Variations on the classic BLT

A stack of deceptively simple ingredients, it’s an American classic so iconic that it requires only three letters to describe it. The Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato Sandwich (BLT) can be had virtually anytime from ordinary grocery-store ingredients. But if you have ever had a bland, tasteless version in the dead of winter at a New York deli, you know that the crucial ingredient is a ripe, sunny tomato. Lucky for us, the American South is a summer hothouse of obscenely fat, protuberant specimens in mottled heirloom shades of red, yellow, purple and green. They are as convenient as your own backyard … or your neighbor’s garden … or your community farmer’s market.

Though purists will wince, it has become commonplace to dress up this homespun favorite with smoky gourmet bacon; fancy-pants lettuce and every topping under the sun. Fried green tomato BLTs. Goat cheese, blue cheese, pimento cheese and grilled-cheese BLTs. Salmon, shrimp, chicken and burger BLTs. BLTs with jam, ham, or Spam. Frankly, you’d have to come up with a cosmically weird assemblage to upset the fool-proof flavor profile that’s the essence of the BLT. There are no rules for the modern BLT; just let your personal taste be your guide.

Indeed, the BLT formula plays well in salads; marries well with eggs and cheese for breakfast, brunch and summer suppers; and can be stirred into cool and refreshing dips. If you are having a BLT gathering, consider putting out plates of ingredients — pickles, sliced onions, olives and capers, whatever you like — and let your guests build personalized sandwiches. You can perk up ordinary mayo by stirring in herbs and spices, garlic or shallots, fiery peppers or cooling citrus zest.

All that said, if you decide to keep it simple, you can never go wrong. My Aunt Libby Allen is one of the best Southern home cooks I know. When I drop in unannounced for lunch or dinner, our old reliable is a BLT, which Aunt Lib always pairs with what she calls “real” French fries. (You know — home-fried, not frozen.) Aunt Lib’s tomatoes are garden fresh, lovingly peeled, neatly sliced. Her iceberg is chilled. Her bacon is crispy-hot. Her bread is white. A Southern classic by a Southern lady. I honestly can’t think of a better way to eat a BLT.

Turn inside for recipes for Breakfast BLT with Roasted Jalapeño Mayonnaise; BLT Salad and BLT Dip with Bacon Crackers.

Intro for recipes:

A BLT for every occasion

To get you started, we offer recipes for a main-course Breakfast BLT with perky Roasted Jalapeño Mayonnaise; an easy and delicious BLT Salad that can serve as a full meal or side; and a great BLT party dip. Just be sure to try the Bacon Crackers. They are easy to make and positively addictive.

Breakfast BLT

Hands on: 15 minutes

Total time: 15 minutes

Serves: 4

Inspired by a dish at The Highland Bakery, this hearty sandwich makes sense any time of day. Use any bread you like, and feel free to substitute scrambled or poached eggs for the fried.

1 tablespoon olive oil

4 large eggs

8 slices of toasted bread, such as white, whole wheat, sour dough or ciabatta

4 tablespoons Roasted Jalapeno Mayonnaise (see recipe) or other mayonnaise of choice

Lettuce leaves, such as bibb, iceberg or romaine

8 large slices of juicy ripe tomato

12 strips of crispy fried bacon

Heat olive oil in a large frying pan or skillet over medium heat. Gently slide in eggs to fry, working in small batches of two or three eggs at a time, so as not to overcrowd the pan. Cook for about 4-6 minutes until the whites are completely set and the yolks are just barely beginning to thicken around the edges. Flip carefully with a spatula, and cook until the yolk is just beginning to film over but not brown — about 30 seconds for over easy, 45 seconds for over medium or 1 minute for over hard. Gently lift eggs from pan and place on a plate lined with paper toweling.

To assemble, spread bread slices with Roasted Jalapeno Mayonnaise or other mayo. Top four slices of the bread with lettuce leaves, 2 tomato slices, a fried egg and three bacon strips. Drizzle on more mayonnaise or serve on the side. Top with an additional slice of bread, slice the sandwich in half and serve. You may also serve open face.

Per serving: 452 calories (percent of calories from fat, 62), 16 grams protein, 27 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 31 grams fat (7 grams saturated), 237 milligrams cholesterol, 716 milligrams sodium.

Roasted Jalapeño Mayonnaise

Hands on: 10 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Makes: About 1½ cups

2 or 3 raw jalapeño peppers

1 tablespoon olive oil

Salt

1 cup mayonnaise (preferably homemade)

½ cup fresh cilantro, finely chopped

1 small shallot, peeled and minced

2 garlic cloves, minced

6 fresh basil leaves, finely chopped

2 teaspoons fresh lime juice

Freshly ground black pepper

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Place the jalapeño peppers in an iron skillet. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Roast until the skins are charred and beginning to pull loose from the flesh, about 20-25 minutes. (Give the skillet a shake every 5 minutes or so to keep peppers from sticking.) Allow to cool. Peel, seed and chop the peppers fine.

