There’s nothing like pork fat to give a delicious push to soups, sauces, pasta, beans, or whatever else you’re making. In Italian cooking that comes most commonly from pancetta, unsmoked pork belly (the same cut used for bacon) typically seasoned with spices such as black pepper and cloves, then rolled into a cylindrical shape and dry cured.
Pancetta is a kitchen staple for me. I buy a quarter pound every few weeks, cut in 1/4-inch slices by the deli person. When I peel off a slice to use, I usually dice it–in Italy, even easier, you can buy containers of pancetta precut in cubes. Keeps well in the fridge and if I’m not going through it quickly enough, I freeze what’s left.
Right now, though, I’m out of pancetta and what’s in my deli drawer is a slab of guanciale, pancetta’s glamorous cousin, made from hog cheeks and jowls. The idea is to refrigerate it, well wrapped, and carve off slices as needed. So I’ve been giving some thought to what guanciale is good for.
Guanciale is best known as the key ingredient of three pastas for which Rome and surrounding areas are known. For the most basic, bucatini alla gricia, the long hollow pasta strands are tossed with rendered and crisped guanciale and pecorino cheese. Add canned plum tomatoes and you have bucatini all’ amatriciana (named for Amatrice, a town). Substitute whole eggs and yolks for the tomatoes and you’re on your way to spaghetti alla carbonara.
A quick search of cookbooks and Web sites reveals that this trio of pasta dishes (and guanciale, the ingredient they share) has inspired an outpouring of strong opinions. Onions cooked slowly in guanciale fat are responsible for the sauce’s flavor, says one source. Absolutely no onions or garlic, says another. No other cheese but aged pecorino is acceptable. Above all, never substitute pancetta for guanciale. And so on.
In their quest for the most authentic renditions of those dishes, these purists are ignoring a key fact: The guanciale or pancetta you’re using was almost certainly produced in the U.S. I’m not sure why imports are prohibited, but am guessing it’s because the length of curing fails to meet USDA standards (pancetta and guanciale are cured a few months, at most, compared to a minimum of 12 months for Italian prosciutto).
I don’t expect these products to match the best I’ve eaten in Italy–the lean, hand-cut pancetta served like prosciutto in a Parma restaurant or a variety of Sicilian guanciale made from wild mountain pigs. That said, their quality can be quite high. The label for my Aux Delices guanciale tells me it was cured in sea salt for a month, then rubbed with black pepper, coriander, rosemary and bay leaf, and air dried like prosciutto. Authentic? Maybe yes, maybe no–but I’m more interested in whether it tastes good.
Plus, sermons about authenticity make me want to break the rules.
I had some fresh black-eyed peas on hand and, ignoring the fact that these would be alien to an Italian cook, I simmered them with strips of guanciale, an onion and bay leaf. The peas and their broth had a more subtly savory taste compared to the usual smoked pork hocks.
I did a riff on Cobb salad with Boston lettuce, roasted rosemary chicken chunks, avocado, tomatoes. For a crunchy finish, I sauteed bits of pancetta in olive oil until crisp and sprinkled them (along with toasted pine nuts) on top. (You’ll want to let a bit of the pork-seasoned oil find its way into your dressing.) Later, I tried sauteing bits of guanciale the same way. Also excellent.
Next I thought about making one of the three sacred pasta recipes with guanciale. There was nary a strand of bucatini in my pantry but I did have spaghetti. No pecorino, but plenty of Parmigiano Reggiano on hand. And a good supply of chives, also not on the approved ingredient list.
My pasta dish might not pass muster with the purity police, but did it taste good? Yes. And would I dare substitute pancetta for guanciale? You bet.
Spaghetti with Guanciale, Parmesan and Chives
Makes 2 generous servings
2 ounces guanciale or pancetta, cut in 1/4-inch cubes
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup white wine
Freshly grated black pepper
1/3 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano or aged pecorino cheese
4 ounces spaghetti or bucatini
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 to 2 tablespoons chives or snipped in small pieces
1. In a skillet large enough to hold the cooked pasta, cook the guanciale cubes in olive oil over medium-low heat until most of the fat has melted into the oil and the cubes crisp, losing their gelatinous look. Stir in the wine, cooking until most has evaporated. Season with black pepper and stir in half of the cheese. Keep warm.
2. Meanwhile, bring a medium saucepan filled two-thirds full of cold water to a boil. Add the salt and the spaghetti, stirring well to separate the strands. When the water returns to a boil, adjust the heat to keep it at a brisk simmer. Cook until the spaghetti is al dente (start tasting after 8 minutes).
3. Using a large strainer or tongs, transfer the pasta to the skillet, turning it with tongs to combine with the sauce. Cook over low heat a few minutes longer, adding the chives and remaining cheese just before serving.