This September marks the twelve years since I first stepped foot onto Italian soil as a teenager looking to find my heritage. Little did I know that over a decade later I would just be scratching the surface.
As the years passed I learned to speak the language and I opened my own Italian restaurant that is your typical red sauce joint with big pasta bowls and loud Italian music. My trip to Italy as a teen was quickly becoming just something I did a while back. A collection of fun stories to tell the customers over dessert.
Then about a year ago, around the same time I was celebrating the eleventh year since I had first gone to Italy, the economy took a dive and took many of my customers with it. The realization set in that I was in danger of losing my restaurant and I would have to cut back to make ends meet. How would I stretch out what I had? How do I compete with the big chain restaurants? How would I survive?
Sitting in the empty dining room after closing I racked my brain for ideas. Looking at the black and white picture of my long lost Italian family I began to imagine them and the romantic stories I had told time and time again to my guests. Stories of turn of the century poverty and the food that sustained them through the decades. That's when it hit me. So much of our heritage has been centered around survival during tough times. Now in some poetic way my own personal survival would depend on me learning about the one thing I had been chasing down my entire life. My roots.
The last year has been the toughest and most exciting year of my professional life. By turning to my friends and family both in Italy and in here the states I have been reminded of the basic principles of my Italian heritage in relation to cooking; Don't waste anything, and don't take short cuts.
Over the past months I have poured over cookbooks new and old. I've made countless calls to Italy with recipe questions. I grew my own vegetable garden. I've even began learning to butcher the cuts of meat I serve to cut costs and maximize quality.
These ups and downs have pushed me to better understand my roots as an Italian American and as a chef. I have a new found pride in my work as an extension of who I am and an appreciation for those who over the many years have brought a perfection to the traditions born from struggle. To be Italian is to understand and appreciate the craft of the artisan!
So here I am a year later. I'm at work on my day off trying out another recipe that is new to me but has been around for centuries. I share my triumphs as well as my failures with my customers who now wait patiently for my next lesson in Italian Culinary Tradition. And you know what? The effort has paid off. Now I have an edge that the other restaurants near me just don't have. The customers know that what comes out of my kitchen has my passion behind it, and that my friends is very specifically ITALIAN!
One dish that has worked well for me over the past few months is La Porchetta! This is a relatively inexpensive dish that is delicious in both flavor and presentation.
5 lbs Pork Loin- butterflied (have your butcher do this)
6 feet butchers twine. (ask your butcher if they've got any in the back. Usually they're pretty cool about giving you enough for the meat you've purchased.)
1 lb ground mild or hot Italian sausage
1 fennel bulb, centers removed and chopped
1 bunch fresh spinach - steamed and set aside
1/4 lb Prosciutto
2 Tbls extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper
Pre-heat oven to 425 degrees
Steam your spinach and set aside to cool.
In a large hot saute pan add the olive oil. Add the fennel and saute until soft. Add sausage to the fennel and mix with a slotted spoon until the sausage is cooked. When done, use the slotted spoon to remove the sausage and fennel and leaving any excess grease.
Lay out your pork loin on a flat surface. Season with salt and pepper. When cool enough to handle evenly spread the sausage and fennel mix onto the loin. Next, lay the spinach on top of the sausage and fennel followed by the prosciutto.
Now comes the hard part, rolling and tying the loin. It's always good to have an extra pair of hands the first time you try this.
The best you can, roll up the pork loin. Once rolled up use the butcher twine to tie it tightly together every inch or so. Take any filling that may have slipped out the side and simply stuff it back in the ends.
Place the rolled and tied Porchetta on a baking sheet and place in the oven for 35-40minutes or until the internal temperature reaches 140 degrees.
Remove from oven, let rest for 15 minutes, cut the strings, slice and enjoy.
Viva La Porchetta and Forza Italia!
Visit Guy's blog at http://www.makingmybones.blogspot.com/