Hog Jowls Day 1: Pasta all’Amatriciana

Smoked Hog Jowls 2013 3I’ve been on a hog jowl kick since January 1. That was the day I trekked into the Piggly Wiggly on Candler Road, seeking lard. (I’m also engrossed in a biscuit experiment.)

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.

Return to Pasta all'Amatriciana, with Guanciale

Guanciale from Raleigh Farmers’ Market, 2008

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.

Amatriciana with pork jowls 2013 4
Pasta all’Amatriciana with Hog Jowls

Serves 4

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.

Going Home

I am pleased–and most importantly, my mother is pleased–to report that it looks like we are returning to Atlanta in just a couple of months. I’ve accepted a new job there and am looking forward to getting back. Fred has already laid bets with his best friend on the chances of Braves third baseman Chipper Jones suffering a season-ending injury before July 4. One of them will get a steak dinner out of this. It’s entirely possible I’ll end up cooking it either way.

In any case, posting will be sporadic over the next couple of months, much as it has been over the last few weeks as we made this decision and worked to get our house(s) ready to sell.

Today, I’d like to pay homage to the Durham Farmers Market, which I will miss when we return to Atlanta. Specifically, I’d like to honor the pea shoots that have been available there for the last three weeks, if you arrive early enough.

I sincerely hope that they will be available this Saturday. They are a miraculous little green, with the taste of tender, leafy snow peas–a little sweet, somewhat crunchy, with a delicate, almost minty flavor.

You don’t really need to know how to cook them. It’s okay to stand in the kitchen and stuff them into your mouth by the handful, like potato chips. They also infuse any salad with a gourmet air–add them to your mix of lettuces and put a little sign by the serving bowl that says, “Local lettuce and pea shoot mix with something-infused oil.”

So far, though, my favorite way to enjoy them is over pasta.

Here’s the recipe, such as it is. It is very forgiving. I never seem to make it the same way twice, and it’s always good.

Pea Shoots with Pasta

Makes 2 meal-size servings. This dish will also work with other tender young greens, like cress or creasy greens, also available now.

1/2 lb. linguini, spaghetti, or fettucini
1 tbsp. butter
1 tbsp. olive oil, plus more for drizzling
6 small scallions, sliced, including some of the green part
3 – 4 cups pea shoots, rinsed and dried
Salt and pepper to taste
3/4 cup coarsely grated Parmesan

Following directions on package, put salted water for pasta on to boil. Meanwhile, add butter and olive oil to large skillet. Heat on medium high heat until butter melts. Add scallions and saute until tender, 3 – 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Finish preparing pasta according to package directions. Drain well. Add pea shoots to skillet. Pour pasta over top. Add generous amounts of salt and pepper and mix until pea shoots have just wilted. Pour additional olive oil over pasta, to taste. (About 1 – 2 tablespoons should be enough.) Transfer to two serving bowls. Top with Parmesan cheese and additional salt and pepper if desired.

Red Turnips, Scallops, and Pasta

I continue to grovel for nearly killing Fred last week, and yesterday some some scallops offered a chance for redemption. (They came from Walking Fish, our community sponsored fishery, which I’ve raved about so much in this blog that they need to start paying me.)

My first thought was to serve them over pasta, with a side salad that included this bunch of red turnips, picked up at the Durham Farmers’ Market on Saturday and so in desperate need of eating.

The turnips are white on the inside, laced with red, and with a thick scarlet ring around the edge when sliced. They would have been beautiful in a salad, especially with their greens mixed in. Unfortunately, though, they tasted like–turnips. Really sharp turnips. So cooking was in order, and I considered serving them mixed with the scallops.

But I dispensed with this idea when I saw the scallops, just a few hours out of the ocean.  They were everything you hope for in a scallop–sweet, buttery, tender little pillows that needed only a quick visit to the skillet. They deserved star billing, not to be sullied by any association with pasta or, God forbid, turnips.

Thus the turnips, with their greens, ended up on top of the pasta. The idea was inspired in the vaguest sort of way by a visit to Liguria, Italy, in 1994, when I first had potatoes and pasta with pesto–the moment I came to understand that anything, even another starch, could be served pasta and it would be good.

