Bacon enjoyment is clearly a national sport: there are Aphrodisiac Bacon Dinners in D.C. and bacon praline sundaes on the table at Green Goddess, in New Orleans. A bust of Philly's own Kevin Bacon, made completely of swine strips, was recently auctioned off for charity to the tune of $4,000. Here in the U.S. of A., we love us some bacon, snacking on more than 1.7 billion pounds of it every year, according to the National Pork Board.
"Bacon makes everything better," said Jason Chichonski, who left his post as chef de cuisine at Lacroix yesterday, with plans for his own place still under wraps. For Chichonski, a Bucks County native who now lives in South Philly, the combination of saltiness, smokiness and fat make bacon an ideal flavor carrier. "You can baconize anything, really," said the 25-year-old chef, a fearless flavor alchemist known for his creative plates.
Besides working with pork bellies, he's been baconizing hamachi belly and lamb belly with sumptuous results. "A crunchy piece of bacon hits every part of the palate, from sweet to smoky, rich, crunchy, meaty - it's that umami flavor experience."
At LaScala, chef Joe Nocella uses a lot of pancetta, which is cured bacon that is not smoked. His vodka sauce spiked with pancetta is so good it should come in a bucket.
Pancetta "gives a nice salty flavor to pasta dishes. Chop it up and cook it with onions, celery and peppers in a little extra-virgin olive oil and you've got a good foundation for all kinds of dishes," he said. "The biggest mistake people make is they rush. You need to render the fat slowly to get all the flavor out of it."
Fat is indeed the reason why bacon is so tasty.
Although the now-passé low-carb craze endorsed bacon and other forms of protein in lieu of carbohydrates, it is not a low-fat food. Three strips of thick-sliced bacon deliver 109 calories, six grams of protein and nine grams of fat, according to Dottie Koteski, registered dietitian and professor in Allied Health at Community College of Philadelphia.
In general, fat should account for no more than 20 to 35 percent of our total calorie intake. For most people, 65 grams of fat per day is optimal. You'd have to eat a lot of bacon to hit that number; six strips deliver just 18 grams of fat.
While Koteski prefers Canadian bacon because of its leaner cut and lower fat content (two slices equal 86 calories, 11 grams of protein and four grams of fat), bacon in moderation is not a bad thing. She advises balance and choosing healthier options whenever possible, including turkey bacon - which, as we already established, is not really on the radar screen for a serious bacon fiend.
Historically, bacon hails from the Germanic table. In fact, the word bacon derives from the Germanic bakkon, meaning smoked pork.
"Remember two things: Pork was easy to raise, and you could eat every part of the animal," noted City Tavern chef/proprietor Walter Staib, whose love of pork goes back to his native Germany, a country long enamored with piggy products. "Bacon was marinated in salt brine and smoked over the kitchen hearth. If bacon is properly smoked, it stays good forever. That was important . . . when refrigeration wasn't around."
Have it your way
Today's bacon is often preserved with nitrates during the curing process, which retains the meat's pink color. "It's a matter of customer preference," said Ariene Dauguin, co-owner of D'Artagnan, the New Jersey-based gourmet purveyor of duck, foie gras, bacon and specialty game.
D'Artagnan carries its own-label bacon, along with bacon by Niman Ranch, known for its premium, humanely raised, all-natural pork products.
"We carry duck and wild boar bacon, along with uncured bacon, without nitrates, and cured, double-smoked bacon," Dauguin said. "Some bacon is smoked over applewood, other over hickory wood. Again, it's a matter of personal taste. I prefer unsmoked bacon, because you can really taste the flavor of the meat."
At Garces Trading Co., chef de cuisine Adam DeLosso makes his own bacon. In fact, he and his staff get in entire pigs from Country Time Farm, in Berks County, for butchering in-house (along with whole lamb, goats and duck), carving up everything but the oink for charcuterie, terrine, carpaccio and, of course, bacon, which is cured for 10 days, then smoked with applewood chips and finished with a maple and rosemary glaze.
DeLosso goes through about 800 pounds of pork every week creating sausage, salami, bacon and porky inventions he hasn't even thought of yet.
"Bacon is a staple in every good kitchen," said the chef.
Bill Fausey, executive chef at One Atlantic, an event venue in Atlantic City, plans to start breaking down his own pigs next month. He gets pork products and bacon from Blooming Glen Farm, in Perkasie. "I think bringing in a whole pig will give me a chance to train my staff in a new direction," he said. As to the reality of carving up a big, meaty beast, Fausey is philosophical.
"Growing a pig is like growing wheat - they're both raised for the purpose of food. We're committed to working with local and sustainable growers and bringing the absolute best products to the table."
For Stephen Waxman, chef/owner of Trax, in Ambler, curing his own bacon came about as a matter of necessity. "For years we bought typical hotel bacon and whined about. Then we brought in thicker cut, and that was better. But making our own, which we've been doing for three years, is the best."
Waxman brines an 8- to 9-pound belly with salt, vinegar, juniper berries, bouquet garni and brown sugar for about six days, then lets it air dry for another 24 hours. From there, it's smoked at 200 degrees for about six hours over apple wood.
He can't keep up with orders for his roasted Brussels sprouts with bacon and balsamic vinegar, a seasonal veg that is absolutely habit forming.
Smoked, unsmoked, cured, uncured, thick-sliced, pepper coated - the possibilities when it comes to bacon are just about endless.
Put a roomful of bacon lovers together, and arguments about what kinds of bacon taste best rival discussions on barbecue for intensity. What everyone will agree on, however, is that a kitchen without bacon is more fizzle than sizzle.