In praise of pork for a holiday meal: North Fork Chef

North Fork Chef John Ross makes the case for cooking with pork — like this porchetta — for the holidays. (Credit: Mauro Cateb/Wikimedia)

Pork is the most commonly consumed meat in the world. Domestic pig farming dates back to at least 5000 B.C. It has been eaten both fresh and preserved for thousands of years.

The many names for regional pork dishes give identity and color to so many communities throughout the world. I just recently wrote about (and cooked) saumagen, a combination of fresh pork, pork sausage and vegetables sewed up in a pig’s stomach. Saumagen is a regional specialty from the Palatinate in Germany. Across the Alps in Italy’s Umbria region they cook a whole pig, boned and stuffed with wild fennel, rosemary, oregano, garlic and sometimes pork liver. It is called porchetta.

These dishes and countless others bring back cultural memories to people from these regions and reflect the importance of food in our lives. Cooking regional specialties creates endless variety for chefs and opens our minds to other cultures around the world.

We are now in the holiday season, when entertaining friends and family assumes great importance. We want to offer our guests something special, perhaps out of the ordinary.

The following holiday meal is centered on a home version of porchetta. This recipe uses the upper pork shoulder (called the pork butt) instead of the whole pig. I have accompanied it with some Italian-inspired sides. The meal will serve 8 to 10 people.

Note: This version of porchetta was adapted from an excellent recipe in Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street Magazine.

Porchetta
Purchase a whole, fresh, boneless pork butt. It will weigh about 8 pounds and will be cut down the center where the bone was removed. (The pork butt is the upper portion of the shoulder; the lower portion is called the picnic.)

Lay the pork out on a cutting board and open it up like a book, making a cut down the center so that it opens easily. Then make 6 deep slits through the meat, being careful not to cut all the way through.

For the seasoning, cut 8 ounces of pancetta into squares. Add the pan­cetta to your food processor and pulse a few times. Then add 2 tablespoons cold butter, 1/2 cup rosemary leaves, 1/2 cup fresh oregano leaves, 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes and a whole head of garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped. Add 1 tablespoon kosher salt and 1 teaspoon black pepper, then pulse until well blended.

Crush 1/4 cup fennel seeds with the side of your knife or in a spice grinder and pulse them into the mixture.

Transfer the seasoning mixture to a bowl and mash it into a ball. Spread this seasoning all over the inside of the roast, making sure that it is smeared into the cut slits and other areas. Roll the roast into a tight cylinder and tie with string or butcher’s twine.

For the glaze, crush or grind 2 more tablespoons of fennel seeds and mix them with 2 tablespoons brown sugar and 1 tablespoon kosher salt. Spread this on the top of the roast, then wrap it in plastic film and refrigerate overnight.

To cook, place the roast in a V-rack in a roasting pan and put it in a 300-degree oven. Pour 4 cups water into the pan and roast for 6 1/2 hours or until the internal temperature reaches 195 degrees. Transfer the roast to a sheet pan and let rest in a warm place for 1 hour before carving into thick slices.

Pour the pan juices into a bowl and let the fat rise to the top. Ladle off the fat (there will be a lot) and put the juices into a saucepan. Add the juice from 1 lemon and bring to a boil. Dissolve 2 tablespoons cornstarch in 1/2 cup cold water and stir into the sauce. Bring it back to a boil and serve on the side.

Roasted Fennel
Purchase 4 heads of fresh fennel. Trim the bottoms from the bulbs and remove the stalks. Cut the bulbs in half, remove the cores and cut them into wedges. Toss in 2 tablespoons olive oil and season with 1 teaspoon kosher salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper.

Place on a foil-lined sheet pan and roast at 400 degrees for 20 minutes. Add 1/2 cup water and continue roasting for another 20 minutes.

Grilled Polenta
Bring 3 cups water to a boil and add 1 teaspoon salt. Whisk in 1 1/2 cups coarse cornmeal and reduce the heat. Cover and cook at very low heat for 5 minutes.

Stir in 2 tablespoons butter, 1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano and 1 tablespoon fresh thyme.

Remove from the heat and stir in 1/2 cup grated pecorino Romano cheese.

Spray the bottom of a springform pan with no-stick and add the polenta mixture. Refrigerate for 1 or more hours, then remove from the pan and cut into pie-shaped wedges. At service time grill these on a stove-top grill.

Maple Syrup-Glazed Butternut Squash
Cut off the stem and peel one medium-size butternut squash. Cut it in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Brush with 1 tablespoon olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Place on a foil-lined sheet pan and roast at 400 degrees for 20 minutes.

Make a glaze by heating 1/4 cup maple syrup, 2 tablespoons butter and 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar in a small saucepan.

Remove the squash from the oven and cut deep slits in the squash spaced about 1 inch apart. Insert bay leaves into the slits and brush with the glaze. Place the squash back in the 400-degree oven and continue cooking for another 25 minutes, basting with a glaze a couple more times.

Sautéed Broccoli Rabe
Cut off the bottom stems of a head of broccoli rabe and cut into bite-sized pieces. Submerge in cold water and drain in a colander (but do not dry).

Add 2 tablespoons olive oil to a large, shallow saucepan and place on medium heat. Add 1 tablespoon chopped garlic and cook for 1 minute before adding the wet broccoli rabe.

Cover, bring to a boil and remove from the heat.

Season with salt and pepper and serve.

Black Grape Tarts
Rinse a large bunch of black seedless table grapes under cold water and remove from their stems.

Cut the grapes in half with a paring knife and place in a saucepan. Add 1/4 cup merlot wine and 1/4 cup grape jam. Heat over medium heat and gradually bring to a boil.

Dissolve 2 tablespoons cornstarch in 1/4 cup merlot and add to the grape mixture. Bring to a boil and remove to cool.

Make two pie crusts ( I like to make them separately to make handling them easier). Add 1 1/4 cups flour to a bowl and stir in 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1 tablespoon sugar. Add 1/4 cup chilled Crisco and 4 tablespoons cold butter cut in small pieces. Using a hand held pastry blender (or a food processor), work the fat into the flour to resemble coarse cornmeal. Stir in 6 tablespoons ice water with a dinner fork and gather the dough into a ball.

Using your hands on a floured surface, form the ball into a flattened disc and wrap in plastic film and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Repeat the process for the second pie dough.

Roll out the rested dough on a floured surface as you would for a pie. Using a 5-inch-diameter lid from a Crisco can (or other can), mark out 4 circles on the dough. Cut them out and place them in non-stick muffin tins, pressing them gently into the bottom.

Gather up the dough trimmings and roll them out to make two more circles. Place them in muffin tins. Repeat with the other dough. You will have 12 tarts.

Spoon the grape mixture into the tins and place in a 400-degree oven for 30 minutes. Cool on a rack and remove from the muffin tin.

John Ross