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Bacon. Chocolate Peanut Bacon Toffee. Make it.

The first time I wrote about bacon as an emerging culinary obsession was in 2002. Sara Perry had penned a cookbook called Everything Tastes Better With Bacon, which unabashedly touted our love affair with the salty cured meat. I didn't fully realize it at the time, and maybe she didn't either, but Perry had plugged into a trend just as it was about to explode.

It was thought then that the jump in bacon sales had something to do with the shift from low-fat diets to high-protein regimens, a fad that brought back the 1970s Atkins Diet with a vengeance and gave birth to the South Beach Diet. In recent years, Atkins and South Beach have taken a back seat to gluten-free talk and a keen interest in meatless meals and local, sustainable foods.

But bacon continues to ride high, even as our diet focus yo-yos. The industry raked in $2.5 billion last year, up from $1.8 billion in 2000, according to industry reports. Since writing that article about Perry's book 11 years ago, I've tasted maple-bacon donuts, bought crisp strips from a bacon walkup window in Vancouver, British Columbia, baked bacon cookies and pondered whether "meat candy" had jumped the shark when the Jack in the Box fast food chain out West introduced a 1,080-calorie bacon milk shake last year.

I've received several new products recently that make me wonder when, if ever, we'll get tired of bacon, despite the New York Times' reporting last month that there were fewer bacon innovations at the summer Fancy Food Show. Among them are a bacon jerky (pretty tasty) from Oberto; Kettle is marketing a maple bacon-flavored chip (meh); and, a company called ManHands, which produces "manly scented soaps," sent me a bar that smells just like your kitchen after you've fried up a pound. (The dog will love you.)

And now comes Bacon Nation: 125 Irresistible Recipes (Workman, 2013; $14.95) from veteran food writers and cookbook authors Peter Kaminsky (Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way and Culinary Intelligence) and Marie Rama (Cooking Basics for Dummies; Grilling for Dummies). The beautifully photographed cookbook is a primer on how to buy, cook and store bacon, while showing ways to use it as a background ingredient rather than the star. For instance, saute vegetables in the flavorful rendered fat or substitute it for part of the oil in salad dressings.

Rama, who was the book's primary recipe developer, will be in Tampa on July 25 for a demonstration class at Publix Aprons Cooking School in Citrus Park. I caught up with her by phone as she was preparing for Fourth of July festivities at her Athens, N.Y., lake home to get her thoughts on our unflagging interest in bacon and ask about what she learned in the years she worked on the book. Here is part of our conversation.

Why do we love bacon so much?

Bacon is such a joyous thing. How can you resist that powerful smell? It reminds you of family.

Besides that great smell and taste, what keeps our interest growing?

People are getting more savvy about products, and there are more small bacon producers. We know more about it, too. There are bacon websites that weren't there three years ago. That fascination breeds more fascination.

How is your book different than others written on the subject?

Bacon adds richness. Bacon adds something powerful to dishes. But we didn't want to overdo it, and we don't want people to overdo it, so we focused on using it as a way to add a depth of flavor to what we eat. We use it as a flavoring rather than the main component.

Did you learn anything new about bacon while developing the recipes?

I learned you could twist a piece of bacon in a paper towel and microwave it to make a swizzle stick. Great for Bloody Marys.

Now that we've had bacon in all manner of baked desserts and other savory dishes, are there any surprising ways left to use it?

There are a lot of things that bacon is great with. Bacon is great in broths, and it makes me wonder why no one has produced a broth like chicken or beef. I add a couple strips of uncooked bacon to my broths, and it adds a creaminess and smokiness.

Doesn't it make it greasy?

You have to be careful of that. I look for the "bliss point." That's a technical term used by food producers to describe a perfect balance. For me, that's the balance of salt, sweet, fat and smoke.

What's the best way to select bacon at the store?

I peek into the back window and look at it. I want a bacon that's 50-50 ratio fat to meat. You will find, when you cook them, that some bacons have added water. You won't know this by the label, but these bacons won't crisp up well, and there will be liquid left into the pan that's not bacon fat. You don't want to buy that bacon. (Rama didn't want to name the brands that add water.)

What's your favorite way of cooking bacon strips?

If you're cooking for more than five or six people, I would definitely do it on a baking pan on a rack in a 400-degree oven. You don't even need to turn them, and the grease falls off into the pan. (It takes about 11 to 15 minutes.) It's also great to cook a few pieces in the microwave and only takes between a minute and a minute-thirty on high.

What's one of your favorite recipes in the book?

There's a Chocolate Peanut Bacon Toffee that I think is really good. If you're gluten free, it's a no-flour dessert, plus you get all of those flavors in one bite. I am a big researcher, and I love to look at what other people are doing. I found a toffee online, and I thought, "Gosh, why wouldn't this work with bacon?"

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8586. Follow @roadeats on Twitter.

IF YOU GO

Aprons Cooking School

Marie Rama, co-author of Bacon Nation, will teach a demonstration class at 6:30 p.m. July 25 at Aprons Cooking School, Publix Supermarket, 7835 Gunn Highway, Tampa. Cost is $45. Attendees will learn how to wrap and cook food in bacon and how to cook bacon without making a mess. Rama will demonstrate several recipes from the cookbook, including bacon swizzle sticks and Chocolate Peanut Bacon Toffee (see accompanying recipe). To reserve a spot, call (813) 926-4465 or go to publix.com/aprons/schools.