My scallop technique comes from Cook’s Illustrated’s book The Best Recipe, though really the only technique you need for scallops is not to overcook them. The recipe includes a nice sauce made from the pan juices, and it occurred to me that a variation on that sauce would be good with the turnips. (“Variation” may be the wrong word here, since I left out everything in the recipe except butter, white wine, and parsley and added turnips, garlic and turnip greens.)

The meal below looks more complicated than it is. I’ve written out the recipe in some detail because the timing is critical–but the whole thing took only 30 minutes from the moment the ingredients came out of the refrigerator.

And it’s worth it. Fred declared this one of the best meals we’ve had–though he thought the addition of sausage might help. Only the fact that I put him in the emergency room last week kept me from killing him right there.

Scallops, Red Turnips, and Pasta

Serves 2

14 medium to large scallops
1 – 2 tablespoons butter
Salt and pepper

Turnips and Pasta
6 small red turnips, washed, greens and ends trimmed, sliced into 1/2″ wide strips
Greens from turnips, stems trimmed, washed, dried, and cut into 3″ wide strips
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 – 2 tablespoons butter
1/2 – 1 cup white wine
Fresh chopped parsley for garnish (about 1/2 cup)
1/2 lb penne pasta
Butter and salt for pasta

This recipe goes quickly once you begin cooking, so it is important to have everything ready.

1. Prepare vegetables and set aside.
2. Set scallops out on a plate and salt and pepper to taste. Set out additional clean plate, with foil to cover, for cooked scallops.
3. Put salted water for pasta on to boil. (Follow package directions.)
4. Heat large skillet on medium high heat for about 2 minutes. Once skillet is heated, add butter and swirl until bottom of skillet is coated. Cook until butter is lightly brown, a few minutes.
5. Add scallops quickly, one at at time. Cook for 1 minute. Turn individually and cook for an additional minute. You want to undercook the scallops a bit, as they will continue to cook a little on the plate. Turn off heat and transfer scallops to plate. Keep in warm place until ready to serve. (Covered on top of or near the stove is fine, or in a warming tray on the lowest possible heat.)
6. Watch the pasta water while you are preparing the other ingredients and add pasta to water once it comes to a boil. Cook according to package directions and keep an eye on it so it doesn’t overcook. When pasta is done, drain it, return to cooking pot, add butter and salt, and cover until ready to serve.
7. Return heat on skillet to medium. Add 1 – 2 tablespoons butter until melted. Add wine, enough to cover bottom of the pan, and scrape bottom to remove brown bits. Add turnips and salt to taste. Cover and cook until just tender, about 5 minutes.
8. Add greens. Cook an additional 2 – 3 minutes, covered, until greens have just wilted.
9. Remove lid from turnips and continue cooking just a few minutes more. Serve turnips over pasta and garnish with parsley, with scallops on the side.

Carbonara with Spinach

Our lives at present consist primarily of work, work, and more work. Cooking remains a source of great joy and pleasure, but I can’t seem to find the time to write about it.

But no matter how bad things are, I can always conjure up a dish of carbonara. If you too are slaving away during the hatefully termed “current economic crisis,” a big bowl of carbonara will offer more comfort than an entire case of three-buck Chuck.

The basic dish consists of pasta coated with eggs, with pork, salt, pepper, and grated Parmesan cheese added. Many recipes also include scallions, garlic, and other vegetables. In traditional Italian versions, the pork is usually guanciale or pancetta. As I’ve indicated in previous posts (found here and here), guanciale is nothing short of heaven, a symphony of pillowy fat, and makes a spectacular carbonara. Pancetta is fine as well, but it’s not quite as flavorful–and with a lower fat content, it’s not as much fun. 

Guanciale and pancetta, however, have the disadvantage of being expensive and sometimes hard to find. When this is the case, bacon will make an acceptable substitute. My Italian friend Claudia, who taught me how to make this dish when she lived in the U.S. for a year, used bacon when she made it here, so I figure it’s okay.

