Everything’s Better with Bacon

A few weeks ago I went to the doctor for my sort-of-annual check-up. “Your cholesterol levels are amazing,” she raved. “Your overall number is a bit over 200, but it’s because your good cholesterol levels are so incredible. I just don’t see this very often.”

I felt as smug and self-satisfied as I did at age six when I was the first student in Mrs. Hyberger’s class who could read from the “Dear Cubby” page in the textbook. I hadn’t worked very hard to learn to read–it just happened. And certainly I haven’t worked very hard to lower my cholesterol levels. It’s just my natural ability, I thought. My innate talent. A special gift.

I’m celebrating by eating bacon. With my cholesterol levels, why should I worry about it? And it certainly keeps Fred happy. (Miraculously, his cholesterol levels are excellent too.)

The bacon has been a surprising boon to the the fish we’ve been getting from our CSF (community-sponsored fishery), which is in the middle of its fall season.



As usual, we’ve gotten some beautiful fish, but the flavor has been unexpectedly strong in some cases. There’s no funky smell, but when cooked the fish was briny and earthy all at once–in other words, too fishy even for my taste.

In desperation, I turned to some of the recipes provided by the fisheries themselves. I had my doubts about these recipes, which relied heavily on bacon and cream and baked the fish for what seemed like far too long. It didn’t make sense to me. Why smother fresh-caught fish with other flavors? But after trying to face down some of these powerful creatures with mere lemon juice and garlic, I’ve come to accept the wisdom of attacking them head-on with pork and cream. This technique mellows the pungent flavor of fishy fish without covering it up completely (though covering that flavor would be a miracle on par with Fred choosing to eat a salad over a steak).

It also turns out the somewhat longer cooking time is necessary when the fish is all together in a casserole dish–laid close together this way, the fish take a bit longer to heat up than they do when separated into individual pieces. Just be sure to check for doneness frequently to avoid overcooking.

Fish with Bacon, Onions, and Cream
Serves 4

1/2 – 2 lbs white fish (you can use fish that is headed and gutted but not filleted, but you will have to watch for bones)
6 slices bacon, cut into 1″ pieces
1 large onion, cut in half and sliced
Cream or half and half (enough to partially cover fish in when spread out in a casserole dish)
About 1 tbsp. sage (optional)
Chopped chives for garnish

Preheat oven to 350. Generously salt and pepper fish and place in a casserole dish large enough to hold pieces without layering. Cut up bacon. Place in large skillet and fry on medium-high heat. Cut a large onion in half and then slice thinly. When bacon is cooked about halfway, scatter in onion and saute until translucent. Pour over fish. Pour a mix of cream and half and half, or just half and half, over fish until bottom of pan is covered and cream covers fish partway. (Unless you pour off the bacon fat, I suspect that using cream alone would make the dish too heavy.) Sprinkle sage over fish, if desired. Cover dish with lid or foil and bake until fish is tender, anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes depending on the individual size of the fillets. Check frequently for doneness to make sure fish does not overcook.

Remove fish from oven. If fish is not filleted, remove the bones as best you can. To do this, gently scrape off the top layer of flesh with a large fork, then peel out the spine and ribs and discard. You won’t get all the bones, but you’ll reduce some of the hassle of removing them at the table. Plate fish and spoon generous amounts of sauce and onions over the top. Garnish with chives and serve.

My Recipe Redux: Rum Balls

On Sunday, our church service focused on forgiveness, and it made me realize that I have a long way to go. I’ve never recovered from being denied the role of Scarlett O’Hara in our grad school parody of Gone with the Wind (in which Scarlett would have done anything to get tenure). I still don’t understand why my fourth grade teacher liked LaVelda Blanton better than me, though it’s possible that her lack of seething resentment at others’ success had something to do with it. And, of course, there’s my irritation at the New York Times Magazine’s “Recipe Redux” column.

But now I have to consider that the Lord will forgive my trespasses only as I forgive those who trespass against me. I have some issues to work out with “Recipe Redux” now because I found myself updating a recipe this weekend in ways that would probably make the original author roll over in his grave. So Amanda Hesser, I hope you will overlook my nasty remarks about the Medjool date recipe and the snide comments about that laborious, incomprehensible twelve-ingredient dessert. I understand it all a little better now, and I’ll try to be nicer. Mostly. At some point.

It started with the bourbon balls. I write a column for a newsletter in my Atlanta neighborhood (we never managed to sell our house there), and this month I wanted to feature a recipe for a holiday treat given to me by an elderly Presbyterian minister a few years back. The column was due Friday, which means that first thing Saturday morning I wrote in to beg for an extension. Then I went to the kitchen.

