, 2 g fiber
From The National Pork Board
MAKES ABOUT 1 POUND
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup (about 2 ounces) chopped pecans
1/3 to 1/2 cup cooked bacon bits (6 to 8 ounces uncooked bacon)
Grease or butter a large nonstick baking sheet.
In a medium heavy saucepan, combine the sugar, corn syrup and water over medium heat. Stir until the sugar dissolves and the syrup comes to a boil. Attach a candy thermometer to the pan, increase the heat to high, and cook, without stirring, until the mixture reaches 290 degrees. Immediately remove from the heat.
Stir in the butter, vanilla, baking soda, pecans and bacon bits. Watch out, the mixture will foam. When the foam subsides, pour the hot mixture onto the prepared baking sheet as thinly as possible. Do not use a spatula.
Cool at least 10 minutes before breaking into pieces. Store in a covered container.
Nutrition facts per serving: 233 calories, 7 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 7 mg cholesterol, 41 g carbohydrates, 2 g protein, 327 mg sodium, 0 g fiber
From "Everything Tastes Better With Bacon"
BACON: In America, this means cured, smoked pork belly, typically cut in strips. However, any cured meat from the sides, back and jowls of the pig can be called "bacon."
BACON BITS: Crumbled cooked bacon. The term is also used for bacon-flavored soy protein pieces.
BACK BACON: Cured, smoked pork loin.
BEEF BACON: A baconlike product made from cured and smoked beef plate, a near substitute that can be religiously correct for Jews or Muslims.
CANADIAN BACON: United States term for cured, smoked, fully cooked meat from the eye of the pork loin, typically sliced in rounds, which is called "smoked back bacon" in Canada.
CHICHARRON: Snack made from twice-fried pork skin, a Mexican specialty.
COTTAGE BACON: Cured shoulder of pork, thinly sliced in ovals.
COUNTRY-STYLE BACON: Thick-sliced bacon.
FATBACK: A slab of fresh fat from a pig's back.
FRESH BACON: Uncured pork belly.
GAMMON: British term for the cured back leg and hindquarters of a hog.
GUANCIALE: Unsmoked Italian-style jowl bacon.
GYPSY BACON: Cured, roasted pork belly seasoned with paprika, a Hungarian specialty.
HAM: Cured pork thigh.
IRISH BACON: Cured, smoked pork loin. It differs from Canadian bacon in that it includes a tail of fatty meat. English bacon is similar, with a somewhat different cure and cut.
JOWL BACON: Cured meat from the cheeks and jowls of hogs.
LARDO: Seasoned, cured, aged fatback, an Italian specialty. If smoked, it's called lardone.
LARDONS: Small oblongs cut from slab of bacon, used for seasoning, garnishes.
LOP YUK: Pork belly cured in shaoxing wine and soy sauce and air-dried, a Chinese specialty.
PANCETTA: Cured but unsmoked pork belly, an Italian specialty.
PEAMEAL BACON: Canadian back bacon, sweet-pickled, unsmoked and traditionally rolled in ground yellow peas but now usually in cornmeal.
PORK BELLY: Fatty, boneless side portion of the hog (after removal of the loin, fatback and spareribs).
PROSCIUTTO: Dry-cured Italian ham.
SALT PORK: Salt-cured, unsmoked pork-belly fat.
SIDE BACON: American bacon.
SLAB BACON: Unsliced bacon, typically still attached to the rind.
SPECK: Pork leg cured with herbs and spices, air-dried and lightly smoked, a specialty of the Italian Alps.
STREAKY BACON: British term for American-style bacon.
TURKEY BACON: Smoked turkey made to resemble bacon, but tasting little like it.
VEGETARIAN BACON: Made from soy protein, it tastes like smoked plastic.
— Leah A. Zeldes
At the Blue Water Grill they're wrapping sushi in bacon. Which only goes to show, bacon can be wrapped around just about anything.
While cooking times will vary with the food being wrapped, this all-purpose recipe will work for many bacon-wrapped cocktail nibbles: Parcook the bacon till translucent; let cool and cut in half or thirds crosswise. Wrap around the food of your choice and cook in a preheated 450-degree oven till the bacon is crispy, about 10 minutes.
For foods that take longer to cook, start with raw bacon and/or parcook the filling.
So next time you're looking for a quick bacon wrap, consider putting it around anything from artichoke hearts, cheese, figs, mini sausages, pineapple chunks or scallops.
— Leah A. Zeldes
From noon to 4 p.m. Nov. 5, the historic farm at Spring Valley Nature Sanctuary, 1111 E. Schaumburg Road, Schaum-burg, will offer a special program, "From Hog House to Smokehouse," a demonstration of the whole process of breaking down a hog into bacon, ham, sausage and other products, just as they did to preserve meat for winter in the 1880s.
"Pork was a big part of the German-American diet," says the sanctuary's Dave Brooks. "It's a realistic portrayal of how food was put on the table." Every part of the animal would have been used.
"Nothing was wasted," Brooks says. The demo will use a pig raised on the farm. The prepared products will be used in cooking demonstrations later in the year.
Admission is $1.50. Call (847) 985-2100.
—Leah A. Zeldes