Bacon or pancetta…depending on what part of the world, what specific country, whatever you call it, it’s still pork belly. And I love both of them.
As I have mentioned, International Bacon Day is this Saturday, so I have been sampling my fare share of bacon/pancetta-related dishes dining out with my family.
Some friends have asked me what exactly is the difference between pancetta and bacon, since they are pretty much the same thing. Both bacon and pancetta are pork belly that has been salt/brine cured with or without additional spices for about a week. Bacon differs from pancetta because it is then smoked. Most pancetta is rolled and then dried for about 3 months, giving it that circular shape.
My sister, Meag, and I were reminiscing last night about our European trip we took a few years back, and started talking about the different “bacon” that we had in different countries. While in England, Scotland, and Ireland, we had “bacon” but it was totally different than what we enjoy here in the States. It was a lot meatier, more like Canadian bacon, and comes from the loin in the back of the pig. And, as Meag knows, I FELL IN LOVE WITH IT. I remember our English, Scottish, and Irish breakfasts vividly, and always saved the “bacon” for last to enjoy every morsel.
This is a photo of a typical Irish breakfast while we were in Waterford, Ireland. You can see the bacon is totally different than that we have here in the states - looks more like ham!
When we were in Cork, Ireland, visiting friends, we made it to the local supermarket, and I remember looking for American bacon, but couldn’t find any. My friend looked at me and said, “oh pancetta? You want to get some streaky bacon?” This was totally foreign to me that the Irish refer to the bacon we eat here state-side as either pancetta or “streaky bacon”. They were enamored with my obsession over their “rashers” and I was taken aback by their desire for our smoked, pork belly bacon.
When my sister and I made it to Italy, I was even more shocked. We stayed in bed and breakfasts throughout our whole trip and enjoyed our fair share of eggs, bacon, sausage, toast, cereal, fruit, etc. Pretty standard fare. But our first breakfast in Florence, Italy, we went upstairs to the roof top dining area of the Best Western we stayed at, took one tired look at the buffet spread to see what we wanted, and I saw…pancetta?? I had never thought of cooking the round, circular slices up as if they were American bacon and eating them for breakfast; I always sliced up pancetta or cubed it for a garnish to a soup, salad, etc. or rendered it off as a building block for a sauce. Needless to say, I piled up a rather large serving of the pancetta (kinda wiped out the buffet…) and devoured every slice like a true carnivore.
I was reminded of this pancetta experience this past Sunday night at my family’s “second home” when it comes to restaurants: Sapori Ristorante. It is an Italian restaurant in Newport Beach that has been open 20 years, and I think we have been dining patrons for all 20 years. I probably have had every dish, from antipasti, salads, pastas, pizzas, and enough Salmon alla Griglia and Chicken Piccata to feed a small army. But, there is always one dish I religiously order: Penne Vodka Otero - Chef's Signature dish. It is so simple yet so satisfying - a tomato and cream sauce with pancetta, a little vodka, and chopped tarragon. And I always add chicken and top it off with some freshly grated parmesan cheese.
Not the greatest pic, but I figured I should take one for the sake of talking about it.
But, even though it is so simple, the subtleness of the pancetta does shine through. It is a well-balanced sauce, pairing the fat of the touch of cream against the acidity of the tomato sauce, and the tarragon heightens the fresh flavors. You can't really "taste" the vodka, but it is a bright sauce in both flavor and color - perhaps the vodka helps with the brightness of the flavor, or the cook in the back tipped his cocktail over while making it. Either way, the pork addition just rounds out everything - if I was keeping score, that would be one point for Team Pork Fat Rules.
Re-create: if I were doing this at home (recipe for one, or two...), I would first:
- Bring water to a boil in sauce pot; make sure to add salt (and plenty of it); add about 2 C dried penne pasta to water and cook to package directions.
- Render (cold pan method - [Kate listens...]) about 2 tbsb cubes of pancetta or bacon (or more at your desire) until cooked; drain on paper towels.
- Then add 1/2 a chopped shallot to the pan, saute, and de-glaze with 2-3 tbsp of vodka (remove from heat when doing this - alcohol will "flambe"!). Reduce vodka to dry.
- Add 1 C tomato sauce (store bought or homemade), 1/4 C cream, and cook on high for about 2 minutes, stirring to incorporate. Add in 2 tsp chopped tarragon (or less) and cooked bacon/pancetta to sauce; season with salt and pepper.
- Drain pasta and add to sauce; fold sauce with pasta to incorporate.
- Plate; top with freshly grated parmesan cheese.
Bacon, pancetta - whatever you call it, both are similar and great ingredients to cook with.