>>MODERATE

Nuevos Huevos Rancheros

From the American Southwest down to the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico, huevos rancheros are as common a breakfast item as bacon and eggs are in the United States. Ours adds bacon to the traditional ingredients, and, rather than frying the eggs, we poach them in the hot, bacony bean and salsa mixture.

6 slices thick-cut bacon, coarsely chopped

1 can (about 15 ounces) black beans, rinsed and drained

½ teaspoon ground cumin

1 ½ cups salsa

4 eggs

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 to 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro leaves, for garnish

4 small flour or corn tortillas, warmed

Cook the bacon in a large skillet over medium heat until lightly browned and most of the fat is rendered, 6 to 9 minutes, stirring often and adjusting the heat as necessary. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the bacon to a paper-towel-lined plate to drain. Remove and discard all but 4 ½ teaspoons of bacon fat from the skillet.

Reheat the bacon fat in the skillet over medium heat until it shimmers, about 1 minute, then add the black beans, cumin and two-thirds of the cooked bacon. Cook until the mixture is heated through, 3 to 4 minutes, stirring occasionally and scraping up any brown bits from the bottom of the skillet. Add the salsa and let the mixture come to a simmer.

Using the back of a spoon, make 4 wells in the salsa, each about 2 inches across. Crack an egg into a small bowl and slide it gently into one of the wells without breaking the yolk. (Don't be concerned if some of the egg white runs out of the well.) Repeat with the remaining eggs. Season the eggs with salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle the remaining bacon around the eggs. Cover the skillet and cook over medium heat, 4 to 6 minutes for slightly runny yolks, or as desired. Sprinkle cilantro over the huevos rancheros, divide the eggs among 4 small bowls, and serve with warm tortillas.

Serves 4.

Source: Bacon Nation by Peter Kaminsky and Marie Rama (Workman, 2013)

>>MODERATE

Chocolate Peanut Bacon Toffee

5 slices applewood- or hickory-smoked bacon, cut into ¼-inch pieces

1 ½ cups lightly salted cocktail peanuts, plus 2 tablespoons of chopped peanuts

15 tablespoons (1 ¾ sticks, plus 1 tablespoon) unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch-thick pieces, plus butter for greasing the baking pan

1 cup sugar

½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract

4 ounces 70 percent cacao dark chocolate, finely chopped

Butter a 15- by 10- by 1-inch nonstick baking pan and place it on a heat-proof surface.

Cook the bacon in a medium-sized skillet over medium heat until lightly browned and crisp and most of the fat is rendered, 5 to 8 minutes, stirring often and adjusting the heat as necessary. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the bacon to a paper-towel-lined plate to drain, reserving the bacon fat in the skillet.

Blot the drained pieces of bacon with paper towels to remove any excess grease. Set aside 3 tablespoons of the bacon pieces. Combine the remaining bacon pieces with the 1 ½ cups of unchopped peanuts in a medium-sized bowl.

Pour the bacon fat from the skillet through a wire-mesh strainer set over a small bowl and then place 1 tablespoon of the strained bacon fat in a heavy deep 3- or 4-quart saucepan.

Add the butter and sugar to the saucepan and cook over medium-high heat until the butter is almost melted, less than 1 minute. Then whisk constantly until the sugar is incorporated into the butter and the mixture is smooth, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the vanilla. Attach a candy thermometer securely to the side of the saucepan and let the butter and sugar mixture boil, whisking occasionally, until it is a deep golden color and registers 300 degrees on the thermometer.

Remove the saucepan from the heat and immediately stir in the bacon and peanut mixture. Pour the hot toffee mixture carefully into the center of the prepared baking pan. Using a butter knife or metal spatula, spread the toffee mixture so that it covers about two-thirds of the surface of the pan and is slightly less than ½ inch thick. Let the toffee set for about 30 seconds, then sprinkle the chocolate on top, spreading it out with the butter knife or spatula. Sprinkle the 2 tablespoons of chopped peanuts and the reserved bacon evenly over the top of the toffee and then freeze it until firm, about 30 minutes.

Slip the spatula under the toffee to loosen it from the pan and then break the toffee into pieces. The toffee can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 5 days or in the freezer for up to 2 weeks.

Makes about 1 ½ pounds.

Source: Bacon Nation by Peter Kaminsky and Marie Rama (Workman, 2013)

.Fast Facts

Grease is the word

Not sure what to do with the rendered fat after you cook a batch of bacon? Here are some suggestions from Marie Rama, co-author with Peter Kaminsky of Bacon Nation.

• Pop popcorn in bacon fat.

• Use it to cook sunny-side-up eggs.

• Add it to boiling water when making beans, polenta, grits or rice.

• Toss veggies such as cauliflower florets or thick red pepper strips in bacon fat before roasting.

• Use it to brown bread crumbs for sprinkling over grilled veggies or a casserole of mac and cheese.

• Mix with Sriracha and drizzle over ears of grilled corn — or saue off-the-cob corn in drippings.

• When you're baking potatoes, coat the skin with bacon fat before putting the potatoes into the oven.

Bacon. Chocolate Peanut Bacon Toffee. Make it. 07/16/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 17, 2013 1:43pm]

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