Season to Taste: Strip Search
My first encounter with fake bacon came in the form of Bac-Os—those mildly repulsive yet highly addictive pellet-like nuggets with a dubiously long shelf life—which found their way into the soups and salads of my mother’s 1970’s kitchen. But my favorite way to eat them was by the handful, as I was hooked on their base appeal: enough salt to make a statue out of Lot’s wife.
It took me a long time to realize what Bac-Os were trying to approximate, since they looked nothing like the flabby, pale-pink strips trapped in shrink-wrapped packages in the section of the supermarket we didn’t dare approach. At some point my family tired of them, and besides, I had it from a reliable source—a non-Jewish friend on my block—that Bac-Os tasted nothing like the genuine article.
I’ve never been a huge fan of “fake” foods like those ersatz shrimp—which to me are really just whitefish that have undergone reconstructive surgery and a bad dye job—or veggie duck at Chinese vegetarian restaurants. But the chance to replicate that smoky saltiness—and mix it with dairy products no less—intrigued me.
Call it a desire to live like the other half, call it a simple case of curiosity, but I’d recently heard that stand-in bacon had improved, so I decided to take some home and give it a whirl.
Soon afterward I was standing in the kitchen laying the strips into my cast-iron skillet, feeling like Laura Ingalls Wilder, when I heard from The Voice—part culinary ombudsman, part cultural reality check, part beloved bubbe. She invariably pops up when I get around to my latest kitchen shenanigans, is always very suspicious of my cooking activities and wonders why I don’t make potato kugel more often.
“Bacon?” she tsk-tsked. “I know it’s not real, maidele, but why play with fire?”
Bacon is a potent symbol of the things our people have worked hard to avoid for thousands of years. Things like persecution, integration, intermarriage, high cholesterol. And though I’m only working on anecdotal evidence, I’d venture a guess that you’d find a lot more Jews buying veggie burgers than veggie bacon. Coincidence? I think not. Eschewing bacon—or things that even look like it—anchors us, roots us in our Jewishness, keeps us real. You even find the most secular Jews shunning the stuff in their cobb salad, or making sure there’s none in their quiche Lorraine. Call it a case of shetl cred.
“Do as you must, but remember your ancestors,” The Voice said before evaporating, leaving me on my own to recall the story that had struck the fear of bacon into me in the first place. According to a midrash, brave Hannah and her seven sons were summoned before the evil King Antiochus, who commanded them to bow down to idols and forced them to eat pork as well. Rather than obey, Hannah’s progeny met their end—perhaps the first martyrs for kashrut. And yet here I was, making a mockery of my heritage as these suspiciously meaty-looking strips swam around in a pool of rich butter.
As though in a trance, I gathered the ingredients for a classic pasta carbonara. The dish came together effortlessly, the smoky flavor of the crumbled dilettante meat enhancing the cheese and cream in a way nova or lox never could. It tasted great, yet somehow I knew it didn’t taste like bacon.
But rather than being disappointed, there was something comforting in the knowledge that the approximation wasn’t perfect. No matter how hard we try, some things will always be different in the kosher kitchen. That’s O.K. with me—and it is definitely O.K. with The Voice.
-12 oz linguine
-2 T unsalted butter
-9 strips vegetarian bacon
-1/2 cup heavy cream
-4 egg yolks, lightly beaten
-1 cup (4 oz before grating) grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (no powdery stuff)
-Freshly ground black pepper
1. Bring pot of liberally salted water to a boil. Cook linguine until al dente, 8 to 10 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, heat butter in a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add “bacon” and cook until crispy and browned. Remove from skillet to drain on paper towels; crumble when cool. In a bowl, whisk cream, egg yolks and cheese to combine.
3. Drain linguine, reserving about a cup of water; do not rinse pasta. Return to pot and add cream mixture. Cook, stirring, over low heat until sauce coats pasta nicely. If sauce is too thick, add some reserved pasta water. Add crumbled “bacon,” salt and pepper. Serves 4 to 6.
There are essentially two types of vegetarian “bacon”: soy- and wheat-based, such as those made by Morningstar Farms, and those made with tempeh, another type of soy derivative with Indonesian roots. While many prefer the soy products for their crispiness, I like Lightlife’s tempeh-based Smoky Strips for their denser, meatier quality and deeper smoky flavor.
Miller’s now sells kosher, authentic Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese in small, shrink-wrapped packages.
To lighten the recipe, use half-and-half instead of cream. It won’t be as rich, but it still works.
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