This recipe came courtesy of Francois Vecchio, one of the most knowledgeable people on the subject of cured pork I’ve ever met. Once you know his background, you can see why. He grew up in Switzerland in the 1940s (“It was war outside of our little Swiss world,” he recalled). His father’s father was Piemontese, but moved to Geneva where he became a butcher. The roots are equally strong on his mother’s side. “My gran’pa,” he told me, “had the best restaurant in Geneva, Restaurant Chouard. He had learned his trade in London, Aswan, Davos and the Black Forest.”
After years of traveling the world while apprenticing as a butcher, Francois ended up in the family meat business based in Ticino. Eventually he moved to the States, where he has been involved in a wide range of efforts to cure traditional European salamis, hams and, of course, bacon. He’s now retired to Alaska, after living in California for decades. Alaska, Francois says, harkens back to his youth in the Alps—“It’s probably that old addiction, which makes me choose Alaska,” he explained, “the space here was in the mountains, rocks and glaciers…”
(The Pennsylvania Dutch Cookbook, published in 1961, recommends that you “never use dandelion greens that have begun to flower, because they are apt to be bitter.” More on the Pennsylvania Dutch in a minute.) “Washing,” Francois went on, “is a chore and some sand always sticks around to the plate. The miracle occurs when on a first drizzling of balsamic vinegar and some brown mustard, I pour the hot rendering and sizzling and crisp diced bacon.” “My grandmother always claimed that it purges the liver of all the winter miasms,” he added. I don’t have data to support his grandmother’s claim, but I do know the salad is very good…
Interestingly, as we were working to transform Francois’ notes into culinary reality, the woman who was doing our testing—Jean Henry—shared her own experience out of the German tradition here in the U.S., bringing the bacon story full circle. “I grew up with a Pennsylvania Dutch version of this salad,” she emailed the same evening she saw Francois’ version.
“We also went out with our Pennsylvania Dutch babysitter and gathered the greens, before they were too large and bitter. We also gathered up the rosette of new leaves in a bunch and cut to the crown with a paring knife run round it. I always thought this was to prevent the plant from returning and to get all the smallest leaves—the Pennsylvania Dutch are always very efficient. We later cut off the root stalk. We triple washed the greens in the deep sink then spun them dry while the bacon cooked. And we always picked the greens as close to mealtime as possible…”
8 ounces (about 4 slices) pancetta, diced
8 ounces fresh dandelion greens, stems removed
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Coarse sea salt to taste
Freshly ground Tellicherry black pepper to taste
Fry the pancetta over medium heat until crisp.
While the pancetta is cooking wash the greens, then spin or pat them very dry. Place them in a warm, but not hot, serving bowl.
When the pancetta is done, immediately pour it and all its drippings straight from the skillet over the greens. If you need more fat, you can add a bit of olive oil. Toss immediately so that the hot fat wilts the greens a bit.
Spoon the mustard onto the greens, then sprinkle on the vinegar, then toss again. Add salt and pepper to taste, toss one more time and serve right away.
(Francois adds, “My grandma even tossed a spoon of flour on the greens to soak more of the extra hot fat, it was fabulous but probably hard to convey to today’s consumers.” Feel free to try it at home.)
Serves 2 as a main course, or 4 as a side dish
FOR THE PENNSYLVANIA DUTCH VERSION:
Substitute an American smoked bacon for the pancetta—Jean Henry recommends the Arkansas peppered bacon. For the dressing, whisk together all of the ingredients: 2 teaspoons of a sweet, smooth German-style mustard, 1 egg, a teaspoon or so of sugar, 3 tablespoons of good apple cider vinegar, about 2 teaspoons of the bacon fat, and salt and pepper. Pour the dressing over the dandelion greens immediately.