Finally, I get to share my favorite recipe that utilizes fennel seed!
"There was a farmer had a pig, and Thelma was her name-o...."
When I was a kid, we ate whatever was placed in front of us. Fortunately, aside from her penchant for canned green beans, my mother was (and still is) an excellent cook. We did occasionally have Hamburger Helper or frozen pizza, or other hurry up meals like mom's creamed salmon over mashed potatoes (so very ugly, but oh so good!), but she knew her way around a somewhat frugal kitchen and usually there were no complaints about what was on the table come dinnertime. Not like today, when a four year old usually knows that burgers come from cows or ham comes from pig or chicken comes from...well, chicken. I guess that one's pretty easy!
We were animal lovers, yet even though Uncle Frances owned a hobby farm with ducks, chickens, goats, rabbits and three pigs, we always knew which animals it was ok to make friends with and which ones to maintain a certain emotional distance from.
So, despite the fact that I adored Uncle Franny's giant pet pig, Thelma, it never crossed my mind to think of her as we dug into grilled Italian sausages or pork chops or ham. Until one day, several years later, when we had Uncle Franny and Aunt Betty over our house for dinner, serving the best lasagna I ever made - loaded with beef and Italian sausage - salad, homemade rolls and chocolate cream pie for dessert.
At least, not until my mother asked, "Do you still have those pigs of your's, Frances?"
"Oh, no....we slaughtered Willie, but no one could eat him. We sold the other one. And Thelma.....we had to give her up a few years back," my uncle responded with more than a hint of sadness.
Gulp. A mouthful of suddenly sausage-laden lasagna stalled at the back of my throat. Turns out, Thelma got so big (Aunt Betty said she was just under 1,300 pounds, although maybe that could have been a generous estimate....she DID weigh in at over 800 the last time I had seen her...) that she could not be restrained by any man-made pen. Day after day, Thelma broke loose and had to be tracked down and lured back home by a loaf of Wonderbread dangled in front of her snout. It wasn't until Thelma was long gone that I realized, I mean, REALLY realized, where pork came from. And it was at that moment that I developed a bit of an aversion to it. Soon, the subject turned to other matters and memories. But the next time my mom served pork chops for dinner, I couldn't bear it to think of Thelma, and all the other Thelma's out there. It's different when hogs are raised as food, but when you're standing at the meat counter, how do you know that at some point a family pet didn't just got too darn big?
Never say never, but I kind of shied away from pork.
Pork chops??? "Ewwwww...."
Roast pork? "Nuh-uh..."
Italian sausage? "Waaaaah!" (Double whammy - not only is it pork, I was eating it the moment I was told of Thelma being lured up that ramp into the waiting trailer with a loaf of Wonderbread)
Bacon? "Oh gross! Wait a minute....that smells goooooood."
Yeah, I did not suffer from a TOTAL aversion to pork....just a lot of heavy guilt, I suppose, to the point that sometimes it just wasn't worth it.
Flash forward several years...my sister was a new mom, married into a wonderful Italian family, and we were invited over for dinner. On the menu was this thing called....porketta.
I could tell I would be eating a lot of vegetables that day. "Porketta" sounded like some sort of cutesy nickname one would perhaps give to their pet pig. But when I arrived at Sue's house, this amazing aroma of roasted meat and garlic and some new spice greeted me in the kitchen. Soon a platter of sliced meat, roasted potatoes and carrots was placed upon the table and I was too tempted to resist. And that first taste was divine! Moist, succulent pork with a crisp, spicy, savory crust. I had never even heard of "fennel seed" before, but recognized the whole seeds as what I had seen before in Italian sausage.
These days our Christmas dinner tradition is not turkey or ham or roast beef. It's porketta. And I may go a whole year without eating a pork chop, roast pork or slice of ham, but when December rolls around I start imaging the scent of toasting fennel seed and garlic wafting through the air, and the yummy caramelized goodness of oven roasted vegetables. Sue usually orders her's prepared from a small family-owned Italian shop, but I always wanted to try to make my own.
And finally, I did....
First, you'll need to make the seasoning rub - grab some fennel seed, along with some onion powder, garlic powder, black pepper, Italian seasoning, crushed red pepper flakes, and dried rosemary. You might as well wrestle up some fresh garlic and rosemary, too!
