The zucchini plants in the front garden seem to sense their impending doom. They are soon to be ripped out to make way for the new crops of broccoli and kale that we will (hopefully) feast on through winter. As such, the plants are producing at a much faster rate than they did at the height of summer. We are now officially sick of zucchini, as are our neighbours and any random strangers foolish enough to wander by when I am in the garden picking the latest crop. This zucchini and pancetta pasta dish was thrown together one evening when I was tired of my standby zucchini pasta recipes, and is so good it has now entered permanent rotation. We have been eating it a lot of late because, well, we still have loads of zucchini.
The key to this dish is the slow rendering of the pancetta, which releases the pork fat. This fat is then used to saute the zucchini, thus adding amazing flavour to the final dish. I see that quizzical look though. You’re thinking that surely the fat should be discarded lest we suffer a crippling heart attack before we even get a chance to finish the meal.
We have long been warned that the consumption of saturated fat is fatal to our health, and that such fats should be replaced in our diets with alternative heart healthy monounsaturated fats. However, all fats are actually a mixture of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. Fats are then classified according to the predominant fatty acids present in their chemical composition. Lard, or pork fat, contains approximately 45% monounsaturated fat and only approximately 39% saturated fat. The remainder is made up of polyunsaturated fats, water and connective tissue. The majority of the monounsaturated fraction is oleic fatty acid, the same fatty acid that gives olive oil its heart healthy status.
It appears, therefore, that it is too simplistic to classify fats as either good or bad for our health, or as saturated or unsaturated. Lard has been used for many generations without apparent health issues, and I am loathe to suggest that a nation of Italians, where pork fat is king, have got it horribly wrong. Since embracing lard in my kitchen I have discovered it has a myriad of benefits, not least of which is the flavour and crispiness it adds to anything fried in it.
I don’t, however, suggest for one second that you take me at my word. I arrived at this position of embracing fats I had previously shunned through much study for my course last year. I encourage you to undertake your own investigations. If you are interested in reading more, a simple place to start would be the book Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, With Recipes. The author, Jennifer McLagan, explains the different fats and our perception of them in a simple and easy to understand manner. And there are some cracking recipes as well.
Classifications aside, fat is a great carrier of flavour. If you can’t quite face cooking your zucchini in the pancetta fat, I understand. Cook your zucchini in olive oil instead. The dish will still be good, but not quite as good as it would be with the salty, rendered fat from the pancetta. Try it, I dare you.
Zucchini & Pancetta Pasta
- 150 g pancetta chopped into 4mm lardons
- 500 g zucchini sliced 3mm thick
- 2 cloves garlic crushed
- 1 red chilli chopped
- 100 g Parmesan cheese grated
- 20 g basil leaves chopped
- Salt & pepper
- 500 g dried pasta
- Bring a large pot of water to the boil to cook the pasta.
- Place the pancetta in a frying pan over a medium - low heat. Cook slowly for approximately 8 minutes until the lardons are crispy and the fat has rendered out of the pancetta.
- Remove the pancetta from the pan with a slotted spoon, reserving the rendered fat.
- Add the pasta to the boiling water.
- Turn the heat under the frying pan to medium - high and add the zucchini. Saute for approximately 5 minutes until the zucchini is softened and has started to colour.
- Add the garlic and chilli and continue to cook for one minute.
- Add the pancetta back to the pan and allow to heat through.
- Remove the frying pan from the heat.
- Drain the pasta, reserving some of the cooking water.
- Add the pasta to the frying pan, together with half of the Parmesan and the basil.
- Stir the zucchini mixture together with the pasta, adding a small amount of the reserved cooking water to loosen the mixture.
- Serve immediately with the remainder of the Parmesan.