Years ago, in confirmation class at Bethel Church in Elmhurst, Harold McGee, a classmate of mine, would frequently burst into the room doing an impersonation of Granny Clampett of the then-popular sit-com The Beverly Hillbillies. McGee would say something like, “What you need, Jed, are some hog jowls and possum tails.” Years later, McGee became an internationally acclaimed author of the landmark On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. Me, I just recently started having a new appreciation for hog jowls.
A few weeks ago, we were traveling through Italy. In Rome, we were all in the mood for pork, ideally something fatty we could fry up for breakfast with eggs or for dinner with pasta. We happened to be walking around the city that day, and we stopped by the Pantheon. As we were leaving, I spotted this ancient-looking building with huge hams hanging in the doorway. It was a salumeria, a cured meat shop, which was selling many things, including fatty pork.
Now you must understand, we Italians are not opposed to fat. In fact, I’ve many times had — and greatly enjoyed — lardo, cured pork fatback, usually smeared on toast: It’s unctuous and smooth, with good flavor, though I can see how the texture of nothing-but-fat might turn off many.
The cured pork jowl, or guanciale (gwan-cha-lay), that we bought in Rome was immediately deployed in a simple pasta that beautifully framed the umami-rich flavors of the fatty pork. Like truffles and caviar, a little bit of guanciale goes a long way: its flavor permeated the pasta, adding a silky texture and deep porkiness.
Back in Oak Park, we were still hankering for pork jowl. I knew I could get it at Carnivore, where they cure the jowls from whole pigs that come into the shop. This being springtime, there’s asparagus at many local markets, so I made an appetizer of asparagus wrapped with guanciale. Of course, you could use bacon to wrap the asparagus, but with a bottle of Sicilian white wine from Anfora, we were trying to relive our golden moments in Italy.
When you buy guanciale from Carnivore (you don’t need a lot, maybe a half-pound), the skillful butchers behind the counter will cut it very thin for you, which is what you want. Then wrap each asparagus stalk with guanciale, put the asparagus on a cookie rack on a cookie sheet, and cook it for about 10-12 minutes at 350 degrees, or until the guanciale starts browning. By the time the guanciale is done, the asparagus will also be done.
Guanciale-wrapped asparagus is delicious: the sweetness of the spring vegetable complements the fattiness of the pork, and it’s a very good start to dinner. Pairing wine with asparagus is challenging, though the fatty meat helps; next time I make guanciale-wrapped asparagus, I’ll serve a drink I also learned to appreciate in Rome: an Aperol spritz (simply the bright red Aperol with a splash of Prosecco and sparkling water).
Travel broadens. The waistline.