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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

A New Runner Up To My Favorite Bacon


Head For A Nearby Cracker Barrel

Greetings, fellow bacon aficionados. I come to you today with good news; I have found a worthy runner up to my favorite bacon and it, too, comes from the Volunteer State. Well.....sort of, anyway.

Nothing short of the apocalypse is going to separate me from my abiding love for Allan Benton's porky ambrosia. The bacon produced at Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams in Madisonville, Tennessee is renowned and preferred – nay, revered – by top chefs all over the country for a good reason: it's freakin' delicious. Naturally dry-cured by hand, thick-cut, and oh-so-smoky, there isn't a bacon on the market that can touch it.

But.....it's kinda hard to come by. Allan doesn't sell at retail because he doesn't have to. You won't find Benton's bacon at your neighborhood supermarket. It's available at a few specialty places in and around the area where it's produced, but by and large the only way to obtain this nearly unobtainable porcine perfection is to order it online or to make a pilgrimage to the smokehouse in East Tennessee, something I do a few times a year. I never leave Benton's without several pounds of my favorite savory, piggy bonne bouche, but invariably I do run out before I can restock. What to do, what to do? Well, I'll tell you what to do: head for a nearby Cracker Barrel.

Yep, that's what I said; a good ol' Cracker Barrel Old Country Store. Based out of Lebanon, Tennessee, which is located about 165 miles west and slightly north of Madisonville, and with more than six-hundred locations nationwide, there's probably one around an interstate exit near you.

Now, I've been eating the bacon at CB for decades. It's an integral part of my favorite “Old Timer's” breakfast. And I've probably seen the signs proclaiming that the bacon is available for in-store purchase in two-pound packages hundreds of times. But only recently did I actually pay attention to those signs.

I was out of Benton's bacon and Sunday morning was coming up. That's the day I totally abandon my Italian roots and pig out – excuse the pun – by cooking my family and friends a huge American-style breakfast. It's about the only non-Italian meal that I really enjoy cooking and eating. And bacon, of course, is the star. For years, my backup bacon had come from my local butcher who has a special purchase arrangement with Farmland Foods. I used it both at home and in my restaurant kitchen. But lately, that bacon wasn't up to par. I was returning pounds of the stuff that looked like it had been cut with a dull chainsaw. The taste was still okay, but otherwise the overall quality was just lacking. I tried a few national and regional brands from the supermarket with “meh” results. So when I saw the sign at Cracker Barrel one Friday evening, I thought, “Why not? Let's give it a try.” And, boy, am I glad I did!

This is good stuff, folks. It's not handcrafted artisan to-die-for good like Benton's, but for a commercially produced product, it's hard to beat. The first thing I noticed is the uniformity of the cut. This is a big deal because it means all the slices will cook up evenly. It's a nice medium thickness; not so thick you feel like you're munching on a thin pork chop nor so thin as to resemble bacon-flavored tissue paper. All the slices are of a standard length and they stay that way throughout the cooking process. There's not a lot of shrinkage, indicating that minimal water was injected in the curing. At the same time, there's not a great deal of fat rendered off, either. For example, I had to cook some up in the microwave the other day. This is my absolute least favorite way to cook bacon, but it's the best way to get it super crisp super fast if you want to crumble it over a baked potato, which is what I was doing. Normally, bacon cooked in the microwave makes a gawdawful greasy mess. But I was pleasantly surprised that that was not the case here. Very little grease to clean up. This means there's a good lean-to-fat ratio. Best of all, this is bacon that tastes like bacon. It's got a great balanced porky, salty, hardwood smoky flavor. And it's not terribly expensive. As I write this, Cracker Barrel's bacon, when purchased at a local restaurant, is priced about the same as the premium brands you find at the grocery store. And it's worth every penny.

Now, Cracker Barrel may bill itself as an “Old Country Store” and it may have a lot of rustic d├ęcor and lots of homey products for sale, but one thing's for sure: there ain't anybody out back butchering hogs and makin' bacon. Nope. Thanks to a multi-year licensing agreement, the credit for that goes to John Morrell, a division of Smithfield Foods. And as far as commercially sourced bacon goes, both are pretty reliable names.

So here's the deal, Lucille: if you want the best bacon money can buy, you'll still need to find a way to tap into Allan Benton's Tennessee treasure house. Go online, go to Madisonville, or go find a friend who's making a road trip and doesn't mind having the car smell like bacon for possibly hundreds of miles. But if you're looking for an acceptable substitute, skip the supermarket and skip on over to Cracker Barrel. Buy a couple of two-pound packages and make sure to employ my tipsfor saving your bacon after you get it home. It ain't Benton's, but it's good. (I wonder if I could get them to print that on the label. Nah. Probably not.)

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