If you want lard (and why wouldn’t you?) in Atlanta, skip the stores catering to the middle and upper classes. Go to a poorer end of town. Go to a place like this Piggly Wiggly.
The well-heeled do not shop here. Its only review on Google reads, “Bought some oranges out dis bxtch ; damn oranges had worms.” I knew I was in the right place when I saw the pickled pig’s feet and salt pork on what might have been an old card table near the collards.*
But just past this table, I was distracted from my lard quest by a sign–an orange sign with big black lettering, the kind you might see across a storefront going out of business. SELECTED MEATS 5 FOR $20.
Sensing a bargain, I wandered over and nearly squealed out loud in delight. Jowl bacon, smoked jowls, and other cuts of pork meat you won’t find at Whole Foods were scattered over the shelves, clearly picked over by savvier shoppers looking to make their New Year’s day luckier. I scooped up two pounds of bacon, three pounds of jowl bacon, a package of smoked jowls, my lard, and went home happy.
Why get so excited about hog jowls? For me, there’s some nostalgia attached to them, as my grandmother cooked them on New Year’s Day to bring luck. But I also love the fact, as I’ve discussed in a previous post, that hog jowls come from the same cut as guanciale, their upscale Italian cousin.
That cut is the cheek (jowl) of the pig, higher in fat than the back and belly, where most American bacon comes from. But there are important differences. Guanciale is flavored with spices other than salt (rosemary and pepper) and is not smoked, unlike the jowls pictured at the top of this post. (The jowl bacon was prepared like … well, bacon, with sodium nitrite and other things you aren’t supposed to eat.) Guanciale means “pillows” in Italian, and this points to another distinction. As the photo suggests, the fat in guanciale tends to be very soft–almost as if it could be spread, like butter. The smoked jowls I purchased had a consistency closer to bacon, with some chewy bits.
I had no guanciale on hand to compare tastes, but if memory serves the guanciale is more savory (no surprise given the spices). All the jowls I purchased, even the smoked ones, were closer to pancetta in flavor than to bacon–milder and less smokey.
I knew it was time for another round of Pasta all’Amaticiana, the Roman/Amatrician pasta dish made with guanciale, tomatoes, and red pepper flakes. But the jowls required some different techniques. An earlier pizza mishap had taught me that the chewiness of the jowls would be an issue. Moreover, the jowls browned more quickly and rendered, surprisingly, less fat than the guanciale.
I got around these issues first by cooking the jowls with the onions for part of the time, which infused a little moisture into the dry parts. Turkey broth saved the browned bits of meat from burned obscurity at the bottom of the pan, while a long cooking time over slow heat ensured the chewy bits would plump out and tenderize.
This dish started life as a 2008 recipe for bucatini all’Amatriciana in the New York Times. This version produces a thick, rich sauce, infused with pork without being overwhelmed by it, every bit as good as the traditional dish with guanciale and much less expensive. Keep your cost low with a decent domestic Parmesan; nutty Reggiano would be nice too, but the sauce is so flavorful it’s not necessary.
4 – 6 oz. smoked hog jowls, sliced thin (about four 4″ slices)
1 large yellow onion, quartered and sliced thin
3 cloves garlic, sliced thin
1/2 tsp. red chili flakes
1/4 cup good quality poultry broth (I used turkey)
One 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes (make sure they have no salt)
1/4 tsp. sea salt or to taste
2 cups grated Parmesan cheese
1 lb. linguini, fettucini, or other sturdy long pasta
Start frying jowls on medium to medium high heat in large skillet. While jowls are frying, slice onion. Add onions to cooking jowls, which should just be beginning to brown. Watch onions carefully; if bottom of pan begins to turn dark brown, reduce heat.
While onions are sauteing, slice garlic. When onions have just begun to brown, remove jowls and place on cutting board. Turn off heat. Add garlic and chili and stir. Turn heat to medium high. Add broth and scrape browned bits from bottom. Let cook down until only a small amount of liquid remains.
While sauce is reducing, dice jowls. Add back to skillet along with tomatoes. Turn heat to medium low, so that sauce is slowly bubbling. Partially cover and cook about 30 minutes. Taste and add salt if needed. Reduce heat to low and continue to cook an additional 30 minutes, or until sauce is thick.
During the last 20 minutes or so of cooking, put water for pasta on to boil and prepare according to package directions. Drain and return to pot. Pour sauce over pasta and toss. Serve with Parmesan.
NOTE: If you are serving fewer than four, cook only as much pasta as you need and place in serving bowl after draining. Add enough sauce to coat pasta, then refrigerate remaining sauce. Reheat and serve with freshly cooked pasta, adding sauce & Parmesan as needed.
*In my 20s I was startled to learn that most people associate these foods primarily with African Americans. I like to imagine that racial harmony would grow if people would eat together more often.