Secretly, of course, I love carbonara with bacon the best. In this version I’ve also added fresh spinach and mushrooms in an attempt to get some vegetables into Fred. I was pleased with the results. The spinach added a nice, slightly crunch texture to the dish, and I love the way the nutty flavor of mushrooms complement the bacon and the Parmesan.

American Carbonara with Spinach

2 large servings

1/2 pound pasta of your choice (anything except the small pastas like orzo or orecchini will work)
6 – 8 slices good quality bacon, cut into 1″ pieces
2 fresh eggs (eggs are not fully cooked in this recipe so do not use commercial–find organic, cage-free, or best of all local farm-grown eggs to keep risk of Salmonella low)
1 tbsp. cream or half and half
1 tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese
2 cups fresh baby spinach, washed and dried
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Extra fresh grated Paremsan for topping

Put salted water for pasta on to boil. Meanwhile, fry bacon in large skillet on medium high heat until just crisp. Turn heat down to lowest possible flame, leaving bacon in skillet.

When water comes to boil, add pasta and stir.

While pasta is cooking, separate eggs into small bowl, leaving a little bit of the white with each yolk. Whisk in cream, Parmesan cheese, salt, and a generous amount of freshly ground pepper. Measure out spinach and set aside.

When pasta is al dente (still firm when you bite down on it, not mushy), drain it. Immediately return to cooking pot. Quickly pour egg mixture over pasta and stir. Spoon out bacon from skillet (you will want to get a tablespoon or two of the bacon fat also) and add to pasta. Add spinach, stir well, and cover for 5 minutes or so, until spinach is slightly wilted.

Serve pasta in large bowls and top with additional freshly ground pepper and Parmesan.

Cheap Pork and Turnip Greens

Coupon clipping is beginning to take a toll on me. This morning, I rushed off to CVS to get the Puffs Plus Tissue with Lotion on sale for 97 cents a box before Durham was buried in 2 inches of snow. Even worse, I found myself saying things like this to the clerk: “Your flyer says this item was $2.99, so why is the price $3.99 here?” Or, “Don’t I get this free if I buy 2 items at the regular price?” The clerk glowered as she scanned my coupons, making it clear that she wanted to shove them somewhere besides the cash register. But I didn’t care. I saved $30.

But I worry that my newly discovered frugality may affect my cooking. Being a selective cheater when it comes to making things from scratch, I follow a set of inner rules that only a tax attorney could sort out. Yes to Brummel and Brown, Hamburger Helper, and pre-packaged sushi. No to canned soup, spaghetti sauce, and anything made by Swanson except chicken pot pie. No to canned biscuits (well, most of the time).

Now, the coupon world is ALL ABOUT pre-packaged foods. Coupons are the manufacturers’ way to lure us into trying their latest product, from frozen Texas toast to banana-flavored Cheerios (I am, unfortunately, not joking). You can’t find coupons for organic radishes, or prosciutto, or local butter. So I’m straining a bit, trying not to lower my standards and buy frozen pizza sticks just because they’re 99 cents a box.

The good news is that seasonal ingredients do tend to be cheaper. So here’s a wonderful recipe for a dish we had just the other night, made of items purchased at a decent sale price, with not a single canned good involved.

Pork Tenderloin, Turnip Greens, and Mushrooms over Pasta

Serves 2

1/2 lb. long thin pasta (spaghetti or spaghettini, linguini, etc.)
1 large onion, halved and sliced thin
4 cloves garlic
1 tsp. (or more) olive oil for sauteeing
1/2 pork tenderloin, fresh or leftover (about 4 – 6 oz.), sliced lenthwise, then into thin strips about 1″ wide
12 – 16 leaves turnip greens, cleaned, ends trimmed, sliced into thin strips
To slice, lay about 6 leaves on top of each other, roll up tightly, then slice at 1/4″ intervals
4 -6 mushrooms, halved and sliced thin
1 tsp. crushed red pepper (or more to taste)
Salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
Fresh grated parmesan cheese

Put water for pasta on to boil and prepare according to package directions. Heat olive oil in skillet on medium high heat. Add onions and saute until translucent. (Add water or more olive oil if they begin to brown.) Add garlic to skillet and stir. If using fresh tenderloin: Add pork and cook until just tender and lightly browned, then add remaining ingredients except cheese. Cook until mushrooms and turnip greens are tender. If using leftover tenderloin: Add remaining ingredients except cheese and cook until mushrooms and turnip greens are tender. Serve over pasta and garnish with cheese.

