I haven’t any idea how I’m going to break it to my friend Tiziano, from whom I normally purchase pancetta, that I will no longer include it in my standard order. Or any order, ever again, for that matter.
How standard is this order, you may ask? Well, the last time I was at my favorite Italian market – where Tiziano works – interspersed with chatter about career, school, and his wife’s soon-to-be-bestowed degree, he gathered up my order, and just as I turned to walk away, my “grazie” half-formed and out into the air, he glanced at the deli case, then quickly back at me, and said, “Pancetta?”
I was a bit surprised. I looked into my basket, Tiziano was right. There was no pancetta in my stack of deli items. Then I looked at my shopping list, and was reminded. “Oh, no. No thanks. I have some in the freezer.”
And I did have some in the freezer. Some that I had purchased from Tiziano. But well over a month later – perhaps it’s even two now – this pancetta still sits in my freezer, wrapped in quarter-pound packages, neglected. And I’m afraid that it will remain so, as I started the cure for our second homemade pancetta over this past weekend.
The recipe is, of course, from Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie (and if you’ve been reading about this Charcutepalooza thing, and wondering, where are the recipes?, we’ve all agreed not to publish them on our sites. However, if you’re interested in charcuterie, it’s worth checking the book out from your local library and/or making the purchase).
In my typical fashion for this winter, as I have been commuting to Boston for work and seem never to have the time to become organized for cooking, much less curing, our maiden voyage into pancetta involved some modifications to Mr. Ruhlman’s recipe, most notably, the substitution of fennel seed for the called-for juniper berries.
I’m not sure if it’s the fennel seed alone that is responsible, but JR and I are enamored of the pancetta. Truly enamored. The fat is silky, and a pristine white. I could admit to caressing the fat, but that would just seem weird. So, no, I do not caress the fat. At least not as far as anyone outside of our house knows.
We cut thick rounds, then carve them smaller, into cubes, and rectangles, and sometimes odd triangular shapes with thin tails of pork (should I name them? They’re a little pet-like a la Ugly Dolls.), then saute them with shallots and crushed red pepper flakes – the pancetta hitting the pan first, then a few minutes into it, the shallots and crushed red pepper flakes are added. Sometimes we add peas, sometimes we toss the mix with pasta carbonara. Sometimes with potatoes. And this is all in the course of a week and a half. Ahhh, there are so many more foodstuffs that would benefit from the addition of our homemade pancetta. So, so many.
I’ve cooked a lot of pancetta in my time. It’s one of the items that I always have in the kitchen (please note the mention of the now lonely and neglected pancetta parcels in our freezer. There is always a pancetta stash here to help with lazy weeknight dinners), and this – this is the most aromatic pancetta that I have ever had the pleasure of smelling. This is part of the allure – part of what keeps us reaching for the rolled belly, and adding it to every dinner.
For my 36th birthday, JR and I went to Italy. It rained on The Day, and between espresso macchiato in the morning and an overwrought and overly expensive birthday dinner at 8pm (more on this another time), we stopped in the medieval hill town of Pienza to grab lunch. A lunch of porchetta sandwiches, eaten under the arch of what I presume was the employee entrance door for the Museo Sinese – the doorbell of which I kept ringing with my shoulder as I leaned back to dodge the raindrops while chewing on the slow-roasted pork.
The smells from the surroundings of that circa 1458 street, the rain on the cobblestones, the porchetta, the warm bread, and the salumi and pecorino cheese ubiquitous to the gaggle of tourist-centric storefronts on Corso Il Rossellino, every one intertwined, as I chewed, intermittently – and accidentally – harassing visitors and museum workers alike with the ringing bell. This combination of scents has been, to this point, the most appealingly porky aroma I have ever encountered.
When you are obsessed with food, things like appealingly porky aromas take on special significance. As I’m sure you know. Maybe for you, it isn’t pork. Or it isn’t Italy. And the special day that a favorite aroma invokes isn’t your not-quite-a-major-milestone birthday. For me, that smell conjures up my favorite place, with the love of my life, on a less than monumental birthday, with less than ideal weather, but still, a perfect, singular day.
And now, now I can have its equal. Its counterpart. An evocative, happy-memories porky aroma in our home. Any time that we desire it. And for that, I am forever grateful. Thank you, Charcutepalooza.