Serious Eats: Recipes

The Nasty Bits: Fat Is Flavor (Salad with Bacon and Egg & Spaghetti Carbonara)

In this salad of greens made with lard and bacon, the richness of the fat complements the sharpness of the vinegar; only mustard is needed to bind the two. [Photographs: Chichi Wang]

If I were ever to get a tattoo, it would say "Fat is flavor." This statement is something that I believe with such conviction that I'd be willing to live with it for a very long time. Flavor can be developed in myriad ways, but fat is almost always involved in adding depth and complexity. Vegetables are sautéed in fat before going into a braise; food is fried in it for ultimate flavor and crispness. Without fat, meat in general would be insipid in taste.

But what about fat is nasty? The Nasty Bits confronts the common perception that offal is nasty to look at, nasty to touch, or just plain nasty in taste. Fat is neither patently repugnant nor unpalatable, yet offal broadly defined includes the bony bits, the humble cuts, and anything else that is undesirable at the meat counter. Fat certainly belongs in the third category. Often butchers will give away fat for a pittance because there's so much of it left after they've fabricated the pork loins and chicken breasts that consumers are eager to buy. And quite frequently, cuts that possess a large proportion of fat, such as pork butt, will be sold at a much lower price.

There's another sense in which fat can be understood as nasty. These days, many people are grossed out by the mere sight of fat. My neighbor recoils from the fat that graces my kitchen. Once, when offered an assortment of duck dishes, she grimaced as she watched me dribble duck fat into garlic spread. (The garlic head, which is confited alongside the legs and wings, can be made into a creamy, intensely ducky paste with the help of the fat.)

From dieting books to food packaging, the term "fat-free" pervades our culinary jargon. Even without qualification or specification, "fat-free" connotes "healthy." Otherwise rational people avoid fat like the plague, but I bet they don't know that duck, goose, and chicken fat have one half of the cholesterol of butter, and lard even less so. Compositionally speaking, butter is one-half saturated fat whereas duck fat is only one-third.

Dietary facts aside, fat is essential for a more fundamental reason. Fat is what makes something taste porky or beefy, lamby or chickeny. The composition of muscle is essentially the same in all animals, but fat is a free agent--a storage unit that varies according to the species to give each its distinct taste. An animal's diet affects the content of its fat molecules, which is why certain breeds of cow taste grassier than others.

It's hard to say which type I like more: duck or pork fat. On one hand, there is nothing more gorgeous than a whole pot of perfectly rendered duck fat, resplendent in a delicate golden hue. It is the perfect cooking medium for potatoes, imbuing the tuber with a meaty depth. One of my favorite potato dishes is Potatoes Sarlat, a Southwest French dish of thinly sliced potatoes that looks like a giant potato cake, molded and browned on both sides by duck fat. The only seasoning is salt and pepper--it is simplicity itself in ingredients, but a masterful creation when duck fat is involved.

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Salted pork fat from La Quercia.

Lard, on the other hand, is intensely porky and far richer than duck fat. Either rendered from fresh or cured pork, lard is undeniably the product of pigs. Added to the skillet, a tiny nub of lard will pervade the entire house with its porcine perfume. The better the quality of the pork, the sweeter and creamier its lard. When Ed sent me home a month ago with two lard-laden packages from La Quercia--one, a block of pancetta and the other, a solid hunk of salted pork fat--I was in fat heaven.

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La Quercia pancetta.

La Quercia, an American company with an eye to detail and quality, produces some of the finest pancetta I've ever tasted. The fat of the pancetta had a nutty aroma that reminded me of jamón ibérico, while the layers of meat in between were sweet and juicy. Like duck fat, lard makes a superb dressing for salad and a delicious coating for pasta. All month, I enrobed my greens and spaghetti with fat; each time, I savored the meatiness of the dishes. In my salad of greens made with lard and bacon, the richness of the fat complemented the sharpness of the vinegar; only mustard was needed to bind the two. In the classic dish of spaghetti alla carbonara, the fat was enriched further by egg and cheese; with just a modest sprinkling of pancetta, each strand was undeniably porky.

Salad with Bacon and Egg

About the author: Chichi Wang took her degree in philosophy, but decided that writing about food would be much more fun than writing about Plato. She firmly believes in all things offal, the importance of reading great books, and the necessity of three-hour meals. If she were ever to get a tattoo, it would say "Fat is flavor." Visit her blog, My Chalkboard Fridge.

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