Sunday, May 23, 2010

Porchetta--For My Mother's 85th Birthday

My mother celebrated her 85th birthday this week.  For her 80th we bought a roast pig from a Chinese market in town and served it Vietnamese style with banh hoi, lettuce, nuoc cham, assorted herbs,  and other accompaniments.  This time we went with an Italian theme.

I first had the pleasure of tasting porchetta in Italy several years ago.  Traditional porchetta consists of a whole pig that has been deboned, the meat seasoned with a flavorful herb paste, rolled and tied, and then slowly roasted on a spit.  We had it from a truck along the side of the road and at a supermarket down the hill from Assisi. We had it in Norcia, renowned for its pork and its cooks' skill in preparing porchetta.  Everywhere we had it, the pork was succulent, unforgettable.

In San Francisco, California, there's a truck at the farmers market at the Ferry Building on Saturdays that makes a very tasty porchetta sandwich. They start selling the sandwiches around 10:00 a.m. and are often sold out by noon.  Although the line can sometimes requires a twenty minute wait or more, it is definitely worth the wait.

The party was held at my brother and his wife's house, but I cooked the porchetta at our house.  Because there were twenty people, I thought it best to cook two roasts, each weighing a little over 9 pounds.  One was cooked on my Weber kettle barbecue with a rotisserie; the second was cooked on my gas grill using indirect heat.  Both turned out great, every bit as good as what I've had in San Francisco, but the heat was actually easier to keep at a steady low temperature (275º to 300º) using the gas grill.  I did have to lift and rotate the roast in the rack in the gas grill a few times, but that was easily enough done.

The only difficulty you might face in making the porchetta is finding the pork belly.  Although Asian markets sell plenty of pork bellies, I wasn't sure if I could get two large, uncut pieces to roll around the pork loin.  Not only was the butcher happy to sell me them, he trimmed them so I had nice rectangular pieces to work with, and he didn't even charge for the pieces he trimmed off.  If you are able to get the pork belly, this is a dish I would definitely recommend trying.  It's not difficult, and the finished roast is spectacular.

The rest of the menu consisted of antipasti and crudities with a feta and roasted pepper dip to go along with pre-dinner drinks.  One thing you can be assured of at one of our family celebrations is that you won't go home hungry, or thirsty.  A pasta salad, a green salad, grilled vegetables, caramelized onions, ciabatta bread, and arugula accompanied the porchetta for the dinner.  My sister baked two wonderful coconut pecan cakes for the dessert.

At 85, my mother is slowing down some.  She'll be the first one to tell you this.  Still, she takes trips I wouldn't have the energy for, flying to Chicago to visit her sisters for 3 days, to France for a week with my sister in March because there was a deal on flights and why not?  She still paints regularly and has just had another painting accepted for the California State Fair (one of nineteen oils accepted for this year's fair), her fourth painting to be in the fair.  She still enjoys a martini every evening, still drinking the cheaper gin for herself but offering the top shelf gin to guests and family.  Frugal as she is on spending for herself, she is generous with others.  I've had friends tell me how lucky I am to have her as my mother, and boy, don't I know it.

Here is the porchetta recipe for anyone interested.  A printable version is here.

1 pork belly, 6 to 8 pounds
2 TBS fennel seed, dry roasted, cooled, and ground
1 TBS black peppercorns, ground
10 cloves of garlic, peeled, chopped, and pounded to a paste in a mortar
3 TBS fresh rosemary, finely minced
1/3 cup fennel fronds, finely chopped
1 TBS kosher salt

Make a paste out of the herbs, spices and salt.  Spread over the pork belly one to two days before roasting.  Refrigerate.

1 center cut pork loin, the width of the pork belly
1/3 cup kosher salt
1/3 cup brown sugar, packed
8 cloves garlic, lightly crushed
1 tsp black peppercorns
3 stems of rosemary
1 tsp juniper berries, crushed
3 cups water
3 to 4 cups of ice cubes

Make a brine by heating the water with the salt and sugar, stirring until they are completely dissolved.  Stir in ice cubes until dissolved.  Add garlic, rosemary, juniper, and peppercorns. Place in refrigerator if necessary to chill thoroughly before adding the pork loin.  Brine pork loin for 8 to 24 hours, no longer.  Remove from brine, rinse, and dry with paper towels.

Place dried pork loin on top of the pork belly so that it is near one end and lays across the width.  Roll the belly around the loin and tie tightly with butcher's twine every one to two inches.  It may be necessary to trim off an inch or so of the end of the belly so that you have a tight roll with no overlap.  Let rest at room temperature for about an hour before roasting.

Roast using a rotisserie or on a rack in a pan using low, indirect heat.  I would aim for a temperature of around 275º to 300º.  It should take about 2 1/2  hours.  You want to have an internal temperature of 152º in the center of the loin.   Let rest at least 1/2 an hour before slicing. 

This is delicious served in a sandwich with caramelized onions and arugula.  Be careful when slicing that you don't slice off the fingers of people reaching to break off a piece of crackling. 



  1. That sounds delicious, but looks unimaginably dry. Is that just an effect of the picture?

  2. Yes, the pictures don't really do it justice. It is actually incredibly moist.

  3. I just got a rotisserie for my grill! I have seen a few recipes for this using fennel pollen.

  4. nice seeing you again at foodbuzz...we're defininately going to have to try this recipe!


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