14 October 2009

My new favorite food

First off, clearly the last post did not unclog the blog blockage. C'est comme ça (perhaps the most common phrase in Paris, expressing the inevitability of unpleasant things, like the dreadfulness of the coffee or dog poo all over the sidewalk-- "yeah, it's like that" or "what can you do?") Sorry about that.

Second, this should probably be called my newest favorite food, because there's a missing blog before this one naming cauliflower as my new favorite food. Well, maybe new favorite ingredient. Whichever, it's very passé, now. (OK, it's not passé, as cauliflower still really rocks. Surprised? If you want to make creamy vegetable dishes, cauliflower purees to ethereal lightness and richness but still with flavor-- it's a secret ingredient for sure. My dad may think it looks like paste (a hint at his childhood eating preferences?), but you can't have too much of a super-creamy, tasty vegetable-- gratins, timbales/sformazas/custards, etc are wonderful.)

So what is my newest favorite food? Guanciale.

OK, so not exactly something in everybody's supermarket. But it should be. We should all petition whoever it is who fills aisles with 15 varieties of baked beans and stale coffee to fill them instead with guanciale, because, well, pardon the expression, but it's just the shit.

I'd been hunting the elusive guanciale for awhile here in Paris at Italian specialty shops, where the vendors speak Italian as their first language, and I'd gotten a lot of, "huh?" Not encouraging. One guy even asked me if that was an English word. Yikes.

Guanciale is a cured pig meat that isn't bacon. And by "isn't bacon," I mean both isn't bacon and yet is still in theory a lot like bacon. Whereas bacon and pancetta (and French poitrine) comes from the belly of the pig, with various curing and smoking protocols for preservation, guanciale is made from the jowl of the pig and is never smoked. I like bacon. I love pancetta and use it abundantly. But what I'd read about guanciale suggested that many feel it is a porkier flavor than bacon or pancetta. It's a staple in several regions of Italy. You can't make an authentic pasta (usually bucatini) all'amatriciana (guanciale, onion, garlic, pepper flakes, cheese, with or without tomato, depending on whether you're a fan of the pre- or post-Columbus version) or cabonnara without guanciale. I've made several poser versions with pancetta that I thought were pretty darned good. But I really wanted to find guanciale to explore further. Maybe it would be different, maybe not.

Lucky for me, we were in Italy the last couple of weeks riding our bikes.

[A brief interlude for some gratuitous photos of Italy. Look away if it's raining and cold where you are... ]

Anghiari, near the confluence of Tuscany, Umbria, Marche, and Emiglia-Romagna. Our apartment was in the city wall.

Misty morning view from our apartment window.

It was an usually hot summer in Italy and uncharacteristically warm for October. The flowers were digging it.

Karen, having earned lunch.

The Parisians have their ill-tempered little dogs ("pets and their owners..."). The Tuscans have their cats.

I've got a little bit of a thing for Alfa-Romeos. So when Avis graciously offered me this 159 sportwagon to drive, I was suave enough to kill the engine not once, but 3 times while trying to pull out of the parking lot. Karen called it the Batmobile.

The Tiber river, from a 9-mile long climb.

Typical hilltop town.

Sheep are always a highlight of any ride for Karen. Sometimes I feel kinda like sheep paparazzi.

More of Anghiari.

Emilia-Romagna, near the national forest.

Monastic village in the national forest, just on the Tuscany side. Silenzio required.

The view out our kitchen window.

Stage 16 of the 2009 Giro d'Italia covered some very challenging terrain in Umbria, earning the comment from Lance Armstrong that it was the hardest day he's had on the bike (helped by the fact that it was stupid-hot). There's a joke in Italy that the only way to get a road paved is to run the Giro on it. This road led into the first categorized climb of the day, and though still marked as gravel on the maps, we knew it would be silky smooth. 12 km of sensory overload on magic carpet black top.

Karen on top of the world.

[Back to our regularly scheduled program...]

Unfortunately for me, none of the 4 provinces we were in or near was one where guanciale is a staple. And so I looked in a lot of places for it: butchers, norcerias (Norcia is a town in Umbria famous for its salumi, or cured meats, and so places that specialize in such things are sometimes known as norcerias), alimentari, enoteccas. No dice. But there's one specialty place in Monteverdi we were introduced to some 8 years ago, Mucci, that does an amazing array of pecorinos and cured meats. We left our apt for the airport an hour early so we could drive out of the way to stop in.

