JOHN ASH FOR THE LOVE OF BACON

In recent times bacon has gotten pretty beaten up by the food police. We’ve been told to minimize our consumption of high saturated fat and cured meats like bacon. However, I can’t imagine going thru the rest of my life without an occasional taste of good bacon. I emphasize “good” here because much of the bacon we see in our markets is mass produced stuff and lacks the depth of flavor that you get from small artisan smoke houses. There the bacon is allowed to slowly mature and develop both flavor and texture. If you grew up in the rural South, you no doubt are familiar with these producers. Unfortunately most of the mass produced bacon are pumped full of all kinds of strange ingredients, including “smoke flavoring”, water and phosphates. Read the label and from the ingredient statement you’ll quickly get an idea about its quality
Although most of America tends to pair bacon simply cooked with eggs for breakfast or as part of that American classic the BLT sandwich, I think the real contribution that bacon can make to cooking is as a flavoring. Historically this is how it was used, that is as a seasoning or flavor-enhancer for stews, soups, sauces and the like.
The term “bacon” has been used to cover a wide range of pork cuts that are cured and often smoked. For most of us “bacon” refers to the belly part of the pig after the rib bones or spare ribs have been removed (A little aside here . . .the fact that you can trade pork bellies in the commodity market attests to how important bacon is in America!). Canadian Bacon is made from the pork loin and Cottage Bacon is made from the shoulder or butt. Pancetta is a bacon originally made in Italy, which is the cured belly but not smoked. It’s usually sold rolled in a casing. It’s a delicious alternative for smoked bacon. If you’ve not tried it – – do!
Here are some of my favorite recipes that celebrate good bacon and hopefully will help you think about using it in a new way.

BACON BRAISED IN WINE
This is a technique that adds a whole new dimension to bacon. It requires that you use slab bacon so that you can cut it thickly. Once braised it can be cut into lardoons (uniform slivers) and then quickly browned in a pan and used in to sprinkle on salads, in stuffings and basically wherever else you would use cooked bacon. Be sure to save the braising liquid, which can be used to add wonderful flavor to soups and sauces.
1 pound good smoked bacon
1 medium onion, peeled and sliced
3 large cloves of garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
1 teaspoon whole thyme
3 tablespoons roughly chopped parsley
2 whole allspice or juniper berries, crushed
3 cups or so dry red or white wine
3 cups or so chicken stock (see page xxx)
Slice the bacon crosswise into 1/2-inch strips (or have the butcher do it for you). Scatter the onions, garlic, herbs and allspice over the bottom of a rectangular baking dish just large enough to hold the bacon in a single layer. Pour equal amounts of the wine and broth over to cover the bacon. Cover dish tightly and bake in a 350-degree over for 1 hour. Bacon should be very tender. Cool, remove bacon, strain the liquid and refrigerate. The fat will congeal on top so that you can easily remove and discard. Bacon is now ready to brown and use.

CURLY ENDIVE SALAD WITH WINE BRAISED BACON
Serves 4
This is a version of a classic salad served in French bistros. With the interest in America in simpler foods and cooking, it’s becoming increasingly popular here too. As you cut into the egg, the yolk spreads and coats the rest of the ingredients and the result is delicious. Serve with good crusty bread and this is all you’ll need for a great meal!
2 heads young curly endive or frisee
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 pound wine braised bacon, cut crosswise into matchstick shapes (recipe above)
2 large cloves garlic, peeled and pressed through a garlic press
2 tablespoons wine vinegar or 3 tablespoons of strained bacon braising liquid
3 tablespoons chicken stock
2 teaspoons grainy Dijon mustard
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 soft poached eggs
Garnish: Freshly grated parmesan or pecorino cheese
Wash the endive thoroughly and separate the leaves, discarding the tough outer leaves. You should have about 6 cups or so, loosely packed. Set aside in a bowl. Add the olive oil to a sauté pan and cook the bacon over moderate heat until its browned and crisp. Remove bacon, drain on paper towels and pour off all but 2 tablespoons of the fat, add the garlic and continue to sauté for a minute of so to cook garlic through but not brown it.
Stir in the vinegar, stock and mustard and bring to a boil. Pour over the endive and toss to along with half of the bacon and salt and pepper to taste. Arrange on plates, top with a warm poached egg, sprinkle the rest of the bacon over along with the cheese and serve immediately.

