Despite my ongoing desire to write about things other than food, I once again find myself compelled to provide an account of the celebration of pork that was held last night in our small Hochelaga kitchen.
For accuracy’s sake, I should clarify that what we were actually gathering to celebrate is the fact that our phenomenally-talented friend, composer Nicole Lizée, has been invited to an artist residency at the prestigious Civitella Ranieri Centre. Located in a magnificent castle in Central Umbria, the envy-inducing fellowship provides an opportunity to spend six-weeks in the Italian countryside, conversing and collaborating with a smattering of musicians, visual artists, writers and filmmakers from around the world.
Last April, while touring in Europe, we discovered that good friends were spending a week in another civitella (or little town) about an hour north of Rome by train. When they invited us to spend the weekend with them, we jumped at the chance, knowing full well that an opportunity like that does not come along every day.
Umbria is an incredibly lush and beautiful region with rolling hills covered in grape vines and olive groves. Though it rained most of the time we were there, from our hilltop perch near Civitella Del Lago, we could see the neighboring towns of Orvieto and Montepulciano off in the distance, their spires and clock towers reaching into the clouds. We walked and drove and marvelled at the region’s natural, artistic and architectural wonders, but the most important thing we did in Umbria was eat.
From what we saw and tasted, Umbrian food is not fancy food – but it is incredibly fresh and simple and satisfying. For the most part, it seems to be based around a few key ingredients, all of which coincidentally begin with the letter P. And so to celebrate our friend’s upcoming sojourn in the region, and to sample some of it’s culinary delights, we embarked on a meal of pork, pasta, pecorino cheese and porcini mushrooms.
Though the appetizers were of an unspecified Italian heritage – crostini with roasted peppers, and a second batch with carmelized onions, walnuts and pine nuts – the remainder of the meal stayed true to our intent. My collaborators were responsible for the first course and side dishes, and all were amazing: pappardelle with proscuitto, and another with an incredible mushroom ragout, rapini with lemon and garlic, and a green salad with pecorino and proscuitto. It was my undertaking to prepare the Porchetta.
Back in Umbria… on a day trip to Spoleto, we came across a small lunch truck, with a side window and service counter. Inside, a man with a white apron was standing in front of a whole stuffed pig. To his left, a giant knife. To his right, a basket of buns. Though it was only 10 am, we decided to throw caution to the wind and order a sandwich. He took the giant knife, hacked into the pig’s side, and dropped a large hunk of pork onto a bun. It was absolutely delicious, and I said to myself, one day in the near future, a Porchetta I will make. However, though I am very much a meat-eater today, I was once a vegetarian and still become squeamish when faced with whole cooked animals, and so I knew I would be preparing some lesser version of the dish.
A quick search of the web turned up a recipe for Mock Porchetta from famed San Fransisco restaurant, Zuni Cafe. A quick perusal to told me all I needed to know about flavourings and such, but made no mention of brine. Having recently read Brine Swine, Dine Fine on Bartek Komorowksi’s fantastic blog Culinary Propaganda, I was hellbent on venturing into the brining fold. And since I am about as far from a culinary purist as you can get, I decided to go for it – regardless of what the Porchetta masters might think.
Brined Porchetta-like Pork
First, buy the pork. Though there are many different types of pork roasts, I was sold on a rib roast which the lovely butcher then prepared to be stuffed. He also gave me some string to tie it up with. He was swell. Though I forgot to ask how big it was – something you should definitely do – the assembled chefs at the dinner figured it was about 2-3 pounds.
Second, prepare the brine. Though there are many different recipes, I used 8 cups of water, 1/4 cup of sea salt, and a 1/4 cup of molasses. From what I read, the most important thing is that the meat must be kept cold, and should be fully submerged in the brine. There are varying reports on how long you should leave it in the brine, but if you are like me, and not inclined to think very far ahead, 7 hours seems to do the trick.
Later in the day, when you are getting ready to cook, rinse the meat off and throw the brine away. A double rinse is suggested, because you want to get as much of the salt off as possible. Dry the meat with a paper towel so it is not dripping wet.
Then, open the roast and cover the inside with ground pepper. I also added whole pitted prunes, because I swear the porchetta in Italy had prunes though I could not find a recipe that included them. I also added the zest of two lemons, a teaspoon of capers, 2 teaspoons of minced garlic, about 1/4 cup of minced fresh fennel and chopped fresh sage. Rosemary is apparently a key ingredient, but I did not have any. Press all the ingredients into the pork. Do not salt.
Finally, roll up the pork and tie it tightly with string. Turn the oven to 350 and put a roasting pan in to heat. When it is heated, place the pork roast into the pan. It will sizzle. Put it in the oven.
While it cooks, chop up some onions and fennel into large chunks and toss them with a little olive oil. When the roast has cooked for an hour, take it out and turn it over. This is a good time to throw in the vegetables and stir them around in the fat.
I cooked it for another 90 minutes, until the vegetables were really carmelized, and the pork was brown and crispy on the outside. If I had a meat thermometer, I would have used it. According to the Zuni Cafe cookbook, you want it to reach an internal tempurature of 185 F degrees.
Instead, I just turned off the oven and hoped for the best. We let it sit for about 10 minutes before cutting into it. Amazing.