Archive for the ‘Pork’ Category

A Porkastic Evening at Cochon 555

The annual event Cochon555 swept through Seattle Sunday, as part of its annual ten-city tour. The event supports sustainable farming of heritage breed pigs by well…pigging out on them. Much like heirloom tomatoes have a unique flavor that has been bred out of commercially grown, supermarket tomatoes…heritage breed pigs come from centuries-old bloodlines, from a time when pigs were pasture-raised and allowed to forage for food. These breeds are raised by a small number of farms and it is the mission of Cochon 555 to raise awareness of breed diversity and to help farms sustain and expand their business.

We arrived at the Westin hotel downtown and were met with throngs of ravenous, porcine-loving people. The VIP lounge opened at 3:30 and the main event would begin at 5pm. In the lounge, tables were decorated with bouquets of crisp bacon strips that were quickly dispatched. There were oysters on the half shell and a massive spread of cheese for sampling too. Charles Finkel from Pike Brewing weaved through the room with his beer keg backpack contraption and filled empty glasses, in an attempt to convert wine drinkers to beer drinkers. He was pretty successful.

I ended up chatting with a young guy who was standing alone sipping his beer. I’ve watched enough Portlandia to recognize that with his jaunty hat and tattoos, this guy must be from Portland. Turned out, he was a Joseph Wells from Zorn Family Farm in Oregon (near Portland), and one of his pigs – a Tamworth breed – was being cooked by Jason Stratton of Spinasse for the event. Each of the five competing chefs prepared a different breed of pig for the competition. They broke down and cooked the entire pig (that’s one of the first 5s in Cochon555. The other 5s stand for 5 breeds of pig and 5 wineries).

As I stood talking with Joseph and learning about his family’s farm (they also raise sheep, cows and horses – though they don’t eat the horses), two of the other farmers with pigs entered into the competition joined us. Chris Hansen from Mosaic Farms entered a Red Wattle pig that was being cooked by Holly Smith of Café Juanita. Chris wore his Carhartt overalls for the event, but he made up for that with his charm. He proudly showed off photos of his pigs and farm and explained more about the cooperative efforts some farmers in Oregon were committed to.

“Bubba” and Sarah King then joined us – they operate The Collective located in the Willamette Valley. They have only raised four pigs – Old Spot/Poland/Duroc mixed breeds – but one of them was being cooked by Rachel Yang of Joule and Revel. The group drove up together from Oregon and when I asked if they had any bets going, they said yes. If one of their pigs won (well the chef is the winner actually), the other two would have to give him a bag of feed and a “weener pig.” I thought they meant “wiener pig”, like a breed raised just for hot dogs, but that’s just my own fantasy. They meant an 8-week old pig that’s been weened from the sow.

Me and the farmers continued talking as our bacon bouquets and glasses of Pike Brewing beer were refilled. They all had opinions about the various breeds. “Tams” are often referred to as “bacon pigs” for their long bellies. Red Wattles are known for tender meat, and the mixed breed raised by The Collective combines the higher fat ratio of the Old Spot, the sweet meat of the Duroc and the large loin of the Poland. When I asked about Mangalitsa, also known as the “Wooly Pig,” Chris replied, “Oh, Mangalitsas are SO 2007.” This new generation of farmers are young, hip and also able to laugh at themselves.

Cochon555 is really about the eating of course…and FINALLY 5pm rolled around and the doors of the Grand Ballroom opened. The room is enormous and upon entering, you don’t really know where to begin. My first bite was a crespelle with pig’s blood and beets from Spinasse. Jason Stratton cooked up 9 dishes, but was doling them out one at a time, so I had to return to the line multiple times to try others. I moved on to Rachel Yang’s table. The line for her food was growing faster by the minute and I knew I’d need a strategy to make it to all the other tables. I got some food from Yang and then ate it while standing in Ethan Stowell’s line. As I waited to taste Stowell’s pig’s blood ravioli and pork shank donuts (zeppole), I sampled Yang’s pork & kimchi stew with stinky tofu and pork brisket “Reuben” with fennel kimchi.