GRILLED BACON, APPLE AND CHEDDAR SANDWICH
Serves 2
Grilled cheese sandwiches are definitely a little piece of nostalgia for me. At my Grandmother’s house, where I grew up as a little kid, this was the original fast food. She often made them from airy supermarket white bread and American cheese. Not very exciting ingredients but somehow when they came together in a crisp, oozy sandwich, I was in heaven. You can substitute all kinds of things here such as a flavored Jack or nutty Gouda for the Cheddar; Pears, Pineapple, chutney or tomatoes for the apple; ham or proscuitto for the bacon and so on.
6 slices of good thick-cut bacon
4 slices of a good crusty bread cut 1/2 inch thick
1-1/4 cups coarsely grated aged cheddar cheese
2 small tart-sweet apples such as Fuji or Gravenstein, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
3 tablespoons melted butter or olive oil
Cook the bacon until crisp (you can use a sauté pan, the oven or your microwave). Place on paper towels to remove excess fat.
Top two slices of bread with half of the cheese, pressing it down gently. Arrange apples in a single layer on top of the cheese and then the bacon over that, breaking it up to fit if necessary. Gently press on remaining cheese and top with bread slices. Brush top of bread with half of the butter.
Heat a large sauté pan over moderate heat and put sandwiches buttered side down in the pan. Place a heavy plate on top to gently press the sandwiches. Cook until bottom is nicely browned, 2 – 3 minutes. Brush tops with butter and turn over to brown the other side, 2 – 3 minutes. Serve immediately, cutting sandwiches in half.

STEAMED BACON STUFFED SOLE
Serves 6
You could do this recipe with any fish such as trout or salmon fillets. This is a good illustration of how bacon is used as a flavoring.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/3 pound fresh (about 6 thick slices) or wine braised bacon, finely diced
1/2 cup finely chopped shallot or green onion
3 tablespoons lightly toasted and chopped pine nuts or almonds
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
1/3 cup chopped parsley
1 tablespoon chopped mint
Salt and freshly ground pepper
12 medium size Romaine lettuce leaves, all about the same size
12 boneless sole fillets, 4 ounces or so each
White Wine butter sauce (recipe follows) or Warm lemon sauce (page xxx) or
Orange walnut oil vinaigrette (page xxx).
Heat the oil in a sauté pan and cook the bacon until browned and crisp. Remove bacon and drain on paper towels. Discard all but 2 tablespoon of fat and add the shallot. Sauté until just beginning to color. Transfer to a bowl and gently stir in bacon, pine nuts, zest, parsley and mint. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.
Blanch the lettuce leaves in lightly salted boiling water for 10 seconds. Immediately plunge into ice water to stop the cooking and set the color. Drain and pat dry.
Pat the sole fillets dry and divide bacon mixture among them. Role fillets up to enclose the filling and then roll these in the blanched romaine leaves. Depending on the size of the sole you may have to be a little creative in this step. Lightly oil a steamer basket and place the rolls in a single layer, seam side down, and gently steam until fish is just cooked, 10 – 12 minutes. Rolls should feel firm and to double check you can make a small incision on the underside to check if the fish is cooked through. While rolls are steaming make sauce and keep warm. To serve, place rolls on warm plates and spoon sauce over. Serve immediately.
White wine butter sauce
1/4 cup finely chopped shallots or green onions
1 tablespoon olive oil
3/4 cup dry white wine
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
1/2 cup chicken or shellfish stock (see page xxx)
1/3 cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons softened butter
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Fresh lemon juice
Sauté shallots in olive oil over moderate heat until soft but not browned. Add wine, zest and stock and reduce over high heat by 2/3. Add cream and continue to reduce until mixture is a light sauce consistency, 5 minutes or so. Off heat, whisk in butter a tablespoon at a time. Sauce will thicken and take on a shine. Season to taste with salt, pepper and drops of lemon juice. Keep warm on side of stove for up to 30 minutes.

BUCATINI WITH BACON AND PECORINO CHEESE
Serves 4
Bucatini is spaghetti shaped but a little thicker and is hollow in the center. A similar shape is called perciatelli. You could certainly use regular spaghetti of good quality too. All kinds of variations are possible here including the addition of some finely chopped ripe tomatoes, thinly sliced and sautéed onions, tender spinach leaves or whatever you have on hand.
1 pound dried bucatini or thick spaghetti
6 ounces good quality thick sliced bacon or pancetta cut into matchsticks
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
1 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese (4 ounces)
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Bring 3 quarts of lightly salted water to a boil in a large pot. Add the bucatini and cook till just tender but firm to the bite (al dente).
While the pasta is cooking add the olive oil to a large sauté pan large enough to hold the pasta later on. Over moderately high heat sauté the bacon till browned and nearly crisp. Drain off all but 2 tablespoons of the fat.
Quickly drain the pasta reserving 1/2 cup of the cooking water and add to the sauté pan. Using tongs, toss with the bacon. Add the parsley, zest and cheese and toss again adding the reserved pasta water. Cover and let rest for one minute on very low heat to allow pasta to absorb the flavors. Serve immediately in warm bowls with grindings of black pepper to taste.
Note: If using pancetta you won’t need to cook as long as bacon since it is less fatty. Cook till its colored but not crisp before adding the pasta.

