Guanciale Renders Cook Speechless with Ecstacy

It’s entirely possible that tonight’s dinner was the best I have ever eaten.

It started with the recipe for Pasta alla Gricia from the January New York Times spread on guanciale that I mentioned in yesterday’s post. Pasta alla Gricia is arguably an ancient dish, made before the Italians had tomatoes (but obviously after they got hold of pasta from the Chinese). It consists of simply guanciale (now my favorite meat), onions, pasta, and cheese.

But I had other issues to consider in preparing this dish. First, I had this squash from our Farmer’s Market expedition over the weekend.

Second, I was too lazy to cook it separately.

So I started by frying the guanciale, for once being a good citizen and following the recipe.

I remained virtuous and added the onions.

And then I stared at the squash for a long time. I could get out another pan, I thought. I could cut up another onion, a little garlic, add some olive oil, saute it all for a side dish. I could for once in my life maintain the purity of the original recipe and not add something else at the last minute just to see how it turned out.

Or, I could just dump that squash right in. As is usual with me, Virtue lost. Undisciplined Possibility triumphed.

Thank God for Undisciplined Possibility.

I felt I showed admirable self-restraint by not licking the bowl.

Pasta alla Gricia with Squash (serves two greedy people)

1/2 lb penne
1 cup water from boiled pasta
1/3 lb guanciale (4 – 6 slices), sliced into 1″ long x 1/4′ wide strips
1 medium sweet onion, halved and sliced thin
4 small summer (crookneck or yellow) squash, cut in half lengthwise and sliced thin
Fresh ground pepper
2/3 cup aged pecorina cheese, divided in half (or more to taste)

Put water for pasta on to boil. Fry guanciale on medium high heat in large skillet. When guanciale is beginning to brown, add onions and cook until translucent, stirring often. (Do not drain fat.) Reduce heat to medium and add squash; cook until squash is tender, stirring often. Cook pasta in boiling water until al dente. Drain over bowl to catch water. Add pasta to skillet. Add salt to taste and generous amounts of pepper. Add 1/3 cup cheese and 1/2 cup pasta water and cook over medium heat until cheese begins to melt. Add enough additional pasta water to melt cheese and coat pasta, stirring continuously. Serve with remaining cheese.

Return to Pasta all’Amatriciana, with Guanciale

You may recall that that last year we posted a version of Pasta all’Amatriciana, the celebrated Italian pasta dish that every Southerner should love. It’s basically pasta with tomato sauce and bacon, and given our long love affair with pork, it’s a natural fit for the Southern palate.

Since that post, though, amatriciana has gotten a little more press, including this spread in the New York Times in January. The Times article focused on the necessity of including guanciale, which is cured meat from the cheek of the pig. That’s right–we’re talking hog jowls.*

I knew that I shared a deep, primal kinship with the Italian people, and now I know why. Our shared love of pork fat creates a bond that transcends time and space. It saddens me to think that my grandmother never had the chance to try guanciale. Every New Year’s day she made us hog jowls, black-eyed peas, and greens to ensure that we would be fat, happy, and rich, and I am sure a little guanciale would have helped her cause.

Luckily, time and space have converged to bring guanciale into our home, through Rainbow Meadow Farms. We visited their stand at the Raleigh Farmer’s Market and decided to take some guanciale with us.

Here’s a small portion of the fatty glory that now sits in our fridge.

The portion here represents what we used in the amatriciana I made on Sunday. According to the Times guanciale means “pillow,” and it’s easy to see why. Wouldn’t this make a nice, soft, satiny, porky object to nestle against your own cheek?

As for the recipe itself, I followed the one from the New York Times–actually obeying it for once. Maybe this is because that with the exception of the guanciale it was pretty much the same as my own.

Here’s the link to the Times’ recipe. I suggest only one modification: Cut the guanciale into thin strips–the 1″ strips suggested here were too thick.

