I guess I am now that person who always has home-cured pork belly on hand. It started out innocently enough: I had a 12-month old pork jowl that needed curing so I made guanciale,
taking advantage of the winter weather and using a pretty fool-proof recipe. It lasted a couple months and I finished it off before it had a chance to go off. As soon as it was done I realized I should have started a new jowl already, but lacking any, I found a 13 oz slice of belly in my freezer and gave it the same treatment. Now, I have always intended to make my own pancetta but always lacked the time, or a whole belly, or the motivation to learn the proper tying of the thing. But guanciale and pancetta are basically the same thing: cured, unsmoked pieces of fatty pork, used sparingly in pastas, braises, soups or anything else that would be improved with that distinct combination of salt, meat and age.
Tonight's dinner was parsnips and onion slow cooked with "my" pancetta and tossed in linguine. My homemade pancetta is more minerally than anything I've bought at the store, but allowed to mingle with heat and sugar and fat, it turns everything it touches into succulence. It also lasts longer than any commercial pancetta I've used, despite the fact that it's only cured with salt and spices, no nitrates.
Here's my recipe, which is basically Mario Batali's, with my own modifications based on absent-mindedness:
For every 1 lb of fresh pork belly--or jowl (skin removed),
1/4 C. Sugar
1/4 C. Salt
15 black peppercorns, crushed (or a mixture of black and white)
2 bay leaves, crushed
leaves from a couple branches of thyme
In a shallow bowl with lid or plastic container rub the salt and sugar all over the belly, then the spices. Cover and refrigerate for a week. The salt and sugar will melt into a brine, and you will want to turn the pork once or twice in the week. I've gone over 10 days in the brine as a result of totally forgetting about it.
After a week or so, remove the meat and shake off the liquid. If it's fall, winter, or early spring (days are below 60 and nights are colder) and you have an unheated garage, hang your meat to cure. I have no good advice on how to do it, having struggled with threading a piece of kitchen twine through the meat using a metal kebab and narrowly avoiding stabbing myself in the process. I'm sure that you will be smarter than me. I hang my meat from the bicycle that hangs from the hooks of the rafters of my garage. In the warmer weather, I will make some kind of pork hammock in the fridge. The meat needs to hang for about 4 weeks, until it is firmer and a bit darker than when you began. Again, you may end up forgetting about the meat and letting it go for 5 weeks instead, but trust yourself that you will know if has gone bad by the evidence of mold or an intolerable smell. But since I've experienced neither, you'll have to tell me about it.