One of the best products available in French supermarkets is lardons, or small strips of salt- (not smoke-) cured bacon. Delicious little morsels of porky goodness, here in France they come pre-cut and portioned into small plastic packs that cost less than 2 euros.
Lardons are kind of a go-to ingredient that are perfect for those times when you might feel a lack of culinary inspiration. I can't think of many dishes that aren't improved with the addition of a bit of pork fat, especially when you're making a flavor base of things like sautéed onions and garlic. When you add the little bits to a hot pan, their soft salty fat melts away into the other ingredients, and the pink savory meat crisps up, adding a nice textural contrast to whatever you're making.
The French use lardons in a huge variety of dishes, the most well-known of which is probably coq au vin, the classic stewed chicken with mushrooms, or perhaps boeuf bourgignon, another wintry dish of beef braised in red wine. Among the more casual and less labor-intensive uses for lardons, quiche Lorraine definitely stands out. I've already seen my roommates and their friends make this dish twice, and I've only been here for about two weeks. Quiche Lorraine is incredibly easy to prepare and calls for only a few ingredients besides the lardons: sliced leeks or onions; créme fraiche; eggs; Gruyere cheese; and a pastry crust, either homemade or (most often) store-bought. I think of quiche Lorraine as the French answer to, say, a big pot of pasta and a salad, or something along those lines, which is usually what we Americans throw together when we want to have a big group of people over for dinner without thinking too much about (or spending too much money on) what we want to make.
Although it might seem as though this post is heading in the logical direction of sharing a recipe for quiche Lorraine, that is not, in fact, what I am about to do (I'll definitely devote a post to the subject later on, seeing as how the quiche and I basically share the same name). Instead, I'm going to tell you about a "recipe" I invented on the fly yesterday, when I was hankerin' for some déjeuner. When I got up to the kitchen, my roommate Ben had already made a big pot of pasta; I also noticed a potiron that had been cut into and was begging to be used up. When I opened the fridge and saw the packet of lardons, I thought of the pairing of salty pork and sweet squash and started salivating. I quickly peeled and sliced up a small portion of squash and set it over some hot water to steam while I sautéed the lardons with some chopped leeks and garlic:
When the squash was just tender, I drained it, stirred it into the leek mixture along with some water, olive oil and salt, and admired the pretty fall colors that resulted:
Finally, I stirred in the cooked al dente pasta, heated it through, and piled it all into a bowl. A little grated cheese and I had a sweet, salty, porky, nutty autumn lunch. All hail the power of pork!
Pasta with Squash, Leeks and Lardons
1 lb. dried pasta such as penne, ziti or rotini
1 small or 1/2 medium sweet winter squash, such as butternut, acorn or kabocha, peeled, de-seeded, and sliced thinly
1 leek, white part only, sliced thinly and rinsed of any dirt or grit
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1/2 c. or about 4 oz. lardons, or use pancetta or bacon sliced into small strips
Grated Parmesan cheese
1. Set a large pot of water to boil.
2. Place the squash in a steamer basket over a small amount of water and steam until tender, about 6 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, heat 3 tbsp. olive oil in a wide, heavy saucepan. Sauté the leek, garlic and lardons until the pork has rendered most of its fat and the leeks turn tender, about 5 minutes.
4. Salt the pasta water and boil pasta until al dente, about 10 - 12 minutes. Reserve a small amount of pasta water and then drain.
5. Drain the squash and add it to the saucepan, stirring well. Incorporate a little pasta water and season to taste with salt and pepper.
6. Add the drained pasta to the saucepan and stir. If pasta is too dry, add some more pasta water and/or olive oil. Divide among 4 bowls, topping each with grated Parmesan.