Yes, dear readers, it's true. I am having an affair. It has been going on for quite a while now. I've thought of little else since the first time we met. I think I'm in love! Hopelessly and helplessly in love! I've told Mr. SGCC and he seems to understand. My beloved is a complex one- strong, yet mellow, deep and rich, rich, RICH! Who is this secret lover of mine? My dear one's name is Guanciale. Yes, that's right - Guanciale. And, it was truly love at first
HAH! I had you going there for a minute, didn't I? But, I speak the truth. I am having a love affair with guanciale. Never heard of it? Let me enlighten you.
Guanciale is a unique form of unsmoked Italian bacon made from pig's cheeks. The cheeks are bathed in wine and cured in salt, herbs and spices. Then they are air-dried for several weeks to months. This cheek or jowl fat has a different quality to it than traditional bacon or pancetta, which comes from the belly of the beast. It is smoother and melts more easily, giving dishes a richer, mellower and intensely "porky" flavor.
I first learned about the wonders of guanciale from Amy over at We Are Never Full. After reading Amy's rhapsodic narrative and feasting my eyes on her mouthwatering photos of her Perciatelli all' Amatriciana, I knew I had to get my hands on some that stuff!
Guanciale is such a specialty item, that many Italians, even those living in Italy, don't even know what it is. However, once one has tasted it in a creamy Carbonara or zesty Amatriciana, they will not soon forget it!
Guanciale is not widely available in Italy, and it is almost impossible to find here in the United States. So, imagine my surprise and delight when I saw some in the deli case at my local Italian market. Nita and Raj from Casa Italia managed to find a salumeria, or "cured meat shop" which makes their own guanciale and supplies it to them.
I couldn't buy that stuff fast enough! With a pound and a half package of guanciale in my greedy, little hands, I dreamt of the gastronomic joys I would create with it.
Perciatellli or Spaghetti all' Amatriciana is one of the most celebrated dishes in Italian cuisine It is commonly associated with the region of Lazio, and it actually comes from the town of Amatrice, for which it is named, in the province or Rieti. To be truly authentic, this dish must be prepared with guanciale, although it is often made using pancetta and is quite tasty that way. In addition to the guanciale, the original Amatriciana sauce also contained pepper and grated pecorino, which is a sharp, aged, sheep's milk cheese. Nowadays, many versions will also contain garlic, onions and tomato sauce.
My sugo, or sauce, comes from a combination of Amy's recipe and Mario Batali's version served at Babbo, with a few of my own tweaks. First, the guanciale is sauteed to render its fat. Onions are sauteed slowly in that fat until slightly caramelized. Garlic and hot red pepper flakes are added and sauteed a little bit more. Then, the guanciale is added back into the pan with tomato sauce and simmered to porky perfection. The result is a robust and deeply flavorful sauce.
The most popular pasta type for this dish is Perciatelli/Bucatini, which is a long, thick pasta with a tiny hole running through the center. The name comes from buco, meaning "hole" in Italian. This time, I used regular old spaghetti. I guess I was so excited about finding the guanciale at Casa Italia, that I forgot to buy the bucatini! It doesn't really matter much which form of pasta you use. The sauce is the thing. I've also included the recipe for Mario's Basic Tomato Sauce. It is the one I used and it is a good one.
If you can possibly beg, borrow or steal some guanciale, I really urge you to try this dish. Your eyes will roll back into your head and your toes will curl - just like mine did. And then my friends, your own love affair will begin!
Spaghetti all' Amatriciana
¾ pound guanciale, or pancetta, thinly sliced
3 garlic cloves
1 large sweet onion, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 cups tomato sauce, homemade or good quality jar sauce
1 pound bucatini or spaghetti
Pecorino Romano, for grating
Fresh basil for garnishing
Being a large pot of water to a boil and add 2 tablespoons of salt.
Place the guanciale slices in a 12- to 14-inch saute pan in a single layer and cook over medium-low heat until most of the fat has been rendered from the meat, turning occasionally. Remove the meat to a plate lined with paper towels and discard half the fat, leaving enough to coat the garlic, onion and red pepper flakes. Cut into 1-inch pieces and set aside.
Saute the onions over medium-low heat until very sweet and tender, about 20-30 minutes. Add garlic and red pepper flakes and saute a few minutes more until garlic is tender.
Return the guanciale to the pan with the vegetables. Add the tomato sauce, season with salt and pepper and simmer for about 10-15 minutes.
In the meantime, cook the pasta in the boiling water according to the package directions, until al dente.
Drain the pasta and add it to the simmering sauce, tossing to coat.
Divide the pasta among four warmed pasta bowls. Top with freshly grated pecorino cheese, garnish with basil and serve immediately.
Basic Tomato Sauce
adapted from Mario Batali
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 large sweet onion, chopped in 1/4-inch dice
4 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
3 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme leaves, or 1 tablespoon dried
1/2 medium carrot, finely shredded
2 (28-ounce) cans peeled whole tomatoes, crushed by hand and juices reserved
Salt to taste
In a 3-quart saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic, and cook until soft and light golden brown, about 8 to 10 minutes.
Add the thyme and carrot, and cook 5 minutes more, until the carrot is quite soft.
Add the tomatoes and juice and bring to a boil, stirring often. Lower the heat and simmer for 30 minutes until as thick as hot cereal. Season with salt and serve.
This sauce holds 1 week in the refrigerator or up to 6 months in the freezer.
Makes 4 cups.
For more pasta dishes from SGCC, check out: