I tried to ignore it, the silly (and yet somehow inspired) hashtag that started appearing on Twitter right after the New Year. #Charcutepalooza. But it kept showing up, with increasing frequency, in my Twitter feed: #Charcutepalooza. #Charcutepalooza. Everybody, it seemed, was tweeting about Charcutepalooza.
If you are a food lover on Twitter, you are probably familiar with the term by now. But just in case, let me fill you in. Charcutepalooza is a food project; its subtitle is The Year of Meat. It was started by my friend Cathy Barrow (who tweets as @MrsWheelbarrow) and her friend Kim Foster (who tweets as @TheYummyMummy). The aim? To tackle a new charcuterie project every month for a year; to use your homemade charcuterie in a recipe; and to post what you make every month.
Within minutes, it seemed, dozens of food bloggers had joined the Charcutepalooza party. You can read about the project in much more detail here, and see the list of participating bloggers (now more than 300) here.
I resisted through January’s challenge, which was homemade duck prosciutto. I am not particularly fond of duck (unless it is paddling around in a pond). And I am busy, as we all are. Who has time to make their own charcuterie? As much as I love a good challenge in the kitchen, there was no way I was going to take that on. I have enough on my plate.
But when participating bloggers started posting their gorgeous photos of duck prosciutto and the delectable dishes they made with it, I felt a twinge of regret. The more they posted, the more I twinged. And so when the February challenge was announced–homemade pancetta–I caved. I adore pancetta, which is, essentially, Italian bacon–pork belly cured with salt and spices and used to flavor soups, stews, pasta sauces, and more. I am almost never without a piece of pancetta in my fridge or freezer and I use it a lot. In fact, if you were to look at a cross-section of my arm, it would probably look like a roll of pancetta. That’s how much I love it.
I knew, though, that I would enjoy the challenge more if I had a partner in meat-making, so I asked my friend Nancy Purves-Pollard, who owns La Cuisine, in Old Town Alexandria, to join me. I am glad she said yes because, as it turns out, she is a master roller and trusser, and it was she who finally got our rather thick slab of pork belly to roll properly, and she who so expertly tied it.
In keeping with the rules of the challenge, we bought our pork belly from The Butcher’s Block, which sells meat from local and regional farms that use sustainable agriculture practices. We seasoned the meat and let it cure in my small garage refrigerator. Then we tied it and let it dry (I set it on cheesecloth on a rack in my husband’s wine cellar for about a week). When we cut into it, we had…pancetta.
The question then became: what to make with our pancetta? To see what Nancy did, head over to her blog on La Cuisine’s web site. As for me, I decided on soup. Now normally I am a hearty soup person–vegetable, grain and bean soups, with handfuls of greens stirred in, are what I like. But I wanted to give my homemade pancetta its due; I did not want it to get lost in the mix. I found a beautiful, snowy white head of cauliflower at MOM’s, in Del Ray, and suddenly I couldn’t think of a better way to showcase the pancetta than in a creamy cauliflower soup. It sounded just right to me for late winter. It was pure luck, however, that while at the store I happened to pass the cheese case and spied the wedge of Rogue Creamery’s Smokey Blue. And that’s how I came up with Cream of Cauliflower Soup with Smokey Blue Cheese and Pancetta Croutons. Last minute inspiration. It’s my favorite way to cook.
Copyright 2011 Domenica Marchetti
Makes 4 to 6 servings
8 ounces pancetta, cut into 3/4-inch dice
2 large leeks, white and pale green parts, thoroughly washed, halved lengthwise and sliced crosswise into small strips (2 cups)
2 ribs celery, chopped (3/4 cup)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter (optional)
1 large head cauliflower (about 1 1/2 pounds), trimmed and cut into small florets (I cut the tender part of the core into chunks and used that, too)
1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
3 to 4 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1 cup heavy cream or whole milk
3 ounces Rogue Creamery Smokey Blue cheese, crumbled
Put the pancetta in Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot and set it over medium heat. When the pancetta begins to sizzle lower the flame to medium-low and saute, stirring from time to time, for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the pancetta has rendered some of its fat and is browned and crispy. Use a slotted spoon to remove the pancetta to a paper towel-lined bowl and set aside.
Pour out all but 3 tablespoons of the rendered pancetta fat and add the butter to the pot, if using. When the butter is melted add the leeks and celery, taking care to stir them well to coat them with the fat. Cook the vegetables for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the leeks are wilted and the celery has softened a bit. Stir in the cauliflower and toss well to coat. Cover the pot and cook over medium-low for about 15 minutes, until the cauliflower begins to soften. Stir the vegetables from time to time as they cook.
Uncover the pot and sprinkle in the flour. Mix well to incorporate it into the vegetables and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until the flour has been absorbed. Pour in 3 cups of chicken broth, raise the heat to medium, and bring the soup to a simmer. Reduce the heat to medium-low or low to maintain a gentle simmer, cover the pot, and simmer for 25 to 30 minutes, until the cauliflower is completely tender and breaks apart easily when pierced with a fork.
Remove the pot from the heat and use an immersion blender to puree the soup until it is completely smooth and creamy. If it seems to thick, add a little more broth and puree again. Return the pot to the heat and pour in the cream or milk. Cook for a few minutes more, until the soup is heated through.
To serve, ladle the soup into bowls and garnish each serving with some crumbles of blue cheese and pancetta croutons. Or, if you prefer, you can stir the blue cheese into the soup until it is melted, and serve topped with the pancetta croutons. Buon Appetito!