*I am well aware that hog jowls and guanciale are not the same thing. I just like to think they’re close enough.

Buy this book!

In an attempt to use whatever remains of my birthday powers, I’d like to make a short plug for an unjustly forgotten cookbook: Great Food without Fuss, edited by Frances McCullough and Barbara Witt. Amazon does not even supply a cover photo, so I will:

You may not think you need this book, but you do. When I received it as a gift over ten years ago, I though its premise was the stupidest idea I’d ever heard. The authors have taken recipes from famous cooks (James Beard, Julia Child, and Deborah Madison, among others) that are relatively easy to make, and they’ve slapped them together into their own book. Who does that sort of thing? Isn’t it stealing?
As is all too often the case, I was wrong. Here’s the reason.

These are my cookbooks. Now, if you were to peruse these shelves you’d probably unearth–eventually–most of the recipes in Great Food without Fuss. But I certainly hadn’t bothered to do that by the time this little book took its place among the giants piled up here. (If you look carefully you can see it on the top shelf, nearly in the center, sandwiched between the two volumes of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking and Lidia’s Italy.) So this book has served as kind of index for me, a wonderful compilation of go-to recipes that I might never have discovered otherwise.

The recipes are indeed simple, and their strength lies in using fresh ingredients, for the most part. The Pasta with Vodka is the best version of this dish I’ve ever had. The recipe for Shredded Brussels Sprouts–chopped brussels sprouts, butter, and lime–is so simple and perfect that I was astonished I’d never come up with it myself. And how else would I have discovered James Beard’s ridiculously easy Cream Biscuits, in which you just stir whipping cream into a mix of flour, leavening, and sugar? Other favorites are Pasta with Gorgonzola, Julia Child’s Roasted Onions with Sage, Cape Scallops Sauteed with Garlic and Sun-Dried Tomatoes, and Beef Braised in Coffee.
Only one recipe, Pork Slices with Prunes, has ever steered me wrong, and I really should have known better anyway.
I think the strongest testament I can offer is the the torn, grease-splattered back cover

and the greatly abused page containing the recipe for Pasta with Vodka.

Perhaps if we all buy a copy, they’ll put it back into print.

Happy Bloomsday

Which also happens to be my 43rd birthday today.

To celebrate the occasion, my beloved husband made fried chicken, baked potatoes, gravy, and a salad. The man can fry. He used his grandmother’s cast-iron Dutch oven, every drop of oil in the house, and an organic chicken he cut up his own self, without noticeable injury. He soaks the chicken in butter and insists on removing the skin, which I normally would consider sacrilige. But he may have won me over.

I had been worried about the gravy based on the following conversation:

Me: “Fried chicken would make a wonderful birthday dinner! I’d just like to request gravy to go along with it. I can make it if you need me to.”

Fred: “Oh, that wouldn’t be too hard. You just add milk to the grease in the skillet, right?”

I am stunned into speechlessness.


Words return. “No, that just would give you warm, greasy milk. There’s one thing you left out.”




Luckily, Fred consulted Mrs. S. R. Dull’s Southern Cooking before going further. He apparently added a splash of red wine to her recipe, which is not an inventive touch I normally would condone, but I was blissfully out of the kitchen.

Mrs. Dull’s recipe tells you to spoon the chicken grease into a pan and add butter. Add your two tablespoons or so of flour, then a cup of milk and a cup of water, and salt and pepper. I would have used all milk and no butter, and certainly no red wine, but this was still a nice, rich gravy, browner than what my grandmother made. And it was good.

It was a wonderful birthday.

Getting Chubby

I am limited on my posting time, as I have an article for the Oakhurst Leaflet due on–well, it was due on Friday. But I will use what little time I have to urge you to go to Chubby’s Tacos on Ninth Street RIGHT NOW. Corn tortillas, seven–SEVEN!!–different kind of salsa, tacos ranging in price between $2 and $4–go. Now.