Bacon, writes James Villas, is "the greatest and most beloved food on earth." He may be right. Many of us are, indeed, "rendered helpless" by bacon.
Bacon adds pizzazz to many foods, including the humble Brussels sprout. Photo credit: Photography by Andrea Grablewski for "The Bacon Cookbook" by James Villas (Wiley, 2007)
In honor of this vaunted meat, Villas has penned "The Bacon Cookbook" (Wiley, 2007).
Like so many of the great inventions of the world, bacon may have been developed first in China, as early as 1500 B.C. In Roman times and in medieval England, bacon was considered a food for the poor, while in France, conversely, a feast called "le repas bakonique" was made for aristocrats and featured only pork dishes.
"There can be little doubt that bacon was in the larder (a term derived from the Latin word for bacon fat) of the Mayflower," writes Villas, and early American cookbooks tell us that it was a popular and economical staple of the colonial diet. In the 19th century, westward expansion "would have been inconceivable" without the thousands of pounds of bacon carried by prospectors and settlers. During the Great Depression, millions of Americans depended on bacon to sustain them.
What Villas has assembled is a trove of bacon facts and information, as well as recipes. But he may have done the greatest service to bacon-ophiles by pointing out that bacon, eaten in moderation (he suggests two slices per serving), is not the nutritional nightmare that some would have us believe. In fact, it compares very favorably to, say, the average hot dog. According to Villas, two slices of cooked bacon contain 73 calories, 202 milligrams of sodium, 6 grams of fat and 11 milligrams of cholesterol. One pork hot dog has more than twice the calories, three times the sodium and nearly three times the fat and cholesterol.
One of the nicest things about bacon, for the home cook, is that it can make less-than-favorite foods taste great. Liver and onions would be unpalatable for many of us without the addition of bacon. As shown by the recipes below - from Villas' book and my own files - bacon can do wonders not only for liver but for humble fare like Brussels sprouts, lima beans and cabbage.
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 to 15 minutes. Serve hot.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Recipe from "The Bacon Cookbook" by James Villas (Wiley, 2007)
RED CABBAGE WITH BACON AND MAPLE SYRUP
5 strips thick-cut, smoked bacon, diced
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 medium tart apple, stemmed, halved, cored and chopped
1 pound (about 1/2 head) red cabbage, cored and shredded
1 bay leaf
1/4 cup apple cider
1/2 cup pure maple syrup
salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 350 F.
In a Dutch oven or other flameproof, ovenproof pot, cook the bacon over medium-high heat until crisp. Add the onion and cook until soft, about 10 minutes. Add the apple, cabbage, bay leaf, cider and syrup, and season with salt and pepper. Stir to mix thoroughly.
Cover and place in the preheated oven. Bake for about 30 minutes. Cabbage should be tender, and the whole pot should bubble slightly.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
LIVER, ONIONS AND BACON
1 pound calf's liver (preferably organic, as toxins can concentrate in the liver)
1 cup whole milk
6 to 8 thick-cut slices bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
3 medium onions, peeled and chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley leaves, or more to taste
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
pinch cayenne pepper
Place the liver in a bowl and cover with milk. Let soak at least 20 minutes.
Line a platter with paper towels.
While liver is soaking, cook the bacon in a large skillet set over medium-high heat until crisp. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the bacon to the prepared platter. Pour off and save the bacon fat, returning a scant 3 tablespoons to the skillet.
Heat the bacon fat over medium heat, add the onions and cook until beginning to brown, about 12 minutes. Add the garlic and parsley and cook about 3 minutes more. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.
Drain the liver, discarding the milk. Pat dry with paper towels. Cut into thin strips. In a shallow bowl, combine the flour, salt, pepper and cayenne. Toss the liver strips in the flour mixture to coat.
Add about 1-1/2 tablespoons of the reserved bacon fat to skillet and set over medium-high heat until hot. (If you don't have enough bacon fat, make up the difference with canola oil.) Cook the liver, turning gently, until browned on all sides, about 5 minutes. Add the reserved onions (with parsley) and bacon to the skillet and cook until heated through. Serve hot.
Yield: 4 servings