Nik Sharma’s Beef Chilli Fry with Pancetta

An easy flank steak stir-fry with the unexpected addition of pancetta.
An easy flank steak stir-fry with the unexpected addition of pancetta.

Nik Sharma is not a triple, but a quadruple threat. And we’re all the better for it.

Writer, photographer, recipe developer, and food scientist, he does it all. And those talents are on big display in his new cookbook, “The Flavor Equation” (Chronicle Books), of which I received a review copy.

Born in Bombay (Mumbai), Sharma studied molecular genetics at the University of Cincinnati, before getting a a full-time research job at Georgetown University’s Department of Medicine. His creative side soon took hold, though, as he started cooking his mother’s recipes, as well as developing his own, which he chronicled on his award-winning blog, A Brown Table.

That led to his first cookbook, “Season: Big Flavors, Beautiful Food” (Chronicle Books, 2018). His follow-up makes use of his science background even more, along with his always beautiful food photography.

Through more than 100 recipes, he teaches how certain techniques or ingredient additions can heighten brightness, bitterness, saltiness, sweetness, savoriness, fieriness, and richness — the flavors that make food taste so good. Sharma also delves into how sight, sound, mouthfeel, aroma and taste all play into how we react to food.

For instance, Worcestershire sauce adds a hit of savory character to “Roasted Butternut Squash & Pomegranate Molasses Soup,” while cooking ground turmeric in hot oil helps temper its flavor. Lime juice actually amplifies the heat of cayenne and other spices in ” Masala Shrimp.” Coffee enhances chocolate’s natural flavors in “Chocolate Miso Bread Pudding,” while miso adds salty and sweet notes for more depth.

In “Beef Chilli Fry with Pancetta,” the cured pork is an inspired addition to this easy stir-fry of flank steak with onions and potatoes. As the pancetta crisps up in a hot pan, Sharma explains, its rendered fat then adds a boost of flavor to enhance everything else in the dish. Plus, as you dig into this dish, you get a surprise hit of smokiness and slight saltiness now and then as you stumble upon a bite of pancetta.

A generous amount of garlic, plus cloves, ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, and black pepper add a delicious warmth and earthiness, while fresh chillies add just enough heat. A splash of apple cider vinegar peps up the dish with brightness from fruity acidity.

It all makes for an uncanny meat-and-potatoes dish to savor.

Turmeric tinges this dish a mustard-gold color.
Turmeric tinges this dish a mustard-gold color.

Beef Chilli Fry with Pancetta
(Serves 4)

4 ounces pancetta

2 Yukon gold potatoes (total weight 15 1/2 ounces), peeled and diced into 1/2-inch cubes

Fine sea salt

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 yellow onions (total weight 18 ounces), cut in half and thinly sliced

6 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated

6 cloves, ground

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

1 pound flank steak

2 tablespoons malt or apple cider vinegar

1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped

2 or 3 fresh chillies, minced

Heat a large stainless-steel or cast-iron saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the pancetta and saute until the fat renders and the meat starts to brown, 5 to 8 minutes. Add the potatoes and season with salt. Cook until the potatoes turn golden brown and are completely cooked but crispy on the outside, about 30 minutes. Remove the potatoes and pancetta and transfer to a medium bowl.

In the same saucepan, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the onions and saute until they turn translucent, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and ginger and saute until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the ground cloves, black pepper, cinnamon, turmeric, and cook until fragrant, 30 to 45 seconds. Transfer the onions with the spices to a small bowl and leave the saucepan on the stove over medium-high heat.

Pat the steak dry with paper towels. Cut the steak against the grain into 1/-2 by 1-inch cubes. Season with salt and add the steak to the hot saucepan. Cook until the beef is tender and medium-rare (135 degrees) on an instant-read thermometer, 4 to 5 minutes. Turn the heat to low and scrape the bottom of the pan to mix the drippings with the beef. Fold in the cooked potatoes, onions, and pancetta. Sprinkle with the vinegar. Taste and season with salt if needed. Transfer from the heat to a serving dish, garnish with the cilantro and chillies, and serve immediately.

From “The Flavor Equation” by Nik Sharma

Another Nik Sharma Recipe to Enjoy: Roast Leg of Lamb

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