The taste of bacon, cubed

Special to The Times

Lately you can't pick up a food magazine without coming across another ode to bacon, which really is one of the most seductive ingredients ever cured. But there's more to the story than the American way of frying. Now that detente has been declared with Old Europe, it's safe to say one thing for the French: They do bacon right.

Rather than restricting themselves to crisp strips or crumbled bits in sandwiches or salads, the cheese-eating freedom fryers know the best bites are actually chunks. Or cubes. Or slabs. Their idea of bacon is chewy and succulent, with more flavor than fat. And they unflinchingly label it lardon.

Anyone who has ever eaten a classic salade frisee oozing with egg knows exactly why lardons exist. The thick strips (pronounced LAHR-dohns) are the perfect complement to the bitter greens and crunchy croutons. Bacon in a spinach-mushroom salad mostly adds texture, maybe a little smokiness. Lardons bring the other elements into rich coherence.

Flavor foundation

The name comes from the verb "to lard," and it has always most commonly referred to the strips threaded onto lean meats to be roasted, so that moisture is sealed in. Lardons are also used as the foundation of many French stews, such as coq au vin and boeuf bourguignon, both to render fat to brown the meat and to lay down a flavor foundation.

But these days lardons are more likely to be treated as integral ingredients in other dishes in which they are meant to be seen and appreciated, not tossed aside or buried. And the whole idea of lardons easily translates into other dishes not so typically associated with France, particularly pasta sauces.

What distinguishes lardons from American bacon is not just the shape or size, but mostly the taste. They usually are made from pork that has been cured with salt but not smoked, so the flavor comes through cleanly, more like ham but richer because the meat is from the belly of the pig, not the leg. Some cookbooks say true lardons are made from the back, and sometimes fatback or salt pork is suggested as a substitute, but both are getting harder to find in a world in which turkey "bacon" is not laughed out of the store.

Most American chefs, even those with French roots, substitute pancetta, the wondrous Italian bacon, because it is most like the real thing. It comes in a solid roll flecked with black pepper and sometimes a suspicion of cloves and is usually sold in paper-thin slices, but deli clerks are even happier to just cut off a thick chunk that can then be carved into chunks or strips.

As with all bacon, the brand makes a difference. The most authentic tasting is Daniele, which is sold at Albertson's, Costco and Trader Joe's. Companies that make watery turkey roll and bland ham do no better with pancetta.

Ventreche, what D'Artagnan markets as "French pancetta," looks much like the Italian bacon but is flabbier, fattier and takes longer to cook. I find it closer to American bacon without the smoke than to lardons. The other option, Canadian bacon, comes precooked and to me has far less bacony flavor, more like ham, and a too-rubbery texture.

Because I consider it my patriotic duty to monkey with recipes, I have also used very un-French smoked slab bacon to make lardons. The texture is right and the flavor is actually even better in a dish such as beans stewed Tuscan style with sage, garlic and tomatoes; the smokiness seems to bring out more meatiness than fattiness in the bacon. But then all beans, dried or fresh, go better with bacon.

Any way you like it

Any type of lardons will work in the classic dishes, whether a tarte flambee, the "pizza" of Alsace with cream on a thin crust, or a quintessential blanquette or ragout. But they are also superb in a warm potato salad, in place of sausage, or in a frittata, or baked with oysters and spinach. Lardons cut small are an excellent garnish for a creamy asparagus or leek soup. And they make a superb substitute for regular bacon in a spinach salad.

Lately lardons are also turning up in breads, particularly French breads. They're just the right chunky touch in an eggy brioche, but they also work well in a simple cornbread or even muffins, especially with chives or coarse black pepper.

Italians don't use the word lardons, but the concept is the same in some pasta sauces. Alfredo traditionally calls for guanciale, which is cured pork jowl, but many Americanized recipes substitute chunks of pancetta. And amatriciana, the wonderful mix of tomatoes, red onions and hot peppers typically served with bucatini, starts with cubes of pancetta that retain their integrity through long cooking.

Making lardons takes nothing more than a slab of pancetta or other cured pork and a sharp knife. The traditional size is a quarter- to half-inch wide and an inch to an inch and a half long, but they can be bigger, smaller or cubed.

In classic cooking, especially in recipes for stews, lardons are blanched first; Julia Child prescribed 10 minutes in simmering water. But they can also be rendered in a small skillet or in a 375-degree oven for the same amount of time. You'll lose the fat but retain the flavor, which is what lardons are all about.

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Beans with lardons and sage

Total time: About 4 hours after overnight soaking

Servings: 4 to 6

1/2 pound (1 1/4 cups) dried beans such as flageolet, Jacob's Cattle or cannellini

2 ounces smoked slab bacon, cut into 1/2 -inch cubes

( 1/2 cup cubed)

1 (28-ounce) can plum

tomatoes, drained and chopped (about 2 cups diced)

8 leaves fresh sage

8 cloves garlic, peeled

2 dried bay leaves

1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

1 teaspoon salt

1. Sort the beans to remove any stones. Place them in a bowl and add cold water to cover by 3 inches. Soak overnight, changing the water once or twice.

