Beef is America’s great food staple, but let’s talk about pigs for a second. From snout to tail, back to feet, a 250 lb. pig can provide 371 servings of meat, according to pork industry propaganda. A half-hog from a Vermont farm’s CSA share yields about 23 pork chops, 2 roasts, 1 ham, 8 lbs of slab bacon, 3 lbs of spare ribs, and 9 lbs of ground pork. That’s a lot of food.
But more important than the food is the fat. Rendered pork fat, or lard, was one of those ever-present foods in the American home for years before vegetable shortenings like Crisco and Spry were marketed as more healthy. Lard moved from kitchen stalwart to behind the scenes foodservice necessary to a forgotten about. Lard and pork fat have such negative connotations, but there’s nothing better to cook with.
My grandparents’ generation would save their pork fat to use later. Me? I wish I had more of an occasion to use it, otherwise I would. Instead, my pork fat opportunities come on occasions like these, when I cook the fat off of some pancetta and use that in lieu of oil.
WHAT WORKED: Cremini mushrooms cooked in rendered pancetta fat. Thank me later.
WHAT DIDN’T: Not much went wrong here.
EASE OF PREPARATION: Easy. Just don’t burn the pancetta.
BEST FOR: A weeknight dinner or a pasta side when you are entertaining.
SERVE WITH: A dry white wine or a light-boded ale or lager.
Orecchiette Pasta with Mushrooms and Pancetta
Adapted lightly from The Italian Dish
- 5 oz. pancetta, diced (you can sub bacon if you need to)
- 8 oz. orecchiette pasta
- 8 oz. mushrooms, stemmed and sliced thin
- 1/2 medium red onion, diced
- 1 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
- crushed red pepper
- freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tsp. fresh thyme, minced
- 3/4 cup grated parmigiano reggiano cheese
- sea salt to taste
Bring a large saucepan of water to boil for the pasta. Salt it very lightly.
Preheat a large skillet or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Put your hand about one-inch over the bottom of the pan. When it becomes too hot to hold your hand in place, add the pancetta. Render the fat from it and cook until it is crispy, about 7 to 9 minutes. Use a slotted spoon and transfer to a side dish, keeping it on your stovetop so it remains warm.
Add the onions and mushrooms to the grease in the pan, tossing it to coat. If you need additional fat, add about 1 tbsp. of olive oil. Add the crushed red and black peppers to taste, and toss together. When the mushrooms begin to sweat, add about a ladleful (about 1/4 cup) of pasta water to the mushrooms and reduce the burner to medium-low. Cook 10 minutes, adding thyme midway through.
At this point, add pasta to the water and cook to al dente, about 10 minutes.
With about 1 minutes remaining, add the pancetta and stir together. Ladle in additional water if necessary to thin out the sauce.
Drain the pasta and transfer it to the mushroom mixture. Toss to combine, add the cheese and mix well.