WARM SPINACH SALAD WITH BACON AND APPLE CIDER DRESSING
Serves 4
This is one of my favorite versions of a classic combination.
1/4 pound good quality bacon, cut in fine dice
3 tablespoons finely sliced shallots of green onions
1/2 cup diced peeled tart-sweet apple such as Fuji or Gala
Apple Cider Dressing (recipe follows)
12 ounces young spinach leaves, any coarse stems discarded
In a large sauté pan cook the bacon until crisp. Transfer it to paper towels to drain and pour off all but 2 tablespoons of the fat. Add the shallots and apple and cook over moderately high heat until lightly browned but apple still retain their texture, 3 – 4 minutes. Add apple cider dressing to pan and bring to a simmer. Add spinach and toss for a few seconds or until spinach just begins to wilt. Place mixture on warm plates, top with bacon and serve immediately.
Apple Cider Dressing
Makes about 1/2 cup
2 cups apple cider, preferably organic and unfiltered
3 tablespoons apples cider vinegar, preferably organic
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Add cider and vinegar to a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Continue to boil until reduced to a little more than 1/2 cup. This will take 10 – 12 minutes. Off heat, whisk in Dijon mustard and oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Store covered and refrigerated for up to 1 week.

GREEN BEAN AND BACON SALAD
Serves 4 – 6
The smoky bacon team with balsamic vinegar and fresh herbs make this one of my favorite salads. If you’re not a fan of smoke flavor, try this using pancetta. If possible use the very slender French green beans or Haricot Verte. You can use this same approach with other beans such as fresh fava or lima.
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/4 pound thickly sliced bacon or pancetta, diced
1 medium white onion (about 6 ounces), peeled, quartered and sliced
3 large cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons chopped chives
1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon or mint
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Drops of lemon juice
3/4 pound tender, young green beans
Garnish: Finely grated hard-boiled egg, if desired
In a sauté pan over moderate heat, add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and cook the bacon until its just beginning to brown and crisp, about 4 minutes. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of fat and add the onions and garlic and continue to cook until vegetables soften and just begin to color, about 5 minutes. Off heat and stir in the vinegar, herbs lemon zest and remaining olive oil. Season with salt, pepper and drops of lemon juice and set aside.
While cooking mixture above bring a deep saucepan of lightly salted water to a boil and cook the beans until crisp-tender. Drain, toss with bacon dressing and sprinkle on grated egg. Serve warm or at room temperature.

STILTON AND BACON PUFFS
Makes about 12 hors d’oeuvers
This is a simple little recipe that uses basic puff or choux pastry as its base. These are delicious served warm as is or they can be stuffed with all manner of things. Puffs can be made ahead, frozen and reheated straight from the freezer.
1/2 cup water
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter, cut into bits
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
3 large eggs
2/3 cup Stilton or other blue cheese such as Cabrales, crumbled (a scant 1/4 pound)
4 slices of bacon, cooked crisp and crumbled fine
3 tablespoons minced green onion
In a small heavy saucepan add the water and butter and bring the mixture to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to moderate, add the flour all at once, and with a hand or stand mixer beat until mixture pulls away from the sides of the pan and forms a ball. Remove the pan from the heat; add two of the eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the Stilton, bacon, green onions and salt and pepper to taste.
Beat the remaining egg with 2 teaspoons water until smooth. With a pastry bag with a plain tip or with wet teaspoons, drop rounded tablespoon size mounds of the mixture 2 inches apart onto lightly buttered or parchment lined baking sheets. Lightly brush tops with egg mixture. Place in the middle of a preheated 425-degree oven for 5 minutes and then turn temperature down to 325 and bake for another 25 – 30 minutes or until golden, crisp and firm to the touch.

BRUSSEL SPROUTS ROASTED WITH BACON
People seem to either love or hate brussel sprouts. I was never a great fan of them because they typically were over cooked, soggy and had that “boiled cabbage” character to them that I don’t especially like. Then, I tried them roasted and they’ve become one of my favorite winter vegetables. The key to this simple recipe is of course to get good bacon.
1 pound fresh brussel sprouts
2 tablespoons olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
3 – 4 ounces lean, smoky bacon, finely diced
1/2 cup chicken stock or water
1 – 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar (organic is best!), or to taste
Sea salt
Trim and cut brussel sprouts in half. Toss sprouts with olive oil and season with black pepper. Arrange sprouts in a single layer cut side down in a baking dish. Scatter bacon around and add stock.
Place in a preheated 500-degree oven for 15 – 18 minutes, turning one or two times. Sprouts should be lightly browned and tender and bacon cooked through and beginning to crisp. Remove and discard any leaves from sprouts that are too dark because they tend to be bitter. Toss mixture with vinegar and add salt to taste. Serve warm or at room temperature.
John Ash 2021

Chef John Ash Educator, Chef, Cookbook Author | Wine Country Cooking