The table is nicely set, the linen crisp and spotless, the cutlery heavy, the glassware sparkling, the dining room simple but impeccable in every way, the food on the plate pretty enough to publish in an up-market glossy magazine.
Are we in a Michelin star restaurant? No. Because the dish that looks so appetising doesn’t taste of anything. And in cooking that is the greatest mistake in the book.
A dish can have faults of many kinds and still be enjoyable. But if it’s tasteless it is a total failure. And the cook is to blame: the most important part of his job is to ensure the dish has flavour.
Although I was recently served a dish that tasted of nothing in a restaurant everyone raves about, Spanish cooks and housewives are experts at packing loads of taste into everyday dishes.
Spanish cooks have a number of culinary tricks tucked into their apron that allow them to add a great deal of extra flavour to their dishes, especially those of a rustic nature. These aren’t really tricks, but are traditional techniques everyone interested in cooking learns from an early age. I’ve written about two of them recently: the sofrito and the picada.
The sofrito is a succulent mixture of onions, tomatoes, garlic and herbs that forms the basis of many dishes such as stews, paellas, casseroles and others containing meat, poultry, fish and vegetables.
The picada is made up of herbs, spices, nuts and other ingredients pounded in a mortar and always stirred in during the last few minutes of cooking time, never at the beginning. The idea is to add a final explosion of taste before serving the dish.
Spanish cooks have another short-cut method of packing in flavour and they make use of it in a wide variety of dishes. This time they use all kinds of Spanish charcuterie such as chorizo and ends of cured ham, but especially the one known as panceta, or panceta salada. There are two main kinds and they are not always referred to as panceta. They are pieces of belly of pork that have been given a heavy dry salt cure, so they have a long shelf life. Sometimes the panceta is a thick piece that is pure fat, somewhat similar to the Italian ‘lardo’.
It can also be thick but streaked with two or three lines of lean meat. This is more like the Italian ‘guanciale’ which is used in the preparation of the carbonara sauce. Another panceta is as thick as streaky bacon but with a completely different texture because of its dry salt cure. You can use bacon in a sauce instead of panceta, but you can’t use thin slices of panceta for bacon and eggs.
At the market and in supermarkets you will find panceta under different names such as ‘panceta salada’, ‘panceta veteada’ (with streaks of lean), ‘tocino’ and ‘tocino veteado’. But you needn’t pay any attention to the names because you can identify them visually and take the one you want.
Spanish cooks add chunks of fatty salt pork to cocidos (hot-pots containing meats, poultry and vegetables) as well as other dishes in which meats are boiled.
In Galicia, where they make the best pancakes in all of Spain, cooks rub the hot frying pan with a fatty piece of panceta before adding the pancake batter. This produces a very even film of fat which is what the cook needs to make perfect pancakes.
Panceta is a great standby ingredient because its heavy dry salt cure gives it a very long shelf life. That means there can always be some in the pantry (no need to keep it in the fridge) for the making of impromptu dishes.
You will find good panceta at Mercadona and other supermarkets as well as the Mercat d’Olivar and the Santa Catalina market. El Corte Inglés has a selection from different parts of Spain.
The Mercat d’Olivar has a huge charcuterie stall immediately on the left as you enter from the Calle José Tous Ferrer door, that specialises in Iberian cured ham. They have streaky bacon that’s ideal for an English breakfast.
Panceta’s heavy dry salt cure means it is extremely salty and, depending on the dish you are making, you may have to desalt it. When I am chopping up a smallish amount to add to a pasta sauce, for instance, then I don’t desalt it. But I don’t add any salt to the sauce until it is ready, when I’ll know if it needs it or not.
If adding a biggish piece of panceta to a cocido I wash off all surface salt and soak it overnight in cold water. If an all-night soak isn’t possible, I put it into a saucepan of cold water and bring it slowly to the boil. The saltiness of the water indicates if the panceta can be used without any further soaking.
The fatty panceta is especially good for adding to French pâtés de campagne and some stuffings. The little pieces of salty fat spread throughout the pâté mixture or the stuffing and act like an interior basting system, keeping both mixtures moist and tasty. But you must also check the saltiness of the panceta before adding it to either mixture.
Boiled and tender lardons of panceta can be used as an aid to adding extra taste to a dish or as an integral part of a dish.
Basque cooks make a starter with leeks and panceta lardons. The boiled tender lardons are sautéed over a low heat in a frying pan to release some of their fat. Cylindrical pieces of leek about 2cms long are added and cooked over a higher heat until the leeks are al dente and the lardons are crisp and golden. Fresh herbs of one’s choice can be stirred in at the last minute.
Lardons of panceta can be fried in a little olive oil before continuing to make a sofrito with onion, garlic and tomatoes for lentils or other pulse dishes. If lardons are sautéed until they are golden and very crisp they make an excellent filling for an omelette, either on their own or combined with potatoes. And these crispy lardons add a new dimension of texture and flavour to a salad of lettuce and tomato.
For an impromptu plain tomato pasta sauce, chop raw panceta finely and sauté it slowly until golden and crisp. Add it with its fat to a previously made plain tomato sauce and use it immediately for a long pasta cooked without any salt. Simple and scrummy.