How to build a better BLT

Joseph Hernandez
Chicago Tribune

A BLT, with its symphony of crunchy, savory, salty and juicy, is high art.

Take the perfect sandwich even further: Add lobster. This BLT variation dresses lobster chunks in a lemon zest and tarragon mayo.

The blueprint is baked into the name, a triumvirate of bacon, lettuce and tomato that yields an unassailable classic, if done correctly. The key, though, is not skimping on the quality of ingredients — a sandwich this simple is a delicate balance, and using any ol’ bacon, lettuce or tomato will taste of mediocrity and wasted potential.

Food culture these days may fool you into believing that bacon is the star here — our country is breathless for bacon-wrapped anything — but don’t be bamboozled. Tomatoes, those flavor-packed ephemeral globes of sweetness and acidity, are the true highlight of a BLT. Juicy, meaty, piquant tomatoes are proof that God loves us. Unfortunately, we can’t have perfect tomatoes year-round, so seek out the best you can.

OK, fine, I lied: Bacon is the Thelma to tomato’s Louise, or Fred Astaire to Ginger Rogers. In tandem, bacon and tomato dance a life-affirming pas de deux of savory/sweet, salty/juicy, crispy/tender. To cut corners here would be to dash all your efforts in finding the best tomato — don’t give up now. Avoid, if possible, store-brand packs of bacon, which often taste briny without much else going for them. They’re fine in a pinch, but compared with less-processed versions, are only salty, rather than a complex balance of salty, smoky and porky.

Opt for thick cut, dry-cured bacon — thicker bacon adds substantial bite to this sandwich, while the dry-cure method imparts deeper flavors compared with liquid-injected varieties. Also consider wood-smoked bacon, which contributes a complementary smokiness.

Whether you like toothsome, chewy strips, or something more shatteringly crisp is up to you. Trust your heart.

Though sandwiched between B and T, lettuce brings a game of its own. Fresh romaine or iceberg varieties are clutch here, slightly sweet in their own way but, more important, a textural go-between for bacon and tomato. Perfectly serviceable in leaf form, the lettuce when shredded does double duty, offering up crunch and texture while also creating a layer of nooks and crannies to catch errant juices dripping from the tomato.

Of course, all three components need a home. A pliable bread, something soft-yet-structured, is a good bet. Just be sure it’s slightly toasted and shellacked with a creamy mayonnaise. Once you’ve indulged in the classic, go for a twist, like the lobster and skewered versions here.

Either way, admire your masterpiece for but a second. Now comes the moment, to paraphrase William Faulkner, to kill your darling.

Lobster BLTS

From “Soup Nights” (Rizzoli, $35) by Betty Rosbottom. Upgrade the humble BLT with luscious chunks of lobster. You won’t be disappointed.

1/4 cup good-quality (not reduced-fat) mayonnaise

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

2 teaspoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon chopped tarragon

4 slices good quality sourdough bread, lightly toasted

6 ounces lobster meat, cut into 1/2-inch pieces, see note

1 green onion, white and light green parts, chopped

2 leaves Boston or green leaf lettuce

2 bacon slices, fried until crisp, drained, crumbled coarsely

1 to 2 medium tomatoes, sliced

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

In a medium bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, lemon zest and juice, and tarragon. Use 3 to 4 teaspoons of this mixture to spread thinly on one side of each of the 4 toasted bread slices. Add the lobster and green onion to the remaining mayonnaise; mix well.

Place a lettuce leaf on each of 2 bread slices. Mound half of the lobster salad atop each leaf; sprinkle with the bacon. Top each sandwich with 2 to 3 tomato slices; salt and pepper them well. Cover sandwiches with remaining bread slices, mayo sides down. Halve sandwiches and serve.

Note: One pound of lobster will yield 3 to 4 ounces cooked meat. Some fish markets and grocery stores sell cooked lobster meat. If you purchase frozen cooked lobster, defrost in the refrigerator overnight, and pat it dry with paper towels.

Bacon-infused Bloody Marys With BLT Garnish

The bacon-infused vodka method here comes from the new book “The Bloody Mary” (Ten Speed Press, $18.99) by Brian Bartels. To garnish the drinks, we’ve added a skewered BLT, one that subs arugula pesto for the lettuce. For the cocktail itself, we’ve opted for a mix or your own favorite recipe.

4 strips bacon

1 tablespoon black peppercorns

1 bottle (750 milliliters) vodka

Bloody Mary mix or your favorite recipe

Skewered BLTs, see method

In a skillet, cook the bacon over medium-low heat, about 10 minutes. Flip the bacon and cook the other side until crispy, about 5 minutes more. Remove the bacon, and reserve it for the drink garnish. Let the bacon fat cool in the pan for a few minutes, then transfer it to a container.

Combine 2 tablespoons of the bacon fat and the black peppercorns in a large sealable container (or 2 canning jars) with the vodka. Seal and refrigerate 6 hours to allow the flavors to integrate. Transfer to the freezer; freeze, 30 to 60 minutes. The fat cap will look like hardened wax curdling on top of the surface. Skim off the fat cap with a big spoon and discard. Let the infused vodka come to room temperature, then pass it through a fine-mesh strainer lined with cheesecloth or a coffee filter. Store in a sealed container and refrigerate for up to 3 months.

Proceed with your favorite Bloody Mary recipe, using the bacon-infused vodka as your spirit base and garnishing with the skewered BLTs.

Skewered BLTS

These tiny sandwiches are spread with arugula pesto, developed in the Tribune test kitchen by Mark Graham.

For the arugula pesto, place 8 ounces pine nuts, toasted; 5 ounces arugula; 2 1/2 ounces grated Parmesan; and 1 clove garlic in a food processor. Pulse until smooth, scraping the sides of the bowl as needed. With the motor running, pour in 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, or just enough to achieve a thick paste. This pesto should be thicker than you may be used to, so that it stays in place. Refrigerate until the texture of butter, about 30 minutes.

For the mini sandwiches, spread a generous amount of pesto over one side of 4 slices of lightly toasted bread. Top 2 slices with the reserved bacon; cover with the remaining slices, pesto side down. Slice the sandwiches into bite-size squares. Thread on long skewers, with a grape or cherry tomato on top and bottom. Slide the skewers into the drinks without dunking the sandwiches, and serve.