I’ve always read about guanciale. It’s basically an unsmoked bacon-type product made from the jowls or cheeks of the pig. I’ve eaten it before at restaurants. It’s extremely porky, but delicate at the same time. I was in for a culinary awakening when I decided to make my own.
The amazing thing about guanciale is how easy it is to make. I won’t go in to the details here, you can find the recipe that I followed in Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing. It’s basically rubbing the jowl with some garlic and herbs, covering in sat, rinsing, and then drying. The most difficult part of the process was finding a place that was out of the way to hang the jowl for a couple of weeks.
It’s at this point that I have to thank Mrs. Notafoodie for putting up with my crazy food explorations, and especially for allowing me to hang uncooked pig meat in our basement. I hope you realized what you were getting in to. The two meat slicers that we received as wedding gifts should have been some indication. You’re the best.
I was away in London during most of the drying time, and was really excited to come home and cut in to my piggy cheek to see how it turned out. I was NOT disappointed. The first thing I noticed was how delicate the guanciale was. The fat was soft and the meat was tender- even after having been dried for a few weeks.
I couldn’t wait to try it. The first thing I did was to slice off a piece to fry up. I was going to make a “GLT” sandwich, but couldn’t wait for the lettuce and tomato (or the bread), and just ate the plain strip of fried guanciale. It was as porky as I remembered, but also had a sweetness to it. What amazed me was how delicate and delicious the fat was. By itself the guanciale was pretty damned good, but I would learn over the next few days that piggy cheek is best when it plays with friends.
The first experiment came on one of our Friday pizza nights. I decided to incorporate my newly discovered ingredient in to a simple pizza. I wanted to showcase the flavor of the pork and thought that a sauce might overpower it. My thinking was that a white pie (fresh mozzarella, ricotta, sea salt and black pepper) would go best with the guanciale. I fried up 1/3 lb in small chunks. I drained and reserved the rendered fat (more on that later) and sprinkled the bits on to the pizza before it went in to the oven. I have a habit of picking off items from my pizza and eating them as sort of a “preview” to the first bite. When I did this with a piece of guanciale, I was unimpressed. It was good, but nothing earth-shattering. Then I took a perfectly composed bite. The combination of the crispy delicate pork with the softness of the melted cheeses just plain worked. I couldn’t wait to experiment more!
The next night, I decided that I was going to make one of those simple Roman dishes that were invented because of guanciale. The major three are Amatriciana, Carbonara and Gricia. The simplest of the three is pasta alla gricia. I wanted to stick with the “simple but good” theme and really get as much of the flavor of the fried piggy on to the pasta. I used a recipe that I found in La Cucina Italiana, one of the few magazines that I receive that I actually look forward to reading cover to cover. It’s such a simple preparation; fry the guanciale chunks, cook some thinly sliced onions and some crushed red pepper flakes in the rendered fat with some olive oil, then toss on to the pasta (we used spaghetti) with some fresh pecorino romano.
I don’t know what to say except that this dish was the best, most flavorful, pasta dish that I think I have ever made… AND IT WAS SO SIMPLE. Mrs. Notafoodie agreed with my assessment.
One of the interesting things that I learned from this experiment is how mild and delicious the rendered guanciale fat is. It’s nothing like bacon fat that has that smoky, bacony flavor. This is more delicate, yet intensely porky (if that makes any sense). I took the fat that I saved from the Friday night pizza and decided to sauté some greens in it to accompany our pasta. The first thing that I noticed was that the fat, after being in the fridge for 24 hours, was still soft and silky smooth. When I put it in the pan, I noticed that with very little heat, it melted to an almost clear glistening substance. I threw in some chopped onion and garlic and began to fry. I tasted a piece of onion and it was delicious- sweet, and porky, and perfect. Then I threw in some escarole, and that was a mistake. The escarole was a bit too assertive of a flavor for the delicate guanciale fat. I think that next time, I need to either use more fat, or use a green that is a bit milder.
Mrs. Notafoodie and I were discussing how easy the whole guanciale process was over dinner. I knew that she was impressed because she asked me how much I thought I could cure at once down in our basement.
Man, do I love that woman!