I imagine many of you thinking, “So what else is new?” Even though Alaskans expect and are used to cold weather, the last couple weeks really have been colder than usual. To see what cold weather looks like, check out Marc Lester's lovely photo-essay showing Southcentral Alaska’s chilly wonderland.
Hearty food, including pasta, is a good antidote for cold weather blues. One of my favorite ways to boost the flavor of winter pasta sauces is adding pancetta (cured Italian pork belly). Only a small amount of pancetta is needed improve the taste of savory sauces (a corollary to the principle that everything tastes better with bacon).
Salumi's hand-crafted pancetta
Pancetta is often sold in packages of very thinly cut pre-sliced meat. Although I use pre-sliced pancetta in a pinch, I mostly buy pancetta direct from the deli counter. I ask for either a chunk of pancetta, which I hand slice and dice at home, or have the deli staff cut the pancetta into slices the thickness of regular bacon. With thicker slices, eaters enjoy bursts of pancetta flavor when devouring the sauce; thinner slices tend to melt into the other flavors.
I was recently at Seattle’s Metropolitan Market where I bought several pounds of hand-crafted pancetta from Salumi Artisan-Cured Meats. This is far and away the best pancetta I’ve ever eaten; Salumi’s hand-rolled pancetta is meaty, with superior texture and flavor. Although more expensive than pre-sliced pancetta, Salumi’s product is well worth the price, and may be ordered online.
Two delicious pasta sauces that benefit from pancetta are Pasta with Squash, Arugula, and Pancetta and Pasta with Pork in Garlic-Wine Sauce. Either is just right for even the coldest winter day.
Pasta with Squash, Arugula, and Pancetta
Inspired by Cookthink
If using artisan-cured pancetta, it may be quite salty, so be careful not to over-salt the other components of the dish.
1 small Kabocha, butternut, or other winter squash, peeled and cut into 3/4” chunks (4 cups)
1/4 cup olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
Pancetta and Onions:
3 thick slices pancetta, cut in 1/2” dice (1/2 cup)
2 Tbsp. olive oil
3 cups diced onion, 1/2” dice
Freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbsp. minced fresh garlic
2 Tbsp. minced fresh sage
1/2 pound casarecci or similarly shaped pasta
4 cups arugula, cleaned and roughly chopped
1 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
Make the Squash: Preheat the oven to 515°F. On a baking sheet with rims, toss the squash cubes with olive oil, salt, and freshly ground black pepper. Put the squash in the oven and immediately turn the heat down to 475°F. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, turning the squash cubes halfway though, until the squash is cooked through and lightly browned.
Put a large pot of salted water on a burner over high heat.
Make the Onions and Pancetta: Sauté the pancetta in olive oil until it begins to brown. Stir in the onions and freshly ground black pepper, scraping up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan, and sauté until the onions soften. If the onions start sticking to the bottom of the pan, add 1/4 – 1/2 cup water. When the onions are lightly browned, stir in the garlic and sage and keep warm over very low heat.
Make the Pasta: Add the pasta to the boiling salted water and cook until it is al dente. While the pasta is cooking, put the arugula in a large bowl. When the pasta is done, remove 1 cup of pasta cooking water, drain the pasta well, and put the drained pasta on top of the arugula in the bowl. Add the roasted squash and cooked onions to the bowl and toss all the ingredients well. If the dish is too dry, add as much of the pasta cooking water as necessary (usually 1/4 - 1/2 cup). Taste and add freshly ground black pepper or salt, as needed.
Serve sprinkled with freshly grated parmesan cheese.
Pasta with Pork in Garlic-Wine Sauce
Spruce vinegar and salt-cured spruce buds add interesting highlights to the sauce, but aren’t necessary to the success of the dish. If you’re among the 99.99% of people who don’t have either ingredient, red wine vinegar and capers work equally well. For capers, I prefer the taste of salt-cured; when I can’t find salt-cured, I use capers in brine. If using artisan-cured pancetta or salt-cured capers, they may be quite salty, so be careful not to over-salt. Bacon may be substituted for pancetta; it adds a pleasant smoky flavor.
1 pork tenderloin (about 1 pound), cut in 3/4” dice
1 Tbsp. minced garlic
1/2 tsp. black peppercorns, crushed
1 Tbsp. spruce vinegar or red wine vinegar
3 thick slices pancetta, cut in 1/4” dice (1/2 cup)
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 cup finely diced onion, 1/8” dice
1/4 cup sun-dried or regular tomato paste
1 Tbsp. salt-cured spruce buds or capers, well-rinsed and minced
3/4 cup dry red wine
2 cups chicken stock
1/2 pound gemelli or similarly shaped pasta
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
Mix the pork, garlic, peppercorns, and vinegar and let marinate at least 1 hour (overnight is fine).
Sauté the pancetta in olive oil until it begins to brown. Add the pork mixture and cook until the pork is browned on all sides. Stir in the onion, using the moisture in the onions to scrape up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Continue cooking until the onions soften and begin to turn golden. Stir in the tomato paste until it is thoroughly combined. Mix in the wine and cook until it is reduced by half. Stir in the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for 40 - 45 minutes, until the sauce slightly thickens. Taste and add salt or freshly ground black pepper, as needed.
Cook the pasta in boiling salted water until it is al dente. Drain the pasta and toss it with the pork sauce. Serve sprinkled with freshly grated parmesan cheese.
The road we live on