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Delicious heresy

December 22, 2010

It’s winter now, officially, and it’s cold and dark and there’s a lot of cold, wet snow left from two days ago, with more on the way. I’m working abnormally long hours this week because the sixth grade has their chorus concerts right after break, so I’m playing for lots more of those classes than usual, plus my usual 15 or so piano lessons. Furthermore, Jacob’s been gone since Sunday night, gone home to his family in Virginia for a couple of weeks. All this can mean only one thing: it is time to eat pancetta.

Jacob is Jewish, and though he doesn’t keep strictly kosher — he eats cheeseburgers, for instance — he does not eat shellfish or pork. I’m sure he doesn’t care whether I do, but I’m not going to spend time cooking a meal he can’t eat, so I mainly don’t eat much of those things either, not even in restaurants, because it seems unfriendly. (When I bought mussels for lunch, he was in rehearsal all day.) Don’t feel too sorry for me — I indulged in some lobster mac-and-cheese while shopping in Maine with my mom this weekend, and in New York the weekend before, I had shrimp in spicy red sauce at a Cuban place and pizza with guanciale at Roberta’s. I ate pulled-pork sandwiches whenever they appeared on the Weathervane buffet table. I do okay, really. But only when I’m alone in the apartment do I cook such things for myself.

My go-to pork-product indulgence, especially in winter, is crispy pancetta stirred into tomato sauce to make a sort of simplified pasta all’amatriciana. I’ve only had amatriciana once, in a North End eatery called Cibo (since replaced by a new place called Panza, possibly with the same owners, and a lot of the Cibo menu still intact). It was a bitterly cold, windy night, I was visiting a friend on Hanover Street, and she suggested dinner there. I remember the warmth of the place, even though we were seated close to the door; the friendliness of the host, who may also have been the owner; and the rich, satisfying flavors of that pasta dish. Of course, now that I’ve read a bit more about it, I realize purists would probably scoff at the meal I had that night; its plum-tomato sauce was laced with pancetta, not the traditional guanciale, and fontina. And an old menu I found online indicates it had eggplant, too. Heresy. But you know what? That was some delicious pasta.

The version I make at home commits the double sin of incorporating nonstandard ingredients (garlic is disputed and mushrooms unheard-of) and jarred sauce. Sure, you could make the sauce from scratch, and I probably will sometime. But for now, this is fast, easy comfort food, the perfect remedy for late December. I wouldn’t serve it to an Italian. To date I haven’t served it to anyone, actually. But I think my mother would like it.

Tomato Sauce with Pancetta and Mushrooms

Serves 2 smallish appetites.

2 oz. pancetta, cubed

2 cloves garlic, sliced

6 oz. button or cremini mushrooms, sliced

a couple good shakes of red pepper flakes

1-2 cups tomato sauce, jarred or homemade (I like Trader Joe’s roasted garlic marinara)

pasta of choice

Parmesan/pecorino/whatever for grating on top

1. Cook pancetta in a skillet over medium heat until it’s slightly crispy and most of the fat has rendered out.

2. Push pancetta to one side of pan. Add garlic and cook until golden. Add red pepper flakes, mushrooms, and a little olive oil if needed; cook until mushrooms are tender.

3. Stir in tomato sauce, reduce heat, and cook until warmed through.

4. Serve with pasta, ideally something short and textured to catch the pancetta bits. I like tricolor rotini, because everything’s more fun when it comes in three colors.

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