Food for Hard Times


Greens used to be the vegetable of the poor. My Depression-scarred grandparents adored them and passed that love on to me. In the fall, my grandfather plowed up our vegetable garden and sowed the field in turnips. By early November, we would have not only turnips, which kept for months, but also the turnip greens. My grandmother would preserve them by cleaning, blanching, and freezing them, so they too would be available throughout the winter. We also relied on collards, which are in season right now. (We got some lovely batches in the last few deliveries of our CSA.)

Greens make me think of my grandparents, and I’ve been wanting to talk to them a lot lately: “Are you as worried as in 1929 as I am now? Do you think this is going to be as bad?” This morning I woke up and actually thought I should give them a call, then realized they aren’t available anymore. All I can do now is cook the foods they ate when times were hard–even if they now show up in stores whose prices would have sent my grandparents into apoplectic shock.

I’ve shared one recipe for greens on this blog (Hulga’s Vegetarian Collard Greens), but was shocked in perusing my archives that I haven’t featured more. So here’s one from last week that will give you something to do with your fall vegetables.

Butternut Squash and Collards with Penne (2 large servings)

1/2 pound penne pasta
1 medium butternut squash (can substitute any fall squash, including pumpkin), stem removed, halved lengthwise, and seeds scooped out, plus 1 tsp. olive oil for roasting
3 cups collards with stems, chopped (turnip greens, mustard greens, or kale would probably work too)
1 tbsp. olive oil or 1 cup chicken stock for sauteeing
1 large onion, quartered and sliced thin
4 large cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp. crushed red pepper (add more or less to taste)
2 – 3 cups chicken stock
Salt to taste
Grated Parmesan cheese for serving
NOTE: Save seeds from squash to roast, either for garnish or a snack

1. Preheat oven to 350. Baste halved butternut squash with olive oil. Place cut side down on jelly roll pan or cookie sheet. Roast for 30 minutes or until soft.

2. Meanwhile, saute onion in olive oil or chicken broth in large skillet on medium high heat until translucent. Add garlic and stir. Add collards, crushed red pepper and salt. Turn heat to low and cover. Cook on low heat, stirring every 5 minutes or so, for about 15 minutes. Turn off heat and set aside, covered, until squash is done.

3. Put salted water on to boil and cook pasta according to package directions. Drain.

4. When squash is done, scoop out of skin and add to collard mix. Add 2 cups chicken stock. Stir together. Continue to add stock in small amounts until squash has reached consistency of thick tomato sauce. Mix with pasta in large bowl. Serve with grated parmesan cheese. Garnish with roasted butternut squash seeds if desired.

Roasted Butternut Squash Seeds

Preheat oven to 400. Rinse squash seeds and remove most of flesh. Spread out between two cloth towels and pat dry. Place in small bowl. Add 1 tsp. olive oil, salt to taste, and stir. Spread on jelly roll pan or cookie sheet and roast for 15 minutes or until lightly brown.

Squashing Weight Watchers!

Truly, repentence has its reward. Our vacation sins resulted in a total weight loss–LOSS, I tell you!–of .2 pounds. Even better, it was all mine. Fred stayed the same. O shrimp and grits, and wine, and beer, and porterhouse steak, and tiramisu cheesecake, where are thy stings?

It’s possible that our return to virtue over the weekend, like sailors back from shore leave, saved us in the end. At Rosemont Farms just outside Kiawah on John’s Island–home of the beautiful chickens and tomatoes pictured in Saturday’s post–we picked up some yellow/summer/crookneck squash in anticipation of renewed discipline upon our return. Of course, it’s a little disingenuous of me to say that, since squash is hardly what I’d call a sacrifice. It’s not up there with tomatoes or peaches in terms of favorite summer produce, but I like it so much that I have to resist the temptation not to serve it several times a week while it’s in season.

