You say Porchetta, I say Porketta…Let’s Have a Sandwich

Across the regional cuisines of the Americas are dishes which reflect both a point of origin and the place of creation. The unique hybrid of Japanese approaches with Peruvian ingredients as showcased by Nobu in New York is one of the more surprising combinations, and demonstrates this interplay of “point of origin” with “place of creation”.

Many hallmark dishes of Great Lakes Cuisine clearly express their “point of origin” in Germanic, Norwegian, or Polish traditions, yet they have been adapted not only to local ingredients, but also to local tastes, many times over several generations. Porchetta/Porketta is another great example of the process. Porchetta originates in Italy as a tradition of stuffing an entire pig with herbs and roasting until fall-apart tender. The current keeper of all that is good and sacred about Italian food in America, the prophet Mario Batali, recently shared his version of his Dad’s version in the December 2014 Food & Wine magazine. Iron Range Porketta is another “version”, handed down through generations of Italian immigrants coming to work in the Iron Range, which stretches across the northern sections of Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Iron Range Porketta caught our interest when an America’s Test Kitchen article ran a few years ago detailing a trip to Hibbing, MN, in pursuit of the fabled regional roast. Mario’s version gave us the inspiration to try something new with something traditionally Great Lakes. Instead of the lean roast with added fat from a sausage stuffing in Mario’s version, we stuck with the pork butt approach used by Fraboni’s in Hibbing, MN. But the addition of the fennel bulb in Mario’s version made sense, rather than simply the fronds and fennel seed. We also used fresh garlic rather than powder. Finally, many versions suggest the addition of vegetables under the roast while it cooks. Mario suggests red onion, his father uses carrots, onions and fennel bulb, a comment on the Hibbing article contends carrots, onions and potatoes are the right addition. We elected to add another staple of the Iron Range, rutabaga, along with red onion and fennel bulb. We served this as a Sunday dinner one night, but the real fun was adapting this into our version of a Porketta Sandwich.  The end result is neither traditional Iron Range, nor traditional Italian. It is Great Lakes Cuisine.

Porketta Sandwich

1 4 lb pork butt roast
1 bulb fennel, cored and sliced thin, 2 Tbs. fronds chopped
6 cloves garlic, sliced thin
1 Tbs. fennel seed
2 Tbs. coarse salt
½ Tbs. cracked black pepper

1 medium rutabaga, peeled, cut into 2 in. pieces
2 medium red onions, peeled and quartered

For red onion/fennel “ketchup”
¼ cup cider vinegar
1 ancho chile, rehydrated
Salt and sugar to taste

For rutabaga herb “butter”
1 Tbs. dried Italian herbs
Salt to taste

Hard rolls, such as a ciabatta

Pickled sweet peppers (optional)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Pork butt will contain a bone in approximately the center of the roast. Place the roast on a cutting board with the fat side up, cut from one side to the bone, and cut around the bone to remove without cutting all the way through the roast. The result will be a boneless, butterflied roast. Evenly spread half the fennel bulb, all the garlic, fennel fronds, fennel seed, and 1 tbs.salt and pepper across the opened roast. The result should look something like this:


Then carefully fold the roast back to the original shape and tie the roast in several places with butcher twine to hold together for roasting. Place red onion, rutabaga, and fennel bulb in a large roasting pan. Set the roast on top, and sprinkle with remaining 1 tbs. salt. Roast for 4 hours, tented with foil for the first three hours, until the pork reaches 150 degrees or is fall-apart tender. This is a fatty roast, it is hard to over-cook it, so if in doubt, go longer.

At this point, the roast can be placed on a platter, tented and allowed to rest while the vegetables are pulled from the pan. If having this as a dinner, the vegetables ran be served alongside a sliced roast and enjoyed. We enjoyed it. But…we had leftovers and that is when the fun really begins.

The fat left in the pan after removing the vegetables was saved and refrigerated. The next day we had this:

Porketta Fat

The top layer is pork fat with just a hint of fennel bulb flavor. The bottom is the gelatinous, concentrated essence of pork. We wanted to do a version of the Hibbing Porketta Sanwich, but with a Mario-flair. Mario suggested slices of his lean pork roast with a bit of home-made hot sauce, and that served as a jumping off point.

The rutabaga was golden, soft, with a texture similar to a beet, but with flavors hinting toward cooked cabbage or turnip. We pureed the rutabaga with just the top layer of pork fat until smooth, then added salt and dried herbs to taste and created an herb “butter” to smear on our toasted hard roll.

The fennel and red onion were also pureed, this time with the bottom layer of pork essence, cider vinegar, and salt, to creating a bit of sauce for our sandwich. The result needed depth, so a re-hydrated ancho chile added just the right color and depth, and just a pinch of sugar, to create a very nice “ketchup”.

