Wednesday, December 2, 2009

First Foray Into Home Curing: Guanciale

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!


Wendy said...

Very awesome! I'm reading Novella Carpenter's Farm City right now, and I'm at the part where she's describing her adventures in curing pork into cuts of meat with fancy, foreign names ;). It's funny to read your post about something similar.

My husband is brain tanning some deer hides right now, and I confess that I had a hard time when we had to make the tanning mash. I think I would have a seriously hard time with head cheese (now that I know what it is :), but like you, I'm trying to overcome my food biases. They really are so arbitrary.

Of course, now that I've read most of Novella's book, I'm starting to think about trying to raise a pig :). I wonder how my neighbors would react to that?

Tina said...

Fascinating. Good luck!

el said...

Good luck, Kate!

I had to laugh because it's when MY husband is away that I mess up the kitchen with experiments too.

[fwiw I had my pig cheeks made into bacon for me by the butcher: yum. The only foray I have gone into long-term meat curing was duck breast "prosciutto" which turned out "meh" considering the work/time involved. Otherwise, short-term cures (honey-baked ham, quick country ham) were fairly easy. I make my own sausage, so it's just a matter of time I guess until I actually hang some to cure...]

Aimee said...

brave lady! cured meat is on my list, but I haven't got there yet. We kill a pig every year, and every year I say "this year I'm gonna make salami!" but so far all I've done is buy a good quality meat grinder.

Unknown said...

My youngest is reading Little House in the Big Woods this week - the chapter where Pa cures the pork and Ma makes Headcheese. Being a Southern Belle, this is all a bit foreign to me, but sounds interesting. (We ate more than our share of venison south west of the Mason-Dixon line.) I must say, your rig in the fridge is very clever! As I seem to have the exact same refrigerator, I'm going to remember this invention of yours for future use in my own kitchen!

(Kate, I got your lovely thank you note this past week! So glad you got the book and will enjoy it!)

Kate said...

Wendy, I'm going to have to put in a request at my library for Novella's book. It sounds great. As for head cheese, now I don't know whether it's never been a mystery for me because I grew up surrounded by the Pennsylvania Dutch, or because I went to culinary school. I'm sort of surprised whenever people say they didn't know what it was, but I guess it's a novelty for many.

And you know I'm with you on the food prejudices thing. Wish I could invite you and the clan over to make pork liver sausage!

Thanks, Tina.

El, sorry to hear your duck breast prosciutto didn't turn out more satisfying.

Aimee, thanks. I feel more lost in the woods than brave. This is a good time of year to experiment with stuff, now that the garden has died back to a dull roar.

Amy, you're about the tenth person to mention the Little House books. I've never read them! My local library doesn't carry very many of the series. I may have to put in an inter-library loan for the rest of the set. As for my rig in the fridge, you know what they say about necessity being the mother of invention. Very accurate in this case. And I'm glad you got the note. Thank you once again for the book. I've skimmed it and it's on the top of a short pile next to my bed.

Wendy said...

Oh, I almost forgot ...

I mentioned you to Novella when I met her. You'd said the two of you worked together in a bookstore ... and she (expressed that she) remembered you ;).

Kate said...

Wendy - Wow, then she's got a good memory. I wish I'd been more aware of what Novella was up to with the urban farming. But then, at the time I didn't really envision myself ending up as an aspiring homesteader just a few years into the future. Thanks for letting me know. It sort of tickles me that she remembers me.

Susanna a.k.a. Cheap Like Me said...

This is great! We have just ordered a 1/2 pig from our CSA and will pick it up today ... including fat and organs, but not including the head, alas, because I did not want to pay $4 a pound for it, and because I read a detailed processing saga online that took a LONG time and wound up with 7 lbs of head cheese, which even the author admitted was challenging to work through. I told my husband we'll do that next time ... but meanwhile we'll be looking for ways to deal with the organs. Yikes.

You REALLY should read the Little House books! They will inspire you. They are wonderful reads as adults. We started reading them aloud to our daughter on a road trip from Colorado to Minnesota, and then read the whole series. Some parts are almost like a how-to manual.

Kate said...

Susanna, $4/lb for the head seems a bit much. I wonder if you could pay for just the jowls? Making head cheese would indeed be a long and involved process, I suspect. And yes, I'll get on those inter-library loan requests for the Little House books!

susan said so said...

You like haggis? I don't know many people besides myself who have even tried haggis!

I ate mine on a bet when I visited Scotland in June, but I would have tried it anyway, bet or no. I liked it too, though not enough to ever crave it.


p.s. I'll be the 13th person to mention the Little House books; they're fantastic!

Kate said...

Susan, I do like haggis, and I too tried it more or less on a dare in Scotland. Although I have a large capacity for squeamishness when it comes to food, I'm even more attracted to the idea of bragging rights about foods that would make other people squeamish! So whenever I traveled and was presented with something really out there, I tried hard to sample it with an open mind. Sometimes I managed to like the things I tried. Other times, not so much. But yeah, haggis is an underappreciated Scottish delicacy.