Guanciale from Herb Eckhouse in Iowa

by Ari Weinzweig

pig-chart-italiana-1024x753Although I’ve known about guanciale for ages, and certainly have eaten it here and there, it was pretty much out of my eating routines until I got to working on it for the upcoming little Zing-published bacon book to be (not done yet but getting there!). As with so many things we sell here, hardly anyone in this area is likely to know guanciale. But of course they didn’t know about balsamic vinegar twenty years ago and look where that’s at now. So this is the time for us to be spreading the word.

Anyways, to get to the heart of it, guanciale is an interesting alternative to bacon in cooking, and, folks in the know will tell you, the most authentic meat to be using when you’re making pasta all’ amatriciana. If you’re not familiar with guanciale—and most Americans aren’t—it’s unsmoked cured pig jowl. (The name, ‘guanciale,” is pronounced something along the lines of a Boston native saying, “Go on, Charley,”—sort of like, “G’won chaalie!”) “Cured jowl” probably sounds scary to some who’ve not had it, but if you like bacon which most everyone seems to these days, you’ll want to get to know guanciale. Why? Because it’s porky, rich, velvety good and just as easy to use as bacon or any other cured meat. If you need any more convincing, it’s a centuries old tradition in Italy and Mario Batali loves it. Plus it’s been called, “the magical Roman bacon” and that’s a pretty tough to turn down tag line in this crowd.

Personally, I was won over to it by Elizabeth Minchilli, friend and food writer, originally from St. Louis but who’s been living tastefully (in all senses of the word) in Rome with her Italian architect husband, children and dog for a long time now. I was actually asking her about pancetta not long ago, but she wrote me back in a kitchen confidential sort of way. “I have become a guanciale girl,” she confessed. “I am so much happier cooking with guanciale instead of pancetta.” Which got my attention. Forget the Prozac—just switching porks can increase life satisfaction.

Who wouldn’t want to try it after that? Plus I take Elizabeth’s comments seriously—she cooks regularly and definitely knows her food. “What makes you so high on it?” I inquired. “The fat is a different texture, and so takes longer to get to that crunchy stage. And when it does,” she went on,” it still remains chewy and has a richer, meatier flavour.”

The name ‘guanciale’ means ‘pillow’ in Italian, a reference to the chewy, meatiness that Elizabeth mentioned above and also the shape of the whole piece of off-white colored, cured pork. There are a handful of very good guanciale on the American market—we’ve got the one from Herb Eckhouse, at La Quercia in Iowa, who’s doing wonderful work with all sorts of cured pork product, and has been making it for the last few years. Like Elizabeth, he’s a big fan. “We started making guanciale because we like eating it. Next thing we know, we can’t keep it in stock.” Herb and his crew rub the pork with salt and spices (most prominently rosemary and black pepper)—and then dry cure to finish it off. They use no nitrites, nitrates, vegetable juice, or extracts. “The challenge,” Herb told me, “is getting the moisture out without making it overly dry.” He’s settled on about a six-week curing time, which he feels finds the right balance to intensify the flavor but not end up with something resembling shoe leather.

Thinking back to where this started, with Elizabeth in Rome . . . “What,” you might wonder, “does the original Guanciale Girl do with it?” “I use it for pasta—carbonara, amatriciana—but I also put it in with beans,” she went on. “I sometimes use it in spinach salad, as if it were bacon. Last summer I was using it on all sorts of pizza. My favorite was goat cheese, sage and fried guanciale!”

Pasta all’amatriciana is definitely the most prestigious place to put it. As with so many classic recipes, there is of course no straight story as to the origin of the dish, nor on exactly the “right” ingredients to use. The most commonly known version is basically a tomato sauce, with, or without, a good bit of sliced onion (in Rome they use it, in the town of Amatrice, after which the dish is named, they don’t). Generally the sauce is served on thick spaghetti or bucatini (depending on who you talk to). And it’s generally finished with a good bit of grated aged pecorino.

There is also a pre-Columbian Exchange version of the dish, known as pasta alla Gricia, made without the tomatoes. It’s often served over shorter, squat pasta shapes such as rigatoni. Being the traditionalist I tried making it as soon as I heard about it and I’m happy to report that it’s very, very good. It’s actually particularly appropriate this time of year since the good tomatoes are still a few months away. It’s very rich from the guanciale, which is generally cooked so it’s still softish in texture as Elizabeth described.

The last few weeks I’ve also been cooking a slight variation on the Gricia—guanciale cooked in the pan with the new season’s asparagus from the Farmer’s Market. I like to let the asparagus spears get browned off nicely in the pork fat. I’ve been doing it with Martelli spaghetti which has been one of my favorite pastas for forever and a half now but you can use the shape of your choice of course Anyways, to make the dish, drain the pasta when it’s a bit before being al dente and then toss it into the pan in which you’ve cooked the guanciale and asparagus with the heat still up pretty high. The guanciale fat coats the pasta beautifully. Put it into warm bowls. Then top with a ton of grated Pecorino Romano and good lot of ground black pepper and red pepper flakes. I like the pasta very al dente for it but you can do it up as you like, since, of course, you’re the one eating it. Visually you kind of lose the guanciale in the mix of green asparagus and off white pasta and cheese. But you’ll experience it when you eat. As Elizabeth said, the pieces cook up in a way that keeps the fat intact on the inside so that when you bite into their golden crust they sort of explode in your mouth like little porky Pop Rocks. Just to get across how good this, I’ve made it three times in the last two weeks.

So there you go. I’ll start working on the Guanciale Girl logo wear but in the mean time eat a little and let the guanciale good times roll.