Winemakers were strategically placed next to the food lines, so as you waited for food, you could at least sample some of the wines. There wasn’t a lot of seating, just tall bistro tables in the center of the room where you could stand and eat. Most of the five competing chefs plated their multiple creations on individual plates, making it a little difficult to juggle both the food and the wine. I appreciated that John Sundstrom from Lark (there to defend his 2010 title) plated his three dishes on one plate. He served miso ginger pork belly with a sticky rice cake, red curry pork and crab sausage and a trotter fritter, which was like a deep-fried square of pork rillette.

Sundstrom’s food was fantastic – but then I tried the food by Holly Smith from Café Juanita. Smith made maltalgliati – a thin pasta cut from the leftover scraps of dough – topped with a pork sugo and honeyed ricotta. There was also a pumpernickel crostini with pork rillette, huckleberry mostarda and tarragon. It was a refreshing, light biteful after tasting so many rich, heavy dishes. But Smith’s coup de gras for me was gelato with bacon brittle. Crunchy bits of bacony brittle were in every spoonful of rich, creamy gelato.

The winner of the event was chosen by a combination of votes by attendees and a panel of judges. As the evening’s main festivities drew to a close, John Sundstrom of Lark was once again crowned “Prince of Pork.” He’ll continue on to the next round of competition at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, where he’ll compete against other winning chefs from around the country. Bravo Chef Sundstrom and good luck in Aspen.

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“You can’t overcook pork belly,” was the last thing my dad said. Well pops, that is mostly true. Unless you burn the shit out of the crispy, crunchy skin on top of the pork belly.

I should have known. I should have KNOWN something would go wrong. Hours before we were hosting 25 people for a Bourbon tasting last Friday, I posted a very smug blog entry about how to host a “stress-free” party. I was pretty much asking for something bad to happen.

The party was actually a big success. We plied our guests with lots of super fatty, salty, irresistible food as we tasted our way through 13 Bourbons. Deviled eggs, guacamole, mini grilled cheese sandwiches, aka “the booze sponge,” and pork belly. The first belly turned out great. I scored the skin into 1-inch squares, which we cut through after pulling it out of the oven. We just served it off the cutting board with toothpicks. But then, I started tasting Bourbon.

Photo by Jeremy Cothran

We were only tasting eye-droppers full, but I lost track of time. I checked on the second pork belly and the skin on top just wasn’t getting crispy enough. So I turned up the heat for a few minutes. That worked, and after checking on the pork belly again it was nearly perfect. Gavin was busy showing guests around the house and I thought I could buy myself a few extra minutes by just turning off the oven and letting it finish up in there. Well, I didn’t take into account how hot the oven was at that point and the belly kept right on crisping. In fact it got downright blackened.

When I finally remembered the belly in the oven, I opened the oven door and released a giant plume of black smoke. Thinking quickly, I rushed it outside rather than letting it smoke up the entire house. Well, my friend Brooke knows a good good photo-op when she sees one. Priceless.

Photo by Brooke Azumi

It wasn’t a complete disaster however. Everyone actually gobbled up the second pork belly as well. It really is hard to overcook pork belly because all the fat continually bastes the meat and keeps it moist. Of course getting your guests drunk first helps too.

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I wrote the following blog entry for a writing contest during IFBC, The International Food Bloggers Conference, this past weekend. During Sunday’s lunch break, our challenge was to eat from the food trucks that had been brought in for the event and write a 200-word blog post about. But – we had to write using “all 5 senses.” More about the contest below…

Away from the clatter of the crowd and the hum of the food trucks, I found a seat along the the canal on the cool concrete. My meal was swaddled in a banana leaf and wrapped in foil that glistened with the juices of the spicy pork tamale steaming inside.

As I unwrapped the small package, the ducks began to gather and the gulls beckoned from above. Not today friends. I’m not sharing.

Tamales are simple food. Humble. The complex flavors betray their basic ingredients. Corn masa. Pork. Spices.

The masa is earthy and dense and encases a filling of rich, slow-cooked pork that is so spicy it warms me from the inside out, even as the cool breeze chills the back of my neck.

On the first day of the conference there was a seminar called “Writing with All Five Senses” by Kathleen Flinn, author of The Sharper Your Knife the Less You Cry. It was informative but challenging. I didn’t think I ‘got it.’ So, when we were presented with this challenge I didn’t think I would enter. But then I ordered a tamale.

