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Porchetta
(Italian Herb Scented Roast Pork)
By Charlie Burke

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For several years we’ve traveled to from our New Hampshire home to Europe
for our vacations.  By renting homes from the owners and living like the natives
we can stay for three weeks for less than one spends for a week in Disney
World. The bonus is that we share the life and culture of the town and its
people, shopping and getting to know the shopkeepers.

We plan our day trips to follow the open markets which travel from village to
village to sell the best fresh ingredients, which we usually buy for our evening
meals. We still talk of the huge mushrooms with iridescent green gills I brought
home from a market in Provence which received dubious stares from my wife
Joanne and our friends. They rendered intense earthy flavor when sautéed with
garlic in local olive oil for a meal we all remember more vividly than any in a
restaurant.

Markets in Europe have vendors selling meat, fish and cheese, and many sell
hot food. In northern Italy, it seems each outdoor market has a vendor selling
porchetta, a pig which is boned, flavored with wild fennel, rosemary, garlic and
sometimes with its own liver and heart and then rolled, tied and cooked over
wood charcoal. Slabs are sliced to order and made into sandwiches on crusty
fresh bread. Long lines form, with special instructions being shouted from the
customers, indicating if they prefer “grassso” (fatty) or not and whether they
want some of the crackling crisp skin (you do!).

A couple of years ago in Greve, in the Chianti region of Tuscany, we had
wandered through the market, buying incredible sausage from a locally famous
sausage maker, along with bread, cheese and fish for dinner (and some organic
seeds for Italian greens not available here) when we came upon the porchetta
truck. An animated couple, who obviously enjoyed their product, were red in
the face and sweating as they struggled to keep up with the clamoring
customers who stood ten deep around them. We joined the crowd and after a
while managed to convey our order. We carried the herb scented sandwiches,
slices of meltingly tender pork hanging out of the bread, and sat on a bench to
enjoy some of the best food we had on the entire trip. Again, quality ingredients
simply prepared typified why the Italian approach to food results in incredible
taste and where the whole seems greater than the sum of the parts.

Since most of us will never have the opportunity to cook a whole pig over
charcoal and since we certainly lack the knowledge of the past generations
which guide that memorable Tuscan couple, a much smaller scale is needed if
we wish to try to replicate the flavor of true porchetta. The best slices of
porchetta come from the moist areas of the pig, so it makes sense to use a cut
with collagen and some fat in this recipe. The butt shoulder roast which does so
well in a slow braise seemed to be a good choice, and, because there are several
muscle bundles, it is easy to spread them in order to work the herb mix into the
meat, simulating the rolled layers of meat and herbs in the whole animal.

The herb mixture is handed down from generations, and I’m sure it varies with
every family – the kind of topic which leads to intense debate. I know rosemary
has been in every sample I’ve tried, as is wild Italian fennel and probably a wild
member of the mint family I was shown by a native. Garlic is unmistakable, as
well, so I was able to come up with my own version which comes pretty close to
real porchetta and has great flavor, itself. I chopped fresh sage, rosemary and
fennel fronds together with garlic and mixed it with ground mixed pepper
corns, coriander seed and fennel seed. It was moistened with olive oil, lemon
juice and a little white wine, because I felt the acidity of the wine and juice
would intensify the flavor.

I believe the porchetta in Italy is wrapped in its herb flavoring for at least a day
or two before cooking, and a day’s rest in this recipe probably will intensify the
flavor. It was, however, well flavored after sitting at room temperature for two
hours.

Four to six servings:

3 – 3 ½ pound boneless pork shoulder butt, trimmed of excess fat
3- 4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 bunch fresh sage
6 sprigs of rosemary, leaves removed from stems
3 fresh fennel branches, fronds removed from the stems and washed
3 teaspoons coarse kosher or sea salt
2 teaspoons whole pepper corns
2 teaspoons coriander seeds
1 ½ teaspoons fennel seeds
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
Juice of ½ lemon
¼ cup white wine
¾ cups chicken stock, white wine or water

Inspect the pork roast to identify the separate muscle bundles. Look for lines
between the muscles which run lengthwise near the middle of the roast. Using
poultry shears or a knife, cut between the muscles and use your fingers to
develop pockets into the center of the meat. Several can be made along the
length of the roast, and more can be made on the other side, if necessary, but
avoid cutting entirely through the meat.

Grind the pepper corns, salt, coriander seeds and fennel seeds in a spice grinder
or mortar and pestle until slightly coarse. Chop herbs and fennel fronds and
mix with garlic. Mix herb mixture with ground spices in a small bowl and add
lemon juice, ¼ cup white wine and olive oil; stir to mix in the liquids.

Work flavoring mix into all the pouches in the roast and tie meat together in
five or six places with kitchen twine. Rub extra mix over the surface of the roast,
cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight (remove from refrigerator 2
hours before cooking) or leave at room temperature for two hours.

Preheat the oven to 340 degrees. Choose a shallow baking pan just large enough
to hold the roast and any vegetables you wish to cook with the pork. In Italy,
potatoes are cooked in the hot fat which drips from the porchetta; I put a halved
fennel bulb, onion, garlic and carrots with this roast.

Place the roast into the oven, turning it at 1 hour, and add 1/4 cup of water,
stock or white wine. Check temperature to gauge remaining time. The cooking
time will vary from 1 ½ hours to 2 or more, depending upon the oven and the
shape and temperature of the uncooked roast. Cook until the internal
temperature is 160 degrees. Remove the roast and vegetables from the pan and
let rest under foil for 20 – 25 minutes.

Pour fat from the roasting pan, place it over medium heat and deglaze with1/2
cup chicken stock, water or white wine, along with any juice from the roast.

Slice the roast into thin pierces and serve with the pan juices and vegetables.

There are many recipes for roasting pork, but this recipe inspired by the
traditional preparation of porchetta has remarkable flavor and brings authentic
northern Italian flavors to the table. It is ideal for entertaining, especially if
served with a Chianti Classico or a Sangiovese which share its heritage.

About the author: An organic farmer and avid cook, writer Charlie Burke is the vice
president of the
New Hampshire Farmer's Market Association, president of the NH Farm
to Restaurant Connection and helps run the Sanbornton (NH) Farmers' Market.  Along
with his wife, Joanne, Charlie grows certified organic herbs, greens and berries at Weather
Hill Farm in Sanbornton, NH.  
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