I visited my sister and brother-in-law in the Toronto area for Thanksgiving this year, the first time, perhaps ever, that I wasn’t home to cook the feast for my favourite holiday. But even though I wasn’t in my home kitchen, food played as large a part as usual.
“We have errands,” my sister said soon after my arrival. “First, to the butcher’s.” Aha! One of my favourite errands! In my neck of the woods, a trip to the butcher’s means walking into a German smokehaus, the air redolent of pork and beef kissed by woodsmoke and time. But my relatives live in an Italian enclave, to their delight — both are opera lovers, and my sister has learned to speak Italian, and converses with the shopkeepers in their native tongue. So we visited her Italian butcher.
The shop was sparkling clean, and the selection of local meats looked inviting. After I chose some lamb shoulder for a tagine, the clerk brought out the real reason for our errand — a turkey roll, a tidy oval wrapped in netting. With only the two of them at the table, my rellies had given up on whole turkeys decades ago. Inside the netting, my sister explained, the boneless breast was rolled around olive paste made from black oil-cured olives. I inquired if it was in a spiral, but she was unsure, even though the same butcher has been rolling and stuffing bird breasts for her for a dozen years. “Some years yes,” she explained, “some years not.”
Other stops included an Italian bakery, an Italian grocery, the farmers’ market, and finally, an Italian trattoria. My arms loaded with treviso, grana padano, espresso, carnaroli and fresh herbs, I gratefully realized I’d be eating the Italian version of local all week, from proscuitto and arugula pizza to porchetta.
On Thanksgiving, my sister roasted the turkey roll after we took a long riverside walk to exercise our appetites. When she pulled the roll from the oven along with all the vegetable dishes we’d created, the carving revealed this year’s olive paste in more a random stuffing than a pinwheel — not enough olive paste for my taste, even with the extra my sister had applied to the roll’s exterior to keep the lean meat moist. It was delicious, yes, but sometimes more really is better.
On reflection, my preference has tipped back to porchetta, the classic Italian roast made with pork that inspired my sister’s paler copycat. One advantage of a pork shoulder — composed of many muscle groups — over a turkey breast is that you can jam and cram your flavourings into cracks and crevices without thought of creating a pinwheel or not. Another advantage is that pork, lean as it has become, is still more luscious than breast of turkey. Fortunately for me, my sister agrees that some things are best in their original form. Next time they visit, I’ll roast porchetta. But first let’s eat, then perhaps another walk — to make room for leftovers.
A traditional porchetta means the whole porker, roasted on a spit. This smaller-scale shoulder roast delivers the same lush result in the oven. Serves 6-8.
- 3- to 5-lb. pork shoulder butt roast, boneless
- Salt and freshly cracked pepper 1 head garlic, chopped
- 1 tsp. cracked fennel seed
- 2 tsp. chopped capers
- 2 lemons, zest only
- 1 tbsp. chopped fresh rosemary
- 1/2 c. oil-cured olives, pitted and chopped, optional
- Potatoes and root vegetables
- 1 head garlic, in whole cloves
- Olive oil
Lay the pork shoulder on a flat surface, peeling back the seams to expose crevices and crannies, or butterflying it open. Season the meat with salt and pepper. Mix together all the other ingredients, then smear the mix over the exposed surfaces and into all available crevices. Roll up the roast, tie it with butcher twine and wrap it in wax or parchment paper. Refrigerate overnight. Next day, remove the meat from the fridge and preheat the oven to 375 F. Put the meat in a shallow roasting pan. Chop the potatoes and root vegetables, then roll them and the garlic in oil and season to taste before adding them to the pan. Cook uncovered for 1 hour, then reduce the heat to 350 F and roast for another 90 minutes or more, until the pork registers an internal temperature of 150 F. Let the roast rest at least 15 minutes or more, depending on size, before carving.