Italy, by Way of Iowa: La Quercia's Artisanal Salumi
Thanks to celebrity chefs like Mario Batali and Lidia Bastianich, it's hard to come across a restaurant review these days that doesn't mention, if not wax poetic about, the appeal of cured pork. The word salumi has entered the lexicon. (For the uninitiated, it's an umbrella term meaning Italian-style cured meats--not to be confused with salami.) How can we home cooks tap into this rich culinary vein? Sure, in upscale neighborhoods specialty food stores abound. But an even better way to get started is to check out the offerings from La Quercia, a family-owned salumi maker in Iowa that supplies scores of restaurants and shops across the country and sells its products online at www.laquercia.us. (The Hawkeye State might seem an odd source of prosciutto and lardo, but since Iowa is the nation's largest producer of pork, it sort of makes sense.)
La Quercia, whose products are nitrate-free and made exclusively from the meat of free-range pigs, makes several types of prosciutto plus other delicacies such as pancetta, speck and coppa. But it's their guanciale that instantly won me over after I bought it at my local Fairway market in New York City.
Guanciale (gwan-CHA-leh) is salt-cured and unsmoked pig jowl. Ask any Italophile worth her olive oil, and she'll tell you it's the key ingredient in two classic pasta sauces, carbonara and all'amatriciana. The latter is less widely known. It's fashioned from tomatoes, onion, garlic, guanciale and a pinch of red pepper and topped with pecorino cheese. I, for one, can't make it often enough. Here's a story about the dish and a surefire recipe, courtesy of Florence Fabricant of The New York Times.