Contrary to conventional wisdom, at this time of year when the garden is in a headlong rush to produce fruits, and you can almost watch the plants as they extend their sinewy tendrils into the air like a group of octopi doing the wave, it’s sometimes hard to know what to do with it all. This is a peculiar problem for us since hitherto we’ve been limited to the cultivation of one basil plant, one of chives, a miserable-looking tarragon, and a solitary pepper plant in pots on our fire escape, so were limited to harvesting only as much as wouldn’t kill the plant at any one time. In this context, the occasion of the annual pepper (singular) ripening was celebrated with champagne and confetti.
This year, while hardly drowning in produce, we’re finding that the gathering of some 20 or more cherry tomatoes several times a week, a glut of dark green basil and some of the most profoundly-flavored parsley we’ve ever tasted is presenting us with a conundrum: do we actually want to eat tomato and basil salad three or four times a week? Sure, we could be more imaginative, and if they were reading these lines, there would likely be a host of city-based food bloggers gnashing their teeth at our stupidity, but I am reminded of summers as a child when my grandfather’s garden would yield about nine tons of green beans during July and we’d be eating the damn things, steamed or blanched, morning, noon and night for a six weeks.
I almost feel like being deliberately controversial here and suggesting that this frustration with having to eat seasonally since the dawn of time is why we shouldn’t be so damning of the range of options offered to year-round us by the modern agro-food system. However, knowing full-well that would generate negativity among readers, as well as being more or less against our own ethos of attempting to tread lightly carbon-wise, not to mention foolishly contradicting the implicit healthiness of this practice that kept my granddad enjoying one-too many lunchtime sherries well into his nineties, I’ll keep it to myself.
Ever up for a challenge though, and, frankly, feeling rather bloody-minded, I tackled the issue of why eating seasonally can be boring head-on this weekend, and, making use of a particularly ripe pound of tomatoes, I made a kind of summery puttanesca, constituting a refreshing change from the raw fruit, but instead of stopping there and letting the seasonal flavors speak for themselves as we have been taught to do, I decided to pair the whole thing with some lascivious pork belly. I say lascivious because, even considering puttanesca’s origins among the evening workers of Naples, there’s something that makes you feel inherently guilty about pairing a fresh, organic sauce with about the richest most unctuous part of the pig.
Pan frying the slices of pork belly in its own fat, before using that fat as the base for my sauce, and deep frying the cracklins just for kicks, this was a dish to break any kind of kitchen monotony you’re experiencing, at virtually any time of year. We don’t eat a lot of pork belly and its measured use is kind of the key to remaining alive and vertical, but it does add a certain something that is literally unavailable from anything else, with the possible exception of guanciale. Indeed, had I not been frazzled by the heat and had pounds of fresh tomatoes weighing down on my brain, I would have used guanciale and turned this whole thing somewhere between puttanesca and al’amatriciana . However, I’m pretty happy that I didn’t, the briny, assertive character of the capers kept the belly’s richness somehow balanced, as did the acidity of the fresh tomatoes that might not have been present out of a can. In fact, I might consider eating seasonally more often if it meant I could dine in this kind of style.
- 1lb linguine, preferably durum wheat, like Garofalo
- 1lb fresh tomatoes
- 2-3 tablespoons non-pareils capers
- 1/2 large spanish onion, chopped
- 4-6 cloves garlic, chopped
- 2-4 salted anchovies (optional)
- 1/4 cup dry white wine
- 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes/pepperoncino
- 1/2lb fresh pork belly, top layer of fat removed, sliced into 1/2inch slices, fat cap sliced lengthwise into 1/8 inch long slivers
- kosher salt, black pepper
- abundant boiling water
- regular olive oil, not extra virgin
- Handful fresh basil leaves (optional).
- In a large saute pan heated to medium-high, brown (and cook through) pork belly slices in its own fat. Then remove to a plate.
- In a separate heavy bottomed pan, heat 1/2 pint olive oil to around 350F/180C, and introduce fat strips. Fry until golden brown and crispy. Remove to a rack or paper towels, sprinkle with salt. Keep warm in oven until needed.
- Reduce heat in saute pan pork belly cooked in to medium, then in the rendered fat, sweat onions for 4-5 minutes until translucent.
- Add garlic, anchovies and hot pepper flakes. Cook for another 2-4 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Increase heat to high for 1 minute, add wine and stir well, making sure to scrape caramelized porkiness off the bottom.
- When wine has reduced by half, add tomatoes.
- Stir well, bring to a boil, cover and reduce heat to medium.
- Cook for 8-10 minutes, or until all tomatoes have burst and become saucy.
- Add capers and almost all basil, reserving 3-4 leaves for garnish.
- Add linguine to boiling water, cook for 6-8 minutes or until al dente. Add one ladle of pasta water to sauce, before adding pasta to sauce also.
- Stir well to coat pasta with sauce.
- Plate pasta and dress with pork belly, cracklings and reserved basil.
- Enjoy with same white wine used to cook with or a hearty southern Italian red.