We were opening Christmas gifts last year when my much better half dropped a package on my lap -- a cold, heavy package. Curious (and suddenly chilly), I opened it. Bacon. Six pounds of artisan bacon, ranging from thick-cut hickory-smoked to jalapeño-spiced and apple-cinnamon, varieties hailing from Virginia to upstate New York, Texas to Tennessee.
Now if that's not true love, I don't know what is.
I'm a bacon fanatic. In or out of the kitchen, sometimes it's all I can think about: the vibrant red as it cooks, the smokiness, the subtle crunch, the sizzle, the wonderful aroma that will not be denied.
And bacon works so well in so many dishes, from soups and salads to chili and stuffed pork chops. Layer it in burgers or use it as garnish, wrapped seductively around fillets or brats for a little extra flavor.
For Thanksgiving, I added bacon to a turducken -- a pound of it carefully lining the turkey breast just beneath the skin. Officially, it was to keep the meat moist as the 40-pound behemoth cooked. Secretly, I knew that turkey, duck and chicken weren't enough -- that monster needed bacon, just because.
I'm not alone. Do a Web search and you'll turn up forums and chat rooms, online shrines and bacon-of-the-month clubs. There are bacon songs and bacon T-shirts, custom grease containers and ornaments for the rearview mirror or the Christmas tree (I'll have my decorations "low carb," please). It's enough to make Homer Simpson weep.
But nothing compares to the real thing. While technically it can be added to anything -- and it probably has been -- there are some natural pairings that are magic to the taste buds.
Try potatoes. Bacon and potatoes are a classic combination in that comfort food sort of way, and potato salad is a perfect vehicle for both. For a slight twist, toss some new potatoes with garlic and oil and roast them to golden brown. Meanwhile, fry a pound of chopped bacon. Combine the potatoes and bacon with some thinly sliced red onion, then stir in a whole-grain mustard dressing lightened with a little red wine vinegar. Throw in some capers -- their tartness cuts through the salad to highlight the various flavors, and they'll add some bright color to finish the dish.
With all that bacon you're frying, what about the grease? Save it. You can use it for everything from sautéing vegetables to frying chicken and searing meats. Oil your grill with it before cooking, and use it to season your cast-iron cookware. Or really have fun and substitute it for oil when making popcorn. Just think of it, bacon popcorn.
If you're like me and have a lot, use it in a panzanella. For a twist on the Italian bread salad, toast cubes of stale bread in bacon grease with a few cloves of garlic until well-browned. With tomatoes out of season, combine canned crushed ones with sherry vinegar and bacon grease for a chunky vinaigrette. Mix the toasted bread with some thinly sliced onion, niçoise olives, fresh oregano and basil.
Soak the mixture in the vinaigrette until the bread is crisp-tender. Just before serving, toss in some tart, bitter lettuces -- frisée, mâche and radicchio -- for a little zing and a lot of color. Serve each portion with crumbled bacon and a drizzle of reserved vinaigrette.
Obsession breeds creativity, and as bacon-rich as those dishes might be, they're still fairly traditional. A true bacon fanatic pushes boundaries.
Let's start with breakfast. If there's one meal where bacon shines, it's on the breakfast plate. It's the quintessential, savory and -- let's face it -- only way to start the day. But what about those who prefer sweet to savory? What do we bacon lovers do when they reach for doughnuts and sticky buns over eggs, potatoes and . . . bacon?
Convert them, of course. With coffeecake. A bacon and apple coffeecake.
OK, it may sound unusual, but hear me out. Start with a cinnamon roll-type dough. While the dough is rising, fry a pound -- no, a pound and a half -- of bacon bits. Sauté tart sliced apple with cinnamon, a touch of maple syrup and a little amaretto (the almond is subtle and pairs well with both bacon and apple). Roll out the dough and sprinkle the bacon and apple over it, then roll it up and twist it into a wreath.
Slice the wreath into wedges, garnish the top with sliced almonds and let the dough rise again before baking. (You can also prepare the coffeecake up to this point and refrigerate it overnight; set it out to warm up slightly while you have your coffee, then bake it for breakfast.)
Lightly drizzle a glaze over the cake and serve it warm. Chunks of bacon and apple spill out -- it's a wonderful play on flavors with just a hint of sweetness. Before you know it, you've bridged the divide. Sweet and savory at the same table, sharing a meal. Take a picture.
And for a finale? Candied bacon. Sprinkle some brown sugar over bacon slices, and bake until crisp and caramelized. Go ahead, make the whole pound -- trust me, it's that good.
Serve the candied bacon on its own or as a cocktail garnish. Place some vodka and Applejack brandy in a shaker, with just a touch of amaretto and maple syrup. Shake with ice and pour into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with the candied bacon and a thin slice of apple (we do have to be somewhat healthful). Voilà. A candied bacon martini.
Serve it to friends -- they'll toast your genius. And if they can't appreciate your bacon obsession, quietly allow them the right to their opinion. At the end of the day, less bacon for them means there's more for you.