Several weeks and many spritzes later, I had guanciale, quite firm to the touch. I also had friends and colleagues who wished to relieve me of my guanciale. Much to their surprise, I didn’t sample my face bacon until several weeks after I had released the jowl from its hanging prison. I waited until I could do a side-by-side comparison with the guanciale that Anda sells at Red Apron. I have to admit: Despite a number of flaws in my approach (high among them the odd scraps of head meat that I used), my guanciale stacked up favorably against Anda’s when both were crisped in a pan. I might even be so bold as to say that mine had a touch more flavor. It definitely had a pronounced saltiness, which you could argue is a flaw (but not in my book).
“There’s a reason why it’s a gateway for people to do these things,” Anda says about guanciale. “The first time you do it, it’s not going to be perfect, but it’s going to be good.”
Now the fun part: How to use the guanciale in the kitchen? Many people suggested two perennial favorites, bucatini all’Amatriciana and spaghetti alla carbonara. Palena chef and proprietor Frank Ruta forwarded me one of his secret uses for guanciale: rendering squares of it in a pan with “a good amount of olive oil and a sprig of marjoram, sage or thyme.” Ruta uses this fatty solution as a basting liquid to finish a thick piece of previously seared fish (such as halibut or striped bass) in a pan over medium heat. He’ll drizzle the plated fish with a spoonful of the basting liquid and garnish it with chopped parsley and some crisped-up guanciale pieces.
“While many recipes call for pancetta as a substitution” for guanciale, Ruta e-mailed me, “it really isn’t. Guanciale is a little richer and lends a more unctuousness feel to the final dish.”
Without much question, the dish I opted to prepare with my guanciale oozed richness. Elisir’s Fargione sent me a recipe for braised lamb ragu from his forthcoming cookbook, “Visual Eats: A Behind the Scenes Look at Modern Italian Cooking,” set for release this fall by Keith Publications. The chef claims that the recipe was born from an accident: He had skipped out for lunch and left a leg of lamb in the oven. Instead of trashing the overcooked leg, Fargione opted to slice it thinly, dump the meat into a pot with a full half-pound of guanciale and braise the pork and lamb cuts into a pine-scented sauce of great depth.
When I sampled the ragu over gnocchi, I was struck by the fact that my guanciale had been rendered almost invisible. An ingredient that had spent weeks in a dark basement reaching maturity was now braised into oblivion in a matter of minutes. Was this the ending I had imagined for my jowl? Not really. But one taste of Fargione’s ragu and I knew that the guanciale had gone to a better place.
But what about me? Where did I come out in this process? Put it this way: I’m already planning to hang another round of jowls, this time letting them age for nine months or longer. I want to taste that super-aged guanciale (think: face ham!) that Anda has been developing at the Red Apron commissary. Now, I just need to buy an old fridge.