Bacon. Baaaacon.

Modern bacon is generally extremely disappointing. “Standard” bacon is pumped full of salt water during the curing process. This reduces the curing time, and stops mass from being lost, which means that shops make more money from the same haunch. However, as soon as you cook it, the muscle fibres in the meat contract and squeeze out a flood of water and yucky white foam. Very disappointing.

Most butchers, and some supermarkets, will be able to sell you “dry cured” bacon. In theory, this is bacon cured the old-fashioned way, by covering it in salt and allowing osmosis to take its natural course. No water is added. In practice, the label “dry cured” means different things to different people, and the quality of such bacons varies greatly between brands and shops. (Safeway’s dry cured bacon, for example, only produces marginally less foamy liquid than their standard variety.)

And then there’s the “extra lean” bacon. Bacon without all the fat, rind, and, er, flavour. Folks, if you’re considering low-fat bacon, do yourself a favour and don’t buy it at all. Have a banana instead.

Here at Chez Martin, we have just adopted a new bacon policy: henceforth, we will only be buying absolutely the cheapest bacon we can find in our local supermarket’s meat department.

Why? Well, if we’re going to put up with water-cured bacon, we might as well pay as little as possible for it. A 300g pack of super-cheap-ultra-value bacon costs about a pound. A comparable pack of “branded” bacon will set you back two or three. Secondly, cheaper bacon is fattier bacon. Guess where bacon’s flavour comes from? It’s the fat. Fatty bacon just tastes better.

I think it was at World Science Fiction Convention in 1995 (Intersection) that I attended a talk where Joe Haldeman explained his technique for cooking perfect bacon: cook it in the nude. He reasoned that standing naked over a hit stove forces you to cook the bacon slowly, over a low heat, so that it doesn’t spit and spatter all over the place, speckling your delicate milky flesh with gobbets of hot grease.

I have tried this. It does work, provided that you get top-quality bacon that is really dry-cured, rather than just “dry-cured™”. If you use cheap, fatty bacon, however, you need to modify the technique slightly. First of all, toss it in a frying pan and give it a good hard blast on a very high heat. This makes the meat contract very quickly, expelling most of the stored-up water right up front. Pour off this water. (Don’t wait for it to cook and bubble away–you’ll just boil the bacon.) Then, you can either continue to fry, grill, or oven-bake the bacon as you would normally.

I prefer to fry it on a low heat (à la Haldeman). With most of the water out of the way, it cooks like higher-quality bacon. And because it’s cheap and fatty, it contains plenty of oils to make it as dark and crispy as you choose. Mmmm, bacon.

The ultimate hot sauce

I’m a big fan of hot foods. A very big fan. Unfortunately Abi isn’t, and Alex is still too young to properly appreciate my badass voodoo chili. So when I’m in the mood for something spicy, I usually make a plain version and sex up my own portion with some hot sauce.

Sambal OelekI used to use sambal oelek for this purpose. A small jar of sambal is a standard condiment on the tables of Chinese-Indonesian restaurants in the Netherlands. If you get a take-away, you’ll be asked if you want a little sachet of sambal to go with it. Sambal tastes great in chili, and is lovely in scrambled eggs. But it has three drawbacks. First of all, it is still relatively hard to find good sambal here in Britain. Secondly, it tends to be a bit salty. Depending on the dish, you might not want that kind of additional seasoning. And finally, sambal is a mash of peppers rather than a sauce. It still contains whole seeds and small chunks of pepper, which can sometimes detract from the presentation of your dish. (Also, I find sambal a bit mild these days.)

Encona West Indian Original Hot Pepper SauceOne of the biggest brands in hot sauces in Britain is Encona, who make a selection of different flavours. I’ve tried two of them, their “West Indian Original Hot Pepper Sauce”, and their relatively new “Cajun Hot Pepper Sauce”. The West Indian sauce is made from the exceedingly hot scotch bonnet pepper. It has a powerful up-front burn, with a slightly fruity aftertaste. It can add a lot of heat to a dish with very little sauce, but because it front-loads the burn it kills a lot of the flavour from your main ingredients. I’ve tried it in chili, pasta sauces and soups, and although it has plenty of fire, it’s about as subtle as a brick to the head.

Their Cajun sauce is made from cayenne peppers (my favourite), and has a more easy-going taste. It has a much rounder, wider burn that fills your mouth much more gradually. But it is also very, very sweet, and that can have an adverse effect on the flavour of the dish you’re trying to spice up. It’s not as hot than the West Indian sauce, so although you have to add more sauce to raise the flames (which makes it easier to control the heat), you’re also adding more extraneous flavour to your dish. Which of these two sauces you’d be better off with will depend on the type of food you’re cooking, and on your personal preference for heat.

