For months, Steve was haunted by hog jowls. At a mid-Winter Bardstown Road market, Matt Corry of Schacht Farm told Steve about two jowls along with a pair of hocks available from one of his recently-processed pigs. Liking Matt and his meat products, Steve bought the meat sight unseen. A week later, Steve proudly informed Michelle he’d spent nearly $100 for four very large, very ungainly pieces of pork flesh. As our little chest freezer had very little room and Spring was none too far away, Michelle wondered aloud how Steve would use the meat, and how soon. She then upped the ante by taking carnitas off the table. (Someday, though, Steve will find a way to use the five-pound tub of lard lurking in the refrigerator. Someday.)
One of the hocks is already gone—cooked with red cabbage into a dense, sweet barbecue-like French dish that impressed Michelle so much it may become a future blog post (if the pictures pass muster). The jowls, however, hung over the two of us. Caged off from carnitas, Steve’s thoughts turned to bacon. After all, Steve reasoned, “jowl bacon” has been a familiar sight in Southern groceries for as long as he could remember. Michelle balked at this idea, pointing out that every slice of jowl bacon Steve remembered had been thoroughly smoked and we have no smoker. Then Steve saw, right next to his beloved bacon recipe, Michael Ruhlman’s guide to preparing the Italian cured meat, guanciale. Unlike the jowl bacon familiar to Southern U.S. chefs, guanciale is not smoked, not even slow-cooked like Ruhlman’s bacon. Instead, guanciale cures refrigerated in brine for about a week, then is left to air dry.
This method of freeing freezer space wasn’t totally appealing to Michelle. After all, she lives with Steve in the very house he was proposing to hang a chunk of meat inside, just as Summer was building some serious heat. Steve persevered and, for the last month or so, a large portion of cured hog’s head swung gently from our front hall chandelier (hung there with the help of Michelle’s dad and horrifying our cleaning lady). We have taken it down, sliced, cooked and eaten a few slices. We are not only still alive, but are delighted with the results. Guanciale is like bacon, only more intense. We thought the guanciale’s savory richness will work exceptionally well as lardons, leaving Steve’s thin-sliced maple-cured bacon for breakfast. Steve’s impulse buy has been vindicated, and many guanciale-laced dishes lay ahead. Plus, we still have another jowl to go—so this Fall or Winter, friends may receive some special swine treats.
(adapted from Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn’s Charcuterie)
- 4-5 lb. pork cheek
- 1 c. kosher salt
- 2/3 c. sugar
- 6 cloves garlic, peeled and mashed with the flat side of a knife
- 30 black peppercorns, cracked with the flat side of a knife
- 2 large bunches thyme
Rinse and pat the jowl dry. Trim any stray tissue, glands and extra fat.
Combine remaining (dry cure) ingredients in a bowl.
Place the jowl in a FoodSaver or other vacuum seal bag (or use a plastic storage bag). Pour the dry cure ingredients over, rubbing thoroughly into the meat. Seal the bag. Refrigerate until the jowl feels stiff throughout, 4-6 days, turning the package every other day.
Remove meat from the bag. Rinse well with cold water. Pat dry.
Poke a hole in a corner of the meat (though not too close to the edge) and slip a long piece of butcher’s string though it. Hang in a cool, dry place (in our case, as discussed above, from a chandelier). Keep hanging until “completely stiff to the touch but not hard.” For a slightly smaller cheek, Ruhlman says this should take from 1 to 3 weeks, depending upon humidity and temperature. We kept ours hanging for 4 weeks.