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.

Focaccia with Brussels Sprouts, Bacon, and Onions

Brussels sprouts onions olive oil 16Last week, listening to a radio interview with a chef on the cooking trends we can expect in 2013, I learned that Brussels sprouts are on their way out. Once relegated to the same loathsome realm as beets and liver, they had recently become the darlings of trendy restaurants all over the country, cozying up to lardon-encrusted meats and peeking out from under house-made sauces. But in 2013, poor Brussels sprouts will apparently go the way of last year’s prom queen–still with lots of friends in the popular crowd, but probably not invited to the dance.

Big poo, I say. Brussels sprouts are still trending in our house. Fred has only recently recovered from his childhood aversion to the grayish, mushy lumps that appeared on our plates in the 60s and 70s, and we aren’t going back. Plus, there were some gorgeous ones at the Dekalb Farmers’ Market recently, so I had to do something with them.

I’d also been paging through my tattered copy of “Lidia’s Italy,” a cookbook whose recipes I dearly love but whose binding I hate, and once again came across its wonderful tomato and onion foccacia. Lidia gives you license to do whatever you want with the toppings–so it didn’t seem too much of a leap to Brussels sprouts, onion, and bacon.

We were pleased with the results. The focaccia is tender and light, though definitely best served warm. We loved the smoky bacon combined with the slightly carmelized Brussels sprouts. Salt on top is essential. With a salad or other vegetable (buy extra Brussels sprouts & saute them), it makes a meal.

Plan to eat within two to three days and heat up before eating. But please, don’t do this.

A Fred original Focaccia and meatloaf sandwich

A Fred original: Focaccia and meatloaf sandwich

Recipe: Focaccia with Brussels Sprouts, Onions, and Bacon

Serves 6 – 8 as a meal

4 tbsp. plus 1/2 tsp. yeastFoccacia  brussels sprouts bacon
2 1/4 c. warm water
5 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
2 tsp. salt
6 – 7 or more large Brussels sprouts (enough for at least 2 cups), halved lengthwise & sliced thin
1 medium onion, quartered and sliced thin
2 medium garlic cloves, minced
Finely ground sea salt, or regular salt, to taste
About 1/3 cup olive oil, enough to coat & marinate sprouts, onions, and garlic
6 slices bacon, cut into 1″ lengths
Coarse sea salt to sprinkle over top

DOUGH: Measure water in spouted measuring cup and dissolve yeast in water for a few minutes. Oil a large bowl with about 1 tbsp. olive oil and set aside.

Mix flour and salt in a large bowl. Pour flour into food processor and turn it on. With processor running, pour yeast and water through feed tube. Process until dough pulls away from processor bowl, about 30 seconds. If dough is too sticky (some will stick to sides of bowl, but it should pull away), add more flour, a little at a time. If it is too dry, with crumbly bits in the bottom, add a little more water.

Turn dough onto lightly floured surface and knead for about a minute. Place into bowl with olive oil, turning once to coat. Cover tightly in plastic wrap and let sit in warm place until doubled, about an hour.

While dough is rising, prepare remaining ingredients and let them marinate. Coat a broiler pan with about 2 tbsp. olive oil. This makes for a thick focaccia; if you would like something thinner, try a large jelly roll pan (17 1/2″ x 12 1/4″).

Have a glass of wine, make a salad, or read for a little while.

If you have a baking stone, place it in the middle rack of your oven. When dough has risen, preheat oven to 425. Punch dough down. Press it into the pan. Sprinkle marinated vegetables and bacon over top, pressing lightly into dough with fingertips, making dimples. Let rise an additional 10 – 15 minutes. Sprinkle with coarse sea salt to taste. Bake 20 minutes. Rotate pan 180 degrees and bake an additional 15 minutes or until dough is light brown. Let cool at least 15 minutes before serving.

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.

Warm Food for a Chilly New Year

We are back for 2010, after a long vacation over Christmas that included our third wedding anniversary and a week in Jackson Hole, WY, with family. We limited the possibility of injury by sticking to snowshoeing. Fred also took his first cross-country ski lesson, during which they taught him to fall down. He was so pleased that he practiced falling down quite a bit thereafter, and seems to have mastered the technique quite well. 

I was also reminded why I married him, because he is the only man I know who would bring a copy of Poetry magazine on a snowshoeing excursion. (I post this photo as a tribute to Ruth Lilly, the benefactor of the magazine, who died while we were on the trip.) 

Returning to Durham, we were surprised to find the temperature was very nearly the same as it had been in Wyoming. The cats responded appropriately. See if you can spot which one made herself at home in our sweater drawer.

And finally, I made this delicious pork and bean soup. I post it despite my concern that it’s not possible to replicate it. For starters, the broth I used was from a Cornish game hen I roasted over Christmas. The hen was stuffed with sage dressing, and the flavors may have infused the broth. 

Second, the pork came from a container of pulled pork “barbecue” from Whole Foods. As barbecue, it was lousy–tender but lacking anything in the way of zip, zing, or flavor. Not even worthy of a sandwich, it was heartlessly tossed into the pot, where it took on a new life so tasty that it may convince me to buy it again for the sole purpose of making this soup.

Pork and Northern Bean Soup

Makes 3 – 4 servings

About 1 quart chicken or other poultry stock
1 medium onion, chopped
3 – 4 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup dry Great Northern beans
1 cup small carrots, sliced
1 tbsp. herbes de Provence (could substitute a mix of sage and thyme)
1 cup mild pork barbecue, shredded or chopped*
1 small can evaporated milk, or more to taste
Kosher salt and pepper to taste

*Note that this is North Carolina-style barbecue, which is vinegar based and uses no tomato. If this type of barbecue is not available, I would substitute leftover smoked pork shoulder, pork chops, tenderloin, or even ham.

