Everyone has moments in life that they never, ever forget - and biting into my first porchetta roll on a roadside in Italy is one of those for me. It was amazingly delicious, and the experience was made all the more intense by the insalubrious surrounds - a quiet country road outside Arezzo that was lined with hookers, believe it or not.
Moving back to more salubrious territory, porchetta panini with apple sauce and fennel slaw is a fabulous way to feed an enormous crowd. Rosemary and fennel with melting, slow cooked pork is a great Italian classic. Hard as it is to improve on a classic, I think we've done it here by adding a crunchy, fennel and lemony slaw - and finishing it with an entirely non-classic but totally delicious apple and orange sauce.
My niece Holly Plunkett is turning 21 in March and is having a big bash at Kikabel, the family property, near Holbrook. Op shop formal is the theme, with a DJ in the shearing shed, everyone sleeping in swags, that kinda thing. At one of our Christmas gatherings down at farm, I made porchetta rolls for everyone - they all loved them, so now it's going to be dinner at Holly's 21st.
Feeding a very large crowd at home is challenging but this is a great way to do it. Everything can be prepared ahead of time, and all you need to do at the last minute is heat up the sauce, dress the slaw, and carve (or pull apart) the porchetta roll. Set up a serving station, then call the happy hoards to form an orderly queue while you dole out the rolls, stuffed with pork, crackling, slaw, and sauce.
Talk to your butcher about the size of pork shoulders he can source, so you can figure out how many you will need, and to check whether everything will fit in your oven. If you can get him to give you shoulders directly from a carcass that has been hanging in his coolroom, and don't then wrap them in plastic at any stage, your crackling will be unbelievable - the drier the pork skin, the better your crackling will be. Scoring the skin finely also makes for great crackling. Make up the seasoning paste from the recipe below and give it to your butcher to make up the rolls - he will do a much better job than you - no offence!
Holly is having 120 to her party, so she (or more specifically, her sainted mother) will need to multiply the amounts given below by 12. Here's the basic recipe, to feed 10 people:
10 good quality panini/sourdough rolls
1 kg Pork shoulder, deboned, skin scored
One stalk fresh rosemary, leaves stripped
2 heaped teaspoons fennel seeds
1 heaped teaspoon whole black pepper
2 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon salt
500 g Granny Smith apples
Half a large/one small orange
Salt - if necessary, to taste
250g Savoy cabbage
200g Fennel bulb
80ml Extra virgin olive oil
30ml Lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
To make the Porchetta paste, toast the fennel seeds in a 180 oven for approx 5 minutes, until they are golden and starting to pop. Measure out and process the rosemary, black pepper, garlic and salt with the fennel seeds in a food processor to form a rough paste. Smear this paste all over the meaty side of your pork shoulder, and roll it into a large sausage shape, with the skin on the outside. Tie it up with oven proof string at intervals so that it holds its shape. Salt the skin just before you put it in the oven.
On the day, preheat your oven as hot as it will go and put in your shoulder/s to crackle the skin. It should take half an hour, but keep in eye on it so the skin doesn't turn black, or if you think it needs longer. Once the skin is nicely blistered all over, turn the oven down to 150c. Cook it for another 1.5 hours for a one kilo joint, then add another hour for every kilo after that; ie, you will cook a six kilo joint for around half an hour to crackle the skin, then for 6.5 hours at 150c.
To make the apple sauce, zest and juice the oranges, then peel, core and chop the apples. Cook everything in a thick bottomed saucepan over a low heat till the apple is cooked and fluffy. Mash with a fork, or whizz with a stick blender. Season with salt to taste.
Trim the cabbage and fennel of their rough outer layers and tough cores, cut into manageable chuncks and feed through the fine slice attachment of your food processor - or use a mandolin if you have one. You'll get a better result this way, with less sore wrists than slicing it by hand. Mix up the olive oil, lemon juice and salt (taste it to check all the proportions are good - adjust if necessary) and toss through the shredded cabbage and fennel just before serving.
When your shoulders are done, allow them to rest for half an hour. If you are unhappy with your crackling at this point, you could take it off the joint and return it to a hot oven to crisp up - keeping a close eye on it, as it will be very easy to burn at this point. Carve, or pull apart the pork, then call the happy hoards to form an orderly queue while you dole out the rolls, stuffed with pork, slaw, and apple sauce.
And finally - bask in the acclaim of everyone.