Friday, November 20, 2009
Pancetta: essential ingredient
One of my friends joked that I should waft some bacon under her nose. Good advice, actually, as anecdotal evidence suggests that bacon has been the breaking-point of more than one would-be vegetarian. (In the end, a visit to her Texas grandparents vanquished the veggie phase. The tofu stir-fries just couldn’t compete against grilled steak and chicken fajitas.)
Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that she was sneaking bacon all along . . . it truly is one of THE mouth-watering food smells.
Since I’ve moved to England, where the grocery stores benefit so much from European imports, I’ve become enamored of the Italian version of bacon: pancetta. My grocery store sells it in a two-pack of 75 grams each, and it has become one of my refrigerator staples. I’ve found that it is the onion of the meat world in the sense that it is the starting-point for so many favorite dishes. Instead of eating a large serving of meat, we treat it more like a condiment. A three ounce handful of pancetta adds lots of flavor at a small cost in terms of pounds (money AND calories). The pancetta I use doesn’t yield a lot of run-off fat, unlike regular streaky bacon, but you can easily drain it once it has crisped up.
Possibilities are endless, but here a couple of ideas: both of them meals which I have eaten this week.
When the cupboard is mostly bare, and I don’t have a lot of time, I make a cheap and health(ier) version of spaghetti carbonara. First, I sauté a small diced onion with a 75 gram package of pancetta and a tablespoon of olive oil. When the pancetta is turning brown, and the onions are becoming translucent, I pour in a couple of ounces of white wine – whatever is left in the frig. At this point, I start boiling some spaghetti – which should take approximately 10 minutes. (These quantities are meant for two people – or one extraordinary hungry or greedy person. Multiply as needed.) While the pancetta/onion mixture is bubbling away, and the spaghetti is cooking, I grate a large handful of parmesan cheese. Then, as follows: drain the cooked spaghetti, toss it with the pancetta sauce, mix in the parmesan cheese and season with salt and pepper. The whole procedure takes about 15 minutes – not bad at all for a bowl of superior comfort food.
If you are avoiding carbohydrates, as I occasionally do, pancetta is the transformative ingredient for a quick spinach salad. For this dish, I like to sauté the pancetta with a small amount of olive oil and a diced purple onion. When the onion is soft and the meat is crisp, I add a good dribble of balsamic vinegar – about a tablespoon, if you want a more precise measurement. Turn the heat down to the lowest simmer, and stir to thicken. This absolutely delicious mixture then becomes a warm dressing for a bed of spinach. Toss while warm, and serve, with a generous grinding of salt and pepper. Sometimes I elaborate on this theme and add all sorts of good things: chopped tomatoes, avocadoes, hard-boiled egg and pine nuts. However, if I am serving this salad as a side dish, I tend to just add the pine nuts.
Milk, bread, eggs and onions may be the classic staples, but pancetta is definitely one of the essential ingredients in my kitchen.