Friday, November 20, 2009

Pancetta: essential ingredient

During the summer, my teenaged daughter decided to become a vegetarian. Added to her other antisocial eating preferences – no butter; no cheese; no food that “touches” – this was really a food prohibition too far. I love to cook, yes, but I only make ONE dinner.

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 saut̩ 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 Рabout 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.


julochka said...

i swear i could SMELL the bacon!! i'm going to the store. now! :-)

Polly said...

this sounds really yummy. despite Khmer food being absolutely divine I missed good old bacon when in Cambodia. I noted down the ingredients and it's spinach salad with pancetta for lunch tomorrow. I love this post!

kristina said...

Oh that pasta looks so delicious! And it's far too early in the morning for me to be thinking that! Definitely agree about the pancetta (and milk, bread, and eggs, too). K x

Bonnie Zieman, M.Ed. said...

Yum!! My DH and I became vegetarians in Sept. and I was just thinking this morning that I do miss bacon (pancetta too!). We have tried to limit all dairy, but I do use some milk (no cream) and a bit of butter in the occasional sauce. But bacon or pancetta in a baby spinach salad would be the most wonderful treat.

All that said - the benefits outweigh my longings and I am happy to not be eating animal proteins.

Anne said...

Yes! Bacon/pancetta is one of those things that I don't buy particularly often, but when I have it on hand, I remember that it makes many dishes even better than they already are. Like you, I often use it as an accent, rather than serving a larger piece of meat.

Both of your quick pancetta dishes sound (and look!) delicious. I might try your spinach salad tonight--I could use a bit more greenery in tonight's dinner, and a salad with those notes sounds perfect for what will hopefully be a rainy evening.

By the way, I'm one of those erstwhile vegetarians who were brought back to being omnivores by cured pork. I missed meat in general, but bacon really got me.

Nimble said...

I suppose it's inevitable that you would have a child who doesn't want any butter. Surely she will grow out of it. Your carbonara sounds really good and speedy.

I recently cooked bacon to eat with brussel sprouts. But I overcooked my frozen brussel sprouts so they got mushy. Still tasted all right. I'll have to try try again.

Your spinach salad makes me think of my mother. She loves spinach salad with bacon and mushrooms.

rachel said...

Ah, the teenage vegetarian flexing his/her muscles... I remember it well. The Lovely Son couldn't compete with his vegetarian stepdad, so became a vegan instead. And that's when I called time, bought him a book of vegan recipes, for dishes that seemed mostly to be beige, and went on strike. After thinking about it, he gave up too, and returned to bacon sandwiches.

Bee said...

Julochka - Do the Danes package pancetta (or lardons) in this way? It makes everything so easy. I'm SO glad that the smell came off the page.

Polly - I want to know more about Khmer food. Sounds fascinating. Guest post, maybe?

Kristina - I've been making this pasta since I was in college. It always satisfies . . . and I don't see why you couldn't eat it in the morning. When you think of it, it's not so different from bacon and eggs!

Bonnie - We eat 70% veggie, I would say. I only make a meat-based dish once or twice a week. I've tried to be hard-core, but I'm such an omnivore; it just doesn't work for me.

Nimble - I wonder if your mom has ever made a warm "dressing" in this way. It is so easy, but it makes the salad taste MUCH more delicious.

As for butter, sigh. The teenager has never really cared for dairy products, actually, but her attitudes have hardened over the years. She makes only two exceptions: melted cheese bagels and pizza.

Rachel - My daughter was, for all practical purpose, a vegan -- since she won't eat dairy (see above). It was VERY tedious. I'm so glad that she has set those notions aside.

Polly said...

I've made the salad for lunch today. It was delicious!!

Khmer food guest post sounds interesting...

Bee said...

You've already had lunch? I'm still drinking tea and haven't really got around to BREAKFAST yet!

Please think about the Khmer food guest post. I bet you got some great pictures.

Magpie said...

You know how to make a person hungry.

I use bacon like a condiment. It's helped by the fact that my husband cannot cook less than the whole pound, so we usually have a few strips cooked and frozen and ready to be whacked up into bits for this or that...


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