Monday, February 4, 2013

Green Pea Soup with Home-cured Guanciale

Not my finest photograph - curse this lack of natural light!
The thing I particularly liked about this soup was the promise it offered. Typically, in the winter one thinks of a warming pottage that consists of pantry staples. Lentils, dried beans and notably, split peas are traditional directions one might take. Now don't get me wrong, the starchy comfort that dried legumes can offer are no small wonder to anyone who has a stocked pantry. However, in our amazingly modern era, we have the deep freeze. This means instead of using greyish and stodgy dried split peas, I can use bright emerald jewels that were flash frozen at the height of summer. So, with this in mind, I brought forth a tantalizing glimpse of the next season's offerings. Although it is a frigid February day, this soup tasted of spring breezes and fresh cut grass. It whispered promises of pungent wild garlic, delicate asparagus and the young fava beans that will go so well with creamy buffalo mozzarella and sharp new season's olive oil. I'm not looking to deceive my senses completely, just a will 'o the wisp that suggests the warmth that is to come. So despite the iron grip of winter, this was a soup that was both sweet and green and smokey and salty from the guanciale. It was a joy to eat.

Now to be perfectly candid, I have to confess that what I am calling "guanciale" in the strictest sense is not really guanciale. Guanciale is an Italian style bacon that is made using the same curing methods as pancetta but instead of the traditional pork belly, this product is made from the pig's head, or rather, its cheeks to be precise. Like a cured pork belly, guanciale has a hefty layer of fat on it. However, what I had in my possession (procured from the butcher) were the cheeks of a pig and no more. No fat, no rind, just the tough muscle itself. So it doesn't really have a bacon-like feel to it without a rich ribbon of creamy fat running through it. And yet, I couldn't 'not' cure them. So I did. This time I actually used proper curing salts - something I have hitherto not employed. I also had a heck of a time finding this product. Curing salt is a combination of regular salt and salt petre or more scientifically, sodium nitrate (I erroneously referred to this as calcium nitrate in a past blog entry). This mix is very difficult to find on a retail level (online, the sky is the limit). I got a hot tip that Williams-Sonoma of all places sold it. So that's where I got it - the fanciest kitchen store in the land, designed for wannabe Martha Stewarts - a tiny wee jar that cost me fifteen smackers. Nevertheless, it was perfect for a first pioneering foray into the world of proper curing. In any event, I massaged the salt cure into four pork cheeks and let them cure for four days in the fridge. Then I rinsed them off and simmered them gently in a court boullion of water, bay, thyme, celery, carrot and onion. This broth provided the base for the pea soup and the guanciale was shredded and added at the end.

My recipe for this dish is largely inspired by April Bloomfield's recipe for which she uses ham hock in the place of my cured pork cheek. I really don't have the wherewithal to determine quantities and such with this recipe: it is indeed, another instinctive one, so follow your nose. Here's what I did:

I took an entire bag of quality frozen peas along with a chunkily chopped carrot or two and I applied the Thomas Keller method of 'big pot blanching'. This is a way to ensure you lock the colour for the bright green peas. Get a really big pot of salted water up to rolling boil and drop in your peas and carrots. Cook them for a bare five minutes, maybe six. Then strain them and get them into some ice water. The reason you use such a big pot is to ensure that the water doesn't cool down when you drop in the frozen peas. Hot water means faster cooking-the less they cook, the less colour they lose (chlorophyll breaks down very quickly in heat). Shocking them in the ice water locks the colour. When I say 'lock' the colour, this is still not forever. I snapped the pic above the next day in order to take advantage of natural light, and a fair amount of the colour had already faded. Instead of a vibrant kelly green, I ended up with something more in the flat drab of military hardware. As my wife would say, it's just supper, who cares? Indeed.  

Anyway, once your veg are sorted,  it's just a matter of getting into some stock, in my case it was the stock made from braising the pork cheeks. Because I was boiling cured meat, my stock was well seasoned on its own, but you should always check and adjust. I blitzed the soup in batches with my blender and then reintroduced the shredded pork meat to warm through. (This dish can obviously be done vegetarian with no pork and a vegetable stock.) To finish, get some freshly chopped parsley and mint in there and finish with a drizzle of walnut oil or creme fraiche. A little grated parm on top wouldn't hurt either.

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