But when I pulled out the bourbon ball recipe, I saw it wasn’t going to work. For one thing, it called for paraffin. Paraffin isn’t unusual for a chocolate recipe; it’s used to make it glossy and keep candies solid at room temperature. My grandmother used it to seal her jellies. But I didn’t like the idea of putting wax in my food. It seemed like cheating.

Plus I didn’t have any. I didn’t have semi-sweet chocolate chips either. Or bourbon. (At least, not bourbon I could pour into a bowl of chocolate without making Fred cry.)

What I did have was 5 squares of unsweetened baking chocolate, cocoa powder, powdered sugar, rum, and a looming deadline. I rationalized the lack of semi-sweet chips and the addition of the cocoa powder by concluding that modern sensibilities lean toward less sugar and a more intense chocolate flavor. I also figured that the type of liquor wasn’t really important and that I now had an excellent opportunity to use what was not used in last Christmas’s rum cake.

But having spent quite a bit of time shopping recently for desserts, I was also intrigued by the idea of some of the flavors I’ve seen paired with chocolate, especially savory items like chili powder, bacon, and especially salt. Tempted as I was to try the bacon (and one day I will), I decided to take the safe route in my variation and dust the rum balls with a little salt.

This was a fortuitous choice. There’s something about the salt-chocolate combination that’s utterly addictive, (as anyone who’s eaten a chocolate-covered pretzel will tell you), and the increased proportion of chocolate to sugar provided the intensified chocolate flavor I hoped to achieve. These candies aren’t as rummy as some I’ve tried, but that’s really a bonus, allowing you to focus on the chocolate. Update December 2012: Not everyone likes the salt as much as I do. I’ve modified the recipe to account for that–and the unsalted version is probably better suited to more tastes.

The ingredients used weren’t even particularly good (months old Baker’s unsweetened chocolate, generic cocoa powder), but I was nevertheless pleased enough with the result that I’m going to make these for Christmas. Maybe I’ll even send some to Amanda Hesser.

Original Recipe: Bourbon Balls

This recipe was given to me by a Presbyterian minister in his 90s. I am certain that his regular consumption of bourbon and chocolate contributed to his long life and health.

1/4 pound butter
1 box powdered sugar
1/4 cup bourbon
1/2 square paraffin
2 cups finely chopped pecans
1 large package semisweet chocolate chips + 2 1/2 squares baking chocolate

Cream butter and sugar. Add bourbon and pecans. Shape into small balls put on waxed paper. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. Melt chocolate chips and baking chocolate; add paraffin. Dip balls into cooled chocolate and place on waxed paper to harden.

Updated Recipe: Rum Balls

Makes about 50 1″ balls

5 oz. unsweetened chocolate, melted in small saucepan using lowest possible heat and set aside to cool
4 1/2 cups confectioners sugar
1 ½ cups cocoa powder
½ tsp. salt (omit if using salted butter)
½ lb. butter, softened
2 cups finely chopped nuts (pecans and/or walnuts)
1/4 cup dark rum
1/4 cup creme de cacao (can probably substitute Kahlua)
2 tsp. high-quality salt, finely ground (optional)

In large bowl, sift together 3 cups of the sugar, 1 cup of the cocoa powder, and salt. Add to butter. With electric mixer or by hand, stir on low speed until butter is mixed in, then increase speed and mix until creamed. This may take several minutes. Stir in rum, nuts, and chocolate. Add 1 cup of confectioners sugar and mix until thoroughly blended. Cover and refrigerate for about 15 minutes. (Can be refrigerated for one day, but allow dough to soften at room temperature for about 30 minutes before shaping.)

Sift together salt (if using), remaining 1/2 cup cocoa, and 1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar. Shape dough into one inch balls. Roll into cocoa mixture and set on wax paper or in mini paper muffin cups. Allow to firm in refrigerator; transfer to container. Refrigerate if you will not be using for several days; otherwise can be stored at room temperature.

When You’re Down . . .

I’m just now returning to something resembling normalcy, after an unpleasant bug that kept me out of work for four days and cost an appalling $108 in antibiotics to cure. Fred was out of town leading an arts workshop, so I had only the cats to help out.

Thelma took care of the livestock . . .

. . . while Cleo and Catalina made sure I stayed warm.

Unfortunately their food preparation skills are somewhat limited, and the only thing they caught during the week offered little of nutritional value and even less in the way of presentation.

Needless to say I was thrilled to have Fred back, and look forward to returning to the kitchen this week.