Mucci. They pretty much have whatever you need.

Aging prosciuttos, an olfactory symphony.

And they didn't disappoint. They had guanciale, but I had to buy an entire one. No biggie-- it's a pig's cheek. I've eaten beef, veal, and goat cheeks in restaurants. They're pretty small. I've seen real live pigs on the family farms. Big stinky animals, but I didn't notice any grotesquely humungous cheeks. But the guanciale the guy at Mucci's brought out was the size of my entire thigh. Either that's not a real guanciale, or that was a very, very large pig.

I suspect it was the latter, because when he did bring out a smaller one, it still weighed just shy of 3 pounds, and it was clearly a single piece of pig. I was a bit wary, since buying the whole thing was more than I'd bargained for, but 3 pounds of pig for 15 euro-bucks is an insane deal. My Fritalian specialty stores in Paris charge about 3 times that for run of the mill pancetta. Umm, I am not stupid. I bought the guanciale.

About 1.5 lbs remaining of the 3 lbs of guanciale.

Well, I bought it and a big slab of locally cured prosciutto, a piece of cured filet of cinghiale (the wild boar that roams those forests), several links of cured sausage made from cinghiale, a big bag of gorgeous dried porcini (the fresh ones won't be around forever, you know), and 2 panini made with local prosciutto for the flight home to Paris. Yeah, he worked us pretty good. "I'll buy the whole 3-pound guaniciale" kind of marks one as ready to buy. But every bit of it was delicious. And since we were flying within the EU, there was no concern about arbitrary and moronic fears of transporting cured meats or raw cheeses. I'm looking at you, USA. Karen got stopped at security in the Italy airport to go through the big bag of meat, and the security guy laughed pretty hard by the time he got to the panini. We didn't laugh when we got home and found that our cinghiale sausages were missing. The security guy took 'em, I know it!

So I got the guanciale home and decided to make spaghetti all'amatriciana. With tomato, since it was Columbus Day. Wow-- there's a lot of fat in this stuff as you slice it. But once you cook it, the fat melts away unlike anything I've worked with. And both the flavor and the texture of the melted fat are amazing. So much meatier and mellow in flavor than what comes off of bacon, and sooo silky. If, as one annoying Food Network chef maintains, "Pork fat rules," guanciale fat is emperor of the universe. The remaining meat is similarly exquisite. Building the sauce by cooking the onions, garlic, and chili in the fat, then the tomatoes, leads to a final combination that my pancetta versions don't come close to-- so velvety, sweet, mellow. Wow.

One of my favorite dishes is radicchio with pancetta. Done it a bunch of ways (raw radicchio with rendered (sometimes glazed) pancetta over the top, cooked radicchio with pancetta and peas in a little cream with pasta, etc), but however it's done, there's something about the bitter crunch of radicchio and the sweet goodness of pork fat that sings. Last night I rendered the guanciale, cut into lardons, then cooked the radicchio with a little sliced garlic in the fat and once wilted, added some chopped fresh rosemary, a little verjus (another recent score, this one from France-- the juice of unripe grapes, which in earlier centuries was mixed with sugar, booze, and vinegar as a condiment and cooking ingredient), and a ladle of just-made chicken stock, then served that over polenta enriched with the rest of the rendered guanciale fat. Oh my. I'm in love.

Creamy polenta with radicchio and guanciale.

Tonight's use was in a lasagna. Rendered full slices of guanciale, then cooked onions in the fat over low heat for several hours to build deep caramelization, and layered them with fromage blanc, herbs, and a bechamel (well, kind of a bechamel, since some of the fat was guanciale fat instead of butter, and some of the liquid was dried porcini soaking liquid cooked dry and then deglazed with milk). Not traditional, but I'd make it again in a heartbeat. Then again, almost any lasagna made with homemade pasta is worth making again.

Guanciale lasagna, with porcini sauce and slow-cooked onions.

Now I'm trying to figure out how I'm going to get a whole lot more of this stuff here and back in the States, or how I'm going to get my hands on raw pig jowls so I can cure my own. Going without simply isn't an option. If you can find it, I highly recommend working with it. And let me know what you do with it, because I think we've got enough that we'll have to eat it pretty much every day for the next month. Which isn't a bad thing at all.

I'm pretty sure there's a cauliflower-and-guanciale meal in our very near future.

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