Place peppers in a small mixing bowl. Add mayonnaise, cilantro, shallot, garlic, basil leaves and lime juice. Mix well. Adjust for salt and pepper. Cover and chill until ready to serve.

Adapted from “Sara Foster’s Southern Kitchen” by Sara Foster (Random House, $35).

Per serving (based on 16 servings): 110 calories (percent of calories from fat, 96), trace protein, 1 gram carbohydrates, trace fiber, 13 grams fat (2 grams saturated), 5 milligrams cholesterol, 80 milligrams sodium.

BLT Salad

Hands on: 20 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 20 minutes (includes optional, one-hour chill time)

Makes: 4 main-course or 8 side servings

This salad, from Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis' "The Gift of Southern Cooking," has all the ingredients of a classic Southern BLT: iceberg, tomatoes, bacon, mayo, salt, pepper and toasted bread. Peacock calls for homemade white loaf bread; but any kind of bread will do. Serve immediately.

1 head iceberg lettuce

8 slices bacon

4 slices white bread

4 large, very ripe tomatoes, cored and cut into 1-inch pieces

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1/3-½ cup mayonnaise (preferably homemade)

Cut the head of lettuce in half and remove the core. Rinse gently under the tap, without breaking apart the halves, and place them into a large bowl of ice water to wash and chill. Drain well, and tear the lettuce into 1-inch pieces. Roll the pieces in paper towels (or clean dish towels) to remove excess water. (You may also spin gently in a salad spinner.) Store in the refrigerator until ready to use. (For maximum crispiness, chill for at least one hour.)

Fry the bacon in a heavy skillet at low to medium heat until very crisp (about 6-8 minutes). Toast the bread, and cut into 1-inch squares.

When ready to assemble, put the torn lettuce into a large bowl along with the cut tomato pieces. Crumble the bacon into the bowl, and add the bread. Toss and season liberally with salt and pepper. Add enough mayonnaise to dress the salad and serve immediately.

Adapted from “The Gift of Southern Cooking” by Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis (Knopf, $32.50)

Per serving (based on 4): 313 calories (percent of calories from fat, 64), 8 grams protein, 21 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams fiber, 23 grams fat (5 grams saturated), 17 milligrams cholesterol, 464 milligrams sodium.

BLT Dip

Hands on: 10 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes

Makes: About 2½ cups

Arugula gives this dip a peppery bite, and the Greek yogurt base is lighter than some traditional sour-cream versions. Store-bought mayo works fine here, and you can lighten it up by using light yogurt, sour cream and mayo — or even combination thereof. Scoop it up with crackers, chips or crudités.

2 cups arugula, washed and very well drained and dried

2 tablespoons chopped shallot

1 cup Greek yogurt (may use 2 percent or non-fat)

½ cup mayonnaise (may use light mayo)

½ cup sour cream (may use light or fat-free)

¼ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper

2 cups chopped tomato

5 slices crispy fried bacon, crumbled

3-5 grape or cherry tomatoes, delicately quartered or sliced (optional)

Place the arugula and shallots in a food processor and pulse until finely chopped. Dump into a medium mixing bowl. Add yogurt, mayonnaise, sour cream, salt and pepper. Mix well. Gently stir in chopped tomatoes. Cover and chill until ready to serve. Just before serving, stir in half the chopped bacon, and use the other half for garnish. If desired, top with optional garnish of grape or cherry tomatoes. Serve with Bacon Crackers (see recipe) or any type of chips or crudités.

Per serving (based on 6): 259 calories (percent of calories from fat, 76), 6 grams protein, 10 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 23 grams fat (6 grams saturated), 22 milligrams cholesterol, 329 milligrams sodium.

Bacon Crackers

You don't have to make the BLT Dip to enjoy this salty snack — which is nothing but a strip of bacon wrapped around a butter cracker and baked until the bacon constricts to form a little corset. The creation of Mississippi author Martha Hall Foose, these bacon bow-ties are delicious by themselves or a perfect cocktail nibble.

Hands on: 15 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Makes: 36

12 strips of uncooked bacon

36 rectangular butter crackers (such as Club, Waverly or Captain’s Wafers)

Heat the oven to 250 degrees. Slice bacon strips into thirds crosswise. Wrap each cracker with a piece of bacon, overlapping as little as possible. Place the crackers on a wire rack set over a rimmed baking sheet or broiler pan. Bake for 1½ hours, or until the bacon is crispy and constricts the center of each cracker. Remove from oven and allow the crackers to cool on the rack.

Adapted from “A Southerly Course” by Martha Hall Foose (Clarkson Potter, $32.50)

Per serving (based on servings of six): 151 calories (percent of calories from fat, 50), 5 grams protein, 13 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 8 grams fat (3 grams saturated), 11 milligrams cholesterol, 436 milligrams sodium.

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