Friday, April 13, 2012

Our latest batch of Guanciale

If you’ve been following this blog from the beginning – or have looked back that far into the archives – you’ll know that one of the first posts was about my new-found interest in home charcuterie, or “making sausage and stuff like that” – if you don’t like high-fallootin’ cooking words.

One of the simplest of home curing recipes is guanciale, an Italian bacon-like creation that is found primarily in the central part of the country near Rome, although its fame seems to be spreading. We were able to find some in such small places as Gaiole-in-Chianti when we were in Italy last June. It was almost impossible to find in North America until relatively recently, too. Now, we can even pick some up two blocks from our house at Zito’s, an Italian grocery that opened last summer. If you want to try your hand at making guanciale, the recipe is HERE. The only difficult part of making this delicacy is finding the proper place to hang it. We’re lucky. Our basement is pretty nigh perfect. In the colder months, humidity is around 75% and the temperature is 55°F.

Anyway, we just brought our second batch of guanciale up from the basement yesterday. This one was different than the first in that I added more juniper berries and thyme. I also added about an ounce of Orvieto (white wine) to each package for the duration of the curing stage.

So what are the results? This batch has a more pronounced juniper flavor but I don’t notice the thyme much more. There is slightly more sweetness which is possibly due to the wine. The bit I sampled was raw, but this weekend we’re going to make our favorite recipe that uses guanciale, spaghetti all’amatriciana (recipe below), so we’ll be sampling some of the new batch after it’s been cooked, which may yield different flavor results.

I think we’re pretty much over our curing season as the basement temperature is on the rise. The humidity is also dropping which means that drying is speeding up – which is not a good thing since I believe this second batch has hung a bit too long. I’ll have to be watching this more closely in the future. I’ve also made some lonzino (cured pork loin) which dried out a bit too much – but it is very delicious. I’ll do a post on that at a later date.

On to Amatrice which is the originating town of today’s recipe. It’s in northern Lazio and its founding goes all the way back to Roman times, if not further. Since amatriciana sauce uses tomatoes, the recipe can’t be all that old since tomatoes were unknown in Europe before the settling of North America. As for guanciale, I haven’t been able to discover anything about its origins, but I suspect it goes back quite a long time, primarily because it’s so easy to make.

In any event, some bright person way back when decided to combine the flavor of fresh Italian tomatoes to their local meat delicacy and a match made in heaven was the result. Put simply, amatriciana is a fantastic dish. As a matter of fact, it’s become my redheaded wife’s favorite. When we arrived in Rome last June, very travel-stained after a horrible flight and a search for Vicki’s missing luggage, practically the first thing we did was leave the apartment we’d rented in the section of town near the Villa Borghese in search of a restaurant and some amatriciana. My photo to the right was taken at that restaurant and on the plates in front of me are two kinds of amatriciana: red and white – or as it’s also known, pasta all grigia, a recipe I’ll share on some future occasion, completing our guanciale trifecta (spaghetti alla carbonara being the third).

Spaghetti all’amatriciana is simplicity itself to make, but it is not with out controversy in its ingredients. (What else is new?) Romans add a bit of sliced, then sautéed onion to the sauce. If you’re from Amatrice, you apparently look on this addition with deep scorn, bordering on contempt. We’ve made it both ways, and I have to admit we enjoy the bit of sweetness that the onions add. Don’t use too much, though! Onion can easily overwhelm this recipe.

Spaghetti all’amatriciana
Serves 4

This is our idea of a great dish. Not only is it absolutely delicious, but you can put it together in about the time it takes to bring a pot of water to the boil to cook your pasta. Guanciale is a must. Look online if Italian food stores in your area can’t help you. It might be a bit hard to find, but accept no substitutes! With a glass of good Italian red wine, you’ll feel like you’re in a trattoria in Roma. Also, if you can find canned San Marzano tomatoes, all the better. They are the best sauce tomatoes in the world and worth the effort to source.

Unlike Carbonara, this dish isn’t at all finicky to make. It’s a perfect dish to make for company because it can be cooked ahead, stopping at step 4. Just bring the sauce back to a boil as the pasta cooks. Bucatini pasta is generally used by Romans for this dish, so use it if you really want to be authentic. Buon appetito!

1 lb dry spaghetti
1-2 Tbs Olive oil
6 oz diced guanciale (trim off any rind first) – okay, if you must substitute, use pancetta.
¾ cup thinly-sliced onion quarters
½ cup dry white wine
1 liter diced tomatoes (or one 28-ounce can)
½ tsp hot red pepper flakes
1+ cup freshly grated pecorino Romano (do yourself a favor and buy the imported stuff)
pepper to taste

1. Heat olive oil, then fry guanciale over low heat until it’s crisp and browned. Remove from pan with a slotted spoon. Leave all the fat. You’ll need it.

2. Cook the sliced onions in the guanciale fat and olive oil until it’s translucent.

3. Add the tomatoes, white wine and pepper flakes, then boil the sauce fairly hard to evaporate most of the liquid. Meanwhile cook the pasta to taste.

4. When everything is ready, put the cooked guanciale back into the sauce 
and stir it a bit.

5. In the sauté pan over low heat, toss the pasta with the sauce to get it well-coated, then add the pecorino Romano and a good grinding of pepper. Toss thoroughly to melt the cheese into the sauce. You probably won’t need salt since pecorino is a fairly salty cheese.

1 comment:

Rick Blechta said...

I should take the time to point out that if you’re going to take the time to find canned San Marzano tomatoes, make sure you’re getting the real thing. Unfortunately, there are some scoundrels out there selling inferior tomatoes (though perfectly safe to eat) at the prices San Marzano’s fetch in order to make a quick buck.

Look for cans that have a DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) tag somewhere on the label. You can be pretty sure that the can contains real San Marzanos – and believe me, there is a difference!