By CHEF RENEE MORGAN
True confession time. I love to collect t-shirts with funny food sayings on them. They say things like “C Shef” with a girl chef showing her muscles, and “baller” with a picture of a ball canning jar. I know, I’m a huge dork!
If you were to inspect my t-shirt drawer right now, you’d find, among others, many bacon inspired ones. One proudly proclaims “go pig or go home!” (A woman once asked me if that meant I was a Razorback fan. I told her, no…it means I like to eat pigs.) The next features a chef playing a flute with several pigs dancing around him, entitled “the pied piper of pork.” A third ominously boasts over-easy eggs with criss-crossed bacon slices underneath in the shape of a skull and crossbones. And on it goes. I tell you this so you will understand my fondness, and by fondness I mean obsession, for all things pork, especially bacon.
Why bacon? What’s so special about this little strip of fat and meat? Sacrilege to even ask! Why, it’s only the most delightfully yummy and versatile of food stuffs. Bacon bits, bacon cheeseburger, BLT, bacon-wrapped anything. There is no shortage of dishes made better with the addition of bacon. I’ve even had desserts made with bacon, including chocolate dipped bacon, which is surprisingly good and as you all know, I’m not really the biggest fan of chocolate.
Oh, I can hear some of you health conscious types right now. Unhealthy, blah, blah, artery clogging, yada, yada, too much fat, high calorie, etc., ad nauseum. To you, I stick my tongue out and turn my deaf ear! No amount of propaganda will turn me against beloved bacon.
In fact, I recently read an article proclaiming that a new scientific study reveals an important benefit of consuming a moderate amount of bacon. In the study, the consumption of the high levels of Vitamin B3, aka niacin, contained in bacon caused roundworms (I know, gross!) to live one-tenth longer than roundworms who were not fed the bacon. In basic terms, the consumption of niacin tricks the body into thinking it’s exercising, which is particularly handy for lazy, exer-phobic bacon lovers. See, eating bacon makes you live longer! You’re welcome!
Here are some other reasons eating bacon in moderation is beneficial. Come on, hang in there with me. I know I can convince you.
The protein contained in pork products helps to keep you satiated so you feel fuller longer so it is easier to refrain from overeating. Several university studies have even shown that adding a strip or two of bacon to your diet now and again has the blood balancing effect of working to naturally regulate blood pressure and blood sugar. Not convinced yet?
How about this one? Since bacon provides high protein, low carb energy, it helps to raise your metabolism and build lean muscle mass. Bacon actually has less total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol than many popular cuts of beef and chicken. While some fish has less fat and cholesterol than bacon, bacon has more protein power and does not contain toxins such as mercury. Bacon is also quite rich in choline, which increases intelligence and memory, and combats such debilitating diseases as Alzheimer’s.
Did you know that bacon is also chock full of Omega 3 and, unlike fish sources, there is no mercury dangers with pig. These wonderful Omega 3‘s reduce inflammation and improve circulation in the body. This means less achy joints and a healthier heart.
Bacon is pretty much universally loved. I’ve never met anyone who didn’t love bacon. As basic as this sounds, it is a good vehicle to get the kiddos (as well as the adults who act like kids) to eat their vegetables. I mean, don’t we all like green beans a little better with bacon in them? Surely, we can tolerate just about any of that icky, healthy stuff if it’s wrapped up in a beautiful little bacon package.
Now, I know someone will argue that bacon is bad because it contains nitrates and nitrites. What many nutritionists fail to say is that you can easily avoid this problem by not charring or overcooking the bacon in the first place or baking the bacon instead of frying it. Baking it is easier and less messy anyway. I generally bake it for about 7 minutes per side at 400 degrees. An added perk is that it comes out cooked perfectly even and there is no issue with it curling up.
My final argument for bacon.is that it makes you feel happy, satisfied, blissful, which greatly reduces stress in our lives and effectively relieves the negative effects of frustration, self deprivation and sense of lack in ones existence. Okay, maybe that’s a bit extreme but it is pretty wonderful!
If you want an unbelievably special treat, I encourage you to try making your own bacon just once in your life. It’s really quite easy and the results will be unlike anything you could ever buy at the grocery store. There is simply no comparison.
When you make your own bacon and cook up a slice, the result can give you an understanding of why bacon has become such a powerful part of the American culinary culture. Here’s what you need to cure a 3-5 pound slab of pork belly, which you can order through a local butcher, online or from the local pig farmer at the farmer’s market.
3-5 pound slab pork belly with skin on
1 pound of kosher salt
8 ounces granulated sugar
2 ounces of pink curing salt (available online or at some butchers)
For sweeter bacon, add 1/2 cup maple syrup or dark brown sugar.
For more savory bacon, add 5 smashed cloves garlic, 3 crushed bay leaves and 1 tablespoon of black peppercorns, cracked with the side of a knife or bottom of a heavy pan.
1. Trim the belly so its edges are neat and square. Mix together all ingredients except the pork belly and spread on a baking sheet. Press all sides of the pork belly into the mix to give it a thick uniform coating. Place the belly in a zip type bag or a non-reactive container just large enough to fit it. The container must be a good fit so that as the pork releases its liquid the cure remains in constant contact with the meat.
2. Refrigerate the belly for 7 days, turning it every other day to redistribute the cure liquid. After 7 days, check the belly for firmness. If it still feels squishy, refrigerate it for up to 2 more days. The thicker the belly, the longer it will take to cure. Remove the belly from the cure and rinse it under running water thoroughly to remove the cure solution. Pat dry with paper towels and discard the curing liquid.
3. At this point, you can either roast the belly in a 200 degree oven or, if you are lucky, cook it in a smoker. In both cases, you should cook it until it reaches 150 degrees. Allow to cool to room temperature, slice to desired thickness, wrap well and refrigerate until ready to use. When you are ready to enjoy your bacon, simply fry or bake as you would any other bacon.