Sunday, July 19, 2009

Fennel, once more from the top—with feeling

Even after polishing off a fennel bulb pasta dish, I was still practically cackling with glee over the fennel tops I had left. As the great-grandchild of northern Italian immigrants, I am mindful of the happy marriage among pork, fennel, garlic, and black pepper into porchetta (pronounce it porKETta but don’t let me catch you spelling it that way). I was itching to make this beloved special-occasion dish from my childhood.

I have a recipe (well, it’s more like driving directions) scrawled onto a paper a few years ago while talking to Grandma on the phone. It calls for me to butterfly a Boston butt roast, stuff it with herbs, tie it up with string, and roast it for a few hours. Did I mention it’s July? I’m not roasting. Instead, I’d make the porchetta with a tenderloin, close it up with a kebab skewer, and let it rest overnight. Brilliant! I planned a honey-orange glazed carrot side dish and a small green salad. Then I called my fellow pork-loving Italian-American friend Judy and cajoled her into coming for dinner.

Porchetta tenderloin tasted much like the roasts I remembered: tender, savory pork perfumed with the unmistakable sweet spice of fennel. In absence of long roasting, the garlic was sharp rather than mellow. When it got too intense for me, I scraped the herbs off and let the meat’s flavor sweep me back in time to family gatherings when I was so young my gaze was at tabletop level. I remembered standing eye to eye with plates of cold sliced porchetta to be served in split buttered hard rolls. “This is really good the next day,” I mentioned to Judy around a mouthful. “Next day?!” she said as she speared another slice.

Of course we didn’t get to find out about cold porchetta. I’m afraid we stayed up too late on a work night, drank too much red wine, and ate that whole tenderloin. And I’m not ashamed to suggest that we do it again the very next chance we get.

Buon appetito!

Porchetta Tenderloin

If you’re within driving distance of the Minneapolis Farmers Market, buy from Tollefson’s Family Pork. Best. Pork. EVER.

1 lb pork tenderloin
Fronds from 2 small bulbs of fennel, chopped fine. I guess I had 2/3 cup or more.
3 big cloves of garlic, minced
¼ cup fresh ground black pepper, divided
1 t salt

First, you’re going to butterfly the tenderloin. Well, more like you’re going to caterpillar it. Pretend like you’re going to cut it into medallions about ¾ inch thick. Don’t cut all the way through, though—only about ¾ of the way.

In a small bowl, mix the fennel, garlic, salt, and half the pepper. Stuff some of the mix into each cut. Use it all. Thread a kebab skewer through the tenderloin from end to end, near the top, to hold the butterfly cuts closed. Rub the tenderloin with the remaining black pepper, covering it well. Bundle it up tight in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Unwrap the tenderloin, put in a shallow pan, and cook 20 to 25 minutes. Remove and let stand 5 minutes, pull out the skewer, and cut the slices the rest of the way through. Serve to acclaim.

Should have served 4, but we were being gluttons about it.

Honey-Orange Glazed Carrots

One of my food heroes, Lynne Rosetto Kasper, puts orange zest in her porchetta. I’m not about to mess with my own family’s recipe, but I understood immediately that she’s right. Here's a compromise side dish.

1 lb carrots, peeled and sliced ½ inch thick
2 T butter
2 T honey
½ cup orange juice

Plunk them all in a pan, people. Simmer, covered, for 10 minutes. Then uncover and simmer about 10 more, stirring often. The sauce will reduce to a glaze. Stir to make sure all the carrots are covered.

If you start this and the pork at the same time, they will be done together, too.