GUANCIALE: A LOVE STORY

Posted: September 24, 2012 in carbonara, curing, guanciale, Italian, pork jowl, Uncategorized
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Pork is magical. And though I’ve loved bacon and pork chops all my life, it’s only recently that I’ve started to appreciate other cuts of pork and how they’ve been prepared.
No store-bought bacon for me. I have a favorite website where I’ve bought the best quality bacon on line from Missouri for years: http://www.smokehouse.com/.
My Italian pork sausages and larger cuts of pork (like shoulders, bellies, and big fat pork chops) come from Caw Caw Creek, the only certified humane heritage breed pork farm in North Carolina. http://www.cawcawcreek.com/.
My pork ribs and liverwurst come from my friends at Simmons Farm in Middletown, RI, a certified organic farm. http://www.simmonsorganicfarmri.com/
And sometimes, my pork can come from surprising places, like my rafting guide friend Rob, whose family runs Crabapple Whitewater in the Forks, Maine, where I raft on the kennebec and Dead Rivers every year. Rob decided to raise two pigs this past year, and he’s willing to trade pork jowls for a few bottles of my homemade Lithuanian honey liqueur called Krupnikas.
Pork jowls?
Weighing the jowl pieces
It all started when I wanted to make an authentic spaghetti carbonara. Since I worship at the Italian food altar of chef Mario Batali, I went to his website to look up his recipe. It said that although many people use bacon or pancetta (both from the belly of the pig—the bacon is smoked, pancetta is not)…authentic carbonara is made with guanciale (pronounced gwan-chee-ah-lay).
Guanciale is cured (but not smoked) and made from pork jowls…that would be the cheeks of the pig. According to Batali, you take raw jowls, cure them for about a week in sugar, salt, peppercorns and fresh thyme, then hang the meat to dry. The result is a delicious pork product that you slice and fry and use in carbonara or any other recipe that calls for a tasty addition of porky goodness.
The flavor of pork jowls is subtly different than that of pancetta. There is a very special mouth-feel to the fat that makes guanciale so good. And once I made my first batch, there was no turning back!
But finding raw pork jowls was not easy. Many websites offered smoked jowls. But raw jowls were almost impossible to find, and I just about gave up until I visited my friends Sal and chef Aaron at the Back Eddy in Westport, Massachusetts. I told them of my dilemma and they said: “Pork jowls? Oh, we can order them for you!” I was psyched!
About a week later, I picked up my jowls, individually wrapped in hermetically sealed ¼ pound packages, and my curing began, following Batali’s recipe.
Getting the curing ingredients together: picking thyme leaves.
Finding room in my spare fridge to cure the meat was easy…everything fit snugly in a Ziploc bag. But once it was time to dry the jowls (all 24 of them since I bought 6 pounds,) I had to rig up a special hanging system that used bungy cords, vinyl cable ties, and beer cans…don’t ask. But it worked! And three weeks later, I was frying up my guanciale in a sautee pan and adding it to vegetables, potatoes, and pizza. I even gave guanciale gifts to my foodie friends. And before long, it was time to make more.
Since that first curing effort, some things had changed. My source for heritage pork, Caw Caw Creek, now carried pork jowls, too. And I was able to buy a couple of 3-pound jowls at a time. They were big, thick, and what I originally envisioned when I dreamed of the jowl of a pig that weighed 300 pounds or more. I cut the two big jowls into 1/2–pound, 3-inch thick slabs, and cured them using the same recipe.
A big, beautiful jowl in its native habitat.
Jowls with curing spices.
All was fine until one time, I went away on vacation, and a hurricane hit our neighborhood, knocking the power out. Fortunately, my good neighbors came to my rescue and started up my generator, plugged in the fridge, and saved the guanciale! I was back in business.
Curing and hanging completed (I now used a far more sophisticated system of stereo wire instead of bungy cords and beer cans, as seen in the photo,) I’ve been sharing the goodness of this incredible and little-known pork product with anyone who would listen—and taste.
A year ago, I had never heard of guanciale. Now, I can’t imagine not having a slab at the ready in my fridge. I use it just about anywhere I would use bacon, short of a BLT.
And by the way…I’ve yet to make the spaghetti carbonara recipe!
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