Off the Beaten Aisle: Pancetta

by in Recipes, June 16th, 2011

pancetta hummus with balsamic tomatoes
Are you about over bacon yet?

Neither am I. In fact, our national obsession with cured pig has only made me all the more eager to explore lesser-known –- but equally delicious -– pork parts.

And there are plenty to choose from. One of the most widely available, yet often overlooked, is pancetta, a close relative of American bacon.

So let’s start there. Bacon usually is made from the belly or side of the pig. It is cured (either dry or wet) with salt, spices and sometimes sugar, then smoked.

Pancetta is the Italian version. Typically made from the belly, the curing process is the same, but the meat usually is not smoked. During curing, it often is seasoned with black pepper, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and herbs.

While most American bacon is sliced into thin strips, slabs of pancetta usually are rolled into a log.

And that’s how it’s sold at the deli; the log can be sliced to any thickness. Most grocers also sell it in packages pre-sliced and, more commonly, cut into thick cubes.

Thanks to smoking, bacon usually has a slightly brownish color; pancetta tends to be bright or deep red.

The flavor of pancetta tends to be clean and assertively bacony –- go figure! -– and just a bit sweet, especially compared to commercially produced bacon. The curing process for the latter often is as little as a few minutes, while pancetta is cured for days or weeks.

Pancetta can be eaten thinly sliced and raw, similar to prosciutto, but more often it is cooked, which gives it an intensely savory flavor. Think of it as maxed-out bacon.

Pancetta is a must-have for authentic carbonara. And browning small chunks of it is a classic start to many Italian recipes.

So what should you do with it?

  • Brown some finely chopped pancetta, then add cubed boneless, skinless chicken thighs and brown those. Add broth, then make chicken soup as you normally would.
  • Dump chopped pancetta and your favorite chili spices in a big pot. Cook for a few minutes, then add whatever meat and/or beans constitute a mean chili for you. The flavor will be intense.
  • Brown a blend of ground beef and chopped pancetta, then spoon over tortilla chips. Add cheese, sour cream, avocado and salsa and call them nachos.
  • Substitute pancetta for whatever harm or pork product is called for in pork-fried rice recipes.
  • If you buy it thinly sliced, you can’t go wrong slipping a few slices in with some cheddar or Parmesan for a killer grilled cheese.
  • Fatty and salty foods love to go with sweet foods. So for an amazing salsa, crisp up some pancetta, then toss with chopped strawberries and pineapple, minced jalapenos and garlic, a bit of vinegar, salt and chopped cilantro. It’s great over grilled meats and seafood.

Pancetta Hummus With Balsamic-Drenched Tomato
This recipe was inspired by a hummus I tried at a Turkish restaurant. The hummus was mixed with crisped salami, then served warm. It was delicious, though not as good as this pancetta version.

Start to finish: 15 minutes
Servings: 4

4 ounces pancetta, finely cubed
16-ounce package prepared hummus
4 large, thick slices sourdough bread, toasted
2 large tomatoes, cut into thick slices
1 small red onion, finely diced
Balsamic vinegar
Ground black pepper

In a medium skillet over medium-high heat, cook the pancetta until crispy and browned, about 5 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat and add the hummus, mixing well.

Thickly slather a quarter of the hummus-pancetta mixture over each slice of bread. Top each with 1 or 2 slices of tomato and a quarter of the red onion.

Drizzle each sandwich with balsamic vinegar, then season with pepper.

Nutrition information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 480 calories; 200 calories from fat (42 percent of total calories); 23 g fat (8 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 15 mg cholesterol; 52 g carbohydrate; 19 g protein; 9 g fiber; 1,070 mg sodium

J.M. Hirsch is the national food editor for The Associated Press. He is author of the recent cookbook, High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking. He also blogs at jmhirsch.

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