SELL THE SIZZLE: Cooks recommend cooking applewood smoked artisan bacon in a heavy skillet.Put the bacon in while the pan is still cold and turn the strips
SELL THE SIZZLE: Cooks recommend cooking applewood smoked artisan bacon in a heavy skillet. Put the bacon in while the pan is still cold and turn the strips several times. (JOSIE LEPE -- MediaNews staff)
A LITTLE SWEET, a little salty, a little smoky. Satisfyingly rich. Chewy or crunchy, depending on the cook's preference. Good bacon has it all.

After decades as the pariah of American diets, this old-fashioned staple is back in vogue. Sales of specialty bacon are climbing and it's not just for breakfast anymore. Chefs showcase fancy bacon in salads, braise it with poultry, wrap it around fish and sprinkle it in soups, often naming the producers on their menus.

Whole cookbooks are devoted to the ingredient that brings so much flavor to every dish it graces.

The attraction of bacon is virtually universal, suggests Bay Area cookbook author and food consultant Bruce Aidells, who notes that the tantalizing aromas and savory flavors touch something deep in our core.

"I think bacon is essentially the meat lover's version of chocolate," he says. "It does the same thing to people."

Like chocolate, bacon now comes in many forms, from familiar, inexpensive supermarket brands to costly artisan products made on a small scale by traditional methods. Foodies debate the merits of dry or wet cures, maple syrup or brown sugar sweeteners and applewood or hickory smoke.

The truly obsessed get their artisan bacon by mail and many even subscribe to bacon-of-the-month clubs at the legendary Zingerman's Deli in Ann Arbor, Mich., or the Oxnard-based Grateful Palate, paying up to $20 a pound plus shipping.

You don't have to go to such lengths, however, to find remarkable bacon.


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The most popular product in our tasting (see accompanying story) was Hobbs' Applewood Smoked Bacon, purchased for $7.99 for a one-pound package at Cosentino's Market on Union Avenue in San Jose. Distributed from Richmond, it's the preferred bacon of the French Laundry's Thomas Keller and is served in many of Northern California's best restaurants.

Meaty Niman Ranch bacon, lightly smoked over applewood, is widely available for $4.69 a 12-ounce package at Trader Joe's stores. Although it was not part of our tasting, I used it to test many of the recipes for this story. There was more meat to each slice, the flavor was more subtle than most supermarket bacon and I experienced very little shrinkage.

Good quality bacon brings so much to a dish that even diet-conscious cooks often are willing to trade the higher fatcontent for increased satisfaction at the table. Chefs note that the mention of bacon in the menu description of a dish tends to draw more orders.

"Without a doubt, bacon seems to influence people's choices," says Quentin Topping, executive chef and partner at Tanglewood in San Jose's Santana Row. "I think there's something about the aroma, the smell of bacon. Bacon is one of those items people have fond memories of."

Nueske's bacon from Wisconsin is named on the Tanglewood menu as a key ingredient in the iceberg BLT salad.

Joanna Pruess, author of "Seduced by Bacon" (The Lyons Press, $24.95) contends that the new popularity of bacon is linked in part to the attractions of the Atkins and South Beach regimens, which gave dieters permission to indulge in fatty foods.

Bacon's reputation took a beating in more recent times, as health authorities found carcinogens in crisply fried bacon and linked them to the sodium nitrites and nitrates used in curing.

Fat is also a major issue in a society focused on cholesterol counts. Most of the calories in most cooked bacon comes from fat.

SALAD BAR: Frisee hasenough sharp flavor to standup to chunks of thick-slicedbacon in this Frisee andBacon Salad.
SALAD BAR: Frisee has enough sharp flavor to stand up to chunks of thick-sliced bacon in this Frisee and Bacon Salad. (JOSIE LEPE -- MediaNews staff)

Despite its reputation as the anti-health food, a couple of slices of bacon once in awhile don't appear to pose that much of a threat to a moderate diet. Two thin slices of supermarket bacon (32 slices per pound), about half an ounce of cooked meat, contain 88 calories with about 5 grams of fat, half as much as a small McDonald's burger.

