img_9830.jpgfrom The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, p. 408-10.

Last year, Sherry executed a delicious version of this recipe. It’s been on my mind since then, but only now have I actually tried it. While serving up the result, I was reminded of a conversation I had with Patrice not long ago about changing expectations of tenderness in meat. Meat that has been roasted or braised to the point that it can be eaten with a spoon — as they say but nobody does — has became the standard for whether the meat is cooked to its best effect. This recipe stands as a monument for how wrong or at least narrow that expectation of tenderness is. The Mock Porchetta cannot be eaten with a spoon; it must be sliced. But the meat came out so tender, moist, and succulent that I don’t think anyone has a right to complain. This is a wonderful recipe.

Here’s how Judy presents it:

For 4 to 6 servings

One 2-1/2 to 3-pound boneless pork shoulder butt roast

Salt

1 T capers, rinsed, pressed dry between towels, and barely chopped

1 tsp chopped lemon zest

3 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped

About 12 fresh sage leaves, crushed then coarsely chopped (about 1-1/2 tsp, packed)

A leafy sprig or two of fresh rosemary, leaves stripped and crushed (about 2 tsp, packed)

2 tsps fennel seeds, barely crushed

1-1/2 tsp freshly cracked black pepper

1 to 2 lbs prepared vegetables of your choice: chunks of peeled carrot; onions cut into wedges; quartered celery root, turnips, rutabagas, or parsnips; unpeeled garlic cloves; and/or chunks of potato

A little mild-tasting olive oil

About 2/3 cup Rich Pork Stock (in book) or chicken stock, or water

A few T of dry vermouth

Trimming, seasoning, and tying up the pork (1 to 3 days in advance):

Trim any discoloration and all but a 1/4-inch thick layer of superficial fat from the pork. Study the natural seams between the muscles on each side of the meat. Choose one that runs the length of and close to the center of any face. Use the tip of a knife to gingerly separate the muscles along that seam, gradually exposing more seams, which you should then separate as well. The goal is to create lots of internal surfaces to cake with seasonings. If your initial foray doesn’t expose many internal seams, you can take a second stab at a different face, so long as you don’t cut the pork in two. Salt the splayed piece of pork evenly all over (I use 1/2 tsp sea salt per pound of meat).

Combine the capers, lemon zest, garlic, sage, rosemary, with most of the fennel seeds and black pepper. (You should get about 1/2 cup, loosely packed.) Spread and pack this mixture all over the excavated insides of the pork butt, making sure the seasoning falls deep into the crannies where you’ve separated the muscles. Re-form the pork butt into its natural shape and tie tightly into a uniform shape, tying 4 or 5 strings around the circumferance and another around the length of the roast. Rub the remaining fennel and pepeer on the outside of the roast. Collect and refrigerate any loose herbs and seasonings. Cover the pork loosely and refrigerate.

Roasting the porchetta (2-1/4 to 2-1/2 hours):

Preheat the oven to 350.

Toss the vegetables in a minimum of olive oil, barely coating the surface. Add a few pinches of salt and toss again.

Heat a 12- or 14-inch ovenproof skillet, depending on how many vegetables you are roasting, over medium heat. Place the pork roast in the pan; it should sizzle. Surround with the vegetables. Place in the oven. The roast should begin to color at 45 mins.; if not, turn the heat up to 375 until it does, then turn the heat back down. At 1 hour, turn the roast over and roll the vegetables in the rendered fat. Work quickly, so you don’t lose too much oven heat and the roast doesn’t cool off. Turn the roast again at 2 hours and add about 1/3 cup of the stock or water. Add any excess herbs and seasonings to the pan juices at this point and swirl the pan so they sink into the liquid. Roast for another 15 to 30 mins, to about 185 degrees. The pork should be fragrant and glistening golden caramel.

Transfer the meat to a platter, tent loosely with foil, and leave in a warm, protected spot while you make the pan sauce. Place the vegetables on a separate warm plate.

Preparing the pan sauce and serving the roast:

Tilt the skillet and spoon off the fat. Add the vermouth and the remaining 1/3 cup stock or water and set over low heat. Scrape and stir to dissolve the caramelized drippings on the bottom and sides of the pan. Skim the fat as the liquid comes to a simmer. Add any juice that may have trickled from the resting roast.

Slice the pork, removing the strings as you go, and serve garnished with the vegetables and a spoonful of the rich pan sauce.

How I Fiddled with It:

Although I didn’t do it this time, the easiest way to deal with creating multiple surfaces for the herbs is to get a butcher to do it. Still, I managed. Separating the muscles is trickier than I thought it would be. I felt as though I was merely cutting into the meat.

Instead of coarsely chopping the lemon zest, I used a microplaner, which rendered the same effect.

Tying up the herb-slathered roast is also tricky. One day, I will get a butcher to show me how to tie roasts. Mine did not look elegant, but it held together.

The editors of this book or Judy Rodgers weren’t paying close attention to the steps. The obvious point when you use the mild-tasting olive oil is when you head the pan you’re going to roast the pork in. The recipe doesn’t say so, but the olive oil occurs in the list of ingredients right when you’re preparing to roast.

I used my Le Creuset braiser and tossed in wedges of potatoes, onions, and carrots. I didn’t have to turn up the heat, but this will depend on the eccentricities of individual ovens.

A pork butt renders oceans of fat, so it’s worth taking the time to skimming it off.

Final thoughts:

I intend to make this again and again. I realized there are lots of little details that are worth paying close attention to. As the recipe becomes increasing familiar with repeated visits, it will become easier to improve each of the little details in the instructions.