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Bellies

August 28, 2012

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.

On Creativity
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.

On Cooking
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.

On Thickness
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.

On Judging
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.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 28, 2012 12:41 pm

    I don’t really like pork belly. The fat grosses me out. I’ve eaten it more than once, trying to get on board with the craze. But that texture is just not for me. Sad. I do love the logo for Baconfest though, it’s adorable.

  2. August 28, 2012 2:33 pm

    Bacon is so 2008… Kidding (I totally drunk the koolaid of “bacon mania”)

    Anyhow, I often shudder at the things I see people doing to good pork bellies out there on the internets. I think it takes a skillful hand to do good things to uncured belly… I see a lot of disgusting looking roasted lumps of grey meat and fat. I always regret the waste… If I get ahold of bellies, they are destined for either curing/smoking or to add fat to a fresh sausage.

    Now that I have some decent seasonal curing temps/RHs going on in my basement (as well as a curing chamber build in progress) I expect to start regularly churning out my own flitches of bacon. I also really like rolled bacon (pancetta but cold smoked), prob going to do that.

  3. llcwine permalink
    September 6, 2012 6:16 am

    and how can you forget clam bellies….mmmm fried ipswich clam bellies….a clam lover’s dream…

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