The pork roast was shredded by hand, removing any difficult sinews and excessive fat, then reheated. We added home-pickled sweet peppers instead of the hot sauce Mario had in mind. The result:

Porketta Sandwich

The pork was rich with overtones of fennel, which echoes the flavors of great pork sausage, but with the texture of pulled pork. The “ketchup” added a contrasting zing, added by the pickled sweet peppers. The herb “butter” brought all the flavors together, with a texture not unlike hummus, but a flavor closer to well-roasted cauliflower.

The result of this little flavor experiment wanders far from our Italian point of origin, but it certainly explores our sense of place. No self-respecting bar in Hibbing is likely to serve a rutabaga puree on a Porketta sandwich, but we’re playing around with culinary ideas that share the same geography. Much of regional cuisine does this and Great Lakes Cuisine is no different. And definitely worth the effort.

Smoked Turkey, White Bean Soup

From the outset of our effort here at, we have believed the foods of indigenous peoples in the Great Lakes region should be included in the conversation, both as tribute and inspiration. The failure to celebrate the peoples who thrived in the Great Lakes region before settlement by primarily European immigrants would be a loss of heritage and tradition. Wild rice, venison, and blueberries are staples of that diet, and wonderful flavor components for many Great Lakes dishes. Of course the major obstacle for the current chef is a lack of written recipes compounded by the systemic elimination of the indigenous cultural traditions, breaking the continuity of food traditions as well.

Sean Sherman is promoting a “Pre-Contact” Dinner to be held in coming weeks in Minneapolis. Some of the traditions he draws from are more from the Plains states, which likely had a distinct culinary tradition from the Great Lakes region. Nevertheless, we admire the effort to bring focus to a culinary tradition long marginalized to our collective detriment. The menu will include:

dehydrated rabbit – honey hominy cake – toasted walnut – berry jus – wilted dandelion

stewed white bean – cedar broth – seared smoked whitefish – sorrel

buffalo ribs – wasna cake of dried berries – puffed wild rice – sweet potatoes – watercress blooms

smoked duck – dried blueberry – amaranth cracker – blueberry jus – crisp – amaranth leaf – maple – pepitas

squash puree – maple sun seed – cranberry – mountain mint

There is inspiration aplenty in those dishes and our soup echoes some of the flavors Chef Sherman includes above. The following recipe is hardly “pre-contact” indigenous by any definition, but some of the same flavors and ideas are permeating through this belly-warming offering. A wild shot turkey, brined and then smoked over cherry-wood would be ideal (might we suggest something like this approach adapted for the much larger bird), but you may have to settle, as we did, for the store purchased variety. Leftover turkey breast was well-utilized here.


Smoked Turkey Soup

Smoked Turkey, White Bean Soup

1 Smoked Turkey Leg
4 cups Turkey Broth
4 cups Water
2 bay leaves

1 medium onion diced
2 cups raw corn kernels
2 15 oz cans of white beans or 4 cups cooked beans
1 tsp oregano
1 tsp thyme
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp chili powder

2 cups cooked turkey breast, large dice (leftovers work well)
1 bunch fresh herbs (cilantro, parsley, or lemon thyme work well)
Feta or Cotija for grating (frozen, see note)

Bring broth and water to boil in a large stock pot. Add turkey leg and bay leaves and return to a boil then reduce to a simmer for two hours. Discard bay leaves and remove leg and set aside to cool. In a medium skillet over medium heat, add 1 tbs. butter with the onions. Cook until slightly caramelized then add the corn. Continue to cook another 3 minutes stirring often and then add entire contents of skillet to stock pot. Add white beans and seasonings. Simmer for 30 minutes. While soup is simmering, remove all meat from the turkey leg, paying attention to remove all of the long pieces of cartilaginous “quills” from the meat, then dice into 1/2 inch pieces, set aside.

After beans have simmered for 30 minutes, using a slotted spoon, remove approximately half the beans and puree until smooth. Take care when pureeing hot liquids. Alternatively, use a stick blender to puree approximately half of the corn/bean mixture right in the pot. Leaving half of the corn and the beans whole adds some textural appeal to the soup. Return the puree to the pot, then add both leg and breast turkey meat and bring to a low simmer.

We served this with a herb oil, by taking the herbs and pureeing with just enough olive oil to liquefy and a clove of garlic with a pinch of salt. But this could just as easily be served with finely chopped fresh herbs. Our preference is for lemon thyme, which we grow in the backyard, but during the winter this is a bit harder to come by.

Lemon Thyme

So in this version we went with the cilantro which adds a nice brightness. We’re assuming Sean Sherman in his white bean soup listed above is using the native wood sorrel (oxalis) rather than the French imported variety. Either would be a nice addition, but the wood sorrel would keep the recipe truer to our purposes here. The feta here is served grated with a Microplane grater after being frozen.  We have used this approach before with blue cheese over a beet salad and similar applications. The cheese loses none of the flavor appeal as it warms in the soup, but the fine grate creates a more even dispersion. Not necessary, but a fun little wrinkle. Clearly the cheese is not an indigenous item, so leave it out if desired, though it adds a nice saltiness and creaminess to to the finished soup. In the end, this is more of a melting pot dish than a culturally accurate one.

