I’d been plotting this for a while, but never felt the timing was right until now. Getting the jowl wasn’t the problem, it was deciding where to hang it. Extra fridge? Basement of condo building? Parents garage? There don’t seem to be any hard and fast rules regarding the temperature and humidity of the drying conditions. Neither the recipe I was using (from Ruhlman and Polcyn’s Charcuterie) nor any online resource seemed to agree on what was best. The recipe simply said to hang the meat longer for more humid conditions. Terrific, that tells me nothing about what constitutes a humid condition. I decided to use half of a wine fridge which I had the envious task of clearing out beforehand. After a couple of weeks of higher than average drinking, it was clear and ready to go. I set the temperature at 55 and my thermohydrometer measured the humidity as fluctuating between 67 and 71%.
To the meat. Jowl is pig’s cheek and is an absolute delight. Once you get your hands on one, trim it of any fatty little discolored glands, throw it in a ziploc bag and shake it up with your cure. Charcuterie recommends equal parts salt and sugar, thyme, cracked black peppercorns, crushed garlic and a teaspoon of pink salt is optional. The pink salt gives the meat a nice red hue and there is some suggestion of it lowering the risk of botulism. I did not use it for this jowl, but I decided to go with it for my second jowl, for reasons that will become clear shortly. I also threw in some nutmeg the second time around and left out the garlic. We’ll see what happens.
100_0131

The jowl

Leave the jowl in the fridge for about a week, turning it every other day, until the flesh feels firm, not squishy. It will give off a good amount of liquid as the salt sucks the moisture out.

100_0144

The cure

After taking it out of the cure, rinse it off under cold water and poke a hole in one of the corners.

Run some butcher’s string through the hole and hang it in your predetermined location.

100_0150

The recipe in Charcuterie recommends drying for 1-3 weeks. Because of the somewhat humid conditions I went on the long side, and probably could have left it in at least another week without drying it out excessively. But I was excited.

Guanciale - the final product

No mold (this is a good thing). I was shocked at how good it looked. Not sure whether to be impressed with my accomplishment, or just less impressed with all the rest of the guanciale out there. I’m going with the latter.

mmmmm

I mean, that looks legitimately store-bought. Marbled, slick from fat. Damn Gina, who knew guanciale was so simple? Of course, now came the moment of truth. The taste test. Was this meat actually safe? Would I die of botulism? A little backstory:  Liz has been against this endeavor from the start. She didn’t want pork hanging in our apt, she didn’t want the wine fridge turned into a meat fridge, and above all she did not trust the conditions to keep the meat disease free. For several weeks, botulism was one of her favorite topics of conversation. Chats with links to botulism websites, descriptions of the symptoms, incredulous stares. All of it was leading up to this:

The moment of truth

The moment of truth

Tasted great. But then I feel a scratching in my throat. I try to swallow. Can’t. All of a sudden my mind and heart are racing. Goddamnit! Do I have botulism? Have I been botulised? Luckily we live several blocks away from a hospital so we quickly grab our things and start walking over. About 15 feet outside our apartment I realize the absurdity of the situation and regain my composure. We hit the corner store up for some cookie dough ice cream and head back home. 12 days later I am still botulism free, but for the sake of your own peace of mind I recommend using the pink salt. I got mine here http://www.savoryspiceshop.com/spices/sltcur.html .

The guanciale keeps for up to 4 months so freezing it in chunks and defrosting as needed is the way to go.

Lardo is up next.

roast it up

roast it up

This is my new favorite meat sauce. The creamy stickiness of face fat and the distinct qualities of the various parts of the head make this one of the most satisfying and complex sauces I’ve tried. The tongue, the cheeks, the brains, the jowls, the pockets of flesh hidden deep within the ocular cavity (it’s like spelunking for meat) – each component adds a different texture and flavor. And making it couldn’t be easier. Season your head with salt and whatever else you want (I put some cinnamon and nutmeg), put it in a roasting pan, roast at 375 for 1.5 hour and 325 for another 2 hours, let cool in the pan until you can handle the flesh, peel off the skin, scrape and pull everything (everything) off the bones and back of the skin and leave in pan, then give it a coarse chop and mix around with all the pan drippings. This will give you the following:

carve it up

carve it up

A sloppy delicious mess of juicy and fatty meat. From this point on it’s like making a standard meat sauce. Sautee a battuto of onions/carrots/celery, add the meat, and then add your tomatoes (I used 2 cans of whole peeled tomatoes for the 1 head). Simmer for a while until the sauce reduces to your desired consistency and serve. Normally restaurants add butter and cream to thicken the consistency of a meat sauce. This has the unfortunate side effect of diluting the flavor. But this is not an issue given the unctuousness of the head meat (and particularly the rendered fat). Use fresh pasta to capitalize on all its sticky glory.

serve it up

serve it up

Consult your doctor before trying this dish, it is not for the weak of heart. In Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn’s “Charcuterie”, they describe a recipe for pork belly confit used by Jim Drohman at Le Pichet in Seattle. Essentially it’s pork belly braised in duck fat and then deep fried. But believe me, the heart attack will be worth it. First, you’re going to need to secure yourself a pork belly. I got this glorious slab of love from Bobolink Farm in Vernon, NJ. If you join their mailing list they will email you when their meat (veal, pork, beef) becomes available and you can have it delivered to your door. The belly comes in a slab of approximately 10lbs: 10 lb pork bellyCut this beauty into approximately a 6lb and a 4 pound piece. I would make the fatter end the 4lb’er, as the fattier cut is better for roasting (which is what I did with it).

SkinRun a sharp knife along the underside of the skin pulling the skin back as you go. Keep as much of the fat on the meat as you can.

100_0088Cut into 1 inch wide strips and then divide into 1in x 3in chunks.

100_0089Toss with the following dry cure:

2 tbsp ground black pepper

1/2 tbsp cinnamon

1/2 tsp ground cloves

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

3 bay leaves crumbled

10 sprigs fresh thyme

4 tbsp salt

1 tsp pink salt (I did not use this)

100_0092Cover the pork in white wine. Cover and refrigerate for 24-36 hours.

100_0094Remove pork from cure, pat the pieces dry, place in an ovenproof pot/ dutch oven and cover with rendered fat (duck/pork). I needed a 5lb vat of duck fat to entirely cover the pieces. Bring to a simmer on the stovetop, remove from heat, and then place in the oven, uncovered, and cook until the pork is fork tender, about 2-3 hours.

100_0105Remove from the oven and let it cool to room temperature. Refrigerate in the pan it was cooked in – the pork should be completely submerged in the fat. Refrigerate until completely chilled or for up to 2 months.

100_0112Remove as many pieces as you’d like from the fat, wipe off the excess fat, and allow to come to room temperature. Heat a deep heavy pot of oil for deep-frying and deep-fry the pieces until crispy and heated through (about 2 minutes).  Remove and drain on paper towels.

100_0113Deep frying the pieces in oil (you can also fry them in the fat they were preserved in) makes them a bit crispy on the outside with a melting fatty texture on the inside. Ruhlman suggests serving with a simple salad with vinaigrette, some good mustard, and a crusty baguette. REALLY. REALLY. REALLY. GOOD.