The only regret I have about our last trip to Italy was not being able to enjoy a Porchetta Panino. Sadly, it was not from lack of trying.
Porchetta is Rome’s ubiquitous street food. It consists of a boneless whole pig that is seasoned with herbs and roasted on split. Slices of meat are carved to order and served on a roll. I search for it whenever we visit the eternal city. This time was no exception.
We had spent most of our time in Florence, but ended our stay in Rome. Although Porchetta is widely available throughout Italy, Rome is considered the epicenter. By coincidence, Pope John Paul II was being beatified by the Catholic Church on the very same day. As experienced travel partners, Janine and myself usually agree on the day’s itinerary beforehand. This time we were split. Janine wanted to experience history. I preferred to eat lunch.
Janine made a strong case about witnessing a Pope become a saint. I touted the virtues of watching a pig become a sandwich. A compromise was struck. We would walk to Vatican City and stop along the way for a quick bite. Porchetta is typically sold by street vendors in food trucks. It can also be purchased in most Salumarias throughout the city. Surely some place along the way would have it.
The city was bustling with excitement. Pilgrims came from all over the globe came to witness the event.
Janine’s attention turned to a Polish contingent dressed in colorful folk garb.
“Look how beautiful they are…” she proclaimed.
“A sight for sore eyes…” Was my reply, staring past the pageantry and fixating on the small, hand written sign in the store front window across the street. It read Porchetta €5.00. My porcine prayers had been answered!
I dove into the sea of white blouses and embroidered vests. It wasn’t until my bald head surfaced among a pod of red, four-cornered hats that Janine realized where I was going.
A strange hankering for Kielbasa and Golonka (Polish Stewed Pork Knuckles) came over me as I emerged from the crowd. Then I remembered, “When in Rome…” and focused on my objective. Janine caught up to me just as I entered the store.
The display cases were filled with all types of cured meats and cheeses. Tubs of Olives and Giardiniera were nestled in between.
“Can I help you?” asked the woman in English from behind the counter. How did she know we were tourists?
“Porchetta” was all I could muster between gasps for air.
“Non Oggi” she responded while pointing to a barren section of deli case.
Janine proceeded to order a Prosciutto and Mozzarella Panini. The temptation to relinquish my quest was great. I broke down and ordered a slice of Focaccia.
We left the store nourished but unsatisfied. “Perhaps there would be a street vendor selling Porchetta by the Vatican” I speculated. With over a million people packed into Vatican City, You would think vast hordes of pork purveyors would recognize the opportunity. Unfortunately, the only groups working the crowd that day were Polizia, Carabinieri, and Swiss Guard.
The Porchetta had to wait until we returned home. I made the recipe below a few weeks later. It will never replace the Roman version but serves as an acceptable alternative for the home cook.
Note: I like using the Picnic Shoulder for this recipe. It is a cut of pork where several muscles meet. The flesh consists of different textures and grains. Layers of fat render during the cooking process. The meat stays moist and the skin becomes crispy golden brown. These are some of the same qualities that make the original Italian version so appealing.
- 1, 7-8lb Pork Picnic Shoulder
- 1 gallon of water
- ¾ cup of kosher salt
- 2-3 cloves of Garlic Chopped
- 2 Tsp of whole Fennel seeds, lightly toasted and crushed
- 2 Tsp Finely Chopped Rosemary
- 2 Tsp Finely Chopped and rubbed Sage
- Zest from 1 Lemon chopped fine
- Butcher’s Twine
- Olive Oil
Note: Do not use a micro zester to produce the Lemon zest. The end result will be too fine. Instead, peel large strip with a vegetable peeler. Slice strips horizontally into thin Julienne and cut vertically into fine dice.
Begin by boning and unrolling the Picnic Shoulder (Detailed instructions can be found in the “How To” section of this blog or ask your local Butcher to do it for you).
Although the Picnic Shoulder has a relatively high fat content, brining the meat before cooking will yield a juicier final product. To prepare the brine solution, boil one quart of water in a medium saucepan. Add the salt and stir until it is completely dissolved. Remove the pan from the heat source, cover, and cool to room temperature. Add the salted water to the remaining three quarts of fresh water. Stir to combine.
Note: it is common practice to add flavoring ingredients to the brining solution. These include Brown Sugar, Citrus fruits, herbs and seasonings. I refrain from adding any of these to this recipe because I want the flavor of the garlic and Herbs that are rolled up in the roast to shine through. Feel free to make any adjustments to suit your own personal tastes.
Place the Pork in a brining bag or a large bowl. Fill with brining solution until the pork is completely submerged. Seal the bag or cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place the mixture in the refrigerator. Allow pork to remain in the brine solution for a minimum of 12 hours.
After the appropriate amount of time has passed, remove the Pork from the brine solution and rinse briefly under cold running water. Pat dry with paper towels.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Spread the pork out on a flat work surface. The skin side should be facing down and the inner, bone side should face up.
The Picnic roast is naturally shaped like a cone and will retain this shape after it is boned, unrolled, and rolled back up again. The intention is to create a uniform roast that is shaped like a cylinder (as opposed to a cone) after it has been rolled and tied. This will ensure the entire roast cooks evenly.
Trimming off excess portions of meat and adding them where needed will help form the desired shape. A preliminary roll-up of the roast will indicate which portions should be trimmed and where they should be added. Always remove portions of meat from the inner, bone side of the roast. Do not cut from or through the outer skin side.
After the trimming is complete, lay the Picnic Shoulder flat on the cutting surface with the skin facing down. Season the meat with salt and pepper. Spread the Garlic, Rosemary, Sage, Fennel Seeds and Lemon Zest evenly across the entire surface.
Note: The ratio of herbs in this recipe is to be used as a guideline. They can be altered any way you desire to suit your personal preferences (If you like more fennel seed, use more fennel seed, etc).
The skin is an integral part of this dish. It keeps the meat moist throughout the cooking process and helps the roast retain its shape after it is done. Make sure the skin wraps around the exterior of the roast after it has been rolled. To accomplish this, begin rolling from the side furthest away from the skin. The inner, bone side should roll inward and the skin side should remain on the outside.
Roll the roast back up and securely truss it using Butcher’s twine.
Place Picnic Shoulder in a roasting pan (preferably on a rack positioned within the pan). Rub olive oil all over the outside of the skin and any areas of exposed meat.
Roast in 400 degree oven for 30 minutes then lower temperature t o 350 degrees. Continue cooking until a meat thermometer inserted into the middle of the roast reads 180 degrees (About 20-25 minutes per pound). The outer skin should be brown and crispy.
Allow roast to rest for 15 minutes before carving.