I have to admit that I’m a bit…wary…of Minnesota cuisine. I mean, a region that churns out cookbooks based entirely on Campbell’s Cream of Something Soup? That is responsible for the existence of Spam (and proudly houses a Spam Museum, no less!)? That puts pretzels, fruit, AND cream cheese with jello, then calls it a side dish? Eek! I have just cause, I tell you! Granted there are a few exceptions, but even those generally require some minor tweaking before they’re edible…take tater tots…plain or in “hot dish”? No thanks. but dressed up in Parmesan cheese and truffle oil? Now we’re getting somewhere!
So when I hear that something is a “traditional” local food, I admit, I cringe a bit inside. Said food is immediately suspect. Maybe I’m just a snob (quite likely) or maybe you had to grow up eating tater tot hot dish (also quite likely) to really appreciate the finer points of the Minnesota palate. But every so often, something surprises you. Every so often you try something new and decide, right there on the spot, that it simply MUST happen in your kitchen as soon as humanly possible, because it’s that awesome. And every so often, that pile of awesome on your plate is a Minnesota delicacy.
We tried a new brewpub for brunch last weekend with friends. It’s mainly a smokehouse joint, so most of the offerings were of the smoked meat variety (though, also, intriguingly, they offer smoked egg salad). A pretty inspired menu, in retrospect, and something that not a lot of places around here are doing. One of the items on the menu was a Porketta sandwich. While I’ve heard of “porchetta” (the Italian de-boned, herb-stuffed roast whole pig), I’d never heard of “porketta”, and the menu described it as an Iron Range specialty (the Iron Range being the far north bits of Minnesota). One of our friends hails from those parts, and he waxed poetic about the awesomeness that is porketta. (If you want to read more on the background that what I have to say, check out this article from the folks at ATK, who also went in search of porketta, but didn’t have the luxury of being in the same state to start with!)
Porketta, it turns out, is an artifact of Italian immigrant cuisine. Back when the Iron Range was a profitable place to be, lots of immigrants flocked there for work (being from a mining town out West, I know all too well what that means…culinary free-for-all as immigrants try to take beloved family recipes from “back home” and cook them using an entirely different set of ingredients)! Turns out that “porketta” is an adaptation of “porchetta”…it’s not the whole hog (though it is generally de-boned). It’s a highly-seasoned, butterflied pork shoulder roast that is slow cooked till it falls apart, is shredded, and then, traditionally, is served as a sandwich.
I was too skeptical to order the Porketta sandwich myself at brunch, but thankfully my hubby was not such a party-pooper, and I managed to sneak a bite or two. It was a conglomeration of juicy porky goodness, a bit of spiky garlicky kick, and caramelly sweet fennel flavors, with just a dash of bitterness from (I think) parsley. It was genius. One of the best pork sandwiches I’ve ever tasted. And it absolutely needed to happen in my kitchen this week.
Naturally, the restaurant doesn’t provide too much in the way of ingredient listings or descriptions, so I went based on what I remembered it tasting like…it’s a basic pork roast, so how hard could it possibly be?! (OK, yes, basically I winged it!). I knew it needed LOTS of fennel and garlic flavors, tempered by a bit of bitterness and a bit of sweet. I also knew I wanted to cook it in the crockpot (I do dearly love a dinner that essentially cooks itself). Armed with those requirements, I picked up a 3-pound boneless boston butt roast and a couple bulbs of fennel, and set to work.
For maximum flavor-absorption, I butterflied the roast so I had more surface area to season. Then I mixed up a seasoning goo (sort of like a rub, but, well, goo-ier). I used olive oil, fennel seed, salt & pepper, fresh chopped parsely, and very finely minced garlic. I spread about half of this mixture over the outside of the roast, then flipped it and spread the rest inside. Then I chopped up half a fennel bulb (probably about a cup chopped…it was a BIG bulb!) and set that in the very center.
I rolled the roast up around it, and plopped the whole works in an oiled 3-quart crock pot insert.
I let it marinate overnight in the fridge, then added a couple glugs of good white wine before setting it on to cook the next morning.
I hadn’t actually planned to blog about this, but it was just too awesome not to…ooh, just look at it stewing away!! Incidentally, your entire apartment/house/yurt/what-have-you will smell amazing as this cooks!
I strongly recommend you make this!
- 3 lb. boneless pork shoulder roast
- 4 T. olive oil
- 1 tsp. sea salt
- 1 T. freshly ground black pepper
- 6 large cloves garlic, finely minced
- 2 T. fennel seed
- 1/2 c. chopped parsley (flat leaf)
- 1/2 fresh fennel bulb, finely chopped
- white wine or water
Optional (for gravy…but when is gravy ever really optional?!)
- 2 T. flour
- 1/4 to 1/2 c. white wine or water
- Butterfly the pork roast (slice in half lengthwise to within about 1-1/2 inches of the uncut edge). Open the roast like a book, and slice a bit more in the center if needed so it lies flat all the way across. Lightly score the meat in a cross-hatch pattern to maximize surface area for seasoning.
- Combine olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic, fennel seed, and fresh parsley in a small bowl. Mix well. Spread half the seasoning goo on the outside of the roast, then flip and spread the remaining goo on the inside (the scored side). Spread the chopped fresh fennel in the right half of the inside (scored) side of the roast, spreading out to within a half inch of the edges.
- Fold the left side over the right (close the book!) and carefully pick up the roast and set it in an oiled 3-quart slow cooker insert. If you like, you can tie the roast with cotton kitchen twine (I rely on the smallish slow cooker to keep the roast together, but if you want absolute certainty or are using a larger pan, by all means tie it up!).
- Let the roast marinate overnight in the fridge (up to two days). When ready to cook, splash about an inch of good white wine in the bottom of the slow cooker. Cook for 6-7 hours on low. (Alternately, you could roast it at 325 for probably 2 to 2-1/2 hours…I don’t have an exact time since I use the slow cooker, but since you managed to find this recipe, I’m confident you can look up a cooking time chart and figure that out, too!).
- Once cooked, carefully transfer the meat to a large plate and shred. Set aside while you make the gravy.
- To make the gravy, pour the drippings out of the slow cooker insert and into a wide, shallow pan (a 10- or 12-inch skillet works marvelously for this). Heat skillet over medium high heat till liquid is simmering. In a small bowl, combine the flour with a few spoonfuls of the heated drippings, whisking to remove any lumps. The mixture should resemble runny paste. Once mixture is lump-free, whisk into the rest of the drippings and cook at a simmer, stirring constantly, for 4-5 minutes, till thickened. Add wine (water works, too) to achieve the desired consistency (I add about 1/4 cup, but the amount will vary depending on how much drippings your roast gave you). You will want to taste-test to make sure the gravy doesn’t taste “floury” (if it does, cook it a bit longer).
- Serve the hot meat in open-faced sandwiches on good bread. Serve the leftovers hot or cold on buns.
Have you ever been surprised by local cuisine?