I took my lunch down to the canal to eat and just sat and soaked in the scenery. I tried to remember everything Kathleen told us the day before and slowly the words started to come to me. I went back to the conference area, ordered a beer and chatted with some people. The words kept coming. I ordered another beer. Finally, with about 30 minutes to go, I sat down with pen and paper and started writing. I only had my iPhone at the conference, so once I had sketched out my blog entry I began furiously tapping away on my phone. One of my seatmates checked the word count for me and I clicked ‘send’ to submit.

As the judges deliberated I obsessively read and re-read my entry. Above is exactly what I submitted. I am not an editor, so some of my punctuation and tenses may be wrong. But then they announced the winners! Three entries, in no particular order, won –  White Lotus Cooks, Caveman Wines and ME! The prizes were a selection of cookbooks and cookware (I won a Staub Cocotte), but even better was that the judges were Molly Wizenberg and Kathleen Flinn. That alone was prize enough.
International Food Bloggers Conference 2010

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I come from a family that believes in breakfast. It’s the most important meal of the day, you know. Today, I am still a strong believer in starting out the day with a good breakfast. I am very much a morning person and wake up each morning and think, “what’s for breakfast?” Of course, that is then followed by “what’s for lunch?” and “what’s for dinner?” But that’s another story.

For children growing up in the 70s and 80s, I think you came from one of two camps in regards to food: the processed food camp or the natural food camp. Even though my mom baked her own bread, canned and cooked a lot, I would say we were from the processed food camp. We loved Velveeta, sugar cereals, ding-dongs, and yes, SPAM.

I didn’t know people turned up their noses at SPAM for a long time. It wasn’t something we ate often, but when my parents sliced it thin and fried it up crisp, all I knew was that it was delicious. Sure, it isn’t the healthiest food, but if you look at the ingredient list (pork, water, salt) it isn’t nearly as bad as some other processed food.

I think my parents struck the right balance of letting us have processed food occasionally, but sticking to real food and homemade cooking the majority of the time. If not, I would be way worse of a junk food junkie. Now, I just indulge every so often in my need for a processed food fix.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about SPAM. Marination Mobile – a mobile food truck in Seattle – offers SPAM tacos and local chef Tom Douglas made his own version of SPAM recently, but what I have been thinking about were SPAM breakfast sandwiches.

Somewhere along the way my mom got inspired to make homemade Egg McMuffins, but with SPAM. These were a popular breakfast choice throughout my middle school years. I have mostly fond memories of these cheesy, salty, eggy sandwiches, though one memory, while not a very favorable endorsement, stands out more than all the others.

One day in 7th grade, my neighbor and friend Leslie came over for breakfast before school. Leslie was going through a bit of a rough patch since her dad had accepted a transfer with his firm to Tokyo, and Leslie learned that the whole family would be moving to Japan at the end of the school year. My mom made us SPAM sandwiches, perhaps thinking that canned ham heals all wounds. And who wouldn’t think that, right?

After breakfast, my mom dropped us off at school and we met some of our other friends to walk to class. My SPAM sandwich was treating me great, but Leslie was looking a little pale. Sure enough, she threw up right in front of us all on the school lawn.

OK, so that isn’t a really solid endorsement for SPAM but you can see that there were other factors in play, right? Regardless of my one bad memory of SPAM, I still remember it fondly. So much in fact, that I recently made mom’s SPAM breakfast sandwiches.

SPAM breakfast sandwiches
2 thin slices of SPAM
1 thin slice of cheddar cheese. Or, a Kraft single if you want to be seriously retro.
1 English muffin
1 egg

Fry up the SPAM over medium heat for about 2-3 minutes on each side, or until brown and crisp. Set aside on paper towels.

Next, fry up the egg. My mom always used one of these little molds to make the egg the shape of the English muffin. This is obvioulsy optional, but since she gave me one as a stocking stuffer a few years back, I use one. Also, I like to keep the yolk runny even though this makes for a messier sandwich.

And finally, toast the English muffin lightly. Top with the cheese, SPAM and fried egg. Enjoy.

