"You wouldn't be interested in hog jowls, would you?"
It's the sort of question that stops you in your tracks. There I was, at the Noe Valley Farmers Market, chatting up the good fellas at the Prather Ranch stand, when one of them popped that question. When my eyebrow went up, he went on to say that a local restaurant had ordered them, but decided they didn't need them upon delivery. The jowls were now taking up valuable space in their freezer cart, and he had no intention of bringing them back at the end of the day. He offered them to me for two dollars a pound. And just like that, they were mine.
As I sauntered into the house, DPaul asked how the market was. "I got hog jowls!" I squealed, to which he replied with a nonplussed, "oh?" The unspoken reply, I suspect, was "but did you pick up anything we can make for dinner?"
Sure, we could have rendered them then and there, made some chicharrones, but that would be a terrible waste, for hog jowls are the source of one of the most precious and coveted cured pork products: Guanciale. Like pancetta, guanciale (pron. gwan-CHA-leh) is an unsmoked bacon, but it's got a richer flavor and tends to have a higher fat-to-meat ratio. It's what's most traditionally used in the classic Italian dishes pasta alla carbonara and bucatini all'amatriciana. But, it's relatively rare here in the states, so when you order these dishes, you're more likely getting it with pancetta -- or, criminally, American bacon.
And so I knew I wanted to make guanciale with my lovely pig face fat, but I wasn't really prepared to undertake that project in the moment. The jowls went into the freezer, and stayed there for a few weeks while I got things in order.
Among the resources I found on how to cure guanciale was one from a veritable master of salumi, Mario Batali. The technique was simple enough: Create a rub of salt and sugar, with pepper and thyme. Coat the jowls, let rest in the fridge for a week, then tie and hang them in a cool, dry place for a few weeks. Luckily, we have a basement that manages to stay under the recommended 60ºF during these cool winter months.
Having never cured meat before, I was both fascinated and trepidacious. Would I botulize both us and our friends with my lovingly cured guanciale? I then came across an excellently written account of one other man's guanciale-making expedition, and took comfort in knowing that he survived to tell his story.
So, at the beginning of the year, I thawed my lovely jowls, patted them dry, covered them with the prescribed rub, rested them in the fridge and finally tied them up and hung them to cure in the basement. A small basin lay on the floor to catch any wayward porky drippings. Over the course of a few weeks, the jowls shrank and withered, and the exterior took on a slightly leathery cast. At five weeks, I decided they had reached the desired result, and I cut them down.
Once upstairs, I rinsed off the salty protein coating, and cut them in half. I was pleased to see rosy pink meat marbling through pearly white fat. There was no off odor, just a faintly porky smell. I cut away a thin slice, and gave it a quick fry in a pan like bacon. Once it was drained and cooled, I took a bite. I stopped mid-chew, and my eyes rolled up in my head. The guanciale had an undeniably pleasant pork flavor, and an unexpected but very welcome subtle sweetness. It was tender, with a gentle snap as it gave way to the closure of my teeth. It was, in short, the best bacon ever.
I cut the jowls into quarters, which each came to about 6 ounces apiece. Conveniently, this is about how much you'll need to make spaghetti all'amatriciana.
Traditionally, this is made with bucatini, but around these parts that pasta shape is as difficult to procure as guanciale itself. (Also, you know how I feel about bucatini.) Spaghetti works in a pinch. Pecorino romano is also the traditional cheese to grate over the top, but if you use parmigiano reggiano, I won't tell.
4-6 oz guanciale, cut into 1/2" lardons
1 large onion, minced
1 large pinch chili pepper flake
1 qt chopped tomatoes or puree
1/2 lb spaghetti or bucatini
Pecorino romano cheese
Place the guanciale in a large skillet, and set over medium-low heat. Cook until the fat is rendered and the lardons are golden and crisp, but not until fully browned. Remove the lardons with a slotted spoon and transfer onto a paper towel. Drain off the rendered fat, leaving about 1 Tbsp in the pan. (Don't disposed of the rest of the fat. It's damn good for all your sautéeing and frying needs.)
Turn up the heat to medium, and add the onions and pepper flake. Saute until the onions are translucent and begin to take on some color (again, not until they brown). Add the tomatoes, bring to a simmer, and cook until the sauce is thick. Add the browned lardons to the sauce.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling, salted water until just al dente. Use tongs to grab the pasta and drop directly into the cooked sauce, and toss to combine.
Serve in warmed bowls with a grating of pecorino romano cheese over the top.
Variation: For pasta alla gricia, omit the tomato sauce, and just toss the pasta with the remaining ingredients, adding rendered fat if necessary to coat the pasta.
The Kitchn uses guanciale in a salad of wilted dandelion and raw kale. Yum!
Better yet, Apple Pie, Patis and Pâté uses guanciale fat to sauté some ramps, a delightful and fleeting early spring vegetable.