Friday, October 21, 2011

Pancetta tutorial, Part 1: Pink salt and pork belly

Hey, I was trying to take a picture of the sign.
I haven't forgotten my promise to do a pancetta tutorial, although I have regretted it. Cooking from my own book? Talk about nerve wracking. What if I find a mistake? Why did I try so hard with the jokes? Why is there smoke coming out of my spice grinder when I'm just following my own instructions? Damn.

Without further dithering, pancetta.

Pancetta is unsmoked Italian bacon and it adds salt and savor to pastas, soups, risottos, and big cheesy polenta casseroles. It is super-easy and relatively (sometimes extremely) inexpensive to make, but you do need two ingredients that you will not find at your typical big-box America supermarket. Once you have these ingredients, the pancetta practically makes itself.

First, you need some pink salt, a.k.a. salt cut with sodium nitrite. This cheap Pepto Bismol-colored powder prevents botulism in bacon, pancetta and many of our favorite carcinogenic luncheon meats. No, it's not healthy, though neither botulism. If nitrites worry you, you probably shouldn't eat pancetta. My personal motto: moderation. You can order pink salt here or from the butcher supplier of your choice.

You also need pork belly, a deliciously fatty cut of pig that is the foundation of bacon, salt pork, and many exquisite restaurant entrees. No, it is not healthy. But you can choose between moderately unhealthy pork belly and very unhealthy pork belly, depending on how much you want to pay.

If you can afford it, you should special order your pork belly from a boutique butcher shop. Where I live, that would be Marin Sun Farms, which sells only pastured meats. The Marin Sun Farms price for boneless, skinless pork belly as of this writing is $7.99 per pound. This is as pure and wholesome as pork belly gets. I love Marin Sun Farms, but acquiring their meat is expensive and inconvenient and I go to the trouble less often than I should.

Alternatively, you can walk into just about any Chinese market and find pink rafts of pork belly in the display case near the tongues, chicken feet, and gelatinous blobs of coagulated pig's blood. The other day I went to my beloved Richmond New May Wah on Clement Street in San Francisco and bought 5 pounds of pork belly for $3.99 per pound. (Important: Wherever you buy your pork belly, ask to have the skin removed.  It's no fun to do at home, but will take a skilled butcher roughly 30 seconds.)

I thought $3.99 per pound was a great deal. Then, walking back to the car, I stopped in at the Wing Hing Fish Market. In addition to live crabs, lobsters, and every manner of finned creature, Wing Hing sells meat. Wing Hing price for pork belly: $2.69 per pound. That was so cheap that it creeped me out a little, but I bought some, as I was curious to see if there was any difference at all between cheap pork belly and dirt cheap pork belly. Back home, I smelled the meat samples. I studied them. I could detect no difference whatsoever. Both are nonorganic, nonpastured pork from pigs that probably led horrendous lives and ate disgusting diets. Not that pigs had such awesome diets in the old days, at least not on Deadwood.

I guess my point is, if you're going for the cheap pork belly, you should go for the cheapest pork belly you can find.

But, truly, I don't think you should go for the cheap pork belly, I think you should buy the best pork belly you can afford. I had buyer's remorse; I know not to buy cut-rate meat and bought it anyway. I'm sure I'll do it again, but that doesn't mean it's right. People, be better than I am.

Pancetta part 2, coming soon.
Pork belly should have a thick layer of creamy fat, but also plenty of meat.

9 comments:

  1. Deadwood pigs'diet! Brilliant.

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  2. I am sooo jealous you have Chinese markets near you. I used to live in NYC and loved going to the ethnic markets there, but now I live in The Sticks where frozen Chung King is considered Chinese food. I really miss steamed buns Although, I can get fresh pork from my local farmer about three miles down the road.

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  3. This is so so interesting! You should do a whole pictural on different meats. I read the book "Cleaved" by Julie Powell, which was very interesting, but needed color pictures of the different cuts.

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  4. So, when might you know if you are going on a book tour? Or do you already know yea or nay?

    I want you to sign my book! :)

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  5. PansWife -- I love Chinese markets too. I would miss them terribly if I moved to the country.

    Azure -- No book tour. But if I come to Southern California for vacation, which I want to do, I will sign your book!

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  6. I found the curing salt in the Latin section of my grocery store! Now just have to get my hands on some pork belly--eagerly awaiting your next post!

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  7. I have my Marin Sun Farm pork belly, sans skin, and curing salt from Ranch 99. I'm all ready for part 2!

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  8. When can we expect part 2 of your pancetta project? Thank you for doing this!

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