At Dittmer's Gourmet Meats, Mark Bubert has nearly doubled his production of award-winning country smoked bacon to keep up with the demand at his Mountain View store.

"The last couple of years its been 500 pounds a week," he says.

There's more interest in bacon because there's better bacon on the market, argues Aidells, who has developed a dry-cured commercial bacon for Vande Rose farms of Iowa. 

Home cooks have long known that bacon can transform a dish — from slices of bacon draped over meat loaf before it's put into the oven to crunchy bits sprinkled over a baked potato. The better the bacon, the more appealing the flavor.

Linguine with Bacon and Onions

"Lidia's Italian-American Kitchen," by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich (Knopf, $35)

Salt
6 ounces thick-sliced bacon
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus additional if needed
2 large onions, sliced 1/2-inch thick (about 3 cups)
1 1/2 cups hot chicken stock
1 pound linguine
3 egg yolks
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Coarsely ground black pepper

Bring 6 quarts salted water to the boil in an 8-quart pot over high heat.

Cut bacon slices crosswise into 1/4-inch strips. Heat olive oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat. Add bacon and cook, stirring, until lightly browned but still soft in the center, about 6 minutes.

The amount of fat in the skillet will vary depending on the bacon. If there is more than 3 to 4 tablespoons of fat in the pan, pour off the excess. If there is less than 3 to 4 tablespoons, add enough olive oil to measure that amount. Add the onions and cook until wilted but still crunchy, about 4 to 5 minutes. Add the stock, bring to a boil, and adjust the heat to a lively simmer. Cook until the liquid is reduced by about half.

Meanwhile, stir the linguine into the boiling salted water. Return to a boil, stirring frequently. Cook the pasta, semi-covered, stirring occasionally, until done, about 8 minutes.

Ladle off about 1 cup pasta-cooking water and reserve. If skillet is large enough to accommodate sauce and pasta, fish the pasta out of the boiling water with a large wire skimmer and drop it directly into sauce in skillet. If not, drain pasta, return it to the pot, and pour in sauce.

Bring sauce and pasta to a boil, stirring to coat pasta with sauce. Check the seasoning, adding salt if necessary. Sauce should coat the pasta generously. If necessary, add more chicken stock or pasta-cooking water to achieve the right consistency.

Remove pan from heat and add egg yolks one at a time, tossing well after each. (A salad fork and spoon work well for this.) Add grated cheese, then black pepper, tossing well, and serve immediately in warmed bowls.

Serves 6.

Per serving: 600 Calories, 20 g Protein, 61 g Carbohydrates, 30 g total Fat, 10 g saturated Fat, 135 mg Cholesterol, 720 mg Sodium, 2 g Fiber.

French Toast Souffle

Adapted from "Seduced by Bacon," by Joanna Pruess (The Lyons Press, $24.95).

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
12 strips thick-sliced bacon
1 1/4 pounds stale croissants or brioche
8 eggs
2 cups half and half
1/4 cup pure maple syrup, plus additional syrup for serving
2 teaspoons vanilla
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup confectioner's sugar

Butter a 3-quart rectangular baking dish with 2 tablespoons of the butter. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Fry bacon in a heavy skillet until crisp, blot on paper towels and chop coarsely. Cut stale bread into 11/4-inch cubes. Reserve any bread crumbs and scatter them over bottom of baking dish.

Combine eggs, half-and-half, 1/4cup maple syrup, vanilla, cinnamon and salt in large bowl and beat until well blended. Add bread cubes, turn to coat with egg mixture, and let stand until liquid is absorbed, about 10-15 minutes, turning once or twice. Add bacon, folding gently to blend. Scrape mixture into baking dish, cover with aluminum foil, and bake in center of oven 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, melt remaining 3 tablespoons butter. Remove dish from oven, uncover, pour on butter, and bake for 15-20 minutes longer, or until the souffle is golden brown on top and a knife inserted into center comes out clean.

Remove dish from oven and let stand 5-10 minutes. Sprinkle souffle with confectioner's sugar and cut into squares. Serve with additional maple syrup.

Serves 8.Per serving: 570 Calories, 13 g Protein, 13 g Carbohydrates, 51 g total Fat, 22 g saturated Fat, 300 mg Cholesterol, 660 mg Sodium, 0 fiber.