2. The next day, boil a small pot of water, add the bacon and blanch 10 minutes. Drain and reserve.

3. Drain the beans and place in a large pot. Add the bacon, tomatoes, sage, garlic, bay leaves and pepper. Mix well. Add about 8 cups cold water (to cover the beans by 3 inches) and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover and cook, stirring occasionally and adding water if necessary, until the beans are very tender, 3 to 3 1/2 hours. Season with salt and serve in a warm bowl with some of the bean broth.

Each serving: 174 calories; 11 grams protein; 30 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams fiber; 2 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 3 mg. cholesterol; 655 mg. sodium.

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Classic frisee salad

Total time: 40 minutes

Servings: 4

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

3 tablespoons white wine vinegar, divided

1 small shallot, minced

2 tablespoons chopped chives

3 tablespoons walnut oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

4 ounces pancetta, cut into ( 1/4 - by 1-inch) lardons

3 thick slices sturdy bread, crusts removed, cut into 1-inch cubes (about 3 cups cubed)

4 large eggs

8 cups torn frisee (3 small heads in bite-size pieces)

1. Combine the mustard, 2 tablespoons vinegar, shallot and the chives in small bowl and whisk to blend. Whisk in the oil. Season

with salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

2. Blanch the pancetta pieces in a small pan of simmering water for 10 minutes. Drain on paper towels.

3. Heat a small skillet over medium-high heat. Add the pancetta and cook, stirring constantly, until the fat is rendered and the meat is cooked but not crisp, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon to a plate lined with paper towels. Immediately

add the bread cubes and cook, stirring constantly, until crisp, about

6 to 8 minutes. Remove and set

aside.

4. Bring a deep skillet of water to a rolling boil. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon vinegar and one-half teaspoon salt and stir well. Reduce the heat and bring to a simmer. Break each egg into the water and poach 90 seconds. Using a slotted spoon, immediately transfer the eggs to a plate and keep warm.

5. Place the frisee in a large bowl and toss with the mustard dressing, pancetta and croutons. Divide among 4 serving plates. Top each salad with an egg seasoned with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

Each serving: 307 calories; 14 grams protein; 22 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams fiber; 19 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 217 mg. cholesterol; 564 mg. sodium.

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Brioche with lardons

Total time: About 1 hour, 45 minutes plus 2 1/2 hours rising

Servings: 24 (makes two 9-by-5-inch loaves)

Note: You will need an electric mixer with paddle and dough hook attachments.

1 cup whole milk

1 envelope yeast

3 tablespoons sugar

1 1/2 cups flour plus 2 1/4 to 2 1/2 cups, divided

1/2 pound pancetta, cut into 3/4 -inch cubes

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter plus extra for greasing the bowl and baking pans

1 teaspoon kosher salt

3 eggs, at room temperature

1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

1 egg yolk, beaten

1. Heat the milk in a small saucepan until bubbles just form around the edges. Pour it into a medium bowl and cool to lukewarm.

2. Add the yeast, sugar and 1 1/2 cups flour. Mix well. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm spot for 45 minutes, until light and spongy.

3. Bring a small saucepan of water to a boil. Add pancetta cubes; reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove the pancetta and drain on paper towels.

4. Place the pancetta in a skillet and cook over medium-low heat until cooked but not crisp, about 8 to 10 minutes. Drain on paper towels and set aside.

5. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter at medium speed. Beat in the salt. Beat in the eggs one at a time.

6. Reduce the speed and gradually add 2 cups flour. Add the yeast mixture and beat until smooth, adding more flour as needed to make a sticky dough that clings together in a ball.

7. Change the paddle attachment to the dough hook and knead 15 minutes, until very satiny. Add the lardons and pepper and knead until evenly dispersed (you may have to finish with your hands).

8. Scrape the dough into a buttered bowl, turning to grease all sides. Cover tightly and set aside in warm spot until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.

9. Punch the dough down, form into a ball again, cover again and let rise another hour.

10. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Butter two 9-by-5-inch loaf pans or two souffle dishes. Punch the dough down once more. Divide it in half and press each half into a prepared loaf pan or souffle dish. Cover and let rise 30 minutes.

11. Brush the tops of the loaves with beaten egg yolk. Bake the bread until deep golden brown and hollow-sounding when tapped on the bottom, 23 to 25 minutes (try not to overbake; the brioche will dry out). Cool on a rack before slicing. (Waiting a day will make the bread even easier to slice.)

Each serving: 159 calories; 5 grams protein; 18 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 8 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 53 mg. cholesterol; 133 mg. sodium.

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