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In a past life, it’s likely I was member of a large, Catholic, Mexican peasant family. Mexican food – with all its flavor, spice, vibrant color and humble ingredients – totally speaks to me. I love stopping by a taco truck for a snack, or my neighborhood tienda for some salsa, and lately, I have begun cooking more and more Mexican food at home. 

When I am cooking Mexican food is when it hits me that those dishes and those recipes are not intended for a childless thirty-something without a large, extended family nearby. Many of the dishes are very labor intensive and you can see why it would be handy to have 20 or 30 family members available to lend a helping hand. Or 60. 

Tamales are one such labor-intensive dish. But after all the work is done, what you have is sheer gold. Slow cooked pork mixed with a rich and spicy chile sauce, surrounded by a flavorful and fatty little cornmeal sleeve, all packaged up and ready to steam in a corn husk. Gold.

I had only eaten tamales a handful of times before trying to make them at home. It’s not likely that they are any cheaper to make at home, but I love a challenge. A couple of months ago, a new issue of Fine Cooking arrived in the mail with a “weekend project” for pork tamales. The Mister and I decided to give it a go.

This is truly a “weekend project.” Thankfully, the pork and/or the sauce can be made a day or two ahead of time. Or, once the tamales are assembled, they can be refrigerated for a couple of days or frozen for a few weeks. It was definitely easier making these with two people. After our first successful attempt though, I made them on my own and it wasn’t that hard. Again – totally worth it. These are delicious tamales.

One thing that makes them – and many Mexican dishes – so delicious, is the liberal use of lard. As a general rule, I am not a fan of low-fat cooking. The fat is where the flavor is and in the case of tamales, that flavor comes from lard. I have rendered my own leaf lard, but for the tamales, I just bought the lard available at the supermarket in the plastic tub.

Pork Tamales
From Fine Cooking

For the pork filling
2 to 3 Tbs. lard or vegetable oil
3- to 3½-lb. boneless pork shoulder or Boston butt, cut into 3-inch chunks and trimmed
1 medium white onion, roughly chopped
6 medium cloves garlic, lightly smashed and peeled
4 dried bay leaves, toasted
2 to 3 sprigs fresh thyme, marjoram, or mild oregano, or 1 Tbs. dried Mexican oregano
2 to 3 whole cloves
1 to 2 guajillo, New Mexico, ancho, chipotle, or other dried red chiles, toasted, stemmed, and seeded
1-1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. whole black peppercorns
1 tsp. whole allspice berries 

For the chile sauce
2 Tbs. lard or vegetable oil
1 medium white onion, roughly chopped (about 2 cups)
2 medium heads garlic, peeled (about 35 cloves)
6 ancho chiles, toasted, stemmed, seeded, soaked in very hot water for 15 minutes, and drained
3 guajillo chiles, toasted, stemmed, seeded, soaked in very hot water for 15 minutes, and drained
2 cups canned, puréed fire-roasted or regular tomatoes
2 cups (approximately) reserved pork cooking broth or lower-salt chicken broth
1 Tbs. tamale-grind masa harina
1 Tbs. brown sugar or honey; more as needed
1 tsp. cumin seed, toasted and ground
1/2 tsp. dried Mexican oregano, toasted (optional)
1/2 tsp. ground allspice
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
Kosher salt
One 2- to 3-inch cinnamon stick

For the masa
3-1/2 cups tamale-grind masa harina
12 oz. (1-1/2 cups) lard, unsalted butter, vegetable shortening, or a combination, softened
Kosher salt
2 to 2-1/2 cups reserved pork cooking broth
40 dried corn husks


Make the pork filling

Heat the lard or oil in a heavy-duty 8-quart pot over medium-high heat. Working in batches, cook the pork until well browned, 3 to 4 minutes per side. Transfer each batch to a bowl after browning.

Return all of the pork to the pot and add the remaining pork filling ingredients and enough water to cover. Bring to a boil, cover, and reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook until the meat is fall-apart tender, 1 to 1-1/2 hours. Remove the meat from the pot, cool briefly, and shred it using 2 forks. Strain the broth, discarding the solids, and let cool briefly. Skim off the excess fat and reserve the broth. (The recipe may be made to this point up to 2 days ahead; refrigerate the meat and broth separately.)