Prepare this soup over an outdoor fire with house-smoked wild-turkey and the result would likely be far better and far closer to a more “pre-contact” experience. Inspiration can from anywhere, but history is a particularly rich source for Great Lakes Cuisine.

Hidden Springs Cheese Tasting – Winter 2015

We recently made a return trip to Fromagination in Madison, WI, to pick up selections to create a tasty winter cheese plate. Our last trip we detailed here and featured a Holland’s Family Cheese offering, Marieke Gouda. This time we picked up two varieties of sheep cheese created by Brenda Jensen at Hidden Springs Creamery – Ocooch Mountain and a Manchego-style cheese. We also picked up another Manchego-style from Emmi Roth, called GranQueso, this one a cow’s milk variety. We also picked up a favorite dry sausage from Underground Meats, their Saucisson Sec.

We’re using the term Manchego-style because Manchego, like true Champagne, is defined by the region it originated from. Here is Murray’s Cheese explanation:

Perhaps Spain’s most famous cheese, Manchego is a D.O. (Denominacion de Origen) protected cheese, meaning the traditional recipe must use 100% Manchega sheep milk. The breed has proven sturdy enough over the centuries to traverse the rocky, arid central plateau region of La Mancha – where cows just can’t hang. Made using fresh, pasteurized sheep’s milk, this Manchego develops a rich nuttiness and pleasant gaminess (think toasted almonds and broiled lamb chops) after over a year of aging. The patterned rind is a nod to the grass baskets previously used to form the cheese. Firm enough to grate for any culinary application, highlight its sharp, caramelly flavor anywhere you would use Parmigiano.

So Hidden Springs approach is fairly close to the tradition – sheep’s milk, organic farming, and old-school techniques. The flavor is grassier, more herbaceous, more “farmy” than any imported Manchego we have tried. We’ll admit to having never traveled to La Mancha to savor farmstead Manchego, but a taste of Hidden Springs definitely transports us to the hills near Westby, WI, where the sheep graze. We included the Ocooch Mountain in the tasting as way to distinguish the sheep milk effect as compared to the cow milk variety fro Emmi Roth. Ocooch is wonderful in it’s own right, like a sheep milk Parmesan, though slightly softer in texture, maybe hinting towards a Romano in texture, but many levels more interesting in flavor.

Cheese Plate - Winter 2015 Manchego2
Clockwise from upper left: Hidden Springs Ocooch Mountain, Hidden Springs Manchego-Style, Emmi Roth GranQueso



The GranQueso is fun, approachable and an interesting addition to the tasting, as the texture is very close to Hidden Springs and a traditional Manchego.  According to the maker, this cheese is “rubbed with a spice blend including cinnamon and paprika to bring out a unique identity”. You get just a hint of cinnamon and paprika, so little that if you did not know they were there, the reaction upon tasting would be one of those “Hey, there is a little bit of something in the aftertaste. What is that?”. Upon hearing the spice mix, you’ll immediately say – “Yeah, that’s it.” It’s subtle but it adds a sense of sweetness to the cheese. Some preferred this to the other two, others liked the more pronounced flavors present in the sheep milk varieties.

We added Honey Crisp apples along with the Saucisson Sec to complete the plate. Quince paste is the traditional Spanish accompaniment, and we considered a number of pear or apple options. A pear butter with honey would likely have made a nice addition (or maybe a preserve made of Pear with Honey and Ginger from the aptly named Quince & Apple in Madison). Overall, a fun and enjoyable exploration of artisan foods, taking traditional European approaches and adapting them, tweaking them, making them a new example of Great Lakes Cuisine.

New Restaurant Added – Heartland, Minneapolis, MN

The recently published list of 38 “essential” restaurants selected by Bill Addison at Eater featured Heartland, located near the Farmers’ Market in St. Paul, MN. Chef Lenny Russo has been recognized with a nomination for Best Chef in the Midwest by the James Beard Foundation in 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2014. Addison captures the experience this way:

“Around 90 percent of the food at Heartland and its adjacent market comes from within a 300-mile radius. The substantial bar menu includes four burgers (beef, pork, veal, and bison) and fun, smart riffs on snacks like smoked kielbasa corn dogs or cheese curds with apricot ketchup. In the main room, entrees dole out bear hugs of direct, honest flavors: The “Midwestern Cassoulet” defrosts with its mix of lusty meats and silken white beans delivered from nearby Encore Farms. Russo’s devotion to culinary Minnesota is evident in every forkful.”

Other items of note on recent menus include:

  • Pork bratwurst with Summit Ale mustard, house fermented sauerkraut, with cucumber pickles
  • Midwestern artisan cheese sampler served with chutney and wildflower honey
  • House crafted charcuterie sampler served with pickled vegetables and apple mustard

We are happy to add Chef Lenny Russo and Heartland to our Restaurant page.