Wednesday, December 2, 2009
Posted by Kate at 7:57 AM
Let me tell you why it pays to know your farmer. That farmer friend I've mentioned a few times? The one who raises her animals on pasture, including our Thanksgiving turkey, and who occasionally throws some bones my way for free? She called me up on the Friday before Thanksgiving to ask if I wanted some random pork bits. Seems a few of her customers that bought whole or half hogs didn't want some of the less choice cuts, even though they had paid for the entire animal. So I was being offered pork jowls, organs, and possibly some other trimmings or offal as well. Of course I thought of Hank, and of course I said I was interested. My policy is not to turn down free handouts unless what's being offered would really present problems. Free pasture-raised local pork does not present any problems. The need for a little research, yes; problems, no.
We got to the butcher's shop on Sunday morning. It wasn't clear exactly what bits were unclaimed, and it was clear that the butcher would put whatever he was permitted to keep into scrapple or headcheese, and render down any fat into lard. Not being a paying customer, I didn't want to seem too acquisitive. I left with two pork jowls, a liver, heart and a tongue.
We're headed into the perfect time of year for curing meat - the dry, cold months of winter. And I've long wanted to try making my own guanciale (say: gwan CHA lay) - cured pork jowls prized in southern Italy and eaten like bacon. It's the authentic ingredient in several traditional pasta sauces, including spaghetti alla carbonara, for which I've always substituted American bacon. Traditional carbonara only has a handful of ingredients: eggs, garlic, cured pork, black pepper, noodles, and a good aged grating cheese. We produce our own eggs and garlic. I can get a surprisingly good grating cheese locally made from pasture-raised raw milk. Being able to source locally and then cure pork jowls into guanciale, and therefore to prepare a truly local carbonara or Amatriciana would be nothing to sneeze at. So starting about ten days ago I embarked on my first home curing project.
I cannot tell you how thrilled I was to trim out a pair of hog jowls, scatter a mixture of salt, sugar, black pepper, other spices and some herbs from our garden over them, weight it all down in a bowl, and stash them in the fridge. I felt like the cat that ate the canary, with a free pork experiment in the fridge. It almost didn't matter how it turned out. Almost. As the meat sat in the salt-sugar mixture over the past week, it released a fair amount of liquid which I poured off from time to time. I added some more of the curing mix and turned the jowls over each time I did this. After just over a week I took the meat out of the bowl. It had a noticeably stiffer feeling than when I first salted it. I reapplied the curing mix wherever the meat seemed to need it, and hung it up in our refrigerator to begin the drying process. I managed the hanging by cutting up a wooden dowel into two pieces to fit in the shelf supports inside the fridge, and then piercing the jowls with two metal skewers which rest across the dowels. I've got a plate underneath to catch any drips as the drying process begins.
Fortunately, my husband is away on a business trip, so it's only me rummaging through the fridge this week. I plan to find a place to finish the curing process in our garage after he gets back. That will allow the outdoor temperatures to settle a little more fully into true winter, and let me monitor the beginning of the drying stage quite carefully. If there's any risk of spoilage, it would be right now, when the meat is out of its brine but still pretty moist. So starting the drying process in the refrigerator seems like a good compromise. All told, the guanciale will probably dry down for 4-6 weeks.
The organ meats were a little more challenging to deal with. I have not been a fan of organ meats over the years. The whole idea of eating a chunk of flesh designed either to clean the blood or produce urine somehow lacks a certain appeal. But I'm trying hard to cure myself of food prejudices, and this is certainly an opportunity to put my resolve to the test. I like haggis, so I'm trying to work my way into things from that angle. Hank recommended an Umbrian sausage called mazzafegati, and a dish of pounded pork heart schnitzel with spaetzle. Those Germans, Italians, and Spaniards, good pork eaters that they've been over the centuries - they're the ones who would know how to eat everything but the squeal. Both of Hank's suggestions sounded good to me, but I didn't have time to deal with making them in the days leading up to Thanksgiving. So all the organs got thrown in the freezer. When I get hold of some pork fat and regular pork to bulk out the liver, I'll take a stab at that mazzafegati. And yes, I'll keep you posted on such efforts, as well as how the guanciale progresses.
Wish me luck in my new food preservation endeavor!