Then, dust of that cool looking thing you bought for five bucks, hoping for the opportunity to some day say "Poppies....poppies will put them to sleeeeeep!"
Or if you have better restraint than I do and don't own one, you can grind the rub ingredients in a coffee grinder or just stick 'em in a heavy duty plastic bag and smash them with a meat mallet.
But I got no movie quotes to go with that, so I dusted off the mortar and pestle.
There are no real measurements. I was making this for my parents, so I actually went a little light. If you like a little more heat and spice, doubling everything would work well, and would probably be a better representation of the porketta we enjoy every Christmas...it's pretty spicy around the edges!
So, start out with a heaping tablespoon of fennel seeds.
Add to that, 1 tsp. onion powder, 1 tsp. garlic powder, 2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper, 1 tsp. Italian seasoning (or mix of oregano, basil, thyme & marjoram), a couple shakes of crushed red pepper flakes, 1/2 tsp dried rosemary, 1 tsp. kosher salt and about 4 or 5 cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced.
The moisture from the garlic and the texture of the salt crystals will help blend everything together into a somewhat dry paste as you mash and grind everything together (and cackle about poppies).
heheheh...you said butt!
Yeah, well, it's actually part of the shoulder, dude. You might find it labeled "Boston butt" or something. If you can't find it, a pork loin roast will do nicely.
Drizzle on a good tablespoon or so of oil, and rub that all over the meat. You might notice below that I made a few small cuts into the meat and inserted whole cloves of garlic. I highly recommend it!
Then take about a third or so of the mashed up rub blend and spread it evenly on the two open "pages" of your pork book.
Close the flaps and repeat with another tablespoon of oil and the remaining rub on the outside. If you want, you can use some kitchen twine to tie up the roast, but it's really not necessary.
Scrub the potatoes and cut them into big chunks - not too little or else they'll cook to death before the porketta is even done. These were kind of large, so I cut most of them into eighth's, the smallish ones into quarters.
Peel and slice up those carrots, again into kind of thick slices. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper and add them to the pan.
If you think you haven't seasoned enough, or heaven forbid haven't used ENOUGH OLIVE OIL, feel free to add a little more. I chose to just sprinkle a little dried thyme over the whole shebang.
I also added in a couple sprigs of fresh rosemary.
Roast in a preheated oven at 325 degrees F for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours or until a meat thermometer inserted into a thick area of pork reads 160 to 165 degrees. You'll want to stir around those veggies a few times so they brown evenly and don't burn.
And here it is.....
Let the meat sit for 10 or 15 minutes before slicing and serving. I give you permission to pick on a few of those yummy vegetables while you wait!
Oh my...and it's not even Christmas!
I do think of Thelma when I dig into this meal. I imagine she's 37 years old, weighs 3,000 pounds and is lounging in the sun on that farm she went to live on all those years ago.
Italian Porketta Roast
1 boneless 3 1/2 to 4 lb pork butt roast (or loin)
1 1/2 Tbsp. fennel seeds
1 tsp onion powder
1 tsp. garlic powder
2 tsp. black pepper
1 tsp. Italian seasoning
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 tsp. dried rosemary
1 tsp kosher salt
4 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
4 or 6 additional cloves of garlic, peeled
About 3 tbsp olive oil
3 lbs. potatoes
5 or 6 big carrots
Salt & Pepper
1 tsp dried thyme
2 sprigs fresh rosemary.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
Mash together rub ingredients until paste-like.
Cut slit in meat so you can open it up like a book. Make a few incisions in the meat and insert whole cloves of garlic. Drizzle with about 1 Tbsp. olive oil and rub into meat. Slather with about 1/3 of the rub mixture. Close flap, and if desired, tie roast with kitchen twine. Drizzle another tbsp. of oil on the outside of the roast and rub in; coat the outside with the remaining rub mixture and place in a large roasting pan.
Scrub and cut potatoes into large chunks. Peel and cut carrots into thick sticks. Drizzle with olive oil and season to taste with salt and pepper. Place around the roast in the pan. Adjust seasonings if desired, and sprinkle with 1 tsp, dried thyme. Add a couple sprigs of fresh rosemary.
Bake, stirring vegetables occasionally, for 1 1/2 to 2 hours or until meat thermometer reads 160 to 165 degrees F. Let sit for 10 to 15 minutes before slicing and serving.