Summer is here, and especially in Italy that means finding new and creative ways to not have to use your oven so that you stand a chance of surviving the searing heat of the season. Plus, while Italy might not have the same tradition of grilling and barbecuing as the United States, there are still plenty of ways to get your cook on outside and make it a pretty spectacular event.
It's still fairly commonplace for homes in Italy to have an outdoor cooking area, and many include a wood fired oven. That's right, it is really just that idyllic around here that people have pizza ovens in their backyards that they can just fire up and do some incredible cooking with. Yes friends, everything you've heard is true and yes, you are entitled to the jealousy raging in your belly.
As I do love a good barbecue as much as the next man, I decided to try to fire up the wood oven and see if I couldn't use it to cook a piece of meat that might normally be grilled with the (rather extraordinary) tools at hand. I had an absolute terrific piece of pork cheek (guanciale) that I figured would be perfectly suited to the task.
Guanciale is usually cured and dried, then used in such classic dishes as carbonara or amatriciana. Coming from the Italian word for cheek (guancia), the cut combines the strong flavours of the head with a rich fat content, which gives it both an intense taste and a delicate texture. Because the fat usually melts away as it cooks, the result somewhere between an intense slab of bacon and a thick steak.
Rather than curing it (as guanciale is traditionally prepared) I wanted to use it fresh, with a simple marinade in our homemade ketchup to add a sweet and sour flavour. I kept it for about 24 hours in the fridge, at which point I would slow cook it at a low temperature in the oven until soft and flaky (keep it covered to let all that steam and liquid do the work for you). I planned to fire it in the oven to finish it off with a blackened, crispy outside somewhat similar to the barbecue effect. However, the wood oven creates the effect with much less trauma to the actual meat, as the heat of the wood on the stone indirectly interacts with the food you're cooking, rather than roasting it directly over the flames.
A word about wood ovens, and how to actually tame this particular beast. On the one hand, it is as simple as loading it with wood and setting it alight in one corner of the oven. Depending on the size of the oven the precise measure of how much wood you'll need will vary. Generally speaking, the stone will turn white as it heats up and once it does you can begin cooking. However, and especially if you're using meat, you'll really need an infrared thermometer to gauge the heat which are easy to find on Amazon for about 20-30 euro/dollars/pounds (let's face it, they're just about the same these days #thanksbrexit).
Its important to remember that a wood oven needs to be hot. Like, really hot. We got the wood oven up to 424° Celsius (about 800° F) and it was a great temperature for pizzas, breads, and meat (but do mind it if you're trying to cook vegetables, as it will routinely incinerate them) and were able to keep it there fairly easily. But it does take a fair amount of wood to feed an oven, so before purchasing or building one you'll want to make sure you've got a steady supply.
So how did it all work out?
Well to put it mildly, it didn't.
Two things happened to thwart what would have otherwise been a stellar specimen. First, while I was in the midst of prepping, I got the surprise news that I would have to serve a group of people who had shown up at the restaurant; having no other protein than this beautiful piece of guanciale that I had eased into the world with the best intentions, I had to serve it slow cooked but not fire roasted. At the end of service, I had about a quarter of the cheek left.
But I was undeterred! So I broke up the guanciale and added some homemade sausages, peppers, zucchini, eggplant, onions, rosemary and lemon leaves and damnit, I was going to let them roast in that wood oven if it was the last thing on earth I did.
I tossed everything in Olive Oil and got it ready for the wood oven. However lest you forget, vegetables in too high heat will sort of incinerate and explode so in this case, I left the pan fairly close to the door of the oven and was able to monitor the temperature very well.
Which brings me to my second problem. I was so glad to have salvaged the concept and wanted to serve it straightaway which indeed, I did. I served every last bit of it, and absolutely forgot to take a picture. And as we all know, if it's not on Instagram, did it ever really happen? Only the oven knows.