Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Linguini with "Pancetta" and Radicchio

So I mulled over what to do with that glorious package of fat-heavy pork trimmings I picked up at the grocery store this week for quite some time. While there was quite a bit of fat, there was also a fair amount of meat- in fact, it seemed to be about the same ratio of fat to meat as most bacon. I don't have a smoker set up, so I can't technically make real bacon, but I can make something more like Italian Pancetta- which is simply salt and spice cured pork belly that isn't smoked. I hesitate to call it actual Pancetta, since I'm not starting with pork belly, just fatty pieces from around the loin, I'm not rolling it up, and I'm only curing it for about a day rather than for a few weeks- so I'll call it "Pancetta" for lack of a better term. The idea I came up with is to use this semi-cured fatty pork in a pasta dish...

I started by making a fairly simple cure- the key to a cure is to use an aggressive amount of salt- the high salt content will prevent bacteria from forming on the surface of the meat as it cures and starts to draw the water out of the meat and fat. Traditional Pancetta can use a wide variety of seasonings in addition to the salt- here I will try to keep things as simple as possible- heavy salt, some black pepper, and a handful of dried thyme rubbed all over the meat in a thick layer. I was a little intimidated at the thought of leaving pieces of slated pork out in the open, so I stored mine in the refrigerator for about 24 hours- this really isn't enough time to dry out and fully cure the meat, but it still made an interesting, lightly cured product.

I took about a pound of this "Pancetta" stand-in and sliced it up into ribbons about 1-2 inches in length. I started with one of the meatier slabs, then added some of the more fatty bits- a little meat, a little fat, all pork, all good. You'll notice that I did not rinse off or wipe off the excess salt on the surface. This meat is going to be very salty- almost too salty on it's own- however, it is the only salt I intend to add to the entire dish- trust me, it will be plenty.

The next step- treat this pork as if it were bacon, and pan fry it. You'll want to take your time with this step, and slowly fry the pork over a medium-low heat until it is golden brown and crispy. I add a small amount of olive oil to the pan just to keep things lubricated, and let the fats render down and slowly brown. Since the meat is not fully cured, it will start to turn grayish white before browning and becoming crispy, but it will render out a good quantity of flavor-loaded grease (which we will use as our cooking oil).

Your pork will melt down and eventually brown, and finally look like actual bacon. When you are happy with the crispness, remove the fried pork bits from the pan, and let them drain, retaining the oil and all the tasty brown bits in the bottom of the pan. You'll be tempted to try a bit- it will be salty, but still very addictive. Try not to eat it all before the pasta is ready. You may be concerned at just how salty this meat is, but do not worry too much, the rest of the cooking process will make good use of it. The oil left in the pan (and the brown goodies) should be laden with enough salt and pepper that you won't have to add much, or any seasonings at all.

Take a medium onion, and slice it thinly- the idea I'm going for is to have all the ingredients cut into ribbon-like shapes of various lengths, so they will mimic the shape of the linguini I plan on using. Normally, you'll want to season your onions with salt and pepper- but remember, your grease if packed with enough salt already. A dash of pepper won't hurt, but don't even think about adding salt! Cook your onions slowly over moderate heat, moving them around often until they start to caramelize. Keep the heat controlled- too high and you will burn them. Do it just right and the onions will gradually darken as their natural sugars cook and intensify in flavor.

Radicchio is an attractive white and purple leaf vegetable similar to chicory. It resembles a small, intensely colored, and bitter tasting cabbage. The bitterness of the raw radicchio mellows when it is sauteed or grilled, and balances out very well when paired with salty (the pork cure), fatty (the pork itself), and/or sweet (the caramelized onions) foods- resulting in something with a very savory, earthy taste that just works. The key to making this dish work is taking the more extreme flavor elements- the bitterness of the radicchio, or the salty/fatty fried pork, and getting them to work and play together.

I'll start by cutting about half a head of radicchio (more if you like a little more bitter bite) into ribbons, again mirroring the shape of the linguini. Add your ribbons of radicchio to the onions, and saute them lightly. Again, you should not need to season again- especially not salt! Once the Radicchio begins to wilt  and soften, you'll probably notice that it's bitter flavor has already begun to mellow out, and the more earthy tones should start to be evident. This is when the balancing act really begins.

Add the fried pork strips to the pan, and toss everything together until combined well. Lower the heat a bit, and let all the pork, onions, and radicchio get to know each other- but don't forget to stir from time to time. By now, you should have your linguini (I made one pound of pasta) in the boiling water (I would normally salt the pasta water first, but we have enough salt to go around already). You'll want to take the linguini out when it is still a little firm, but first we're going to make use of some of the now starchy boiling water in the pot with the pasta. Pour about two ladles of the pasta water onto our pork, radicchio, and onion mixture, and bump the heat up a little. The starchy water should pick up all the oils, and browned stuff in the pan, and start to thicken slightly into a simple sauce. The starch in the water will help emulsify the residual fats in the pan into something that will cling to the pasta perfectly. The water will also soften up the crispy pork bits, drawing out additional flavor, and balancing out any remaining excess salt.

Take your pasta off the heat and drain it- do not rinse the pasta- you want to keep the starches on the surface of the noodles intact- this will bind together with the starches and emulsified fats in the sauce and turn into a nice coating for the linguini. Toss the pasta together with the sauce, pork, radicchio, and onion until combined, and allow the pasta to finish it's last minute or so of cooking in the sauce. Before serving, add in a handful of parsley, and toss it again just to give it a few fresh herbal tones, and a little extra green color to offset the dark, brownish color of the sauce.

Serve the pasta, and top it with a little grated parmesan cheese, and a little more parsley. I usually like to put a little hot pepper flake and/or basil on my pasta, but, in this case, I think they would cover up the nicely balanced, earthiness of this dish. The ribbon-shaped bits of pork and vegetable should intertwine with the linguini and hold together nicely. If you've balanced it right, you should be able to taste the distinctness of each ingredient, but you should get a nice, warm earthy overtone to everything as it comes together. The bitterness of the radicchio is still there, but it tempers and combines so well with the rich, salty pork flavors that it transforms into something more than the sum of its parts. I was very happy with the way this dish turned out- and even happier that I made good use of a cut of meat that could have easily ended up in the butcher's trash bin.

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