“Bourbon Belly Bluegrass Porchetta”
By Tom Yates
Porchetta. With layers of slowly rendered fat, succulent meat, and bone cracking skin, what’s not to love about roasted pig wrapped in pig wrapped in fat? Think about it.
Porchetta, common street fare in certain regions of Italy, is traditionally made with a whole pig (head to tail) stuffed with herbs, tied, and roasted over an open fire. The fat melts into the flesh, crisps, and protects the meat as it cooks low and slow. It’s then sliced and served in paninos, as antipasto, or simply eaten unadorned. Nowadays, for convenience, contemporary porchetta is typically made with either butterflied pork shoulder or pork belly-wrapped pork loin slathered with spices, aromatics, and herbs. When rolled, tied, and roasted, the pork bundle mimics the unctuous decadent essence of the whole pig experience.
I arranged to have a 5 pound half belly waiting for me at our farmers’ market. Communication wires got crossed and I ended up with an entire 8 pound whole belly from another vendor. More is more. Win. Armed with the massive slab of belly, I got my pig on.
Mise en place.
After heating a dry cast iron skillet over a medium flame, I toasted 4 tablespoons (each) whole black peppercorns, fennel seeds, coriander seeds, and crushed red pepper. When the oils started to release from the spices, I pulled them from the heat, added 2 tablespoons of salt, used a spice grinder to crush them into dust, and set them aside.
Herbs/Aromatics. After snipping handfuls of fresh rosemary, thyme, parsley, and sage from the garden, I rolled the herbs into tight ball, minced the hell out of them, and tossed them into a bowl along with the zest of a large orange. I smashed 10 garlic cloves to release the skins, and minced them into a loose paste before adding the paste to the herbs and zest.
Belly. I unfurled the pork belly onto a huge cutting board. After scoring the flesh at deep 1″ intervals, I pounded the meat with a heavy mallet, flipped the belly over, and pounded the skin. Some folks score the skin as well to achieve that explosive fatty checkerboard look. Nope. I left it alone.
The other pig. For a little twist, I ditched the conventional pork loin center and whipped together a simple country forcemeat using ground pork and ground fatback bound together with a panada (milk and bread). I wasn’t shooting for pate consistency, so I left the texture on the coarser side. After thoroughly incorporating the panada into the forcemeat, I smeared it onto the lower end of the pork belly (lengthwise) and pressed it into the flesh.
With several (15) 18″ pre-cut pieces of kitchen twine on deck, I rolled the porchetta into a gigantic roulade. I carefully nudged the pieces of twine under the pork log and tied it up as tightly as possible. Sure, guts spilled from the sides. I simply smooshed them back into the rolled porchetta. Waste not want not.
At 36″ long, I ended up with a full yard of roped and tied pig. After tipping the tied pig into a full-sized hotel pan, I slid it into the refrigerator (uncovered) to marinate and air dry for 48 hours. Yep.
With the fat-infused messy prep out the way, roasting the porchetta was a piece of cake.
After two days, I pulled the roast from the refrigerator and let it rest for two hours to come to room temperature. Knowing I wouldn’t need the whole rolled belly, I sliced it in half and wrapped one half in plastic wrap before tossing it into the freezer for another day. I blasted the oven to 500 degrees, brushed baking soda over the skin of the remaining rolled belly, showered the skin with salt, placed it on a wire rack inside a large roasting pan, and slid the porchetta into the oven to roast at high heat for 40 minutes before lowering the heat to finish roasting at 325 degrees for 3 1/2 hours, basting the meat with the rendered fat every now and then.
During the last hour of roasting, I added peeled Casey County white sweet potatoes, quartered candy onions, quartered fennel bulbs, the reserved orange (sliced), Elmwood Stock carrots, and sliced Boyd Orchard Jonathan apples.
When the porchetta reached an internal temperature of 165 degrees, I pulled it from the oven and placed it on a large cutting board to rest. After tumbling the vegetables alongside the roast, I skimmed the fat from the roasting pan and placed it over two stovetop burners cranked to medium high.
Pan sauce. As a throwback to my stints teaching the Culinary Arts Cooking School at The Kentucky Bourbon Festival, I deglazed the hot roasting pan with a cup of Makers Mark bourbon. When it started to sizzle, I ignited the booze. Fire. As the flames died down, I scraped the sticky fond from the bottom of the pan and let the bourbon reduce to a light glaze before swirling in 2 tablespoons of maple syrup, 1 tablespoon dijon mustard, and a splash of chicken stock.
After letting the porchetta rest for 15 minutes, I sliced it into thick slabs and kissed the meat with the bourbon glaze. To counter the extreme richness of belly, forcemeat, fatty skin, and glaze, I finished the sliced pig on pig with quick pickled fruit and mache.
Tucked beneath the perky pickled apples, peaches, and fresh mache, the glistening pork brittle crackled around the lightly glazed tender moist meat. While the spiraled garlicky herb-packed filling provided aromatic hints of anise, orange, and piney grassiness, the spiced rub penetrated the meat and seeped through the flesh, adding eager saltiness to the puddled sweet, tart, and savory juices of the pork.
Lipstick on a pig.
For more Lexington, Kentucky arts, food, culture, and entertainment news, click here to subscribe to the Ace digital e-dition, emailed to your inbox every Thursday morning.