I have to laugh. One facet of myself that I almost never bring up on this website is my love of cartoons, especially innovative cartoons, and no cartoon was more innovative during my childhood than Ren and Stimpy. A few nasty gross-out shots aside, they did a hilarious episode centered around a culinary delight, hog jowls. At the time, I thought it was just something weird for the sake of humor, but unbeknownst to me, cured pig cheek or guanciale, is an Italian delicacy.
The redoubtable Gina DePalma did an amazing write up of a Roman recipe utilizing this delight for Serious Eats a few months ago. A few weeks, Elizabeth had located some domestic guanciale in the case of our local Fairway [Ed.–after months of wanting to find the stuff, and Fairway had it for a fair price to boot–score!]. I’ve only read a little bit about this stuff up until a few weeks ago, most was in Mario Batali’s Molto Italiano, but most of what I’d seen permits the cook to swap pancetta in a pinch. While this may be the nearest analogue, I can say now the two ingredients really are quite different.
The dish in Gina’s write-up, Pasta alla Gricia, emphasizes mandatory simplicity while preparing this ingredient. Guanciale is indeed something special and delicate and the preparation she suggests highlights its delightful subtlety. She suggests slowly rendering the pig fat over low heat to prevent browning before simply serving over pasta with a strictly measured amount of pecorino romano. Without a strong salty, cured taste of pancetta, the final dish is buttery and smooth, and completely irresistible. Since proportion is critical, we had to modulate the amounts of the other ingredients (cheese, pasta. etc.) for the amount of guanciale we had bought, and luckily, my new food scale was up to the challenge.
While enjoying the fruits of my labor, I became aware of a conundrum facing the modern epicurean. We have access to so many delicious foodstuffs, it becomes easy to forget that the recipes, preparations and traditions concerning said foodstuffs mostly come from a time when availability of ingredients was completely different. I cannot imagine the person that conceived this amazing dish could comprehend a future where the supreme pork fat delivery vector that is the cured hog jowl would be so abundant and easy to get a hold of. Does a special dish, enjoyed frequently, make it somehow less special? Would the dish have arisen at all in a world like ours? I think they key to truly appreciating these once delicacies is to treat them as such. Yes, one could enjoy Pasta alla Gricia every night, but in order to completely respect it, some self-restraint may be in order. So please, venture forth, friends, and explore the paradox that in order to completely savor an ingredient, sometimes we must abstain from it, if only for a while. Until next time, friends, cook on!