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I have a thing for bellies.

Baby bellies, especially. Just ask any of my younger siblings and cousins, all of whom have been recipients of raspberries blown on their tummies by yours truly, beginning in their infancy and for as long as they would let me. (By the time they were pre-schoolers, they usually started running in the other direction when they saw me.)

Then there are pork bellies.

I recently had lunch at Meat and Bread in Gastown. Lured in by the tempting scent of roasting meat, but not really knowing what to expect, I was greeted by a jaw-dropping, enormous pork roast—tender white meat gloriously gilded with crisp, golden crackling. Mesmerized, I watched the man behind the counter carve off thick, juicy chunks and lay them on a ciabatta bed, tucking them in with a layer of salsa verde and chopped crackling. The citrusy salsa verde, along with a dollop of sharp Dijon mustard, provided the perfect counterpoint to the rich, highly seasoned pork. Washed down with a bottle of ginger beer, it was easily the best sandwich I’ve ever had.

As with every new love, it was hard to get the porchetta out of my mind. I simply had to find out if I could make it on my own, at home. So I did my research, looked up a few recipes, picked my sister’s brain…and dove in.

First of all, the meat. Porchetta is usually composed of a whole pig, or in the absence of that, a pork belly wrapped around a pork loin. But for my porchetta, I decided to omit the loin and make it all-belly. A rolled-up piece of pork belly makes a nice little round roast; just make sure you get a piece with a thick layer of meat.

Some recipes called for rubbing the skin with oil, and some didn’t. So I used two bellies and rubbed one with oil and the other with just a generous amount of salt. The oiled one turned out a nice, deep golden colour, but the skin was disappointingly un-crunchy. The salted one produced a perfect, light golden layer of crackling. I’d say definitely do not oil the skin.

Finally, some recipes directed that the roasting start slow and end with a blast of high heat, while others said to do the opposite. I decided to follow the first method and it worked just fine.

Okay, enough disclosure. Here’s the formula I came up with. I hope it works out as incredibly well for you as it did for me!

PORCHETTA

Special tools you’ll need:

  • mortar and pestle
  • meat mallet
  • citrus zester
  • measuring spoon
  • garlic press (or you can just use a knife to mince the garlic)
  • paring knife
  • butcher’s twine
  • food processor or blender
For the spice rub:
  • 3 tablespoons fennel seeds
  • 2 tablespoons crushed red pepper flakes
  • 2 tablespoons minced sage, fresh or dried
  • 1 tablespoon minced rosemary, fresh or dried
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • kosher or sea salt

Toast the fennel seeds and pepper flakes in a small frying pan over medium heat until fragrant, about 1 minute. Transfer to a mortar and pestle and grind to a powder. Be careful inhaling, as the pepper will make you sneeze. Add the sage, rosemary, garlic, and a good pinch of salt. Set aside.

For the meat:
  • 1 pork belly, about 3 pounds, cut in a rectangular piece
  • kosher or sea salt

To prepare the pork, lay it skin-side down and lightly score the flesh in a cross-hatch pattern. Then turn it skin-side up and prick the skin, repeatedly and all over, with the point of a paring knife. (This is a great stress reliever. So is the next part.) With the spiky part of a meat mallet, pound the skin all over for 3 minutes.

Flip the meat over again, and rub 2/3 of the spice mixture into the flesh. (You’ll need the remaining 1/3 for seasoning the salsa verde.) Roll up the belly so that the two short ends meet and one end can be slightly tucked in. Rub the skin all over with salt.

Cut a piece of twine about 16 inches long and truss the meat. Nothing fancy, just so that it holds together.

Lay the meat on a wire rack in a roasting pan and place it in the refrigerator, uncovered, for at least 24 hours, preferably 48. Turn it over about halfway through the curing process, so that the skin dries evenly.

Five hours before you want to eat, take the porchetta out of the fridge and let it stand at room temperature for 2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 300°. Place the porchetta (still on the wire rack in the roasting pan) on the central level of the oven and roast for 2 hours, turning once halfway through the cooking time.

While the porchetta is slow-roasting, you can prepare the salsa verde.

For the salsa verde:

  • 2 cups parsley (preferably flat-leaf, but if you can only find curly, it’s not the end of the world)
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • the remaining 1/3 of the spice rub
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • Kosher salt and pepper

Whizz all the ingredients in a food processor until smooth. Set aside.

Now back to the porchetta.

At the end of the slow-roasting period, pull the porchetta out and crank the heat up to 500°. Your oven is now a porchetta tanning bed. Put the porchetta back in and watch the skin turn slightly puffy and golden brown. Carefully turn it again about halfway through. Cook for 30-45 minutes, watching closely—you don’t want it to burn at this stage of the game!

When you are happy with the skin’s colour, pull out the porchetta and let it rest for about half an hour before serving.

To serve:

  • Ciabatta buns (kaiser rolls work too)
  • Salsa verde
  • Dijon mustard

Heat and split the buns. Carve 1/2 inch slices off the porchetta and cut into chunks. The crackling might separate from the meat—that’s okay. Just chop it up.

Pile the chopped meat and crackling into the sliced bun and top with salsa verde and mustard.

As they say in Italy, buon appetito!

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