Frisee and Bacon Salad

Adapted from "Real Cooking" by Nigel Slater (Penguin Books, $28.92).

6 ounces of thick-sliced bacon
2 (1/2-inch) slices of day-old country bread
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
6 tablespoons peanut or light olive oil, divided use
Salt and pepper
2 heads of frisee lettuce, washed in cold water and dried

Dice bacon into 1/4-inch cubes. Cut bread into 1/2-inch cubes. Whisk mustard, vinegar and 5 tablespoons of oil with salt and pepper to taste in a small bowl until thick. Set aside.

In frying pan, cook diced bacon in remaining 1 tablespoon oil over medium heat until fat starts to turn golden. Add the cubes of bread and continue to fry, stirring occasionally until bread is toasted and bacon is brown and sizzling.

Place frisee in salad bowl. Pour bacon, bread cubes and any residual fat over the lettuce. Add dressing and toss salad gently to coat leaves. Serve while bacon is still warm.

Serves 4.Per serving: 600 Calories, 12 g Protein, 34 g Carbohydrates, 47 g total Fat, 13 g saturated Fat, 30 mg Cholesterol, 850 mg Sodium, 9 g fiber.

Housewife Chicken

From "French Food at Home" by Laura Calder (William Morrow, $24.95).

1 chicken (3 pounds)
Salt and pepper
1 head garlic, broken into unpeeled cloves
2 tablespoons unsalted butter or vegetable oil
1/4-pound bacon, diced
18 pearl onions, peeled
1/3 pound mushrooms, halved if large
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
4 medium waxy potatoes, peeled and diced
A generous handful of chopped fresh parsley

Season chicken inside and out with salt and pepper. Stuff with garlic cloves and truss.

Heat half the butter or oil in a casserole over medium heat. Add bacon and onions and cook until bacon is crisp and onions soft, about 15 minutes. Remove and set aside. Add mushrooms to pan and cook about 5 minutes. Add to the onions. Add a tablespoon of olive oil to the pot and cook diced potatoes until brown, about 25 minutes. Remove and set aside with the other garnishes.

Add remaining butter and more oil if necessary to the casserole, heat until foaming, and brown chicken well, about 5 minutes per side. Reduce heat to low, cover casserole, and cook chicken, turning occasionally, until almost tender, 45 minutes to an hour.

Put onions, bacon, mushrooms, and potatoes back in, cover, and continue cooking until the garnish is hot and the chicken completely cooked, about 10 minutes more. Transfer the bird to a serving platter, arranging the garnish around it and pouring over any pan juices. Sprinkle over the parsley and serve, carving at the table.

Serves 4.Per serving: 720 Calories, 49 g Protein, 30 g Carbohydrates, 44 g total Fat, 15 g saturated Fat, 190 mg Cholesterol, 330 mg Sodium, 5 g fiber.

Bacon bits

-Applegate Farms bacon can be found at Whole Foods; there's also a Web site (www.applegatefarms.com) that lists stores that carry the products.
-Beeler's bacon can also be found at Whole Foods.
-Niman Ranch bacon can be found at many East Bay stores, including Trader Joe's and Andronico's.
-Newsom's Old Mill Store Hickory Smoked Country Bacon is available by the slab (unsliced) and sliced through the Web site http://www.newsomscountryham.com.

Now if movie theaters started doing this...

Didn't get enough bacon at breakfast, lunch and dinner? Popping corn in bacon fat is a sure-fire way to add rich flavor to the homey snack.

Joanna Preuss, author of "Seduced by Bacon," suggests substituting fat reserved from cooking bacon for the oil or butter in the basic directions for popping corn:

Warm 3 tablespoons of fat in a heavy 3-quart saucepan with lid. Add -cup of kernels, or enough to cover the bottom of the pan in a single layer. Raise heat to medium and cover pan, shaking it gently to keep kernels from burning. When first few kernels begin to pop, remove the pan from the heat for exactly 1 minute. Then return pan to fire and continue shaking until the corn stops popping.

Remove from heat, pour into a large bowl, salt to taste and eat. No butter or other seasoning is required.