Think of pancetta as bacon at its very best. Both bacon and pancetta are pork products, crafted from the pork belly. The difference is in how they're prepared and cured.
Bacon is brined and then smoked. Pancetta is seasoned with salt, pepper and herbs, not smoked but cured, that is, hung in a cool, dry place for several weeks. (It can be easy to confuse pancetta and prosciutto, the salt-cured hind leg of the pig, simply put, an Italian ham that does not need to be cooked.) Like bacon, pancetta should be cooked before it is eaten.
A staple in Italy, pancetta figures its way into pastas, salads, vegetable dishes, soups, stews and risotto. Cut into small chunks and sautéed, pancetta turns into crisp, meaty, satisfying nuggets as the tantalizing aromas stir our winter hungers.
Local cabbage, that stalwart winter staple, makes a perfect partner to pancetta. When braised over low heat for a long time, then sparked with a hit of vinegar and honey, cabbage becomes meltingly tender, tangy and sweet. The pancetta adds salt, herbs and just enough fat to round things out.
Red cabbage is a bit coarser and more peppery-tasting than green cabbage, and perfect for braising. Especially when the weather is cold and dank, the gorgeous lush red cabbage makes a comforting dish when cooked.
When shopping, choose heads of cabbage that feel firm and heavy with shiny leaves laid tightly against each other. Store cabbage in the refrigerator, unwrapped, not in plastic bags that trap moisture and speed decay. Cabbage will keep several weeks.
When you're ready to cook red cabbage, peel off and discard any wilted or scraggly leaves to reveal the lovely magenta gloss. To prepare red cabbage, cut it in half, then remove and discard the triangular-shaped core.
Braised red cabbage is a classic partner for pork chops, roast pork loin and porketta. It's also delicious served over farro or hearty whole-wheat pasta for a vegetarian main dish, with a big chunk of Cheddar cheese and coarse bread on the side.
Because red cabbage heads are generous in size, plan on enjoying leftovers through the week: Serve on brats, simmer into vegetable soups, layer into a griddled ham and cheese sandwich, or even better, onto toasted rye bread smeared with blue cheese. Fry the leftovers with cubed potatoes and top with a poached egg for brunch.
Pancetta gives this versatile, beautiful vegetable a little Italian love.
Beth Dooley is the author of "In Winter's Kitchen." Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.