Make the chile sauce

Heat 1-1/2 Tbs. of the lard or oil in a 4-quart saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook until beginning to brown, about 5 minutes. Transfer the onion and garlic to a blender.

Add the soaked chiles, tomatoes, and a little of the broth to the blender and purée until smooth.

Heat the remaining 1/2 Tbs. lard or oil in the saucepan over medium-high heat, add the masa harina, and cook for about 1 minute. Add the chile-tomato mixture and cook, stirring regularly, until it has darkened in color, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the sugar or honey, cumin, oregano (if using), allspice, cloves, 2-1/2 tsp. salt, and enough pork broth to thin the purée to a sauce consistency. Add the cinnamon stick, lower the heat, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the color deepens slightly, the consistency is smooth, and a light sheen develops on the surface of the sauce, an additional 15 to 20 minutes, adding more broth as needed. Season to taste with salt and sugar. (The sauce may be made up to 2 days ahead; keep refrigerated.)

Make the masa

In a large bowl, mix the masa harina with 2-1/4 cups hot (140°F to 160°F) water. Cover and let sit at room temperature for at least 30 minutes or refrigerate for up to 2 days.

Using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a hand mixer), whip the lard, butter, or shortening on medium-high speed until fluffy, 1 to 2 minutes. Add 1 tsp. salt and continue beating while adding the masa in golf-ball-size pieces, waiting a few seconds between each addition. When about half of the masa is mixed in, start alternating the masa with the pork broth until all of the masa is used, along with about 2 cups of the broth. Add 1/4 cup of the chile sauce and whip until light and fluffy, adding more broth if the mixture seems too dry.

To test if the masa is ready, take a small piece (about 1/2 tsp.) and drop it in a cup of cold water. It should easily float. If not, simply whip the masa for a few more minutes and test again. Often, adding a bit more of the pork broth or cool water during this second mixing will help; don’t add too much liquid, however, or you’ll end up with overly soft masa and shapeless tamales.

Assemble the tamales

Soak the corn husks in very hot water for 30 to 45 minutes, or overnight in cool water with a plate or bowl set on top of the husks to keep them submerged. You’ll have enough husks to make the tamales, plus extra to line the steamer and make up for any broken husks.

In a medium bowl, mix 2 cups of the chile sauce with the shredded meat and season to taste with salt.

Wipe a soaked husk dry and put it smooth side up on a work surface. If necessary, trim the bottom with scissors so the husk can lie mostly flat. Put about 1/3 cup masa in the center of the widest portion of the husk. With a spoon or spatula, spread it evenly over one-half to two-thirds of the husk leaving a 1/2-inch border at each edge.

Put 2 to 3 Tbs. of the pork filling in the center of the masa about ½ inch from the wide end.

Fold the corn husk in half lengthwise so the edges meet. Fold the seam back so it’s in the center of the tamale. Fold the tail of the wrapper to cover the seam (at least half the length of the tamale). Flip seam side down onto a tray or rimmed baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining ingredients.

The tamales can be steamed as they are, or tied to make them more secure or to dress them up. To make ties, rip long, thin strips off one or two corn husks. Then place a strip of corn husk under the tamale, wrap it around the middle (making sure that you have some of the tail underneath) and tie securely.

Steam the tamales

Fill a deep 8-quart pot with a pasta insert with enough water to reach just below the insert. Without the insert in place, cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Have ready a kettle or pot of almost boiling water to add if the water gets low. Arrange the tamales upright (open end up) in the insert, leaving room for the steam to circulate. Fit the insert into the pot over the boiling water. Use he extra husks to cover the tamales (this helps concentrate the heat). Cover the pot with a lid. Steam for 1 to 1-1/2 hours, adjusting the heat as needed to keep the water just boiling. Check the water level frequently and add more as needed to keep the pot from going dry.

To test for doneness, quickly remove a tamale and replace the lid on the pot to continue the cooking. Put the tamale on the counter for a few minutes and then carefully unwrap it. If ready, the masa should be set and will pull away from the wrapper easily.

Let the tamales rest for 5 to 10 minutes before serving to allow the masa to firm up. For softer tamales, let them rest in the pot with the heat off and the lid and extra leaves removed. For firmer tamales, let them rest out of the pot, covered with a cloth.

