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MacGyver Me This: Pancetta vs. Prosciutto (Recipe included!)

It might be hard to believe, but there was a time in my life when I did not readily consume meat. I didn’t call myself a vegetarian or anything like that. In fact, looking back, my abstention from meat had less to do with me not finding it scrumptious, and everything to do with cutting up too many dead animal carcasses in culinary school, so much so that it completely grossed me out. Well, that and I hadn’t quite gotten over the slaughter videos we watched.

But if there was one thing that could bring me back to the dark, dirty, deliciously wonderful omnivorous side of the culinary world, it was pork. And more specifically, pork products.

It’s funny, when I was little, I hated all manner of pork-related product that wasn’t a chop. My mother had the audacity to try and force feed me Vienna sausages on picnics (which, I still believe, are a cruel, sick joke the food gods are playing on humanity — surely, those beige nuggets that smell suspiciously like cat food aren’t really meant to be eaten?). There was no such thing as mortadella in my world, only Oscar Meyer bologna. And the first time I read the label on the package, I nearly threw up.

Where was I going with all this? Oh right. Pancetta. And prosciutto. Delicious things. Things that I could shove in my maw daily, with reckless abandon.

In college, when I became more interested in food (or at least, more so than I already was), it took me a while to figure out the difference between pancetta and prosciutto. Both were pork, I knew, but that was about it. Maybe you’ve been curious too.

The differences are this: Pancetta is made from pork belly, like bacon. Unlike bacon, it is usually not smoked. Similar to (most) bacon, it is cured. Unlike bacon, it’s most often seen rolled up, then sliced, versus sliced into long strips. You generally purchase it raw, then cook it.

Prosciutto is made from a pig’s leg. When you think prosciutto, think ham. Prosciutto is dry cured, then eaten. It’s not really raw, per se, but you don’t have to cook the meat before eating it. Aside from craftsmanship, species, and terroir, prosciutto and jambon and jamón all kind of mean the same thing etymologically.

Pancetta often has a whole spice box worth of things rubbed into it while it’s being cured: juniper berries, black pepper, chili, fennel, even spices like clove or nutmeg. Prosciutto generally does not have these things.

Prosciutto you’ll often see served in gossamer thin slices, cold or at room temperature. It can also be fried or baked so that it crisps up, and is then used as a garnish. These days, you’ll see prosciutto added to any number of dishes, hot or cold, from salads to pizzas to burgers to pasta.

Pancetta is usually always an element of a dish, meant to deepen flavors, add richness, and — in many instances — provide a touch of luxury.

You’ll notice I’ve added lots of qualifying words to each of these statements: “almost always,” “usually,” etc. That’s because chefs are a crazy lot, and with their creativity, who knows how ingredients could be utilized!

Last weekend, I made baked trout for dinner and served it alongside some quick-braised kale with pancetta. This recipe is a great way to get some dark green vegetation into your meal — especially if you went out to eat five nights in a row, like SOME people around here.

Quick-braised kale with pancetta

  • 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • 2 cloves of garlic, cut in half
  • 1/4-1/2 cup diced pancetta (I asked my deli to give me one slice of pancetta that was 1/2″ thick, and this was the perfect amount)
  • 1 bunch of kale, chopped into large pieces (you can use curly leaf or cavalo nero — whatever is available)
  • 1/2-1 cup of water
  • juice of half a lemon
  • 1 tsp to 1 tbsp granulated sugar
  • –kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a large pot, combine the olive oil, red pepper flakes, garlic and the pancetta. Heat over medium, allowing the seasonings to infuse the oil. The pancetta should begin to sizzle, render its fat, and turn golden.

Add in all of the kale. The pot may look very full at first, but trust me, this will cook down a lot. Season the leaves well with salt and pepper.

Pour in 1/2 cup of water, the lemon juice and 1 tsp of sugar. Stir to combine, being sure to fold the pancetta bits over the leaves, so they all get coated in the flavored oil. Reduce heat to medium low and cook gently until the leaves have all wilted. If you need a little more water, pour it on in.

Taste one of the leaves, and decide whether you like the balance of flavors. Kale can be bitter (and especially so since I don’t remove the inner stalks of the leaves), so the key is to balance it out with acidity (sour) and sugar (sweet). Add more lemon or sugar as needed — or even salt, if you think that’s what your taste buds will like.

Serve hot and enjoy.

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