Put enough chicken stock in bottom of soup pot to cover and saute onion on medium high heat. Add garlic and stir. Add beans, remaining chicken stock, and a large pinch of kosher salt (a teaspoon or so–it really does not matter as long as you don’t overdo it, since seasonings will be corrected at the end.) Bring to a boil and let boil for 1 -2 minutes. Cover, reduce heat to medium low, and let simmer until beans are just tender, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Check every half hour or so; add water or more stock if liquid level begins to get low, enough to keep ingredients well covered. Add carrots and herbes de Provence. Cover and continue to simmer until carrots are tender, 15 – 30 minutes. Add pork and evaporated milk and stir. Remove from heat immediately or when soup is sufficiently warm; do not overcook the pork. Add more salt to taste and pepper if desired. Serve immediately.

Pork Belly at (the) Federal

Our gluttonous streak continued last week, as the fried chicken extravaganza was followed by a pork belly blowout at the Federal.*

Federal remains our favorite Durham restaurant, and has become the site of a weekly post-Weight Watchers pilgrimage, where Fred can order his beloved pork sandwich with cheese and jalapeno peppers and I can sample the Federal’s many fascinating specials.

One special that’s eluded me since I arrived in Durham has been the pork belly (a cut of meat from the pig taken from the underside–essentially uncured bacon). It was on the menu on our very first visit, during a heady six-month period last winter when every foodie in America (including me) could seem to think of nothing else besides little piggy undersides. That night, so many of us had descended on the Federal that there was none left for me, and I had to content myself with the carnitas.

Those carnitas began our love affair with the Federal, but in our weekly visits over the past year pork belly did not make another appearance until last Monday.

I was thrilled and worried. The reasons for the thrill should be obvious. The worry, though, grew out of my struggles through what is coyly known as “maintenance” in Weight Watchers–the tortuous battle to keep off those pounds your body so desperately wants back, the battle you will wage for the rest of your life if your idea of a good time is to eat pork belly while reading a book, preferably with a cat on your lap.

That day, the Weight Watchers scale had revealed a 1.2 pound gain. So I made a compromise: I would order the pork belly, but I would eat only half of it and save the rest for lunch.

You know what happened. I was utterly unprepared for how greasily good that pork belly would be. It had been roasted with a slightly sweet, jerk-style rub and was served with chopped sweet potatoes roasted with onions. The meat itself was achingly tender, each of the four slices containing a quarter-inch layer of creamy fat. I don’t know if the sweet potatoes and onions had been cooked alongside the pork, but it tasted that way.

After eating two slices and half the potatoes, I should have stopped. I should have asked for a box right there. But, I rationalized, how well would this dish heat up? The meat would overcook. The potatoes would lose their succulence. The glorious perfection of the moment would be lost. Carpe diem, I said to myself, and dug right back in.

*It’s probably a good time to note the longstanding cultural debate over how to refer to this article-defying restaurant. A few months ago, a friend told me that since it’s called “Federal,” I should say “Federal” and not “the Federal.” I thought this was nuts–surely a bizarre whim concocted in the picky brain of an overly scrupulous English major.

So I asked Laura, our favorite server, to give me some guidance.* She prefered “the Federal.” Brimming with triumph, I conveyed the news to my friend, who calmly responded that Durham residents who were around when (the) Federal first opened, and was known as Federal, find it hard to change. Naturally, the very next day, a friend at church said, “We should go to Federal sometime!” I wish just once I could be right about something.

*Of course, only the picky brain of an overly scrupulous English major would even think to formulate these questions. Or write about them.

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.

No such thing as too many collards

Perhaps it’s come to your attention that our Weight Watchers updates have decreased in frequency. We haven’t quit; we’ve just plateaued. Our collective weight loss stands at 32.8 pounds–15.8 for me, 17 for Fred. With just 1.2 pounds left for me and 6 for Fred (to reach his initial goal of a 10% weight loss), we’re now entering the final push.

This means more soup. At least that’s what was suggested at our last WW meeting.

If you’ve ever wondered how Jell-O salad ever got to be popular, come to a Weight Watchers meeting. I’m often stunned at the culinary tactics some of my fellow members deploy in the kitchen.

In our last meeting, the leader divided us into groups to come up with ideas for fall soup recipes. Our group (led–some might say dictated–by me) devised a spicy butternut squash chowder. This idea was met with murmured confusion, even by some group members. (But like Sarah Palin, and Stalin–who must be related to her since Alaska is so close to Russia–I had managed to suppress dissent.)

The most popular idea was to take a bag of frozen vegetables and dump some canned chicken broth in it. I was forced into seething, bitter retreat.

In response, I offer this very simple but MUCH better dish, which I made the next night.

Brat, Butter Bean, and Collard Soup

3 pork brats or sausages, quartered lengthwise and sliced

NOTE: The brat should have enough fat for the saute. If you use brats made with a low-fat meat like turkey, add oil or chicken stock to the saute mix to keep it from burning.

4 cups collard, cleaned and chopped
2 medium onions, chopped
4-5 cloves garlic
1 can butter beans, undrained
1 tsp sage
1 tsp thyme
2 bay leaves
1 whole dried chipotle pepper
Salt to taste
Water or chicken stock to cover

Heat chopped brats on medium heat. Add onions and saute until translucent. Add garlic and stir. Add remaining ingredients. Cover and cook on medium heat for about 1/2 hour.