If bacon makes everything better, then pancetta makes it great.
Pancetta, often called Italian bacon, is made from pork belly, like bacon, but that’s where the two diverge. Bacon is brined and smoked while pancetta is cured in salt and spices.
Good pancetta is so clean tasting that in Italy it’s often served raw as part of an antipasti platter. It’s fabulous cooked until crackly crisp and tossed with pasta or, even better, into the classic spinach and bacon salad.
This steakhouse favorite dates back to the early German immigrants who favored salads of wild greens, bacon drippings and vinegar. Spinach, like wild greens, benefits from just a little heat, and tossing it with a warmed dressing softens the texture and improves flavors. The variations on this recipe include toasted almonds, craisins or apricots, pears and crumbled blue cheese.
In this recipe, we’ve added tangy local strawberries to the mix of young, tender spinach, and lardons. That term is just a fancy word for pancetta or slab bacon sliced into matchsticks.
Cook lardons over low-medium heat, turning them often, being careful not to overcook (or they’ll become bacon bits). Lardons will keep several weeks in a covered container in the refrigerator, then rewarm in the oven or on the stovetop. Red Table Meat, in the Food Building in northeast Minneapolis, produces award-winning pancetta using traditional Italian methods with pork from locally raised pastured hogs. Cured in a blend of rosemary, black pepper and salt, it’s aged for four weeks, and cooks up light and crunchy, mildly salty and sweet.
For the vinaigrette, the rendered fat is essential and so flavorful that the result contains less oil than most dressings. The trick is to add the vinegar, and a little sugar or honey while the fat is still warm, so that everything emulsifies evenly. You can make the dressing ahead and store it in the refrigerator, but it will need to be rewarmed before the salad is tossed.
Local spinach is coming in quickly, and right now the leaves are small and delicate. Through the season, as the spinach matures, the leaves will become larger and sturdier and are best fully wilted. That’s when the bacon dressing should be hot. But while the spinach is young, it’s best tossed when the dressing is just warm.
In this recipe, we’re relying on local strawberries, and when that season fades, we move on to raspberries, then the stone fruits — cherries and plums. By fall we will switch to apples or pears.
Hearty enough for a light entree and light enough for a starter course, this salad celebrates summer. Make it now.
Spinach and Strawberry Salad With Pancetta Lardons
Serves 4 to 6.
Note: Think of pancetta as Italian bacon. Lardons are pork fat (pancetta or slab bacon) sliced into matchsticks. Be sure to prepare the lardons over low heat, slowly, turning often, until they are crisp. Vary the salad ingredients with the season, substituting other fruit as the year goes on: raspberries, blueberries, cherries, plums, apples, pears and dried fruits. From Beth Dooley.
• 1/4 lb. pancetta, cut into lardons, about 1/2-in. by 3-in.
• 3 tbsp. red wine vinegar
• 2 tsp. sugar, or more to taste
• Salt and pepper to taste
• 6 to 8 oz. spinach
• 1 pint (2 c.) strawberries, hulled and cut in half
In a medium skillet set over low-medium heat, cook the lardons until browned and crisp, about 5 to 10 minutes. Remove from the heat, drain off the fat, turn the lardons onto a paper towel to crisp.
Return about 3 to 4 tablespoons of the rendered fat back into the pan. Whisk in the vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper, and stir until emulsified.
Toss spinach with dressing until leaves are lightly coat the leaves. Toss in the strawberries and the cooked lardons. Serve right away.
Nutrition information per each of 6 servings:
Carbohydrates 6 g
Protein 3 g
Fat 8 g
Saturated fat 3 g
Cholesterol 15 mg
Sodium 120 mg
Total sugars 4 g
Dietary fiber 2 g
Exchanges per serving: ½ carb, ½ high-fat protein, 1 fat.
Beth Dooley is the author of “In Winter’s Kitchen.” Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.