February 22, 2011

The Pig and I: Pancetta Cups with Duck Eggs for Charcutepalooza

I guess you could say my relationship with the venerable pig began when I was kid. I can’t remember exactly how old I was when I saw my first dead pig, but I can say with certainty where it was: in our basement. Every year, my father would buy a pig, sharing the cost with several friends. Without warning, there it would be: hanging in the basement, mute and huge and, well, dead.

Funny about that – while I can remember those pigs, and the very first time I dared to touch one, I can’t ever remember being afraid or repulsed. I knew, even back then, that the pig would yield all manner of good things. And because it was there, in the house, it seemed normal; just another thing that my parents did, like making bushels of tomatoes into sauce, ravioli by hand, or batch after batch of pannetone, the golden loaves filling the small kitchen table. Didn’t every family butcher their own pig?

The ritual was the same. The long trestle table would come out, and the men would gather in the basement, working throughout the day to butcher the pig and divide the spoils. Our wine cellar, dank and dark and smelling of earth, would be the beneficiary of the day’s work. Hanging over the demijohns where we were sent to get the evening’s bottle of wine were the sausages and the salamis. Into the freezer went the pork chops and ribs. I don’t exactly know where we kept the musetto, that peculiarly Italian squat sausage that my mother would cook in hearty minestrone thick with beans, but I do know that I miss the taste of it still.

My father, preparing charcoal for an impromptu barbecue in the park

Of course, I didn’t exactly hang around for the butchering part. But the space of years and distance and parents long gone makes me yearn for a time machine, one that could bring me back to that basement, those days, that ritual.

Fast forward to today, where I still revere the pig and all its glorious parts, never really thinking about making more than a roast or ribs. And then I read about Charcutepalooza. Cue the angels singing and the clouds parting. Could I, would I dare myself to make my own prosciutto, pancetta and bacon? Damn right I would!

Late to the game, I’ve been furiously salting duck breasts and pork belly. The extra fridge in the basement has been divested of its bottles of wine and turned into a curing spot. Cheesecloth and butcher twine bought, curing salt procured, jubilation abounding.

And finally, my first Charcutepalooza post, featuring duck eggs cooked in pancetta cups with mushrooms, parsley and cheese. Never has a dish tasted more satisfying, or connected me more to my heritage. My father would be proud.

For this Charcutepalooza challenge, I chose to make the pancetta.  The pork belly, from Cumbrae's, was one gorgeous piece of pig.

Richard was away, so rolling the belly solo was impossible. Here's the belly after curing for seven days, wrapped and hung flat

Beautiful marbling for my first pancetta attempt!

Duck Eggs in Pancetta Cups with Porcini Mushrooms and Cheese
serves two or four

These little eggs cups can either form the main course of breakfast meal or be a mini side dish for a brunch.  Serve two per person if they are the main event.  They're baked in steps, to allow each element of the dish to cook to perfection.

½ lb piece pancetta (not sliced)
3  oz dried porcini mushrooms
1 small garlic clove, minced
2 tbsp chopped parsley, divided
½  tbsp each unsalted butter and olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
4 duck or chicken eggs
2 oz hard goat cheese, cut into thin 2 " strips

1.  Preheat oven to 400°F, with the rack in the middle position.

2.  Reconstitute the mushrooms in 2 c boiling water for 20 minutes. 

3.  While the mushrooms are reconstituting, slice the pancetta into 4 ⅛-inch x 4-inch strips.  Grease 4 of the cups in a regular muffin tin, and line them with the pancetta, around the sides and the bottom.  Set aside.  Separate the eggs, being careful not to break the yolks.  Set the yolks aside in their shells, and put the egg whites in a pourable measuring cup.

4. When the mushrooms are ready, drain, rinse and chop finely.  Heat the butter and oil over medium heat in a small skillet, and when the foam subsides, add the garlic.  Sauté, stirring, for a minute and then add the mushrooms and one tbsp of parsley.  Continue sautéingstirring, until the ingredients meld and are fragrant, about two minutes more.

5.  Add a generous tablespoon of the porcini mixture to each cup.  Divide the egg whites between the cups.  Place the muffin tin in the oven and bake for 10-12 minutes, or until the egg whites are just set.*  Take the tin out of the oven, top each cup with an egg yolk and put back in the oven, baking a further 2 minutes. 
*Duck egg whites are particularly unctuous and take longer to cook.  If you are using regular eggs, you may want to bake the pancetta cups for five minutes first, and then add the mushrooms and egg whites and shorten the baking time for the egg whites.  The important thing is to allow the various layers to cook thoroughly without overcooking the eggs.

6.  Take the tray out, top with the cheese, and broil for 5 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and bubbly.  Sprinkle the remaining parsley on top of each cup.
7.  To serve, scoop the cups out carefully with spoon and place one or two of the cups on a serving plate.  Serve with hot buttered toast to dip into the egg yolk, which will be creamy and thick.