Bacon. Any questions?
Yes, quite a few, actually.
They came from all sides of the bacon-loving audience that gathered at Central Market recently for Marie Rama’s cooking class — and Rama, who co-wrote “Bacon Nation” (Workman Publishing, $14.95) with Peter Kaminsky, was happy to oblige.
She started with the pig as a whole. “All parts of the pig are joyous — and edible,” she said, before launching into a series of dishes from appetizer to dessert that used bacon as a key ingredient.
For her first recipe, she turned bacon into a jam loaded with ginger and bourbon. It would make a great starter or snack with cheese and crackers. Or you could spread it on a hamburger or pork. Or you could just dip a spoon in the jar and enjoy it’s sweet, salty, fruity and hot flavors.
The type of bacon that you use in recipes like this one matters, Rama said. For a jam, you’d want a bacon that’s been smoked with applewood or cherrywood to give it a fruit flavor.
For her Bacon Crumble-Topped Bran Muffins, a thick-cut bacon is preferred for both the muffin base and the topping. But a thin-cut or regular-cut slice would work better for the Bacon Swizzle Stick that’s perfect for your next Bloody Mary.
It also helps to know what you’re buying, she said. Some bacons have water added to pump up the volume and add weight. You might not learn that by reading the label, but you’ll know the first time you try to cook it, she said. So, if it happens to you, remember the label and don’t be fooled again.
Rama likes to examine the bacon for a good proportion of fat to meat. She prefers hers to be about 50/50, but she added quickly that “I don’t have a horse in this race.” She used artisan bacon and commercial bacon alike in creating and testing the recipes for “Bacon Nation.” But she did say that was impressed with the bacon selection she found at Central Market. “Whenever I go into a new city, I always go to the meat market and check out the bacon,” she said. “You’ve got great stuff here.”
Throughout her class, Rama stressed the importance of reserving the bacon grease for using again. Your recipe may call for a tablespoon or two; or you could use those drippings to great effect in any of the following ideas from “Bacon Nation:”
- Pop popcorn in bacon fat.
- Make a Caesar salad dressing using bacon drippings instead of olive oil.
- Fry chicken using four parts peanut oil and one part bacon fat.
- Use bacon fat to cook refried beans and sunny-side-up eggs.
- Add bacon fat when boiling water to cook or blanch green beans.
The litany goes on to such an extent that you wish Rama were inviting you over for dinner on a regular basis, just to see what she’s got cooking.
Her menu for the cooking class also included a rustic Bacon and Butternut Squash Galette, an open pie that’s easy. “You don’t have to fuss with it too much,” she said.
The pastry crust didn’t call for bacon grease, but Rama did say you could use it in quick breads, corn breads and muffins among other dough recipes, which is why her cookbook includes the likes of Cheddar Cheese and Bacon Biscuits, Bacon and Rosemary Shortbread, and Oyster and Corn Bread Stuffing with Bacon.
Thin- or regular-cut bacon was preferred for Rama’s main course, a Crusted Salmon with Avocado and Red Onion Green Salad. This recipe was a variation on a dish that celebrity chef Daniel Boulud once created for President Bill Clinton, presumably before he turned vegan. His called for tuna wrapped in pancetta, while Kaminsky and Rama’s uses strips of bacon wrapped around salmon.
The cooking process here take two steps. First, you have to brown the bacon thoroughly in a pan before placing it in the oven. The first step gets the bacon dark and crispy, while the oven cooks the salmon at the center. For this dish, Rama likes to use a cast-iron skillet “for getting a good sear on the bacon,” she said.
OK, Rama’s menu was loaded with bacon from start to finish, because that’s what her cookbook is all about. She wouldn’t suggest a whole bacon dinner at home, however. “It’s a little too much,” she said.
When it comes to health matters, bacon really isn’t as bad as some have made it out to be, she said, explaining that only about half of the fat is saturated.
If you needed further proof, consider this: The svelte Rama said she didn’t gain a pound while doing the research and recipe writing for the cookbook.
To close out her class, Rama made a Chocolate-Peanut-Bacon Toffee that elicited more than a few contented sighs from people in the classroom. Think of a more buttery peanut brittle with chocolate and bacon added.
You need to use a candy thermometer for this recipe because the caramel holding the peanuts together (yes, it’s made with bacon drippings) needs to reach about 300 degrees but no more. “Caramelizing is literally bringing it to a burnt state, but you don’t want to go over it or it will burn,” she said.
Of all the recipes that evening, the bacon in this one was the least pronounced. It seemed to lend more of a salt flavor to the complement the peanuts, while the dark chocolate just carried everything over the top.
But if there’s not enough bacon in it for you, that’s easily remedied.
“You want it with more bacon? Throw some more bacon on it,” Rama said.
It was a philosophy her students were ready to take home and put into action.
Ready to add bacon into more of your dishes? Here are links to Rama’s recipes