My mom recently said, “I haven’t seen any pig jowls at the Stop & Shop recently.” It jolted me back to reality– it’s OK that most people don’t regularly eat guanciale.
Cured pig jowl and I actually only met recently when I lived in New York. Dustin and I had ventured to Bushwick after reading in Edible Brooklyn about a rag-tag gang of hipsters casually throwing together a pizza joint. Roberta’s exuded intimidating coolness: local micro brews, drinks served in Ball jars, locally sourced chickens, rooftop gardens, and piggy bank centerpieces begging for donations to the Brooklyn Grange. It was all so novel at the time.
Another novelty was guanciale listed under the pizza topping options. I timidly asked the server, “um, could you tell me what this is?” pointing to the word on the menu (I didn’t know how to pronounce it). He described it as pig jowl bacon. I wondered, “Doesn’t that come from the face/head area?!” while picturing myself as an Andrew Zimmern-esque nose-to-tail character ordering pizza topped with guanciale and roasted red peppers. It was exhilarating.
Three years later I confronted a raw pig jowl in my own kitchen. It was surprisingly large– similar to any other hunk of pork (I’m no Andrew Zimmern after all). Following the directions in Michael Ruhlmn and Brian Polcyn’s new Salumi book, I rubbed the pork with tons of salt and black pepper, placed it in a Ziploc bag, and left it in the fridge for a few days. Then I rinsed it, patted it dry, and hung it from the ceiling fan in the extra bedroom.
Curing meat requires suspension of disbelief. Leaving the flesh of others unrefrigerated for over three weeks feels vaguely shameful. We underestimate salt’s powers to purge meat of moisture and create an environment inhospitable to bacterial growth.
Thinking back to that dinner at Roberta’s, I’d say that bacon comparison was misleading. Yes, guanciale has those familiar white streaks of fat, but it tastes delicately sweet instead of harshly smoky. The application of heat releases the silky fat and echoes the complex flavors of a good Spanish ham.
But the Roberta’s memory did inspire me to recreate that pizza. I’ll try to remember to get off my high horse whenever I eat it.
Pizza with Guanciale and Roasted Eggplant and Summer Squash
- 1 recipe pizza dough
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 ounces guanciale, thinly sliced
- 1 small eggplant, thinly sliced sliced
- 1 small summer squash or zucchini, thinly sliced
- 1/4 medium red onion, thinly sliced
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1/4 cup canned tomatoes
- 1 or 2 balls fresh mozzarella, sliced
1. Heat the oven to 425°F. Place the olive oil in a skillet and heat over medium high heat. Add the guanciale and stir frequently for several minutes. Then turn down the heat and allow the guanciale to cook for 10 minutes on low. Remove the guanciale pieces to a plate lined with a paper towel. Remove the skillet from heat.
2. After the skillet has cooled, place the eggplant, squash, garlic, and red peppers in the skillet to coat the vegetables with the rendered fat. Season with salt, and then spread the vegetables onto a baking sheet. Place the baking sheet into the oven for 20 to 30 minutes.
3. While the vegetables are roasting, stretch the pizza dough into a circle. Spread with tomato sauce and top with the fresh mozzarella, onion slices, and cooked guanciale.
4. After 20 to 30 minutes, remove the vegetables from the oven and turn the heat up to 500°F. Top the pizza with the roasted vegetables. Place the pizza in the oven after it reaches 500°F– it needs to be screaming hot! Bake for 8 to 10 minutes. Scatter parsley over the top of the pizza after removing it from the oven and then serve.