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.
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.
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
- For the poached eggs:
- 1 tablespoon vinegar, white or red
- 4 large eggs, or as needed
- 8 ounces pancetta or slab bacon
- For the vinaigrette:
- 2 tablespoons red wine or sherry vinegar
- 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
- 6 tablespoons rendered bacon fat
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Salad greens, about 8 ounces
- 8 ounces pancetta or slab bacon
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 4 garlic cloves, peeled and lightly crushed
- 1/4 cup dry white wine
- Salt for cooking the pasta
- 16 ounces spaghetti
- 3 eggs
- 1/3 cup Parmesan cheese
- Pepper to taste
To poach the eggs: Bring a shallow pan of water to boil. Add the vinegar and reduce the heat to a simmer. Crack each egg and gently slip into the simmering water and cook for about 2 minutes, until the whites are set but the yolks are still runny. With a slotted spoon, remove the eggs and place in a bowl of cold water.
Cut the pancetta into slivers that are 1-inch long and 1/2 inch thick. Saute them in a skillet over medium-high heat, until the lardons are golden brown and have given off quite a bit of their fat. Remove the lardons from the fat, reserving the fat for use in the dressing.
To make the vinaigrette: Whisk together the vinegar, fat, and mustard in a small bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
To assemble the salad: Place the lardons back into your skillet and saute for thirty seconds or so, until crispy. Toss your salad with the vinaigrette and lardons. Place each portion into the serving plates. Briefly reheat the poached eggs in simmering water (about 30 seconds), and place the eggs on top of the salad greens.
Spaghetti alla Carbonara
Adapted from More Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan.
Cut the pancetta into slivers that are 1-inch long and 1/2 inch thick.
Put the oil, butter, and crushed garlic into a saucepan or small saute pan, and turn on the heat to medium high. When the garlic turns deep gold, remove and discard it.
Sauté the pancetta in the same skillet over medium-high heat, until the lardons are golden brown and have given off quite a bit of their fat.
Add the wine, and let it boil away from a minute or so; then turn off the heat.
In the meantime, bring a large pot of water to boil. Add a few tablespoons salt, and place the spaghetti into the boiling water.
In a large bowl or pot, beat the eggs lightly and add the cheese, grated. Add pepper to taste.
When the spaghetti is al dente, drain it, reserving some of the pasta water. Place the spaghetti into the bowl with the egg and cheese, and toss rapidly and thoroughly until each strand is coated.
Reheat the pancetta over high heat; then pour the pancetta along with its fat into the spaghetti. Toss thoroughly until each strand is coated, and serve immediately.