Serve the tamales in their wrappers with extra sauce passed on the side, and have diners unwrap them just before eating. Once unwrapped, they cool quickly.

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Oven baked bacon

It’s no secret that I love bacon. The smell of bacon in the morning is almost as good as fresh-brewed coffee. In my mind, weekend mornings are for frying bacon.

The thing is, I have decided that frying bacon on the stove top is a colossal pain. Especially since I’ve discovered how easy – and delicious – oven baked bacon is.

I’ve seen recipes for baking bacon that recommend placing the bacon on a wire rack, so the grease cooks off. I DO NOT RECOMMEND THIS METHOD. The fat is where the flavor is people. You want bacon to cook in its own fat. Bacon fat is to bacon what the egg yolk is the the egg white. Sure, the fat can be used separately to flavor vegetables just like egg yolks are key for custards. But – you would never eat a fried egg white, would you? Of course not. And, you should never eat bacon without its delicious fat.

Oven baked bacon is super easy and much easier than pan frying if you are cooking more than 3 or 4 pieces. And really, don’t you always want to cook more than 3 or 4 pieces?

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Take a sheet pan and line it with foil. This will make for easy clean-up – once you have drained and reserved the fat. Space bacon slices and 1/2-inch or so apart. Once the oven is hot, put the pan of bacon in and set the timer for 10 minutes.

After 10 minutes, your bacon will be well on its way to being done. I buy thick-sliced bacon, so after the first 10 minutes, I remove the pan, flip all the slices and then return the pan to the oven for another 5-10 minutes. You kind of need to keep an eye on it, because the timing varies depending on how many slices of bacon you are cooking and how thick they are.

Once they are cooked to your desired crispness, remove the slices and place them on a plate lined with paper-towels. Now, you can move on to the eggs…

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I’ll be honest – this week’s Feasting Friday was in fact, on Thursday. The meal far surpassed anything I had on Friday though, so it is really the only meal worth sharing with you.

Salumi is an institution in Seattle. Started by a retired Boeing engineer over a decade ago, it has been making divine cured meats and gut-busting sandwiches ever since. Armandino Batali (Mario’s dad), ‘retired’ a few years ago and the operation is now run by his daughter and son-in-law. Their cured meats can be found on menus from coast-to-coast and the line outside their Seattle storefront often winds its way around the block.

You have to plan a trip to Salumi carefully. They are only open from 11-4 Tuesday-Friday. It doesn’t usually work as a lunch spot for me, but since I have been working on lower Queen Anne I sure have been trying. This most recent visit didn’t start off well. I had planned to meet my friend Anbrit there on Wednesday, but realized I had a conflict so moved it to Thursday. I left the office at noon and was weaving my way through downtown before I realized there was a 1:40 pm Mariners game that day. There was loads of traffic and parking was sure to be abysmal. I finally made it to the Pioneer Square though and surprisingly, found a primo parking spot straight away. I sent Anbrit a text and went to join the line.

The line. It was LONG. And packed with tourists. Don’t get me wrong, I like tourists. I actually find it kind of surprising and charming that people spend their vacation in Seattle. It just means that places that are usually crowded are really crowded during the tourist season.

The line ended up being OK. Once Anbrit joined me, we were able to pass the time very easily while catching up. I haven’t seen her for months and she always has fun stories about her family, travels and school.

The menu is – as you can imagine – heavy on meat. There are some pastas, a vegetarian sandwich, Muffaletta, various cold sandwiches and some hot sandwiches. I still order the same thing I have ordered since my first visit a few years ago though – the porchetta sandwich.

Porchetta is a roast pork dish from Tuscany. It is the source of all things delicious. An entire pig (or at least a shoulder) is stuffed with onions, herbs, fennel and loads of salt and pepper, then roasted for hours until it is melt in your mouth tender. In Italy, small mobile food carts set up at markets and town squares and serve sandwiches of the juicy meat piled high on crusty bread and topped with more salt.

At Salumi, they amp up the flavor by spreading some herb/onion/mayonnaise spread on the bread first and then topping the porchetta with roasted onions and peppers. It is well worth the wait.

Salumi on Urbanspoon

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