Dan T's Inferno White Hot Cayenne Pepper SauceBut I’ve been saving the best for last. Sambal isn’t the ultimate hot sauce, and neither are the Encona varieties. The best hot sauce I have ever tasted has got to be Dan T’s Inferno White Hot Cayenne Pepper Sauce. It has a deep, full-mouth burn that arrives slowly and lingers. It has a rich, dark flavour that maintains the classic zing of the cayenne pepper, but also adds depth and maturity to its spicy exuberance. The texture is smooth, with a tiny amount of dark red and orange grit that buries itself deep in the crevasses between your tongue’s taste buds. It is capable of raising a sweat in small quantities, but even larger amounts don’t kill the flavour of your original dish. It opens up a wormhole into an alternate dimension of fiery gastronomic pleasure.

It is, in short, amazing.

It also seems to have vanished from all supermarket shelves here in Edinburgh. I’ve tried Asda, Safeway, Sainsbury’s and Tesco. None of them have it. I bought my original bottle from one of them, I’m sure, but now it’s gone! The Encona Cajun sauce just isn’t an adequate replacement, but where else can I get it? I haven’t found an on-line source for it here in the UK yet, either. If you see Dan T’s in your supermarket, or if you find an on-line merchant selling it, please let me know!

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Diet, end of week 8

Well, the diet kind of stalled at the end of week 5 (18 May). After we’d brought Alex back from the hospital that evening, we all tucked in to an enormous chinese takeaway, and things went downhill from there. I’d known that the holiday in Rome was going to be a diet killer, but I was also hoping that the additional exercise we’d be getting (walking everywhere) would keep it down to the weight gain down to a manageable level.

In the end it wasn’t too bad. I was back up to about 71.5kg immediately after Rome, but I’m down to 70kg now. Which is great. There are trousers I can wear again for the first time in two years. On the other hand, I’ve had to give away the trousers I bought in Boston in February, because I could pull them down over my hips without unbuttoning or unzipping them. 7kg makes a big difference.

My target for the current diet is still 67kg. My long-term aim is to maintain my weight between 67 and 70kg. So right now I’m at the top end of where I want to be. That feels about right. I’m content with my weight right now, but I know I’d be even happier with just a few kilos less.

The diet doesn’t feel like a diet any more, though. After eight weeks it has turned into a realisation that there is a certain amount and type of food I can eat that is compatible with being a reasonable weight. It feels like I have adopted new eating habits that (hopefully) mean my body is going to find a stable equilibrium somewhere between 67 and 70kg. And, happily, these eating habits still include the occasional bar of chocolate, and a moderate intake of pizza. Yay!

Diet, end of week 4

I’m down below 71kg now, despite having been a bit naughty yesterday. It was my dad’s birthday, and we all went out for lunch at Grape in St. Andrew Square. I couldn’t resist their burgers.

On the other hand, I only ate about a third of the frites that came with it, and finishing the burger actually turned out to be a struggle. I’m just not used to eating so much food any more. It kept me full up for the rest of the day, too. In the evening I wasn’t hungry at all, and all I ended up eating was some pineapple and yoghurt.

We’re off to Rome on holiday in a week and a half. Although my long-term goal is to get down to 67kg, in the short term I’d like to be down at 70kg for Rome. (Because its’ extremely likely that we will not be doing diet eating while we’re there. Going to Italy and not eating lots of yummy Italian food? Yeah, right.)

Diet, end of week 3

At the end of last week, when I came off Atkins, I was at about 71.5kg. After a week of calorie control (max 1500kCal per day) I seem to be somewhere between 71 and 71.5. That’s not bad. In the middle of the week I was hovering between 71.5 and 72, as my body was adjusting to having carbohydrates again, and I’d been resigned to the idea that going cold turkey would result in a net weight gain at the end of the week.

But…Carbs! Bread! Yay!

I can have weetabix for breakfast, a ham sandwich with yummy brown bread for lunch, a banana in the morning, an apple in the afternoon, and a pretty much normal dinner in the evening. I am so much happier with this than with Atkins. I feel in control of my weight, and of my diet now. With Atkins, I felt out of control. Even though I was sticking to the diet plan, I felt it was just my innate stubbornness that was stopping me from going off the rails and bingeing on baguettes and rice.

Now, I can look at a chocolate biscuit and think, okay, if I’m willing to give up my banana, and make sure that I have a slightly smaller portion at dinnertime, I can squeeze it in. That’s cool. I haven’t given in to chocolate yet, but I did have a jam donut at work on Friday. I’m losing weight and feeling good about it.

Not being able to eat two or three donuts is not a hardship. Not being able to eat bread was torture.