Bellies are delicious. Give me some fish from the fatty belly part, and I’m a happy camper. The same goes for mammals. Pork belly is everywhere. Maybe one day lamb belly will be as ubiquitous.
But those unctuous layers of fat surrounding strips of meat are so full of possibilities. Roasted and crispy, braised and tender, or even ground and seasoned, bellies are a decadent cut of meat. And like all other once underrated things, bellies have been discovered and are now no longer available for the rock bottom price they once were.
Then there is bacon.
Here in the U.S. it is the final destination for most of our pork bellies, and for good reason. It has captured the imagination of those who like to push the limits of fat intake. And it’s been the achilles heel of many who tried to convert to a vegetarian diet. But you know all of this.
But did you know about Bacon Fest coming up this Sunday? Well, they are having a bacon cook-off and I am one of the judges. So before I put all of those bellies into my belly, I thought I should get some things off my chest.
I like having fun with bacon. When Albany Jane made her own bacon with Berkshire pork belly and I got my hands on some of that, I went to town with bacon flambe. That said, I think bacon can be taken too far. Using a strip of bacon to stir your martini made from bacon flavored vodka? No thanks.
Mostly I use bacon as a flavoring agent. One of my favorite bacon treats is a couple of crisp lardons perched on top a medjool date filled with mascarpone. A couple of strips will imbue an entire pot of beans with their smoky flavor and enrich it with their fat. And I love scrambling eggs in rendered bacon fat, or a combination of bacon fat and butter.
Perhaps one reason I don’t eat more bacon, and It’s a little embarrassing to admit this, is that I struggle to cook it well.
I’ve watched friends effortlessly prepare sheets of bacon strips or a pan full of chopped bacon bits. And they turn out evenly cooked, perfectly browned and beautifully rendered specimens. Even when I use the clever trick of cooking bacon in the oven, I still have problems. Ultimately it works out well in the end, but requires a lot more time, attention, and manipulation than it should.
The most unusual method I’ve tried to cook bacon is right over the open flame of a campfire. While that was more out of necessity rather than choice, and close to twenty years ago, I have fond memories of that bacon experience. Part of that is that we half expected the whole thing to create a massive grease fire, which thankfully never happened. Still, don’t try it at home.
Thick cut bacon is my bacon of choice. But bacon thickness has gotten a bit out of control. I’ve seen some examples of bacon on a stick that go way too far. Crispness requires a level of thinness that eventually becomes impossible to achieve once the bacon is reaches a certain width.
That said, my favorite bacon experience ever was with the thinnest piece of bacon I have ever seen. The strip was paper thin, translucent and perfectly fried. It was used in a dish at Masa’s in San Francisco where it was all about the contrast of temperature and shattering texture of this garnish as it was nestled in a miniature quenelle of cold foie gras mousse.
I’m ready. Bring it on. Sunday I’ll be up on a stage with Steve Barnes and Byron Nilsson evaluating savory bacon dishes in addition to sweet bacon dishes. Hopefully you will come, watch me eat, and cheer me on as I try to evaluate things like the bacon rice crispy treat on a thirty point scale for taste, creativity and supreme baconness.
Tickets are $8 in advance and $10 the day of the event. Also, AOA is giving away some free tickets if you enter their contest before 6pm today (Tuesday). Let me know if you are coming. I’d love to see you there.