Bacon beckons

The Baltimore Sun

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 jalapeno-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.

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.

While technically bacon can be added to anything - and probably it has been - there are some natural pairings that are magic to the taste buds.

Try potatoes. Bacon and potatoes are a classic "comfort food" combination, 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 sauteing vegetables to frying chicken and searing meats. Oil your grill with it before cooking, and use it to season your cast-iron cookware.

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, nicoise 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 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 may be, they're still fairly traditional. A true bacon fanatic pushes boundaries.

For that, there's candied bacon. Sprinkle some brown sugar over bacon slices, and bake until crisp and caramelized.

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. Voila. A candied bacon martini.

Serve it to friends to celebrate the New Year - they'll toast your genius. candied bacon martinis

(makes 8 servings)

4 slices smoked bacon

3 tablespoons light-brown sugar

12 ounces premium vodka

8 ounces Applejack brandy

4 ounces amaretto liqueur

4 ounces maple syrup, preferably grade B

8 thin slices tart apple, such as Granny Smith

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil. Dredge the bacon in the sugar and arrange the slices so they do not touch on the sheet.

Bake until the bacon is caramelized, 15 to 25 minutes. Transfer the bacon to a cooling rack. Cool until hardened. Chill 8 martini glasses. In a cocktail shaker, combine vodka, brandy, amaretto and maple syrup with ice. Shake until combined. Strain into the glasses and garnish each with an apple slice and half a slice of candied bacon. Serve immediately.

Note:: The candied bacon recipe is adapted from The Gift of Southern Cooking: Recipes and Revelations From Two Great American Cooks, by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock.

Per serving: : 284 calories, 1 gram protein, 21 grams carbohydrate, 0 grams fiber, 1 gram fat, 0 grams saturated fat, 3 milligrams cholesterol, 78 milligrams sodium

Analysis provided by the Los Angeles Times.

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