This week in preparation for doing my post on Pasta Carbonara I had a pancetta breakthrough: it's much cheaper to buy at the butcher shop! I'd been buying the packaged stuff that was shipped from Italy or who-knows-where. I saw some at Chop Butchery in the City Market on NW 23rd Avenue in Portland, ordered some, and was shocked at how inexpensive it was. Plus, they will slice it for you however you want. I always get it "very thin," which is how Italians do it.
What is pancetta? It's Italian-style bacon. Pancetta is a cured pork belly that has not been smoked. It is sometimes rubbed with juniper and herbs and it's often rolled and cased.
How does pancetta taste? Cooked, pancetta adds a savory flavor that infuses whatever you're cooking it with. Since it's not smoked, it's milder than American bacon. It's usually sliced very thin, and can give you a very crispy, almost flaky texture. Raw, it can be kind of chewy and greasy, but still salty and delicious.
How do I know if my pancetta has gone bad? The same way that you know that bacon - or anything else - has gone bad. The color no longer looks fresh, and it no longer smells like something you want to eat.
If pancetta and bacon are cured, why is it that they go bad after only a few days in the coolness of the refrigerator? I always wondered about this one, so I asked my cooking partner Alex, who went to culinary school and cures his own meets on occasion.
"Is it because it's sliced?" asked.
"Yes, there's that. Plus, your refrigerator is gross."
"It's not just your refrigerator. It's everybody's. Those guys at a butcher shop clean out their case every day. They have to, with all the stuff that they keep in there."
Okay, I'm going to clean out my refrigerator and see if my bacon lasts longer.
Can you eat pancetta raw? Yes - Italians do it all the time. The salting and curing of the meat renders it safe to eat. During a recent conversation with my cousin who is a doctor, I asked him about the safety of pancetta.
"The curing process creates an extremely hostile environment. Any bacteria or other living organisms are going to be completely killed by the salinity of the curing process. If you put a piece of pancetta on the sidewalk it wouldn't go bad for days. It would probably never grow bacteria on it - fungus, yes, but bacteria won't grow on something so salty."
I'm not sure I'll test that out, but the point is that any cured meats are sanitized in the process. Anything that's harmful to you would have to be introduced and grow after the curing is done. Trychinosis, Listeriosis, and salmonella all sound very unpleasant, and there are greater risks to pregnant women, small children, and the elderly. However, keep in mind that you are more likely to get food poisoning from fresh vegetables - or anything raw - than something that contains cured meats, no matter what the preparation. Think of the last several salmonella outbreaks we've had in the US: tomatoes, pistachios, peanuts, alfalfa sprouts, and spinach were the culprits.
So, to avoid anything that might be harmful to you, I hereby give you a recipe that is tomato-free, peanut-free, pistachio-free, sprout-free and spinach-free. Oh, yes, and it's also wheat-free and gluten-free.
Pancetta Rolls Stuffed with Goat Cheese
Heat a cast-iron skillet to medium high. Get out some rolled pancetta.
Place some goat cheese in a line on the pancetta circles.
Roll up the pancetta around the goat cheese.
Cook the rolls in the sizzling-hot pan for 30 seconds or until it's well-browned. Turn over and cook the other side. Don't over-cook or they will disintegrate! Put on a plate and serve hot.