Okay, enough of the introductory BS. Let’s talk food.
Lately, here in the Blechta Test Kitchens in beautiful downtown Toronto, we’ve been taken up with the idea of home-curing of meat. It all started a few years ago, when we were trying to find an Italian salt-cured and air dried specialty, guanciale, which is made from pork jowls. It is a very lovely thing with an intense, buttery pork flavour and aroma. Guanciale is an essential ingredient in spaghetti alla carbonara, all’amatriciana and alla grigia.
For years we’d made carbonara with North American bacon, then switched to pancetta. Problem was, while these were both pretty tasty, it wasn’t real carbonara, as we eventually found out. Even most Italian restaurants don’t serve real carbonara. The reason? They can’t find guanciale. Some of them don’t even know about it!
On a Christmas visit to our family who live in Westchester County just north of the Bronx, we all went out to Lusardi’s, a very fine restaurant in Larchmont, New York. My son Karel, who loves carbonara, asked for it, an off-menu item. No problem. What came out of the kitchen blew the taste buds out of our mouths. It was unlike any carbonara we’d ever experienced, sort of smoky and rich-tasting with an intense porkiness. Stupidly, we forgot to ask what was in the dish (besides eggs and cheese, of course).
Back in Toronto, I set about trying to find out. Eventually, I was led to guanciale (pronounced gwan-chi-al-eh), but it’s hard to find – even in some places in Italy. Fortunately, though, Toronto and area has a rather large community of Italian expats, although most are from the southern part of the country where this bacon-like creation is almost unknown. We in Toronto are lucky, though. I eventually found two companies that make guanciale: Dolce Lucano and Niagara Food Specialties, both very excellent. There are several stores that carry their products. Back home with our booty, we quickly made some carbonara and viola (as we musicians say), we had that taste. From here on, we will not make carbonara without guanciale as one of the ingredients. It just isn’t worth it.
Next time: the Blechta’s decide to make our own guanciale and embark on an expanding exploration of home curing.
The photo above shows two pieces of guanciale that hung in our basement for two months, drying out and intensifying in flavour. The white is the fat side (since it is a fatty cut of meat). The one two its left is the meat side which we dusted with black pepper. It tastes amazing.
Spaghetti alla Carbonara
This dish supposedly appeared in the area around Rome at the end of World War II in response to the fact that bacon and eggs were relatively plentiful (some were traded by the Allied troops), while other foods were not. The Romans came up with a delicious way to enjoy this limited bounty. The word carbonara refers to the specs of black pepper looking like charcoal (carbonara is Italian for charcoal). Guanciale (bacon made from pork cheeks cured in salt with herbs, rinsed afterward with white wine) is what makes this dish special. You should be able to find it wherever real Italians reside.
Carbonara is a special favorite of my son Karel and he makes it quite well. It’s very much a feel type of dish. Using the pasta water to keep the sauce from getting too thick is the key. We always add more pepper and maybe a bit more cheese at the table.
You’ll notice that, unlike other carbonara recipes, this uses whole eggs, no cream, no garlic, and no peas (shudder!). This is the way the dish is made in the Lazio region of Italy where it originated. We occasionally throw in a half cup of dry white wine (Pinot Grigio or Orvieto) to the pan when the guanciale is cooked and heat it through before adding the pasta. In that case, you’ll use a little less pasta water to make the sauce.
1 lb spaghetti
3 eggs, well beaten
¾ cup Parmesan, grated, or half and half Parmesan and pecorino Romano
1½ tsp ground black pepper
4 oz guanciale (if you can find it) or pancetta (more likely), chopped
into ¼" dice. In a pinch, you can use bacon, but we frown on it highly.
2 Tbs olive oil
1. Put water on to boil for spaghetti.
2. Add cheese and black pepper to the beaten eggs and stir until well-blended.
3. Meanwhile, fry guanciale in olive oil over low heat. You want to render out the fat and make it nice and crispy. If you’re not ready to make the pasta, remove it from the heat at this time. The recipe can be made ahead until this point.
4. When the water boils, salt it, and add the spaghetti, stirring occasionally to keep it from sticking. Never overcook pasta!
5. As the spaghetti is approaching being done, mix in about a third of a cup of the pasta water to the guanciale, having gotten it nice and hot again.
6. Drain the spaghetti (saving about a cup more of the pasta water in case you need it) without shaking it, return it to the pot (over very low heat), add the guanciale mixture to the spaghetti, tossing it to get it well coated. Now add the cheese/egg mixture, a splash more water and toss everything rapidly. If the sauce seems to be getting too thick (beginning to look more like scrambled eggs), quickly add a bit more of the pasta water (say another third of a cup) to thin it. Add even more water if needed. If it seems too thin, add a bit more cheese.
7. Serve the carbonara on heated plates with more pepper and eat immediately! Our favourite wine to enjoy with this dish is Orvieto. Include a salad of your favourite greens tossed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and you’ve got a fantastic meal.