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
Salt
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.

How to ruin a vegetable

Our Saturday supper started off with promise. We made a trip to the Raleigh Farmer’s market and picked up a bounty of fresh produce and pork raised on a small, local farm:

Pork, tomatoes, Daikon radish, zucchini, and elephant garlic sprouts

The garlic sprouts looked beautiful.


As did the spring onions.


“What could possibly go wrong?” you ask. Well, I committed the cardinal sin of cooking fresh vegetables: I got fancy. I sauteed the daikon radish in chicken broth, added some of the garlic sprouts, cream, and a few other things I can’t remember. It was a mess of flavors, the culinary equivalent of puce, the tastes competing with rather than complementing each other. A similar disaster occurred with the zucchini.

It was another reminder of the most important rule to follow when you have fresh, seasonal vegetables: Steam them, add some olive oil or butter and salt, and leave them alone.

But then there was the pork. What a spectacular pig it must have been. It came from Mae Farm Meats in Louisburg, NC, whose web site shows happy, fat pigs lounging in the sun. A happy pig is a tasty pig. The ham steak we purchased was surrounded by a beautiful layer of flavorful fat, and it was arguably the best pork I’ve ever had. I can’t wait to try the bacon–and I cannot resist adding that it was $2 per pound less than Whole Foods.

Pork Belly

The title here does not refer to the current state of our waistlines (apt though the description may be), but to the dish I made last week. Of course, our continued love of food like this is utterly destroying our feeble efforts to lose wei–um, eat more vegetables and try to be healthier.

Pork belly, as you may know, is quite the rage these days. It’s basically uncured, unsalted bacon, and most recipes I’ve seen use a cut large enough to roast. The beauty of the belly is that like bacon, it has lots of lovely fat, which produces a wonderful abundance of porky flavor.

Our belly did not come to us as a roast, but in thick bacon-like slices. We found them at Food World here in Durham, a former Winn Dixie south of downtown that has been transformed into a Latin/Asian market. Actually, “transformed” is too strong a word. The aisle signs remain unchanged and so bear no relation whatsoever to the actual items contained therein. (I found myself staring at 15 different kinds of soy sauce in an aisle labeled “Flour, Sugar, Cake Mixes, Baking Supplies.”) It is also not notable for sparkling cleanliness–it’s not dirty, exactly, just a little rough around the edges. But the prices are spectacularly low, and the store contains a bonanza of foods you won’t find at even on the snooty shelves of Whole Paycheck. A bag of 50 or so dried morita peppers? $3.99. At Southern Season, you’ll find similar items for about a buck–for each pepper.

But back to the belly. The bacon cut is more typically of Asian food (the label was in Korean, I think, which was mercifully translated), but since we had purchased so many wonderful Latin American foods, I decided to make a Latin version.

Chipotle Pork Belly Slices with Potatoes

8 slices pork belly
2 medium onions, finely chopped
Olive oil for sauteing
2 large potatoes, cut in 1/2″ pieces
4 cloves garlic, minced
4 chipotle peppers, crushed and minced
1 tablespoon sea salt, or to taste

Boil potatoes gently in salted water, covered, until just tender, about 10 minutes. Drain. Preheat oven to 350. Saute onions in olive oil until translucent. Mix garlic, peppers, and salt in small bowl. Place four slices of belly in bottom layer of roasting pan. Sprinkle with half of garlic/pepper mix. Add potatoes. Add onions. Cover with remaining pork belly slices. Sprinkle remaining garlic/pepper mix over top. Bake for 30 minutes.

Prosciutto and Roasted Cantaloupe

Fred and I had our second conjugal visit last weekend. He had kindly bought prosciutto and cantaloupe for me for our lunch snack on Sunday, and he sliced the cantaloupe himself and took the prosciutto out of its wrapper. I was very proud of him.

As we were cleaning up and he was throwing out the cantaloupe seeds, he asked, “Could we roast those? Like pumpkin seeds?”

I laughed and laughed. “Cantaloupe is a melon!” I squealed. “Like watermelon! You don’t eat roasted watermelon seeds.”

I laughed some more. I even laughed as I started to post this.

And then I looked on the Internet and found that apparently you CAN buy roasted watermelon seeds and that cantaloupe is actually a squash. And this Indian dish, Gond ke Laddu Laddoo Ladoo, uses seeds from cantaloupe, watermelon, and pumpkin, but since it’s intended for nursing mothers to help their babies’ brains get bigger, I have my doubts about whether or not it’s something I’d want to eat.

Sigh.

I was also proud of Fred when he was approved by the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta for ordination on Saturday. He stood in front of the few brave souls who’d toughed it out to the end and thanked them for their friendship and support, and couldn’t go on because he got choked up. Of course everyone thought it was great. When it was all over he said to me, “I couldn’t believe I got so choked up”–this from the man who cried for about two solid hours during our wedding.

He is truly wonderful.

And the Pork, You Ask?

Perhaps avid readers will recall that in an earlier post I mentioned that we had pork chops on hand for future use. Perhaps you wonder, “What tasty concoction did she come up with for those?”

Well, dear readers, our pork chops were not all we had hoped. I fried them in the lard, and while the lard did produce a fine texture (Joey, I restrained myself from using the word “lovely” there just for you)–the spice rub left a great deal to be desired. (For the record, it consisted of cumin, coriander, cinnamon, salt, and pepper. Might have worked with some chipotle pepper thrown in.)

So, hoping to redeem the sad bits of pork hanging around in my fridge, I tried chopping up the leftover chops and putting them on a pizza. But in case you were wondering: pork, carmelized onions, olives, fresh oregano, and cheddar cheese do not go well together. The pizza wasn’t bad–just not . . . great.

Plus my utter incompetence at making a pretty pizza was, once again, made painfully obvious:

Can someone tell me how to get burned cheese off a pizza stone?

Oh Lard!

I made the most spectacular soup I have ever had last night. It approaches Paul’s famous sandwich, The Hef.

The key ingredient was the LARD, mentioned in the Lardy Yellow Yard Sale post, rendered from a hog raised by a friend’s son-in-law. If you are able to find home-(killed? rendered? made?) lard you can easily replicate this at home. If not . . . too bad. I’m not sharing.

In large soup pot saute in 1 tbsp. lard and 2 tbsp. butter:
1 chopped onion

Add and saute for about 5 minutes:
2 thick slices Prague (or any not-too-salty) ham, cut in 1″ pieces
2-3 carrots, sliced

Add and saute for a few seconds:
2 large cloves minced garlic

Add salt and a generous amount of pepper.

Add 1 quart chicken stock. Cover and bring to boil. Add 1/2 head of coarsely chopped cabbage (1″ pieces or so). Reduce heat and cook until cabbage is just soft, about 10 – 15 minutes.