The beauty of yellow squash is that it goes well with so many other things and is easy to fix. You can steam it for a few minutes and serve with a little salt and butter, or saute with onions and garlic in olive oil, or instantly increase your vegetable consumption by adding it to zillions of pasta dishes or your favorite burrito.

On Sunday, though, I decided to get out of my squashy comfort zone by cooking it with some of the jalapeno peppers we also picked up at Rosemont’s. Typically when I include jalapenos in a dish, I feel the urge to Mexicanize it by adding cumin, cilantro, and lime. But it seemed terribly wrong to overwhelm the fresh squash with all those spices. So I kept the ingredients to a minimum, served over orzo pasta, and even went so far as to add fresh mozzarella at the end.

The result was a cheesy and flavorful combination, which nicely balanced the hot spike of the jalapenos, the delicacy of the squash and the cool creaminess of the mozzarella.

[Lovely picture of squash dish to follow when Blogger fixes its uploading problem.]

(And the two servings Fred and I had for supper were only 5 points each.)

Orzo with Squash and Jalapenos

4 medium-sized servings (~5 points each), or 2 large meal-sized servings (~10 points each)

1 tbsp. olive oil
1/4 – 1/2 c. chicken stock (or low-salt broth)
1 large onion, quartered then thinly sliced
6 small yellow (summer) squash, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
2 medium jalapeno peppers (more or less to taste), diced
Salt to taste
2 oz. (roughly 1/2 cup) fresh mozzarella cheese, cut into 1/8″ pieces
1/2 lb. orzo (or other small pasta)

In large skillet, saute onions in olive oil over medium high heat until translucent. Add squash, jalapenos, salt, and 1/4 cup of chicken stock. Cook over medium high heat until squash is tender, 10 – 20 minutes. Add more chicken stock, if needed, to keep vegetables from sticking. (For very soft squash, cover vegetables for part of the cooking time, then remove lid for the last few minutes to boil off some of the liquid.) While vegetables are sauteeing, put water for pasta on to boil and cook according to package directions. Drain pasta. Remove skillet from heat. Add cooked pasta and stir, then add cheese and stir until melted. Serve and enjoy.

Chicken from Heaven

Our wingless friend–the chicken from Rainbow Meadow Farms from last Sunday’s cooking extravaganza–was a testament to the local food movement. It tasted . . . like chicken. Like the hens my grandparents raised, almost as if you’d infused the chicken with a rich broth, or red wine, or even a little tiny hint of bacon. It tasted like real food.

For the purposes of our weight watching, it also offered a revelation. I served it in a variation of an orzo pasta dish from February 2007. That particular recipe included the ingredient “lots and lots of olive oil” and cheese. So when I went to prepare the dish in the weight watching version, I was grumpy. The orzo will be dry, I thought. And tasteless. And who wants to have a life with less olive oil in it?

But when we ate the dish, with only two teaspoons of olive oil and no cheese, we were stunned. Because the chicken actually tasted like something–and, admittedly, had been roasted with the skin on and basted in butter, as I always do–the whole dish was rich and flavorful. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the extra olive oil and cheese would have overpowered the flavor of the chicken.

I’ve long believed that much restaurant cooking in America relies on salt, fat and heavy flavors like bacon and cheese to cover up the poor quality of the ingredients. (You especially notice this if you travel to Italy and come back.) I think that our feathery friend drove this point home.

Orzo with Chicken and Squash (serves 2; 8 points each)

1/4 lb. orzo
2 tsp. olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 – 3 medium crookneck/yellow/summer squash, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup fresh parsley, minced
1/4 cup fresh oregano, minced
1 cup Rainbow Meadow farms or other great chicken, roasted with skin on, skin removed, chopped
1/2 – 1 cup homeade chicken broth

Cook pasta according to package directions. Saute onions in olive oil in large skillet on medium heat until translucent. Add squash and garlic and saute for 5 minutes. Add garlic and stir. Add enough chicken broth to moisten. Cover and cook until vegetables are tender, about 5 – 10 minutes. Add parsley, oregano, and chicken. Uncover and cook for a few minutes more, until chicken is heated through, adding more chicken broth as needed to moisten. Transfer to bowl and stir in with pasta.

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.